Imagine a world in which the Orthodox Church suddenly embraced my proposed application of the “new perspective” on the doctrine of justification (that is, what I’ve been writing about for the last several essays, starting here). Now this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The folks in charge of Orthodoxy for the last few decades appear far more intent on turf than truth (hopefully, such appearances are deceiving) and any embrace of Protestants as Protestants would certainly cut into their beloved and all-important turf. So this is a strictly imaginary exercise. A thought experiment, if you will.
Well, as soon as one imagines it, in the ecclesiastical world as it exists now, one realizes that not only can’t it happen on the Orthodox side (as noted above), neither can it happen on the Protestant side.
The first problem is that “Protestantism” as a generalization is meaningless. There are Protestants who are very orthodox, yet there are others who reject the Holy Trinity (whether Unitarians or Jesus only charismatics and certain branches of the Church of Christ). There are those who reject wholesale the social teachings of scripture and the church. These also come in multiple flavors. There are the liberal kind who are for abortion and homosexuality and against hierarchy and there are the conservative kind who turn their “Christianity” into a help-yourself-and-everyone-else-be-damned celebration of guns, gold, and compounds. And there’s everything in between. The result of this variety is that one has to talk of Protestants individually rather than as a group, which makes communion to communion relationships next to impossible.
The second problem is that Protestants have no external authority. Even scripture, the final Protestant authority, is internalized as an authority because the Spirit leads each Protestant Christian to one’s own understanding. Relying on someone else’s interpretation without searching the scripture on one’s own is very bad Protestant form. This potentially makes scripture only as authoritative as yesterday’s new insight: as changeable as the weather.
It is true that historic Protestant groups are “confessional.” That is, they have interpretive structures that give them authoritative guidance in matters of scriptural interpretation, doctrine, and polity. But just as the principle of the Spirit guiding each individual believer in the matter of scripture undermines any definitive meaning for the community, so this principle of the “priesthood of all believers” undermines any real authority that the confessions might have.
These are flaws that have only revealed themselves over centuries. The original Reformers had a strong sense of both the corporate church and the historic church which the confessional system fit into. But the emphasis on individualism eventually trumped that larger perspective.
It is therefore impossible to point to any group of Protestants and say they have it figured out because within that group the seeds of individualism are already undermining the external divine authority that might be present.
So in the end the Protestant communions are not churches in the biblical sense but rather amalgams of individual believers who come together, then separate in a different grouping, only to come together again. Like the ancient Pangaea, the original single continent on earth, that has separated into pieces, bumped back together, and separated again into the current continents which continue to break apart and move together, the Protestant sense of church as a visible Body is driven by the tectonic forces of culture, society, and this year’s opinion of the implications of scripture on contemporary promises and problems.
The fact that Eastern Orthodoxy has refused serious discussion with Protestants makes sense. It nearly always takes Orthodoxy decades to make a decision; more often than not it takes centuries. By that time the Protestant group in question would almost certainly have changed its stripes.
So there are good reasons to avoid ecumenical dialog as it has been conceived in the last couple of centuries. But this doesn’t change the possibility that the Eastern Orthodoxy that we know today has developed the sort of covenantal nomism gone inward rather than Godward that St. Paul is railing against in Galatians and Romans. And if this is the case, then, as hopelessly adrift as Protestantism is, converting to the sort of Orthodoxy we have today (Orthodoxy plus centuries of layers of walls designed to keep the malevolent world at bay) would be an equally hopeless conversion into legalism (that is, “the works of the Tradition,” to paraphrase Paul) that fundamentally contradicts the gospel.
Orthodoxy missed the opportunity to solve this problem 500 years ago when it was far more solvable. Doing something about it today will require a bit more divine creativity. I’ll explore that in the next (and final) essay of this series.