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.

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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?

The Law (Torah) and the Gospel, 2 of 6

In the previous essay I observed that, according to N.T. Wright, the significance of the doctrine of justification by faith has to do with the basic requirements for Christian table fellowship. Wright’s claim is based on a particular understanding of the Judaism of Jesus’ and St. Paul’s day. Within Protestant circles Judaism was historically considered a works religion. It didn’t matter to Protestant scholars that Jewish rabbis and scholars disputed this claim. The claim fit within the Protestant theological presuppositions and the Protestant version of salvation, so this particular interpretation of Judaism was (and continues to be) very persistent.

But in the 70s E.P. Sanders proposed – with extensive evidence – that “Second Temple Judaism” (that is, the Judaism during the period of Herod’s temple, the Judaism of Jesus and the first Christians) believed that salvation came as purely a divine gift and the Mosaic Law (that is, the covenant) was a thankful response to this divine gift of salvation. Sanders coined the term “covenantal nomism” to describe this view of Judaism. Far from believing that the Law could save them, the Rabbis (and certainly Jewish scripture) taught that God graciously chose Israel and that not only had they done nothing to deserve it, they repeatedly and consistently broke the covenant that God made with them. In spite of Israel’s failure, God continued forgiving and continued to graciously draw his people back to himself. (In other words, salvation, even in its Old Testament and Second Temple context, is by pure grace.) The Mosaic Law was not the means of salvation, but rather the people’s response to God’s grace.

This ought to sound very familiar. Both the Orthodox and the Reformed Protestants have the same stance toward what Christians would call the Old Testament Law. Presbyterians often refer to this as the dynamic of “grace and gratitude.” It is this sensibility that underlies both the Orthodox sense of “the Tradition” and what has come to be known in the West as the “Protestant work ethic” (which grew specifically out of the Reformed churches – it might be more accurately described as the Presbyterian work ethic). Lutherans (and Roman Catholics) have a darker view of the Law; it is a taskmaster. Orthodox and Presbyterian/Reformed have a much more positive view of the Law, as a happy (or in Latin “felix”) response to God’s grace.

But the Mosaic Law in relation to Judaism isn’t quite that simple. While it is God-given (and it is certainly God-given), over time it became organic and specific to the Jewish people. The Law has passed through major developmental stages. The first stage was the Mosaic Law given to the wandering herdsmen fleeing Egypt and looking for the Promised Land. This was the Law in its most dynamic form. In gratitude the people responded to God’s grace by following this new way of life to which God had called them. In this synergistic effort, the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, was born.

Eventually these wanderers settled down, rejected God’s leadership style, demanded a king, and got down to the business of being a nation like all the other nations around them. In this Davidic period the Law adapted nicely to this new circumstance, but the emphasis shifted toward the support of the bureaucracy. The Law entered its social phase, where it not only shaped the people’s response to God, but began to govern every aspect of their life, especially in relation to their king.

Of course the nation fell away from God to the point that the officials apparently forgot the very existence of the Law. But in Josiah’s reign the scrolls were found and there was a great spiritual reform. The actual history is far more complicated than this, but this deuteronomic (literally “second law”) period, this second discovery of the Law, resulted in many more social developments which provided the foundation for the unique Jewish self-understanding they took into captivity.

By the time the Jews had returned from their exile, the Law had become the all-embracing definition of who they were as a people. Originally the Law was understood to be a God-given set of disciplines and requirements through which the people could both demonstrate their gratitude and transform their lives into what God desired. But when we get into this Second Temple phase of Judaism (from Ezra to the destruction of the Temple in the Christian era) the Law became far more than a response to God. It is what gave the Jewish people their identity and kept them distinct from all other people. While observing the Law continued to be a response of gratitude to God, it also became a wall of separation that kept outside forces (usually considered malevolent) at bay.

In Galatians it is this secondary characteristic of the Law, or Torah, which had become the primary characteristic – this Torah-as-wall-of-separation – that Paul is reacting to. The first Christians were all Jews (and in their self-understanding, God’s chosen people), and it seemed obvious to them that anyone wanting to become Christian would also become one of God’s chosen, that is, a Jew. But God gave Peter a vision about clean and unclean, informing him that this distinction – even though seemingly rooted in the Mosaic Law – was not the divine intent (Acts 10). God also revealed directly to Paul his gospel, distinct from the Torah, which emphasized God’s inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles (Gal. 1).

Of course this seemed a radical change to the Jews and it took many years for the full implications of all this to sink in. The Jerusalem church, under the leadership of James the brother of Jesus, was the slowest to change (which makes sense, they were an overwhelmingly Jewish church) and most of the problems (the Judaizers) emanated from that church. The church in Antioch, on the other hand, was the first to embrace the full implications of life in Christ as demonstrated by God’s gracious gift of the Spirit.

To Paul, who understood the radical-ness of grace, this “Jerusalem” effort to put Gentiles under the yoke of Torah-as-wall-of-separation undermined the very grace that God was offering. These “works of the law” (a phrase used by Paul four times in Galatians and again in Romans) were not intrinsic to the grace offered in a Gentile context. Requiring the “works of the law” implied that God’s grace was inadequate and that this grace was only available to those who went to the effort to get inside the wall of separation. It got the cart before the horse.

So it is that the church ultimately became a separate community, neither Gentile nor Jew, but a new reality that reflected life in Christ as experienced by those who had received the Spirit. Nothing more was required. This new community was under obligation, not to the old Mosaic Law, but to a new law of love (Gal. 5:14).