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Saturday
Aug182012

Dr. Bradley Nassif on "Reclaiming the Gospel" in the Orthodox Church: A Lesson for Anglicans

I had a long and very illuminating telephone conversation with Dr. Nassif back in the early 90s, when I was in the throes of a conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, and have followed his career off and on in the years since then.  I recently happened upon an essay of his that will be the subject of this blog entry.  More on that after a word of introduction.

Nassif is a cradle Orthodox Christian who had an Evangelical-style conversion experience in his mature years.  He is still a member of the Orthodox Church, but is one of the rarest of the rare in that communion, an Evangelical.  And as an Evangelical, he has written and said some pretty hard-hitting things about the need for Orthodox Christians to have a life-changing conversion experience and come into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Like here, for example, in the powerful essay referenced above (and which proved to be quite controversial in Orthodox circles), "Reclaiming the Gospel."  Some salient excerpts:

A Lament Over Unchanged Lives

We all know that the Orthodox Church possesses a very rich and beautiful theological inheritance. Few would dispute the architectural wonder of our cathedrals, the artistic beauty of our iconography, or the inspirational impact of our ancient hymns and liturgical services. Our theological literature from the past continues to define the meaning of the word orthodoxy for those who have lost their way in the contemporary maze of theological liberalism, cultic religion, or postmodernism. We Orthodox have done better than all others at "not changing the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3).

Still, it is quite obvious from the weak participation in our liturgical services and in the personal lives of some members, that Orthodoxy is often failing to meet the spiritual needs of our people -- in America as well as the motherlands of Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Parishioners are coming and going in and out of church with little visible change in their lives. In short, they do not know the core content of the gospel or how to integrate its meaning into their everyday lives. I realize these are sad things to say, but a correct diagnosis precedes the proper cure.

Are Our People Evangelized or Sacramentalized?

What I'm saying is that contemporary Orthodoxy possesses the gospel in a formal way but we are not translating it in a relevant, life-changing way. The clarity of the gospel is not intentionally made central to our liturgical services and everyday lives. Formally, in its liturgy, sacraments, iconography, hymnography, spirituality, and theological literature, the Orthodox Church is extremely Christ-centered; in practice, however, it is not. Just because the gospel is formally in the life of the Church does not mean that Orthodox parishioners have understood and appropriated its message! Our bishops and priests need to make the gospel crystal clear and absolutely central in our parishes.

This is not to say sermons are not preached. They are, and are often eloquent. But very often what priests preach are not the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and His call to total commitment and what that means to everyday life and liturgy. Our leaders wrongly assume everybody knows about that subject. Instead of Christ-centered messages, we hear sermons dealing with moral values, social issues, financial giving, the environment, or the need for more Church attendance -all inseparably related to the gospel, but not to be confused with the Good News itself. In effect, the authentic gospel is replaced with a social gospel or a liturgical gospel (as if simply "going to Church" is all that is needed). I often wonder, "Are our people really evangelized, or are they simply sacramentalized?"

True sacramental preaching makes the gospel central to every liturgical act and every liturgical season of fasting and prayer. Without the centrality of the gospel we end up imposing on our people the evil of religious formalism and barren ritualism. It is, in effect, not a true Orthodoxy but a false Orthodoxy. Bishops and priests must not take for granted that everyone in the Church is converted and has no need to hear the basic gospel message. The life-changing message of the forgiveness of sins and new life in Christ must be deliberately applied to the entire sacramental life of the Church. Christ-centered preaching and Christ-centered worship must be faithfully performed by our priests and bishops if they wish to worship God truly in "spirit and in truth" (John 4).

Focus on the Centrality of "Christ," not the Centrality of "Orthodoxy"

Outside of Orthodoxy, have you noticed how the healthiest Christian communities around today are the ones who preach Christ, not their own denomination? They speak of Jesus, not their "Baptist," "Methodist" or "Pentecostal" identities. Yet, all we seem to hear from our pulpits is "Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy!" We are obsessed with self-definition through negation. It is a sick religious addiction. We often shore up our identity as Orthodox by constantly contrasting ourselves with Evangelicals or Catholics. I wish we would talk more about Christian faith, and less about "Orthodoxy". . . .

