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The Side of American Orthodoxy that Orthodox are Loath to Admit

Blog article from the author of Turning to tradition: Intra-Christian converts and the making of an American Orthodox Church.  Fr. Oliver has approached me to be a source for an article he plans to write on converts to Orthodoxy who leave the Orthodox Church.  His blog article here also speaks to that phenomenon, though it is chiefly concerned with Greek Americans' widespread abandonment of the Greek Orthodox Church.  Some highlights:

A recent Pappas Post article has highlight that 90% of people in America with Greek heritage are no longer Greek Orthodox.  It has been making rounds amongst Orthodox and seems to be stirring up some amount of surprise.  Frankly, I’m not so sure it should surprise us.  It may surprise us because in many Greek parishes Greek heritage is emphasized.  It may also surprise us because Orthodox literature since the 1980s has tended to overemphasize (in some cases simply exaggerate) the movement of converts entering into American Orthodoxy.  Converts have been a significant movement within Orthodoxy.  Given my most recent book on this very topic, I would be the last person to deny that.  However, if one reads the introduction even in there, one will realize that Orthodoxy brings in about as many as it loses.  Our growth, to be blunt, seems statistically insignificant.  That there is growth may be a good thing, but we also need to be honest about the losses.  So, if we’ve done our research, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn of losses. . . .

If we Orthodox can set aside our triumphalism for a few moments, I think we’ll find that what is happening in such cases speaks to a truth.  I also think that we have before us the elephant in the room.  People are leaving our church and are leaving in droves.  My prediction is that unless we get another large convert movement into Orthodoxy, we will find our gains in the 1980s and 1990s were simply the “one step forward” to our “two steps back.”  We even have a seminary of a particular jurisdiction with a monastery and I have been told that in terms of numbers and participants, it is a shadow of what it used to be (even while still functioning well enough over all for the moment).  This is not just a Greek problem.  It is an American Orthodox problem and the solution is not to make Orthodoxy an increasingly niche religion.

Trouble in paradise.   In a previous post, I noted Orthodox theologian Bradley Nassif's acknowledgment that there is a signficant exodus of converts to Orthodoxy from the Orthodox Church.   He speculates that as much as 50% or more have either reverted or gone on to something else.  It will be interesting to see if Herbel can confirm or correct Nassif's metrics in his forthcoming research.  As his new blog article suggests, however, the exodus of converts is only one worry, since there appears to be a rather significant exodus of cradles as well.

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Reader Comments (35)

Great article and very interesting blog from the Orthodox. On a similar note:

I think O & H blog is missing what Red River Orthodox is pointing out as the chief flaw: ethnic retreat and avoiding 1) evangelizing and 2) Americanizing.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAn Awkward Aardvark

My wife is nominally EO, and my life experiences are not terribly different from yours mentioned in the MSWord essay on this site. Fr Herbel's article mentions the necessity of preaching the Gospel. That is ironic to me that in all my decade's experience with EO churches, I only heard the Gospel preached clearly twice. One of those times was during coffee hour from a parishioner. The other was a lecture by Father Thomas Hopko.

God Bless you sir and keep up the good work.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterrichard

Some general and specific context would help here.

First, nearly ALL faith groups and denominations in USA are suffering losses. America is becoming more "agnostic" and "secular". Whether RCC, Judaism, LCMS, Jehovah Witness, etc. This has been a very discernable sociological trend that has been happening for decades. Hit the mainline and liberal heirs of the Reformation first; now has moved on.

Second, we need to keep in mind that within the USA there are three main "groupings" of Eastern Orthodox. They don't "behave" the same. Antiochian, Greek, and Russian (bigger OCA & smaller ROCOR). The Greeks are very resistant to any changes that lessen what they perceive to be their "Greekness". So liturgy remains mainly in Greek. And their preaching suffers with a lenghty liturgy (90 mins or more) that has readings in both Greek & English. So...priests tend to skimp on a good sermon. Both Antiochians and OCA are quite open to converts and welcoming. Their priests often are converts. And many can preach quite well indeed.

