Serving Self and Serving God

The video of Victoria Osteen saying that we should focus on our self and our own happiness when we worship and serve because our happiness is what makes God happy has been getting hammered pretty hard by Evangelicals this last month. The coverage of her has been biting enough that I don’t need to pile on. There is a facet of the debate (no wait, there’s been no debate; it’s been outright condemnation) that has not been mentioned, and it’s something I find far more subtle and thus more interesting than the narcissism and idolization of self expressed in the video. That question is: What is the “self” and what is its role in the Christian life?

Scripture is pretty clear that our “selves” are in a pretty sorry state. It is a doubly sorry state because we don’t even recognize the sorry state we’re in. Jesus, for instance, tells a group of very religious people that he can make them free. They’re incredulous. “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, `You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn 8:32-34)

And let’s face it, for the most part, being a slave to sin doesn’t seem that bad, unless one manages to fall into some horrible addiction or something. Everyday life that scripture describes as slavery to sin is actually a pretty fun life for most folks. So what’s the big deal?

First, as many others have said, because of a profound societal problem, the question is all wrong. It’s the old and well-known story of Western society taking a terribly wrong turn around the time of the Enlightenment. The focus on individuality and self led inexorably to an emphasis on happiness and self-fulfillment, which led inexorably to our contemporary narcissistic culture.

In this contemporary context if we ask, “What is the self?” We end up with a reductionistic view of who we are. What makes us human? How do we identify the core of our individuality? What makes me, me? (In contrast to you or my pet dog, or someone we look up to, such as Mother Theresa, or someone we despise, like Hitler?) In the modern world these questions lead to common denominator and least common denominator sort of answers.

But instead of going in that direction, what if we ask, “What can I become?” That is a far more interesting question. The Bible itself says very little about it. Paul says we’re “the Body of Christ” and “living stones” making up a living building. Peter says we’re “partakers of the divine nature.” Jesus uses metaphors like “sheep,” “branch,” etc., to get at this mystery. But for the most part scripture is silent. And there’s good reason for this silence, because “what I can become” cannot be put into words and recorded on a page. It is something, rather, that grows organically out of a combination of my own purposefulness and the tutelage of another person. (In Bible language, this is “discipleship” in contrast to book learning.)

In college I discovered that to become a master trumpet player, one not only had to practice, one had to practice particular things in a particular way. There were subtle issues of breathing, embouchure, the pressure (or lack thereof) of mouthpiece against the embouchure, posture, etc. Then there was the relationship of one musician with another, that unspoken communication which allows music to be made rather than just notes being played. Similarly, athletes, soldiers, scholars, and actors have to learn their craft from others, not from a book.

The Christian life is similar. To advance far in the Christian life requires a great deal of discipline under the practiced eye of the correct mentor. The result of all this is the expansion of the “true self.” And with this we get into something that we Westerners who have cut our teeth on Enlightenment presuppositions and Western culture find pretty darn esoteric. But it is neither new nor very secret. These are disciplines that Christians and Jews (and other religious traditions) have been practicing for centuries around the globe.

What dedicated Christians have discovered is that our “self,” our “inner being,” our “heart,” our “true self,” or nous (to use the Greek term that is often used untranslated in technical discussions) has atrophied. It is tiny and quite useless in its “natural” state (which is actually a highly unnatural, sinful, broken, and dead state, separated from the life-giving presence of God).

If I invite God into my heart, that can be a remarkably fulfilling, joyous, and glorious state of being. But precisely because it is fulfilling, we fail to recognize just how much of God we are missing because of the smallness of our heart.. But under the correct conditions God can soften and expand the heart. The more it expands, the more room there is for God. The more room there is for God, the more fulfilling, joyous, and glorious the experience becomes. Unfortunately most Christians don’t take the steps necessary to become a “spiritual athlete,” to become fully alive because that rudimentary experience of having God in our hearts and lives (as tiny as they are) is so wonderful.

The spiritual giants speak of the heart, or true self, expanding so that there is room to take in the whole world. That is something so strange I’m not even sure what it means. But when it happens, the ability to effectively pray on behalf of others is expanded exponentially. When that happens we experience what are true purpose is as a “kingdom of priests.” (And living according to our true purpose is far more fulfilling than merely being “happy.”) Furthermore, with that much room for God, God’s ability to transform us is also increased exponentially and the resulting transformation into something that is truly living and holy (while still living in this world! this is not a description of what will happen in heaven) is simply unimaginable for those of us who have only invited God into our atrophied hearts.

