Caveats, 4 of 6

In the previous essays of this series I made the following parallel: Early Gentile Christianity’s relationship to Judaism and Jewish believers is parallel to Protestantism’s relationship to contemporary Orthodoxy.

Allow me to make clear that this parallel is far from exact and is also problematic. Where Orthodoxy and Protestantism are the same (both Christian), Judaism and Christianity are different (the promise of Christ and fulfillment). From my Orthodox perspective I ought therefore to say that the parallelism is not valid since it compares apples and oranges.

But when considering covenantal nomism, there is a remarkable parallelism between Second Temple Judaism and contemporary Orthodoxy. It is very convenient for the Orthodoxy to emphasize the problematic character of the parallelism. It means that we can go on with business as usual. We are thankful that God’s Spirit was poured out on the Protestants and we therefore encourage them to take the next logical step in their salvation by entering the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

But this assumption ignores an important question: Was God’s Spirit involved in calling forth the Reformers? If so, is it not enough that God’s Spirit is poured out? (This was both Peter’s and Paul’s defense of the Gentile Christians: the Spirit had been poured out upon them. And this brings us back to the debate between Peter and Paul, the Jerusalem Church and the Antioch Church, the Gentile Christians and the Judaizers.

So this proposal involves a word of caution to those who like the proposal: There is a sense that it is an “apples and oranges” comparison. But there is also a word of caution to the Orthodox sensibility: Requiring more than the Gospel requires contradicts the Gospel, according to Paul.

In the next essay I will deal directly with the Protestant side of this divide. In the remainder of this essay I want to flesh out the historic parallel between contemporary Orthodoxy and Second Temple Judaism.

At a theological level the Eastern Orthodox Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church spoken of in the Creed. But at an everyday level its “covenantal nomism” has gone through a series of developmental stages. The Tradition was in its most dynamic form when the new believers were spreading across the Roman Empire proclaiming hope to a world caught up in the despair of a dying empire. But eventually the Christians settled down, came into power, and the Christian Tradition was put into the service of a new Christian empire; the Tradition now explained, along with salvation, how we ought to relate to Christian kings and queens. (Is this story beginning to sound familiar?)

Eventually the Tradition became the all-embracing definition of who Christians were as a people. When the world turned against the Christians, the covenantal nomism turned into an all-embracing self-definition of Christian cultures and sub-cultures. The now mature Christian Tradition became the wall of separation that kept outside forces (usually considered malevolent) at bay.

In short any Protestant can recognize that when one converts to Orthodoxy, one is not only converting to historic Christianity, one is also required to embrace and practice “the works of the Tradition” (to paraphrase St. Paul in Galatians). And in light of Paul’s argument begun in Galatians and fleshed out in Romans, is this really a conversion to Christ at all? Or is it a reversion to enslavement of the elemental spirits of this world? Is it an embracing of God’s grace or is it an embracing of “the works of the Tradition?”

I am neither smart enough nor schooled enough to answer that question. But that is the Orthodox question that is raised by N.T. Wright’s “new perspective on the doctrine of justification by faith.”

After viewing the world from within the Orthodox Church for a few years, I’m somewhat inclined to believe that St. Paul is talking just as much to the latter day “Orthodoxizers” as he is the early day “Judaizers.” Now this is admittedly a huge about-face for me and several possible implications need to be clarified:

  1. Have I become disenchanted with Orthodoxy? No. I still believe, as I have for years, that it is the original, authentic Christian Church. What Wright has done is not caused me to redefine Orthodoxy, but rather to redefine what “the people of God” or “the Chosen People” might mean in this age.
  2. Did I decide to write this now because of the absolutely scandalous activities going on within my own Orthodox jurisdiction (the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America)? No. In fact one of the reasons I have waited to publish these essays is the scandal. I came to these conclusions before the extent of the scandal became clear. I’ve been sitting on them precisely because of how they might be perceived in light of the scandal. Things have settled down, so I have decided to go ahead with this project.
  3. Am I planning on becoming Protestant again? No. I’m not studying this because I’m disgruntled and looking for options. To recycle an old George Carlin joke, I’m perfectly gruntled in the Orthodox Church. This is neither a complaint against Orthodoxy nor a defense of Protestantism; it is simply my observations on what I believe are the implications of St. Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith.

In the two final essays in this series I want to make clear that this proposal is in no way simple. Assuming that my interpretation is correct, what is the meaning of Protestantism and how should Orthodoxy relate to it? That is an unbelievably complex question made even more complex by years of pretending that it wasn’t a legitimate question. But that’s the next essay.