Theophilus analyzes migration of Protestants to Eastern Orthodoxy

For most of this year, this column has been addressing the general question, "if you feel your church has let you down, or isn't meeting your needs, what criteria can or should you follow in finding a new church?"

The last two columns were a letter in two parts, from Jeff Rickard, an area man who grew up an evangelical Protestant, and as an adult starting his own family came to feel that his roots were not providing sufficient spiritual nourishing. After visiting the church pastored by his uncle, an Orthodox priest in Ben Lomond, Santa Cruz County, he and his wife converted to Orthodoxy and are now members of St. Stephen's Orthodox Church at Meridian and Branham Lane in South San Jose.

We are continuing our consideration of the phenomenon of evangelical Protestants becoming Eastern Orthodox for at least this month and next. For any who may feel that we're spending too much time on Orthodoxy, please consider that, except for a few one-sentence references, this column, designed to speak to all religious concerns in our community, didn't deal with Orthodoxy at all in its first four years. So if we were to end up having 10 columns on the topic it would only then begin to approach parity for the Orthodox segment of our population.

And for any who may feel we've never given your faith community expression, please note that the way that is accomplished is through someone in your community getting the "ball rolling" by writing us on a topic of broad enough interest to be journalistic.

This month we return to the first questions I asked about the migration to Orthodoxy, in response to the first letter I received on the topic, from St. Stephen's subdeacon John Heilman, published here in May. What follow are my own answers to my own questions, based on the information I've received in the course of reading eight books thus far, and through numerous interviews with others who've made such journeys, including the Rickards. My questions as expressed in response to Heilman's letter are in italics, followed by my current understanding of the answers.

Remember the format of this column: if any reader thinks I'm wrong either in my opinions or understanding of the facts, this is a forum; your response is the way to set right any such "wrongs."

1. I believe that saying that any one church, or any one expression of the Holy Spirit, is "the" church, the true or right church, is analogous to saying that all of God's flowers reflect His creative diversity as long as they're tulips; the rest are the devil's.

This was in response to Heilman's implying that Orthodoxy considers itself the true expression of the one and only church founded by Jesus Christ. That implication is consistent with Orthodox teaching. The teaching and its ramifications are so complicated that it would take at least a whole year's worth of columns to deal with them adequately.

But in summary, it seems that the Orthodox have several "escape clauses": If you're not in the Orthodox church, you are not "saved" unless, a) you are Orthodox "at heart" even though not by baptism, or, b) God has chosen to save you through means known to Him but not revealed to the Orthodox church.

Though Orthodoxy presses its teaching on this point in ecumenical negotiations as members of councils of churches (saying, "we won't join in any quest to build a new, truly ecumenical church because we already are the true ecumenical church"), in day-to-day practice, the Orthodox treat other professing Christians as though they are, in fact, Christians.

2. You suggest that because of its historical line, Orthodoxy is somehow more orthodox than the other branches of Christianity. Please explain. Doesn't Paul tell us that we're all, in matters of faith, descended from Abraham?

Orthodoxy teaches that apostolic succession and the tradition of the apostles and church fathers keeps it more pure than either the Protestant doctrine of "sola Scriptura" (usually expressed in such formulas as "The Bible is the church's only infallible rule of faith and practice"), and the Roman Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope in his ex-cathedra pronouncements. Though I couldn't have imagined myself saying so three months ago, I'm now persuaded that the Orthodox are correct on this point.

Apostolic succession, incidentally, means something qualitatively more in the Orthodox understanding than in the Episcopal understanding as I was taught it in seminary. It's not just one generation being ordained by the "laying on of hands" from a preceding generation going all the way back to one of the original 13 apostles ("the 12," plus St. Paul), but the fact that with that ordination goes a highly sacred obligation to make sure the faith received from the predecessors is the same faith that is passed on to the successors. Tradition, in Orthodoxy, is far more central and dynamic than in the Western churches.

3. A...letter in (a local newspaper) from a local Orthodox clergyman (contended), if I understood him correctly, that the Bible (is) time-bound (and) has no prophetic relevance to the times we live in. This hardly sounds orthodox; more like the old mainline-apostate (to borrow a word C.S. Lewis used for it) higher criticism nonsense that has kicked around for a century and a half. You might say that one clergyman doesn't speak for all Orthodox Christians any more than Cecil Williams speaks for all Methodists. But doesn't that prove that the real church is the invisible church, not any denomination, communion, or historical tradition, thereby arguing strongly against your point? Or did I miss your point?

In all the books I've read on Orthodoxy and in all the interviews, I've been assured that, if that priest did express a low view of Scripture, he not only didn't speak for all Orthodox, he spoke for very few Orthodox. Kallistos Ware, a bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church in England, for example, says that although the Bible is not the only infallible rule for Orthodoxy, it is the highest rule, and by far the easiest to discern.

Though Orthodox are free to study critical theories of the Bible, they are not free to reinterpret, as their basis for teaching, anything in the Bible in a way that is at variance with the church's traditional interpretations. We Protestants, on the other hand, freely reinterpret the Bible, and often to our own hurt. Orthodox writers make generous use of Scripture in their writing, as the basis for their doctrines and positions, and I have not seen Scripture cited anywhere in these writings in ways that would not be acceptable to at least a large cross-section of classical Protestantism (considering the classical theological spectrum as from "Calvinist" to "Arminian"—from a high view of God's sovereignty in the election-to-salvation of individuals, to a high view of man's exercise of free will in effecting his own salvation.

Several footnotes: In the context of Orthodoxy, it's "Roman Catholicism," not just "Catholicism," as "politically correct" Protestants usually prefer. That's because the Orthodox consider themselves "the one holy catholic and apostolic church." They consider their division with Rome in the 11th century to be tragic and, they hope, easy to fix, although none of them seem to think it will get fixed in our lifetime or, probably, within our grandchildren's lifetimes.

Orthodox consider themselves closer to Rome than to Protestantism, and would probably be surprised to learn that many Protestants, on learning the distinctions, consider themselves closer to Orthodoxy than to Rome, despite the fact that we are all "offshoots" of Rome (or offshoots of offshoots).

From our perspective, I think, Orthodoxy, ironically, represents a "reformed" (or less "deformed") version of the ancient church. If Martin Luther had made a similar study of Orthodoxy (which may not have been possible in his century, it being the one in which printing as we now know it was invented), the Reformation may have gone as far as Constantinople (the symbolic center-seat of Orthodoxy), and stopped.

Next month I'll attempt a comparison of some central doctrines of Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism.

Another footnote: Although both Orthodox and Roman Catholics refer to their pastors as priests, and generally use "Fr." rather than "the Rev.," according to the Asssociated Press Stylebook, their hierarchies have indicated that the preferred designations are "pastor" and "the Rev.," which is why we use those in introductions with formal titles.

Published Oct. 1994.

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© 1994, 1995 Jon Kennedy