Twenty questions to further dialog among Christians

This month's column is occasioned by a list of 20 questions submitted by an email correspondent. Though these questions are from a Reformed Protestant asking for comparison of that framework with Eastern Orthodoxy, their discussion should shed light on any Christian pathway or study of Christian history and beliefs. As is the general rule for this forum, please bear in mind that I'm writing as neither a formal historian nor theologian, just shedding light where I have any and restating the questions, sometimes, when I don't. So please, join the forum. Give a better answer; throw me a buoy when I'm in beyond my depth!

Tim Manwell writes:

You've no doubt heard of "20 questions". I have 20 questions, so far, that I'd like to ask you regarding the Eastern Orthodox church and it's teachings. As you are formerly Reformed, I will be very interested in your response. Thanks, and take your time...there's no rush.

1. As there was the possibility (strong) of diversity of teaching among the apostles—"some say I am of Paul, others Apollos" (1 Cor. 1:12)—does this not show that there were indeed many differences from parish to parish in the early church, thus making a sort of early church denominationalism?

A Orthodoxy rejects the idea that denominationalism is normative for the church. Certainly differences of opinions existed then and do now, but on any matters of general faith and practice, some authority was always called upon to settle the differences lest they lead to schisms. Sometimes the authority was Scripture, sometimes it was the Apostle Paul or another apostle, sometimes the Tradition of the elders.

2. The Eastern Orthodox church claims to have "temple" style of worship rather than synagogue (which would be closer to the Protestant style). Doesn't the book of Revelation teach us that the temple style is in heaven, thus synagogue here on earth? There was only one temple in Old Testament days. Can we not conclude that there is even now only one Temple...that in heaven?

A I'm really in deep water here; this is strictly off the top with no consulting of references or experts. The only one temple is in heaven, and its center, its focus, is the throne of God, the holy of holies. Church, both as physical setting and as participatory worship, is intended to bring us into the presence of God. So each church is a representation—the closest approximation we can create—of the throne room, the throne being the altar. Where God is, to whatever extent, there is heaven, to the same extent.

We come to church to have a more interactive, more strongly focused, contact with God. So the purpose of the church as a building should be facilitating that. The building is not just, or even mainly, for teaching about God, after the synogogue model, but for getting in touch with God, on a personal level, as in the temple.

3. Though icons/images existed in the temple, is not the fact that God personally mandated their existence pertinent? Israel got in trouble whenever they attempted to "augment" God's instructions for worship.... Reference the "strange fire" offered to God and His reaction. Therefore, should we not insist on a mandate from God for use of images/icons in the New Testament church?

A The easy answer to that is that God gave that mandate through the Seventh Ecumenical Council (AD 787). The Orthodox Church teaches that God speaks to the church through councils—the Council of Jerusalem recorded in the Book of Acts (chapter 15) being the precedent. Icons were a natural development as the church evolved from home eucharistic fellowship groups to city-wide meeting places. Adornment of the places of meeting with God in the most beautiful artifice possible was consistent with the Old Testament and human nature.

Some of that same kind of adornment exists in the vast majority of Protestant churches, too, whether the "icons" are photos of their missionaries in the vestibule or stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes. Icons became controversial; what was appropriate to them was debated and settled by the whole church (there were no Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, or Roman Catholics at the time to send or refuse to send their delegates), and the whole church spoke as one on the topic at the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

4. Where can I obtain any known history regarding early schismatic bishops who, for instance, refused to attend the First Council Of Nicea? Does such history exist? What about history concerning the topics of these very early schisms?

A Others can probably answer this better than I. I would start in the history department of a good library (especially a theological library or one at a Catholic University or evangelical college, there being only a handful of such Orthodox libraries in the United States). I surmise that the works on early church history by Jarislav Pellikan (a Lutheran) are of especially high caliber.

5. Describe the grace imparted by genuflecting or by going on pilgrimages etc. What is this akin to (that a Protestant mind can understand)?

A We Orthodox don't genuflect, per se; our closest gesture would be the metania, a bow to the floor in conjunction with making the sign of the cross. I believe genuflecting in the Roman Catholic church has a similar purpose: bowing or humbling oneself before God, a physical means of acknowledging that we are in His presence. The New Testament says, "every knee shall bow...every tongue confess" (cf. Phil. 2:10-11) that Christ is Lord, and this is a physical expression of that belief.