So oddly enough, Victoria Osteen was right. It is all about us, about our “self.” But not in a way that she or her Evangelical critics can even imagine. When our true self begins expanding and making room for God and the world, for which we pray, it is almost as if we become a different being altogether: A living human being free to serve others and worship God, free to give God an expansive place to live. And when that occurs we begin to realize that this is what we are created for, and to return to our former paltry lives, no matter how fun, how happy, how fulfilling they were, would be simply unimaginable. Thanks be to God.


It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘from’ is

Proper manners include refraining from talking religion at work. But at my recent jobs it’s been known that I used to be a pastor, so manners be damned. People come to me with the strangest religious questions, conversations, and controversies. Most recently, a colleague asked about a fringe heretical group who believes in the destruction of the soul after death. (The person asking is a fiery Baptist and prefers eternal torment of wicked souls in hell fire and brimstone.) The text in question was 2 Thess. 1:9. The context is vv 5-10, so I’ll quote the paragraph.

[5] This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering — [6]  since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, [7] and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, [8] inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. [9] They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, [10] when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

The specific answer to this question, by the way, is twofold. First, there is no exact equivalent to the Greek word used for “destruction” (olethros). It does not mean “annihilation.” It is closer (but not exactly like) “corruption.” So destruction is a sort of ongoing and progressive death. It is what happens when there is an absence of life. One might think of the lives of Adam and Eve after the Garden. In the Garden they had ongoing life because in the Garden the source of life was present and renewing them regularly. Outside the Garden, they died. It wasn’t instantaneous (as if they were annihilated), but rather progressive; and it occurred precisely because they were then separated from the source of life in the Garden. So this verse about the destruction of souls is not contradictory to the idea of eternal punishment.

Second, the overwhelming New Testament evidence is that life continues for all after death. Building a doctrine on one passage which seems to disagree with the majority of evidence is a dangerous business indeed!

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But what is the “punishment” to which this text refers? (v. 9) Well, it turns out (to misquote former Pres. Clinton), “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘from’ is.”

The cubicle conversation was notable for me because it brought 2 Thess. 1:9 to my attention, and I’ve been looking for this verse for some time. My problem was that my preferred English translation is the RSV (quoted above) and the way it chooses to translate the verse is rather opposite of the classical understanding of what this verse says. So I kept overlooking it because what I was expecting it to say something other than what the RSV says. The problem is in the prepositions.

The preposition in question is “apo,” which means “from” (translated as “exclusion from” in the RSV) But there is subtlety to the word that cannot be captured very well in English. The picture (below) is a graphical representation of the most common Greek spatial prepositions. It is adapted from Lexical Aids for Students of the New Testament Greek by Bruce M. Metzger, p. 80. The Greek is transliterated into English for the sake of this blog audience.


Note that there is a preposition (ek), which is graphically similar to the preposition “apo.” Both represent the same movement but are spatially different. “Apo“ implies a sense of distance that “ek“ does not. So, if I was going to say, “The light comes ‘from’ the sun,” I would use “ek” because the sense is that the light and the sun are, in a sense, the same. But, if I was going to say, “The shock waves that tipped the Humvee on its side came ‘from’ a bomb beside the road, I would probably use “apo” rather than “ek” because this is an action that emphasizes the distance and the disjunction of the bomb and the Humvee.

As a result, the Greek preposition “apo” can also be translated “away from” in many instances (or “exclusion from,” as in the RSV). The command, “Get “away from” me!” would probably use the preposition “apo” (although there would be other ways to say it in Greek that would add the word “away” so that the meaning would be clear.

And here’s the problem. You could properly use either “apo” or “ek” in the sentence about the bomb and the Humvee, but it would not be correct (or at the very least, quite misleading) to use “apo” when saying, “Light comes ‘from’ the sun,” or “ek” when saying, “Get ‘away from’ me.” In short, discerning the force of “apo” in English is a bit tricky and involves as much art as science. And this brings us back to 1 Thess. 1:9.

I do not have the resources to  trace this back in an authoritative manner, but it appears that the Greek East tends to understand this verse as, “[The wicked] shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction [resulting] from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” The Latin speaking West tends to understand it in a manner similar to the RSV: “[The wicked] shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction [and exclusion] from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” Both are grammatically legitimate understandings of the verse, based on different interpretations of the force of the preposition “apo” (from).

Given the fact that the original text is in Greek rather than Latin, I would tend to agree with the former version that the ancient Greek speaking Christians preferred. (Full disclosure: I am Eastern Orthodox, and that is the normative understanding of the text throughout the Orthodox Church.) So, what does that version of the text mean?

The divine presence (the glory of God, the face of God, the divine fire … whichever Old Testament image you want to use) is a double-edged sword. The normal human was warned against approaching it because it would kill them (or destroy them, to use the word from 1 Thess. 1:9). Human sinfulness is incompatible with the purity of the Divine Light. To switch metaphors slightly, if we are nearly pure gold, the fire will only purify us further. If we are primarily impurities rather than gold, the fire will destroy us.

