Answer to reader's questions on C.S. Lewis, Orthodoxy

LAST MONTH THIS COLUMN consisted of a letter from a reader who discovered us on the Internet and wanted to take issue with a column that appeared some months earlier, describing this writer's rediscovery of the great literary figure and apologist for evangelical Christianity, C.S. Lewis.

An Anglican and an undergraduate at Yale University, the writer, Joshua Moser, questioned especially the rationale I presented for my conversion from mainstream American Evangelicalism to Orthodox Christianity last year. Because of space requirements of the column in printed form, I published his letter in full last month with a promise to reply this month.

This kind of exchange is just what this column is meant to be, and I appreciate Moser's taking the time to express his questions and misgivings. Below, bulleted and in italic type, are his questions followed by my answers—which are my own opinions or understandings, not holy writ—in regular type.

 I am happy that you have found a home in the Orthodox Church, but I would hope that you would understand the other branches a little better nonetheless.

As a newspaper editor I can write on any topic I want, but religion—especially the spectrum of Protestant and Roman Catholic faith expressions—is the one I write on most consistently because I believe my greatest expertise, and most of my reading, is in these subjects.

They have been a passion since childhood, and a profession [formerly as editor of at least six Protestant periodicals and a teaching campus minister for 15 years] enhanced by numerous college and graduate school courses. I'm now writing a book describing the spectrum of evangelical denominations—their beliefs, histories, and impact—compared with Orthodoxy.

 It is not at all clear that Christianity has ever been as unified as you imagine. There were many different practices and peculiarities to the various churches of the Early Church. Even the Apostles had differing opinions on important issues such as circumcision and following Jewish Law.

There are still many "peculiarities" based on ethnic backgrounds and lowercase-t traditions, even in Orthodoxy. For example, some Eastern Europeans think it very important that their Christmas trees be oaks, rather than evergreens, though of course Christmas trees have nothing to do with uppercase Tradition, church dogma, or salvation.

The point of the New Testament on the two examples you cite is that, once an epistle on the topic from Peter, John, James, Jude, or more often, Paul, was read by a local congregation, the congregation was to conform to what the Apostle laid down.

If a congregation continued going its own way, eventually it would be disowned by its bishop and (with no implication of consignment to hell such as the word sometimes conveys now) excommunicated. On all matters of dogma, the church was unified for its first 1,000 years (though sometimes disputes arose which took years—even generations—to settle, of course). The principle is that the church was united in believing that they could, and should, be settled.

Every Orthodox church I've visited has differed at least slightly in its interpretation of the liturgy from every other one, so what you say is true here. But it is still the same liturgy, still recognizable, across the spectrum. The present form of the liturgy has been around for about 1,500 years, but even the earlier form of it is recognizable in the present form.

 Why is the desire [for unity] of the other Churches inferior to the Orthodox's?

If you follow the complete thread on the Internet of the columns preceding the one on Lewis and my conversion, you'll find that I asked virtually the same question of the first Orthodox writer to the column. The Orthodox answer is that there are no "other" churches; Christ was one and He founded one church.

There may be thousands of well-intentioned efforts to rediscover the church, but if Orthodoxy never apostatized, those efforts are at best misguided (if the church was never lost, its rediscovery is not indicated). Though some Orthodox sometimes compromise this principle, even most of the Orthodox participating in the World and National Councils of Churches have consistently maintained they are doing so to witness to the fact that the true church of Jesus Christ already exists and does not have to be built or "discovered" through ecumenical efforts.

 I feel that you do not entirely have a fair picture of Anglicanism. Yes it has Calvinist roots, but it also has stronger Lutheran ones.

Having studied church history at an Episcopal seminary, mostly out of a textbook written by a Lutheran (Qualben), I was unaware of Lutheranism's influence on Anglicanism! But it's a moot point inasmuch as traditional Lutherans are, theologically speaking, "Calvinists," too.

Certainly in areas like polity, Anglicanism departs strongly from Calvin; but on the question of how grace is imparted, it is Calvinist (traditionally—there's no telling what contemporary Anglicans are according to a recent BBC study presented on the Faith and Vision network last month).

 I don't know of any churches that argue that humans can save themselves. Is this a part of the Orthodox thinking that I missed? Can you point me to some evidence? I had understood that God was the only one who can save humanity. Catholics and Protestants agree that God saves us by giving us the grace to have faith in God. Does the Orthodox Church leave out the role of God's grace?