I haven't read in any Orthodox literature that Orthodox make pilgrimages in the same sense as Catholics do, to shrines. Many Orthodox have traveled as pilgrims to the Holy Land, of course, just to be closer to, and worship at, the places where Jesus and the first saints lived and died.

And they have, in Russia and Greece and probably Romania and the other most-Orthodox countries, gone on "pilgrimages" to monasteries as a way of immersing themselves in their spiritual concerns for a time, as well as to get answers to questions, and prayers for healing and repentance. This would be comparable to retreats, camps, and camp meetings in Protestantism. We believe everything has a sacramental aspect, of course, but retreats or pilgrimages are not high on the list of means of grace.

6. In the earliest days of the church, wasn't baptism reserved for those professing belief? This according to early fathers, not Scripture...for the "whole-house" baptisms referred to in Scripture are claimed by both sides.

A And in the same sense, baptism is only for believers today, too. Baptism is entered into by parents on behalf of their children, just as other covenants and contracts are, the parents being believers on the children's behalf, until the children reach the age that they are able to accept Christ for themselves, or reject Him. Most Protestant denominations hold this too (Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Reformed...), and it was virtually the universal belief among Christians prior to the rise of the Anabaptists and Baptists in the 16th Century.

7. Does a priest have the power to forgive sins or merely pronounce God's forgiveness? If he actually has the power what guarantee is there that he will use this power properly?

A Good question. Improper use of that supposed "power" was the main cause of the Protestant break from the Roman Catholic Church (sale of indulgences being the abuse). Orthodox priests begin their "absolution" of penitents with, "I, humble and a sinner, have not power on earth to forgive sins, but God alone...."

8. If justification is an ongoing process that basically requires faith plus good works, doesn't this essentially mean that there is no doctrine of sanctification? If not, please explain.

A Justification is not ongoing, being the once-and-for-all act of Christ in giving himself for the sins of the world. Sanctification is, however, a lifelong process and the very heart of Orthodox life. Sins still beset believers, even those converted most dramatically, so works of righteousness, especially confession, repentance, and prayer for God's mercy, aid and enable our walk. Our purpose as believers is to be remade in the likeness of Christ (Psalm 17:15, Romans 8:29), and every turning to God and away from our old natures brings us closer to that sanctified or "deified" state. (Though we call our sanctification "deification" or "theosis"-becoming able to participate in the nature of God, we never achieve deity as partakers of God's essence.)

9. Doesn't Paul speak out against having feast days and such?

A Where? And if that's a sound interpretation of Paul, why do virtually all Christians observe the Nativity and Resurrection feasts?

10. Haven't Protestant theologians shown that the allegorical hermeneutic employed by many of the fathers is "flawed" when compared to a more literal hermeneutic?

A I think it's easy to abuse the allegorical approach. Sometimes, as that great theologian Sigmund Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar.

11. If Paul was so pleased that the Bereans verified everything he said with existing scripture, how can Protestants go wrong for doing the same thing?

A By ignoring the traditional interpretation (the Tradition of the elders, the Apostles) in favor of a novel interpretation, thus creating schism and division.

12. How come there are biblical directives given for the selection of deacons and bishops, but not for presbyters?

A At the time, bishops were the "senior pastors" of the city-wide churches; presbyters were their assistants or stand-ins. Technically, that's what all priests in Orthodoxy are to this day, though the mechanics are far less smooth than they were intended to be, in my opinion, especially in the hodgepodge of Orthodoxy in North America. A presbyter was first a deacon, and then if he qualified in everything required of a bishop, he could become a priest or parish pastor.

13. Is there any evidence to suggest (as some do) that Old Testament temple worship became increasingly polluted by the Israelites using stuff borrowed from surrounding pagan deities—thus when the Eastern Orthodox Church attempts to "mimic" some former temple rituals they are mimicking stuff not pleasing to God? In other words, they may be mimicking the sinful pagan stuff that Israel should not have incorporated into their temple worship?

A I'm sure some could marshal some evidence for such a claim, but where in the New Testament is it supported, by either Jesus or the disciples? I don't see it.

