What Does the Future Hold? (6 of 6)

In the previous essay I said that Orthodoxy missed the opportunity to deal with the Protestant problem 500 years ago when the problem was far more solvable. (Of course there were huge barriers to dialog back then that no longer exist today, so that period had barriers all its own.) Doing something about it today will require a bit more divinely inspired creativity. What sort of creativity? Let me begin by saying I don’t know. But I do believe that there are historic precedents that the church can look back upon as it moves forward.

I’ll return to my original contention that the fundamental description of salvation for St. Paul (and also St. John and the rest of the New Testament) is to be in Christ, in the Spirit, or filled with the Spirit (or as it is described in Acts, the Spirit was poured out). One cannot understand what salvation is nor what being part of the Church – the Body of Christ – is, nor what the Kingdom of God and the renewal of all things is, if one doesn’t begin with the fundamental assertion that if we are in Christ we are being saved, and conversely the only way to be saved is to be in Christ.

Now this formulation is admittedly difficult to define. What does being in Christ mean? Exactly how is it accomplished? What does it look like when it happens? We humans (and especially we post-Enlightenment humans) demand answers to this sort of thing. But God’s ways are notoriously vague. His mighty works are best described as a burning bush, a cloud that is black in the day and fiery at night, a storm, silence …

All these things are impossible to quantify.

This is why the Jewish believers were scandalized when Gentile believers tried being Christians on terms other than the Jewish believers had set. The Jewish believers had centuries to quantify the bush, the cloud, the storm, the silence, and the Gentile attempt at being Christian didn’t fit into that formula. In response, Paul was led to a new description of our life together that went beyond salvation motif of being “in Christ”. While salvation is being “in Christ,” that salvation implies a leveling of the playing field within the Body of Christ. That, according to St. Paul is our justification by faith and not by works of the Torah. This was a creative solution that allowed everyone to reconceptualize the effects of salvation without changing the fundamental meaning and description.

A similar thing happened in the 12th century. Latin Christians were scandalized by what was going on in Greece. Early Christianity had a few centuries to quantify the bush, the cloud, the storm, the silence, and now, Pascha and Pentecost, and the practices on the Holy Mountain in Greece didn’t fit into that formula. In response, St. Gregory of Palamas fleshed out a new description of salvation as theosis. This was a creative solution that allowed everyone to reconceptualize salvation without changing the fundamental meaning and description.

One could also mention the concilliar period and the insights of the Cappadocian fathers, the desert fathers, and others.

I propose that we reached another such juncture several decades ago. Along with the bush, the cloud, the storm, the silence, Pascha, Pentecost, the divine light/theosis, Orthodoxy has now quantified the reality that salvation occurs within the church. But is being “in Christ” precisely the same thing as being “in the church”? If “the church” is properly understood, I suspect it does indeed mean precisely the same thing. But “the church” in question now in the 21st is a narrowly defined church: the Eastern Orthodox Church, or more specifically, the canonical Eastern Orthodox Church, which is only the SCOBA jurisdictions here in North America.

Given the character of the internecine battles, there is a sense that “church” and “Orthodox” have become arbitrary and a bit club-ish in the modern context. The typical solution is to make Orthodoxy more open and friendly to the needs of converts. But this misses the point. In the end, the conversion to Orthodoxy is as much conversion to ancient Byzantium as it is to Christ. Converts are required to take up the yoke of Byzantium – leaders and their courtiers, who dress up and act like Oriental despots, making divine liturgy look and feel like an Oriental throne room, complete with ancient Oriental sensibilities and actions, etc. And if one doesn’t put on this yoke of ancient Oriental serfdom, then one isn’t going to become a Christian in the fullest sense of the word.

There have been protests to this despotic system, such as the Western Rite (WR). But it is tolerated at best and more commonly despised among proper Orthodox. (I have personal experience with this. I prefer WR but have learned to keep my mouth shut among real Orthodox people. Many of them tend to growl, snap, and froth like a Chihuahua protecting a bone when someone mentions their preference for Western Rite.)

Of course the blame isn’t one sided. From experience I can say that WR parishes can be stand-offish and independent in a particularly unhelpful manner. But a full discussion of why the Western Rite hasn’t worked well is far beyond the limits of this essay.

In short, to date, the Spirit has not yet raised up a new Peter and Paul to speak to both the old guard and the new about a different way to understand our life together beyond the bush, the cloud, and the church that is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” Maybe the first step is to understand that for Protestants to take on the yoke of Orthodoxy and its subsequent “works of the Tradition” is to “nullify the grace of God” (Gal 2:21) which God has poured out upon them without the permission of hierarchs and despots.

Then again, it’s probably not the case, and this interpretation of justification by faith, this “new perspective on justification” is probably just another Protestant fad. The Orthodox Church mistaken? What was I thinking!

10 thoughts on “What Does the Future Hold? (6 of 6)

  1. I think you might be concentrating too much on the human aspect of the Church. You repeat several times that you don’t know this or that. That’s OK. I don’t think the EP or Moscow know either.

    God however is very much aware and very much involved. Just because I, or any other Orthodox can’t answer how doesn’t mean it isn’t true and just as true to Orthodox folks (who still have to work out their salvation with fear and trembling even though they are “in the Church”).

    If we Orthodox act like the older brother of the prodigal son, that is to our shame and our loss.