Third, not sure where the "triumphalism" comes in. We EOs know we're a small minority that has trouble holding our demographic ground. We have inter-marriage problems and losses, secularization, and split jurisdictions. We don't need muliple seminaries. Or "competing" local churches, which are small and sometimes financially insecure. Take Omaha. The Antiochians have one big Eastern Rite parish and one small Western Rite. The Greeks have an old church downtown and a newer one closer to the 'burbs. The OCA tried for a few years on a mission parish, out of an old Romanian church buillding, but I don't think it is around any more. We don't need four churches with four priests and 4 mortgages and 4 sets of bills. But we can't work together to straighten our jurisdictional mess out. [And I won't go into the mess that was ROCOR starting a Western Rite from a REC parish in 2013, which then turned against their WR shortly after and that church, priest et al, has gone back to continuing Anglicanism.]

And, purely about the Greeks, don't forget Greece has had a strong left-wing/communist grouping going back to the 1940s. Which led to their post-WW II civil war. So a large minority of Greeks were nominally EO at best and many were actively atheistic and agnostic. So not all Greek immigrants to USA over the past 100 years were religious to begin with.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Frost

I am genuinely amused, in a friendly way, that the Orthodox go on and on about tradition, because their idea of tradition only starts two thousand years ago. I have saved over 500 pages of discussion with an Orthodox priest known to both of us, and it shows that the Orthodox have no clue about the deep tradition underpinning the NT itself, which are the covenants of promise that Paul mentions in Ephesians 2. It is known to the Reformed as covenant theology. The roots of the new covenant in Christ's blood are the promises made to Abraham two thousand years BEFORE Christ, and the covenant God made with King David a thousand years later. This tradition, which Paul calls the gospel, is entirely unknown to the Orthodox. If anyone wishes to embrace real tradition let him take hold of covenant theology.

April 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoger du Barry

Roger, You don't provide any specifics about this purportedly unique and oft overlooked theology. Where do I find it in the 16th century Reformed Churches?

Just looking at two of the great magisterial documents of the 16th century Reformed Church--Bullinger's 2nd Helvetic Confession and The Heidelberg Catechism, both from the 1560s--where and what all is your "covenant theology"? Where is it clearly discussed at length in either of these documents?

Also, can you steer me to the specifics of this covenant theology in any of the following Reformed Confessions of the 16th century:

Zwingli's 67 Articles (1523), 10 Theses of Berne (1528), The Tetrapolitan Confession (1530), 1st Helvetic Confession (1536), The Lausanne Articles (1536), The Geneva Confession (1536), The Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva (1556), The French Confession (1559), The Scottish Confession (1560), or The Belgic Confession (1561)?

Where do I find it in the Anglican 39 Articles?

April 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Frost

Hello Michael Frost. If you are sincere please ask the moderator for my email address and we can have a chat.

April 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoger du Barry

Roger, Of course I'm sincere. I asked you a simple straight question. Where in any of these 16th century Reformed confessions does one find your "covenant theology"? I know what it is. But also know it isn't a definining factor in any of the confesions I cited. And a Reformed giant like Bullinger, who replaced Zwingli in Zurich and led that Church till his death in 1575, is often portayed as one of the fathers of covenant theology. But that case is overstated, in general, and completely erroneous when applied specifically to his 2nd Helvetic Confession.

Take Edward Dowey's essay "Heinrich Bullinger as Theologian: Thematic, Comprehensive, and Schematic, in the book of essays, Architect of Reformation: An Introduction to Heinrich Bullinger, 1504-1575 (Baker Academic, 2004). Dowey points out that covenant theologians find the concept when it clearly isn't there. Or as Dowey puts it, "Here, he [Koch] resembles certain other Bullinger specialists (Gooszen, Van t'Hooft, and to a degree Staedtke), who find in the covenant the 'golden thread' that can be traced through his thought. But Koch is first in insisting that the complete systematic coherence of the [2nd Helvetic] Confession has its key in the covenant concept, although that concept is all but totally absent from the document. The term foedus appears once as a synonym for testamentum, and it appears four more times with the brief compass of the doctrine concerning baptism, the sign of the covenant. That is all."