So, in the end, if we Orthodox wish to possess a truly incarnational, trinitarian faith, we will constantly need to recover the personal and relational aspects of God in every life-giving action of the Church. Failure to keep the gospel central will constitute an experiential denial of our own faith. We must stop our religious addiction to "Orthodoxy" and its "differences" with the West. We need rather to recover the evangelical dimensions of our total Church life. The liturgy itself exhorts us to that end. The four Gospels are the only books that sit upon the very center of the altar because in them alone do we hear the Good News -- all else in the Church is commentary. It is the Bible which guides and judges the Church, not the other way around. Thus, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, whose name our liturgy bears, "The lack of Scriptural knowledge is the source of all evils in the Church." I fear that many converts are coming to the Church through a revolving door, quietly leaving because their lives and families are not being sufficiently fed. Only a gospel-transformation will make the Orthodox Church healthy enough to sustain the lives of parishioners who seek spiritual nourishment in our communities.

Now, Dr. Nassif is hopeful that things will change in the Orthodox Church, in accordance with his desire to see it become Evangelical.  But in an interview on Ancient Faith Radio, he expresses his fear that up to half or slightly more Evangelicals who convert to Orthodoxy end up leaving the communion precisely because at the end of the day it simply isn't Evangelical.  And if this is the case, cradle Orthodox are not going to hear the Gospel preached.  Here is a link to the podcast, entitled Is There A "Revolving Door" in the Orthodox Church?.  Please take the time to listen to this 30 minute podcast, in which Nassif repeats some of the themes of "Reclaiming the Gospel" and also acknowledges that there may be such a revolving door in Orthodoxy.

This "sacramentalized but not evangelized" concern was also expressed by Episcopalian priest Rob Smith in his book "Leading Christians to Christ."  Surely the same phenomenon exists in every sacramental church, where many church members have come to confuse the essence of Christianity with the performance of rites, and this mainly because the Gospel has not been preached.  Or as Nassif puts it, because "pulpit does not match altar."

Of all people, Anglicans should know better.  The revisionism coming from certain Anglo-Catholic quarters notwithstanding, Anglicanism is a reformed church, and its reformation centered around the rediscovery of the Gospel and the need not only to preach it, but to pray individually and corporately in accordance with it, which is why Cranmer's prayerbook came to be.  Alas, with the passage of time and the entrance of anti-Evangelical influences, many Anglicans became either nominal or ritualist/aestheticist, or both.  But at least Anglicanism, unlike Eastern Orthodoxy, has Evangelical origins it can reclaim.  Nassif demurs, and believes those Evangelical origins can be found in the writings of many of the Eastern Church Fathers.  I would agree with Dr. Nassif that if Evangelicalism can be found there, those writings need to be brought to the consciousness of the laity through preaching and other media.  But I would argue that we will never fully know what the Gospel *is* until we come to a proper understanding of grace and justification. 

Therein lies the rub, for I would argue that grace and justification cannot be properly understood if they are not viewed in accordance with a Pauline, Augustinian, and Reformational mindset.  Yes, I am saying that Eastern Orthodoxy stands in opposition not only to the Reformation and to St. Augustine, but to St. Paul.  As Alister McGrath argues, that opposition is rooted in an unbiblical understaning of human volition:

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.)

When Dr. Nassif became converted to Christ as a result of the ministry of Evangelical Protestants, to which ministry he refers in the podcast, he was the beneficiary of the work of the Holy Spirit  in the New Testament's clearest explications of the Gospel, which are found in St. Paul's writings, and in the Protestant Reformation as Augustine's doctrines of grace (which are Pauline to the core) received new impetus.  I sincerely doubt the Orthodox Church will ever see it that way, given their dogged embrace of "free will" a la Hellenism and their vehement opposition to the Western Church in general and St. Augustine in particular.  I pray Anglicans who have strayed from their own formulae *will*  come to see it that way.  With Fr. Smith, I say it's all right there in the Book of Common Prayer, if Anglicans will just open their eyes.  Lex orandi lex credendi.

