During the past 8 months, I’ve journeyed from a relatively generic, low-church, broadly Wesleyan Protestantism toward Eastern Orthodoxy. In this post I’ll briefly recount my journey. In follow-up postings I’ll share some thoughts on how Open Theism relates to Church tradition in general and to Eastern Orthodoxy in particular.
My initial catalyst for exploring Orthodoxy came, oddly enough, from reading a book on Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In the book Roman but Not Catholic, Protestant scholars Kenneth Wilson and Jerry Walls argue that the Roman Catholic Church is, ironically, too parochial and therefore insufficiently “catholic”. In so doing, they give an overview of Church history, develop a strong defense of the Nicene tradition, and compare Protestantism (PR) not only with Roman Catholicism (RC), but with Eastern Orthodoxy (EO) as well. Prior to this I knew virtually nothing about EO, having only the sense that it was sort of like RC but without a Pope. What I learned from Wilson and Walls, however, is that my simplistic view of EO is very much mistaken. EO and PR, particularly the broadly Wesleyan version of PR that I favor, share significant common ground, and even in areas where EO and PR differ, the differences are generally less radical than the differences between RC and PR. For example, EO shares with PR generally a rejection of RC’s papal dogmas and purgatory (at least when the latter is understood along satisfactionist lines). With Wesleyan style PR, EO also shares a strong commitment to creaturely freedom, an emphasis on the importance of sanctification and personal holiness (EO refers to this as “theosis” or “deification”), an explicitly synergistic understanding of the process of salvation, and a rejection of the penal satisfaction theory of the atonement (which Luther, Calvin, and Rome all picked up from Augustine and Anselm). While EO and PR differ regarding the status of Mary, with EO affirming Mary’s perpetual virginity and PR generally rejecting it, EO is much less radical than RC because EO rejects the RC notion of Mary’s “immaculate conception” and the attendant RC notions of her status as “queen of heaven”, “co-mediatrix”, “co-redemptrix”, etc. (In EO iconography, Mary is never depicted apart from Jesus, emphasizing that she is important because He is important.)
While Wilson and Walls don’t dwell very long on EO, because of course their focus is on PR and RC, there was enough there to get me thinking that EO was worth looking at more closely, especially in light of their defense of the Nicene tradition and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that came out of it. In their rejoinder to John Henry Newman’s arguments that an authoritative Bible requires an authoritative papacy to underwrite it, Wilson and Walls argue that the Holy Spirit working through the Church during the its first few centuries is enough to bring us to recognize the New Testament canon as God’s authoritative word and also to recognize the deliverances of the early ecumenical councils as authentic articulations of Christian teaching. In short, we don’t need a pope to have an authoritative Bible and an authoritative tradition. Not only did I find Wilson and Walls rebuttal to Newman persuasive, but I was also convinced that I needed to pay closer attention to the early Church councils and creeds. If the Holy Spirit guided the Church to settle on the correct canon for the New Testament, then surely He also guided the Church in the development of core Christian doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation.
By late December 2020 I found myself both intrigued by EO and convinced that I needed to take a much more serious, and less dismissive approach to Church tradition. Added to this was a general dissatisfaction that my wife and I had both been feeling about our non-denominational megachurch. Not only did we hardly know anybody at the church outside of a few members of the deaf community there that my wife interpreted for at the Saturday evening service, but the service itself had come to seem flat and two-dimensional. Our 13-year-old daughter had no friends at the church, and barely participated in the worship. I myself often had a hard time staying awake for the whole sermon. The whole church service experience could have been aptly describes at a concert followed by a lecture culminating in an “altar-call” without an altar. After many years in this kind of church environment, and worried that our kids might come of age without any vibrant connection to the Body of Christ, my wife and I were both ready for a change. She had grown up as a Lutheran, and I had attended an Episcopal church in New York City while I was in graduate school. So we both had prior experience in a liturgical church setting, and we both longed to return to that, to a service where the central focus isn’t on a sermon/lecture, but on Christ and His work for us as expressed most fully in the Eucharist.