Dowey shreds any thought that covenant theology is driving the 2nd Helvetic Confession or any integral part of it.

So...IF covenant theology is so important and such a part of Reformed theology and IF Orthodoxy is deficient in this regard, THEN how come Bullinger's magisterial confession, his masterpiece, is silent on the issue? Guess he is a bit Orthodox on the subject? Or more likely it is because your covenant theology is a rather new innovation? And not a part of historic Christendom? Of course we all accept God's various covenants with man in the OT (e.g., Noah, Abraham, Moses). And we have the Gospel. It is our new covenant with God. Starting with our regeneration in baptism. Continuing with the Eucharist. Etc.

April 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Frost

While mature covenant theology is associated with the later Reformed scholastic period, its incipient form can indeed be found not only in the Reformers, but in certain Fathers and medieval theologians:

A Brief History of Covenant Theology

April 15, 2014 | Registered CommenterEmbryo Parson

When people are driven by one idea, when they go looking through time, they tend to see it everywhere they look. Sometimes in shadow, sometimes in substance. Often in penumbras. Hints, whispers. But it is everywhere around them. Not unlike 15 different schools of thought on Luther. Take just the recent Finnish Lutheran school of thought that focuses on what we EOs would call deification or theosis. These Finns mine through the Luther corpus and lo and behold...they pretty much find what they are looking for whereever they look. Not a bad racket. You see what you want to see and find what you want to find.

But I posted a simple question. Where in the great Reformed confessions of the 16th century does one clearly, concretely, really see this new "covenant theology"? The silence is overwhelming. Because we all know it isn't really from then. It is a later, newer development. But its proponents need to find it earlier to give themselves cover for its novelty.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Frost

If you haven't already read it, a wonderful resource is An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theolog by Bierma et al (Baker Academic, 2005).

Part 2 is titled "Translations of Ursinus's Catechisms" and both The Smaller Catechism and The Larger Catechism are translated. In the Larger Catechism you'll find discussions of covenant in Questions 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 72, & 73.

Yet when this EO reads these Qs and As, seems pretty "orthodox". From #31:

Q. What is that covenant? A. It is reconciliation with God, obtained by the mediation of Christ in which God promises believers that because of Christ he will always be a gracious father and give them eternal life, and in which they in turn pledge to accept these benefits in true faith and, as befits grateful and obedient children, to glorify him forever; and both parties publicly confirm this mutual promise with visible signs, which we call sacraments.

So at its core our covenant is the Gospel, Jesus Christ, and the sacraments. Nothing new there.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Frost

Mr Frost,
You may find what you are looking for in the Westminster Larger Catechism, which interprets the Westminster Confession. It is very plain in its covenant theology, and much older than you allege.

This is certainly not my blog, or my bandwidth, but I asked this question a long time ago over at the Continuum and it seems apt here ---Why do some Eastern Orthodox feel like they need to comment or refute on every Anglican blog that raises any question that might criticize their theology? I don't think Anglicans go around critiquing EO blogs half as much.

The whole issue boils down to what one believes about the church. We take our stand with Article 19 of the 39 Articles, which copies Article VII of the Augsburg Confession. The EO take their stand as one of the "two one true churches tm"

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterrichard

Michael, I am not a Presbyterian, so I do not spend much time with their Confessions, although I am more than familiar with the WCF. The unique thing about the BCP 1662 is that our Orders of Service are also a source of theology, together with the Articles. Morning Prayer includes the Magnificat as well a Zechariah's inspired response to the birth of his son, the Baptist.

In these NT Psalms the congregation repeats over and over throughout the year that the births of Jesus and John are the fulfilment of the promises that God swore on oath to Abraham and to his people Israel. Covenant theology is simply connecting the dots between the covenants of promise. In the evangelistic sermons in Acts the resurrection of Jesus is connected every time (one exception in Athens) to the covenant God made with David and his house. The covenants of promise are Abraham-David-Jesus. This is the theological structure underpinning the whole of salvation.