    1. justanotherjim

      David, you suspect that I am concentrating too much on the human aspect of the Church. But when asking questions, such as I have done, the may require corrections, the human aspect of the church is the only place we can focus. That is the realm where we can confess our failures and make corrections.

    1. justanotherjim

      That would be the “Ecumenical Patriarch.” Who is the Patriarch of Constantinople, better known as Istanbul in the modern world.

  2. Mark

    I have some thoughts on this series, Jim, but being a Presbyterian, I’ll mostly hold my tongue because this isn’t my fight. But your comment about the Patriarch in Constantinople/Istanbul gives me an opening and maybe illustrates quite well what you’re talking about. As I understand it, there are five Patriarchs in the Orthodox Church:
    – Jerusalem and Alexandria, both of whom are practically titular at this point, they have become so isolated, and their congregations so few in number.
    – Antioch, who isn’t even in Antioch, but in Damascus.
    – Constantinople, which isn’t Constantinople, but Istanbul, and is similar to Jerusalem and Alexandria in its isolation, and similar to Antioch in that the real center of the Greek Church is Thessoloniki and not Istanbul.
    – And finally, Moscow, which seems to be the only Patriarch who has both a legitimate group of bishops underneath him and a legitimate location.

    There is an opinion among some Jews that the best thing that happened to Judaism was the destruction of the Temple back in 70 C.E. During the Second Temple phase of Judaism they were living on past glory and it shackled them, making them unable to be the people of God in the world. But with the destruction of the temple they were able to move on as Synagogue Judaism and once again become, not only a surviving religion, but a lively religion.

    Is this another parallel between Orthodoxy and Second Temple Judaism? The Patriarchal system is a symbol, not of a lively religion, but of past glory. You Orthodox need to get over that, recognize that center of Orthodoxy has moved, and move your Patriarchs to places where they can actually lead the people rather than watch them from a distance.

    1. justanotherjim

      Interesting analogy. I’m glad you brought it up, although I’m not going to pursue that line of thought here. My purpose isn’t to get into a pissing match with the Orthodox Church, all I wanted to do was present/discuss the proper interpretation of Gal. 2 and its implications. I can’t help but note that folks are far more keen to talk about ecclesiological problems and critique the other guy than they are to grapple with the text. I’m not surprised. As you and I have talked about long ago and far away on PresbyNet, when we don’t have an important insight to contribute to the discussion at hand, the easiest thing in the world is to throw stones at the other guy.

  3. “Grappling with the text” is in the realm of obedience, not surety of interpretation. Speculating on possible applications of a Biblical text isn’t a laudable activity while we still remain prideful, vengeful creatures. Some of the simplest things to understand, love God and love your neighbor, are the hardest to do then the rest can only offer us a distraction.

    I think this is the problem with much of the potential-convert crowd (myself included not so long ago). We get fixated on all these practices and fail to come to work out our salvation. We are still wishing to be the masters of our own spiritual dingies. We fail to see the value in obedience and lack awareness of true communion.

    I thought I’d comment on the series because I like your blog and follow it regularly and figured I might have some helpful words. It appears by your comment that I have not only been unhelpful but negligent of your central thesis. I apologize.

    1. justanotherjim

      I was quite surprised by your post, David, but after rereading what I wrote, I realize what you said was on target. I want to apologize.

      While my explanation will no doubt seem disingenuous, I will explain what happened. Mark and I have a long history on a list-serve called PresbyNet/EcuNet. Discussions on theological issues often got very heated and often veered off topic. Often times certain individuals would use the occasion of a legitimate theological or biblical discussion to attack a person who worked at General assembly, a presbytery, or something like that. Mark was always calling us to task whenever we started veering off the work of exegesis or theology and started using the exegetical forums to gripe. It was as if this was Mark’s role.

      My response to him wasn’t aimed at you, it was poking fun at him by taking the role for which he was so well known and throwing it back at him. Essentially it was an inside joke. When I wrote it I failed to think of the broader consequences. I didn’t even think in terms of my response being public.

      So again I apologize for offense given. You had good reason to be offended.

      As far as the other content of your note, I love your opening line: “Grappling with the text is in the realm of obedience, not surety of interpretation.”

      In a previous post you commented on my repeated assertion that I don’t know the answer to my questions. What you said is precisely what I was trying to get at, but you said it much better. I was (and am) deeply impressed with NT Wright’s exegesis of Gal. 2. He raises issues I’ve never seen addressed before that seem to me to apply to the Orthodox Church. With fear and trepidation I put my thoughts out there, not intending them to be a “sure interpretation” — I’m not equipped to do that — but rather as a suggestion for further thought.

      And your responses to my essays (which I appreciate) have given me some further thoughts. I have been working on another essay for the last few days that grows out of the discussion that has occurred here. I suspect I’ll be posting it in the next few days.

  4. Mark

    I’ll back up what Jim has to say. I knew he was tweaking me and I found his post quite amusing. Not LOL funny, but certainly amusing.

    And quite honestly, Jim, you didn’t present this as an exegetical work, rather the exegesis was done by Wright. You were putting his exegesis into a different ecclesiastical context. You may be seeking a proper interpretation of Gal. 2, but not on an exegetical level, rather on the level of its sitz im leben. Given that, it makes sense to discuss what Protestants believe and how Patriarchs fit into the picture. Those aren’t questions of exegesis but of the text’s contemporary sitz im leben.

  5. Pingback: Just Another Jim » Critiques on my Justification Series

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