Having decided that we wanted to switch to a liturgical church, the next question was which one? RC was never a live option for us. So that left either one of the liturgical PR groups such as Lutheranism, Episcopalian, or Methodism, or EO. Of the various PR options, none of them seemed to have a strong connection to early Church tradition. Most Protestants know almost nothing about Church history. And those who do know something tend to jump from the 1st century to selected passages in Augustine and then straight to the 15th century and the beginnings of the Reformation. They generally know very little about the Church councils aside from the fact that certain views were deemed heretical, and otherwise ignore most developments from the 2nd to the 14th centuries. In addition, working at a mainline PR seminary as I do, I know that many liturgical PR groups have gone hard into theological liberalism and so-called “progressivism” and now retain only a loose connection to Christian orthodoxy. That’s why, when I started doing my research in early 2021 into which liturgical tradition we might join, I decided to start with Eastern Orthodoxy. After all, if early Church history matters, as Wilson and Walls had persuaded me, then why start at the Reformation? Why not go back to the beginning to a tradition (EO) that has at least as strong a pedigree as RC?
In early 2021 I began researching EO, mainly by watching YouTube clips on EO theology. I watched clips like Fr. Josiah Trenham’s critique of the Protestant Reformation (Part 1 and Part 2), a few different series of catechetical lectures (like this one), a short clip on the Orthodox view of salvation, and clips on the essence–energies distinction (like this one). Collectively they gradually convinced me that there was something methodologically wrong at the heart of PR and that various distinctives of EO (e.g., iconography, the perpetual virginity of Mary, salvation as theosis, prayer to and veneration of saints, infant baptism, etc.) were a lot more defensible than I had initially supposed. Concerning PR, the core doctrine of sola scriptura (SS) began to seem particularly vulnerable. The proliferation of PR groups each claiming to have the correct Biblical take on Christian teachings shows that in practice SS doesn’t necessarily work out that well. Without a robust check from Church tradition, there are too many divergent interpretations of Scripture and in the end each man becomes kind of like his own pope. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, but at the time Paul wrote that the only canonical Scriptures that existed were the books of the Old Testament. So if Scripture is all we need—as some defenders of SS take 2 Timothy to imply—then is the New Testament even necessary? Of course it is! And elsewhere Paul explicitly refers to the importance of keeping oral traditions that existed in the early Church (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15). As I gradually came to understand, Scripture doesn’t stand in opposition to tradition; rather, it is itself part of the tradition. It’s something that the Church, the Body of Christ, has collected, vetted, preserved, and handed down (i.e., traditioned) to us. So if we can’t trust the Church as the repository and guardian of sacred tradition, then how can we trust the Bible? And if we trust the Bible, as we should, then shouldn’t we also trust the Church that gave us the Bible? (Now, I don’t think this means that we should uncritically accept everything that purports to be a part of Church tradition. There is clearly a distinction to be drawn between the carefully vetted big-T Tradition that comes to us through the ecumenical councils and that, as St. Vincent of Lerins famously put it, expresses what has been believed “everywhere, always, and by all” and the various little-t traditions and hearsay stories. E.g., Clement of Rome asserts in one of his letters that there is a real living bird called a “phoenix” that lives for 500 years and then dies and is reborn. Yeah, right. Lol.)
I finally (around March 2021) took the step of visiting an Orthodox Church. After several follow-up visits and lengthy conversations with the local bishop and priest, my wife and I both came to the conviction that this is the place for us and our family. It’s a small congregation, but we have gotten to know more people there in 3 months than we did in 3 years at the megachurch. The people there are very genuine. The liturgy is deeply theological and, in contrast with the megachurch, it feels 3-dimensional. Our kids are much more engaged. We expect to be chrismated within the next month.