14. There does seem to be an incredible migration of Protestants, both clergy and laity, into the Eastern Orthodox Church. Is there any fear that this may result in a Protestantization (however slight) or (gads) an "evangelicalization" of the EOC?

A Yes, absolutely. There is both that fear and (on the part of some, to the extent that it might inject new zeal for salvation of souls and missionary outreach) that hope.

15. If we are to reject the reformed visible church/invisible church concept, how do we take Augustine's comments that "many are the wolves within, many are the sheep without...."?

A If that's how you define the visible and invisible church, I have no problem with it. Orthodoxy's problem with the concept that the "true church" is invisible comes from the logical extension of that to the proposition that no visible church, then, can be "true." And the true church is itself an icon of Christ, the continuation on earth of His incarnation, always imperfect with wolves within, always scandalized by the sheep without. But the New Testament is clear: There will always be a true church in the physical sense to keep the Light alive. And so long as there is, it behooves true disciples of Christ to affiliate themselves with it.

16. Though bishops take an oath of poverty, are they really poor materially speaking? I assume Roman Catholic bishops take a similar oath...but from what I've seen they seem to be lacking in nothing. In other words, they don't look too poor to me.

A There have been lots of abuses of "poverty" by people elevated to church leadership, in East and West, in episcopal churches as well as among independent evangelists. Though of course it is the church, the office, not the individual, that owns any wealth accruing to a bishopric, there are probably Orthodox bishops who travel first class, and others who would not do so, on principle. Frankly, I too would be interested in hearing from others who have firsthand knowledge on this topic. But who am I to judge? Remember the lesson of Mary's anointing of Jesus (Matt. 26:6-13).

17. Does the Eastern Orthodox Church teach that believers should give a 10 percent tithe?

A Not nearly enough.

18. What is the absolute earliest date that can be referenced for a compiled list of most of the canonical books (New Testament)...very much prior to the famous St. Athanasius letter?

A The Rev. Jack Sparks writes: "The earliest list we have is found in a fragment found by L.A. Muratori in an eighth-century manuscript. This fragment is believed to date from the second century, because of the names mentioned in it. Some lines are missing...but it lists all the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter," (Orthodox Study Bible, page 821). In Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, the Rev. Michael Pomazansky says that the first authoritative list was that of the local Council of Carthage in 318. Prior to that, there were many lists, but no council had decreed whether all the books on the lists were canonical, or whether the lists were complete (page 29).

19. There were obviously saints living during Paul's day, for he mentions them in the present tense. How were these saints "sainted"? Are there living saints as such today? Did these saints have their own "days" and were they venerated then as saints are today?

A They were "sainted" by Paul's decree. (That's intended tongue in cheek.) All true believers are "saints." Some are more easily identified as true believers than the rest of us: martyrs, wonder workers, people with great gifts of the Spirit and powers of intercession. When a consensus arises that someone fits that category, there is a move to have his or her sainthood "declared"; but declaring it is recognizing it, not making it so. I think the vast majority of Christians today recognize Mother Teresa of Calcutta as a "living saint," as many who knew him considered the late Archbishop John Maximovich of San Francisco a "living saint" before his death (he has since been "canonized" as such), though of course no move would ever begin to declare someone a "saint" while living.

The Roman Catholic process is considerably different—much more administratively driven—than the Orthodox one, which tends to rise from the grassroots. Saints in Paul's day did not have "their days," and veneration probably began with the severe persecutions after the close of the New Testament. When people knew martyrs intimately, and experienced wonders accompanying their deaths, they began paying them greater attention, and especially asking them to intercede before Christ on their behalf, as they might soon face martyrdom, too.

20. When all other "religions" were outlawed in the Roman empire and Christianity was the only sanctioned religion, did this not have a horrible impact as unrepentant pagans came into the church with their pagan "baggage" of religious practices?

A I recently read that non-Orthodox tend to see Constantine's Edict of Toleration as a negative rather than as the positive move toward toleration that it was. I'm not enough of a historian to give a sound opinion on this. However, it sounds like "Protestant propaganda" or putting the worst spin on it to me. We do know from extensive writings from the period that the church was virtually obsessed with right doctrine (ortho-doxy) in that era, so it seems unlikely that pagan baggage had much impact.

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© 1996 Jon Kennedy