No, no church that I know of teaches that anyone can save himself without the unmerited grace of God imparted through the work of Christ. (Many churches—or at least teachers in them—do teach that other churches teach such a doctrine, however!) I don't know what I said that gave you the impression Orthodoxy has such a teaching; whatever it was, I certainly repent of it! That teaching is an ancient heresy (Pelagianism), which the Orthodox church debated and refuted in the fifth century.

In the secondary sense of the word "save," however, people are "saved" by hearing and responding to the gospel and, the Bible says, even by those who bring the saving news to them. The New Testament says flatly that there is no salvation apart from (good) works (James 2:14-20). Where Luther and Calvin disagree with the Bible (Luther's famous "solas," or "onlys," such as salvation is by faith "only") Orthodox Christianity parts company with them.

 Many, perhaps most, evangelicals do not necessarily agree with predestination. In fact, it is hard to find an unadulterated Calvinist anymore. Those that do believe in predestination tend to be Fundamentalists, who form only one of many parts of the evangelical community. I doubt a single charismatic would agree with the doctrine.

I agree that many disagree with the most conservative Calvinists' interpretation of predestination. But the sine qua non, as I see it, is whether they believe in the subset of predestination theology that holds "once saved, always saved." Though I knew evangelicals in my childhood who did not, the vast majority of those I've met in the past 30 years have held that doctrine.

The doctrine is something of a tautology; in a sense, even we Orthodox would say it's true. But to act as though we know the mind of God about whether or not anyone—including and especially one's self—is ultimately among the eternally saved is a presumption the Bible gives us no right to. Orthodox theology calls such presumption "prelest."

 You seem to confuse justification and sanctification, two very important concepts. Justification is the process by which God saves us through grace (assuming that Orthodoxy agrees with this). Sanctification is the process of making us holy and fit to appear before God.

I purposely avoided those terms (and Orthodox writers do most of the time). But, using those terms for those doctrines, Orthodoxy understands them as you do. However, the fathers of the church do teach that it's vital never to "rest" in your justification; sanctification is a never-finished process this side of heaven, and justification does not add up to eternal salvation until Christ says so at the judgment. The most holy Orthodox saints have consistently been those most aware of their sinfulness and need of God's grace.

The danger of evangelicalism (from my present perspective looking back on it) is that we might believe in doctrines rather than in our relationship with Christ himself to save us. If we have a personal relationship with Christ, the Bible makes it clear that it consists in constantly taking up our crosses and following Him.

 Yes, some evangelicals in trying to convert emphasize the easiness of Jesus' yoke, saying that he has already won the victory. But far more would assure you that it is a hard battle to walk in his path after conversion. Walk into a Christian bookstore and look at the section on Holy Living or whatever and count the titles that talk about these challenges.

You perceive this differently than I do. I attended evangelical services regularly and virtually never heard a sermon emphasizing repentance as a way of life or the holiness of God as requiring holiness of us. I don't see those books, except for a few by writers like C.S. Lewis. This was at the heart of my coming to see evangelicalism—the "seeker-friendly faith"—as on the wrong track.

...the mainstream of the Anglican Church today is quite orthodox, in distinct contrast to the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Have you seen the BBC-Faith and Vision documentary I cited above, in which leaders in the Anglican church say they don't want a church which requires anyone to believe anything in particular? This trend has been growing in England since before Lewis' death more than 30 years ago (he opposed it in a number of writings, incuding Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer), and accounts for the breaking off of union talks between the Orthodox and Anglican churches and the recent journey en masse of a number of Church of England congregations to Orthodoxy.

The knowing toleration (at the level of admitting such heretics to communion) of any agnostics in a church that calls itself Christian is a gross violation of the Old and New Testament principles of holiness before God, in my humble opinion (and in Orthodox dogma).

 [Lewis] could never really appreciate the Orthodox or even the Catholic Church because they were so structured, ceremonial and mystical. I am sure he would be bemused that his writings had moved you to join the Orthodox Church (although I am also sure that he would send you with his blessing).

We can only speculate on both items. I speculate on the basis of the fact that, 15 months ago, I myself would not have appreciated Orthodoxy or Catholicism because I've never gone in for much structure, ceremony, or mysticism either. We do know that near the end of his life, Lewis attended Orthodox services in Greece and said he preferred the Orthodox liturgy to either the Anglican or Catholic.

I speculate that, had he come to regard this as the truest form of worship of God available among groups calling themselves Christian—the one closest to God's own prescriptions in the Bible—Lewis would have had no problem changing that opinion; he changed many others during his lifetime.

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© 1995 Jon Kennedy