The congregation speaks as though they are Israel, reciting the Psalms of the chosen people as their own, and naming the patriarchs as their own fathers. In short, we are Israel, worshipping Israel's God in their words. Christ has incorporated us into the Commonwealth of Israel by the cross, and thus made us a part of the chosen people by ingrafting. When we say "Make your chosen people joyful" we are not speaking of other people, but ourselves.

In summary, the structure of worship in the BCP 1662 is entirely covenantal.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoger du Barry

Richard nailed it down by saying that the Orthodox have a different view of the church. My original point is that their "orthodoxy" is in fact "novelty", because it knows nothing of the covenants of promise. It has a vision of the church that has absolutely nothing to do with the Bible, and I mean that entirely. We are not a "New Israel", but Old Israel with new branches. There are not two churches - one OT and one NT. The so-called apostolic succession only goes back to to Jesus, but the covenantal succession goes back to Abraham. We are the heirs of those ancient covenants and their promises according to Paul, and we are one people with the Hebrews of faith. The Orthodox have contrived a whole new ecclesiology and called it Tradition, when they should have called it Novelty.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoger du Barry

Richard, The Westminister Confession and Catechism are mid-17th century documents, from the 1640s. They are NOT from the original Reformation era (say 1517-1593). They are from when the Presbyterians murdered Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud (1645) and King Charles I (1649), to destroy both the Anglican Church and State. They are the products of radicals and revolutionaries. They are a clear break with historic Western Christendom, including that in England. These documents were designed to replace a destroyed Anglican Church. And they were rejected in England by the final religious settlement and return of King Charles II. The Anglican BCP 1662 is a rejection of the entire system of the WCF & WC! And the CofE returned to the 39 Articles and its Prayer Book tradition (from 1559).

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Frost

Roger, What you say about the 1662 BCP and Anglican worship is equally true for RC worship of the time and before as well as Lutheran worship and Orthodox worship. Where do you think Cranmer got his ideas? He took the best of Western Christendom. All Christian Churches are "covenantal". As Ursinus put it, our covenant is the Gospel, Jesus Christ, and the sacraments. If you disagree with Ursinus, then you're the one abandoning your own late 16th century tradition in this area.

What seems so amazing to me is that none of you can cite any 16th century Reformed confessions or catechisms that support your point. Ursinus supports mine! Reaching into the 17th century merely shows the historical discontinuity that is the aggressive "Calvinism" of Dordt, Scotland, and the radical Presbyterians who murdered Laud & Charles and attempted to replace Anglicanism with English Presbyterianism.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Frost

Richard, for you to understand what we are saying you will need to do some research on Orthodox and Reformed ecclesiology, their similarities and differences. Read Calvin's Institutes, and Turretin's Elenctic Theology on the same. Until then we will be talking past one another.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoger du Barry

Richard, another line of research for you is Calvin's argument for infant baptism, which is founded upon covenant theology.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoger du Barry

Mr Du Barry,
I am now really confused, as I thought we were arguing the same point from the same side!
If I talked past you I apologize.
Have a happy and blessed Easter!

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterrichard

"What seems so amazing to me is that none of you can cite any 16th century Reformed confessions or catechisms that support your point."

Which is both an argument silence and a red herring, if you ask me. The point you seem to be missing in our responses is that there is an identifiable, but evolving, covenant theology that stretches from the Old Testament, to the New, to some of the early Fathers, some of the medieval Westerns, and some of the early Reformers, including English ones. That a mature and fully articulated covenant theology doesn't appear until after the Reformation, which is associated mainly with the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, is not being disputed, at least by me.

April 17, 2014 | Registered CommenterEmbryo Parson

Richard, it appears that I have missed your meaning. My bad. Have a blessed Easter weekend.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoger du Barry

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