Comparing Orthodoxy to Judaism, 3 of 6

In the last essay I ended by saying that the church, being a new creation, was not obligated to the Mosaic Law (the Torah), but to a new law of love (Gal. 5:14). This is not to imply that this new church was antinomian. Even a cursory reading of Paul’s letters indicates that he assumed there would be many rules, disciplines, requirements, or whatever you want to call them. The new Christian freedom was neither a freedom to do whatever Christians wanted nor a freedom to just make it up as they went along their merry way, but rather freedom to serve God as God revealed.

It is therefore clear that Paul, once Jewish Rabbi and now Christian evangelist, conceived the church (as he did his Judaism) in terms of covenantal nomism. And in many ways this new church (which was neither Jew nor Gentile) looked like Judaism. Their liturgies were similar. The vestments for their priests were similar. Their disciplines were similar although the Christian disciplines followed a logic specific to the life of Christ.

The biggest difference (aside from Christianity’s Christocentrism) was that Judaism had become burdened by the cares and dangers of this world and therefore felt it necessary (over a period of several centuries) to wall itself off from the world. Christianity, with its lively sense of the imminent return of Christ, was far more willing to engage the world. The Christian disciplines created no wall of separation as the Jewish law did. Christianity was an evangelistic religion that functioned very well in the world, yet with an ascetic dimension that always allowed it to be not of the world.

If we move forward 2,000 years we find Eastern Orthodoxy in a similar social position as Second Temple Judaism. Its attitude toward its relationship to the Tradition has evolved dramatically over the centuries. Today Orthodoxy is a religion that tends toward using its Tradition and traditions as a wall against a dangerous outside culture. And let me be clear that I’m not using the word “dangerous” in its comfortable American sense (ie, television is dangerous for our young people). In much of the world throughout much of history, Orthodox Christians were and are killed for being Orthodox. Even now, under the “benign” watchfulness of their American and U.N. overlords, Muslims are cleansing historically Christian countries/regions such as Kosovo, Iraq, and Palestine of Christians, forcing them to move to other parts of the world or suffer terrible persecution and death.

Living in this environment, the covenantal nomism of Eastern Orthodoxy has necessarily taken on social functions that go far beyond the basic interplay of grace and gratitude. In this sense Eastern Orthodox history is remarkably similar to Jewish history leading up to the end of the Second Temple period.

Meanwhile something completely unthinkable to the writers of the New Testament had occurred. Well over a millennium ago the church in east and west was divided by lack of communication and profound cultural differences. (The official split occurred in 1054, but the separation was developing long before that.) If we follow the Orthodox understanding of history (which I think is the correct understanding), the western church (ie, the Roman Catholic Church) drifted and eventually fell into heresy, and toward the end of the medieval period, even debauchery. In that context the Protestant Reformation was certainly necessary and almost inevitable.

Protestantism is far from perfect, but one could argue (and I will argue) that it is not unlike the believers in Caesarea (Acts 10), who did not follow any of the assumed rules in the process of becoming believers. Or maybe I should say the Holy Spirit felt it unnecessary to work within the very tight strictures of eastern Christian sensibility when drawing these new Christians unto God. As Peter observed of the Caesarean believers, “But the Spirit fell upon them and Peter said, ‘Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?'” (Acts 10:47).

The existence of Protestantism can be interpreted, as it normally is in the history of theology, as a sort of dialectical inevitability of history. On the other hand, it can be viewed as an amazing and surprising gift of God: just when things looked their bleakest in the Christian West, God poured out his Spirit and believers were born who found no home in the Roman church. The result was a group of authentic and divinely called believers that had no home within the old “wineskins” of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.

The first time this occurred (that is, the first Gentile Christians) the church in Antioch spurred on the mother church in Jerusalem to reform its thinking. Because of the firm leadership of the apostles there was neither a lasting church split between Jewish and Gentile factions nor between Jerusalem and Antioch. Similarly the new Protestant church spurred the Roman Catholic Church into a counter-Reformation. But along the way there was a blood-bath between Roman Catholic and Protestant making the prospect of reunion far more difficult. Of course it never did occur. Furthermore, because of the geographic and political realities of the 16th century, Eastern Orthodoxy was a world away and encumbered with its own theological problems. It was therefore excluded from the conversation. The result was three distinct streams of Christianity that each kept to themselves.

Geographic and political realities are very different 500 years later. The three groups now live side by side nearly everywhere and conversation is necessary. And the rules of engagement between Orthodox and Protestant are clear (from an Orthodox perspective): Orthodoxy is the original church. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, it has remained true to the Gospel and continues to be the trunk of the tree and thus the one authentic Christian communion. Protestants must therefore “convert” – submit to all the rules and regulations of Eastern Orthodoxy – in order to be properly and fully Christian. This is the only path to being one in Christ.

But could it be that St. Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, especially when it is considered in its original context of Galatians, tells a different story?