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Reader Comments (2)

The problems Dr. Nassif, a personal friend by the way, points out exists in all churches, Evangelical Protestant as well as Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic. If you are honest, you will recognize that there are nominal Christians in every Christian denomination. People go to church all their lives, take the sacraments and never really experience Christ, because they are going through the motions and have not opened their heart to God's grace. The New Testament tells us that even those Churches founded by the Apostles had the same problem. Look at the first 3 chapters of the book of Revelation. It is only when we make a real commitment to Christ and repent, which in Greek means to change the course of our lives that we can be saved. I have read enough of McGraft to know that his knowledge of the early Fathers is very limited. His Introduction to Theology contains glaring errors concerning the pre-Nicean era of church history. We are saved by grace through faith. God gives us the grace, but we must do our part and allow his grace to work in our lives by cultivating a living faith manifested by a life lived according to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. Faith is not an intellectual belief, but is trust in Christ and Christ alone for our salvation. It would seem to me that preaching that every Christian must make a personal commitment to Christ and live by that commitment but trust in Christ and not themselves for their salvation would be more compatible to the doctrine of free will than to a doctrine that teaches that we are saved regardless of whether or not we want to be saved. Indeed, I would argue that the doctrines of predestination, unconditional election and irresistible grace would tend to lead to a kind of spiritual laxity, since it teaches that will be saved or damned according to the whim of God and not because we respond to the Gospel with a living faith in Christ. I can easily see that if a person falls into serious sin, your teaching would lead them to conclude that there is no hope for their salvation because the serious sin is a sign that God has not chosen them for salvation. However, my teaching that there is always forgiveness for those who repent is more likely to lead someone to return to Christ.

Fr. John W. Morris

August 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFr. John W. Morris

The problems Dr. Nassif, a personal friend by the way, points out exists in all churches, Evangelical Protestant as well as Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic. If you are honest, you will recognize that there are nominal Christians in every Christian denomination. People go to church all their lives, take the sacraments and never really experience Christ, because they are going through the motions and have not opened their heart to God's grace.

Yes, there are nominal Christians in every denomination, but to make that observation is to miss Dr. Nassif's point, which is this: denominations that are *weak on the Gospel* are far more likely to harbor nominal Christians, and in far greater numbers, than those that are not weak on the Gospel. Nassif argues, and I would echo his argument, that Orthodoxy is weak on the Gospel. That is largely why it contains such a great multitude of nominal Christians in its midst, a situation that does not obtain in the Evangelical churches. Anglicanism has a nominalism problem as well, but as I've argued, it at least has an Evangelical legacy it can draw upon.

I have read enough of McGraft to know that his knowledge of the early Fathers is very limited.

For the second time, it's *McGrath*. If you're reading him so carefully, why can't you get his name right? As for his knowledge of patristics, it's quite clear to me that he's forgotten more of the early Fathers than you know, even though patrology isn't his speciality.

His Introduction to Theology contains glaring errors concerning the pre-Nicean era of church history.

Such as?

We are saved by grace through faith. God gives us the grace, but we must do our part and allow his grace to work in our lives by cultivating a living faith manifested by a life lived according to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. Faith is not an intellectual belief, but is trust in Christ and Christ alone for our salvation. It would seem to me that preaching that every Christian must make a personal commitment to Christ and live by that commitment but trust in Christ and not themselves for their salvation would be more compatible to the doctrine of free will than to a doctrine that teaches that we are saved regardless of whether or not we want to be saved. Indeed, I would argue that the doctrines of predestination, unconditional election and irresistible grace would tend to lead to a kind of spiritual laxity, since it teaches that will be saved or damned according to the whim of God and not because we respond to the Gospel with a living faith in Christ. I can easily see that if a person falls into serious sin, your teaching would lead them to conclude that there is no hope for their salvation because the serious sin is a sign that God has not chosen them for salvation. However, my teaching that there is always forgiveness for those who repent is more likely to lead someone to return to Christ.

All of which just goes to show once again that you don't understand the Pauline-Augustinian notion of grace, but are content merely to engage in strawman arguments. And that, in turn, Father, prompts me to warn you once again that my patience with you is growing thin.

August 28, 2012 | Registered CommenterEmbryo Parson

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