It is this very metaphor (based on 1 Thess. 1:9) that gets at the heart of the Eastern Orthodox understanding of heaven and hell (and “vengeance” in v. 8). They are the same place, the same thing. God casts no one aside; everyone comes in. But this is no sloppy universalist vision of eternal bliss for everyone. For the Christian, who has been transformed by life in Christ, there will be no more night “for the Lord God will shine on them” (Rev. 22:5). But for those who have rejected Christ, his presence is “the punishment of eternal destruction resulting from the face of the Lord and the glory of his might.”

This idea is not new with the ancient Greek speaking Christians. The very same sensibility can be found in Prov. 25:21f, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.” (Paul quotes this  passage in Rom. 12:20.) Furthermore, this perspective solves many of the tensions between the love and justice of God and the problem of divine vengeance that has befuddled the Christian West for 1500 years. And thanks to the fact that a co-worker was rude enough to talk about religion in the workplace, I managed to find this verse once again.

Sin and Salvation

Listening to the Bible teachers lead devotions the last two weeks here at Chamberlain-Hunt Academy I am reminded how much I admire the Reformed doctrine of sin and salvation. Emphasizing as it does the lost-ness and broken-ness of man, and the resulting separation between God and man, the Reformed doctrine of salvation has real punch.

This is not to denigrate in any way the Orthodox doctrine that rightly emphasizes the life-long character of salvation. In contrast to the joyful seriousness Orthodox theology brings to everyday life, Reformed theology has real difficulty making the Christian life meaningful beyond the unidemensional theme of gratitude. But there is also a downside on the Orthodox side: emphasizing the life-long character of salvation can lead to muddling ones understanding of how it all gets started.

No muddle on the Reformed side! The starkness of the problem and the urgent need for response is crystal clear. This need for clarity and immediacy are obvious in a military school context – everything needs to be clear and immediate in this environment. But clarity and immediacy ought neither to be foreign nor secondary concepts for the rest of us. As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians (quoting Isaiah), “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.”

You Will Be Assimilated. Resistance Is Futile.

Part 2: A critique of the Orthodox Church.

Of course reality isn’t quite as simple as I made it sound in the previous essay. Orthodoxy has an internally consistent, scripturally based, theologically sound, empirically verifiable claim: The unity Christians seek is a God-given unity which has never been lost, and, as a Divine gift and an essential mark of Christian existence, could not have been lost.” [From the previously mentioned 1957 Orthodox statement in response to the developing ecumenical movement.]

But then, there’s also Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer in Luke 10:25-37. (This was the Gospel lesson the week before last – Nov 15 – which got me thinking once again about George Hunsinger’s little tome, Ecumenism and the Eucharist.) The lawyer wanted Jesus to explain a small point of the Torah: “Who’s my neighbor?” In classic Jesus-speak, Jesus answered that question indirectly by means of another question: “What should I personally do in such-and-such a situation?”

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, `Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’

I’m going to assume you all know the layers and ironic incongruities of this story, so I won’t preach a sermon here. Rather I will comment on Jesus’ point: Some things are bigger than the Torah. …

Well, technically that’s not true because there are a very few things might lay claim to being bigger than the Torah. Let me rephrase that …

Many things are bigger than our conception and practice of the Torah, no matter how perfectly (the Greek word telos that word came up in the previous essay) we have achieved the understanding and practice of the Law. A rigorous adherence to the Law (or to perfect theology – or perfect church – for that matter) can blind us to the most obvious realities. Good theology absolutely applied can keep us from doing what we ought (ie, “Agape” love), and love trumps any conception – no matter how humanly perfect – of the true Church.

“Love never ends … Our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away” (1 Cor. 13:8-10).

And this brings us full circle to the Orthodox view of ecumenism. The Orthodox Church is the true church. There is no “going forward in order to return to Nicene Christianity” (which is the underlying principle of Faith & Order style ecumenism). There is no going back (which is the underlying principle of the various primitivist movements); there is only entering into Christ’s church, which takes its form on earth as the Orthodox Church. But if we Orthodox apply this Truth without love, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church will indeed become The Church of Borg: You will be assimilated; resistance is futile.

I firmly believe there is another option. The 1957 Greek Orthodox statement on unity turned the ecumenical question into an either/or problem. And as scandalous as some the Ecumenical Patriarch’s ecumenical activities have been, he at least (in contrast to those who drafted the 1957 statement) recognizes ecumenism is not an either/or problem.

I’m not trying to be hyper-Calvinist, but the “You will be assimilated; resistance is futile” mantra that the Orthodox tend to apply to the Church might better be applied to Christ himself. It is Christ who is drawing everyone to himself. And when we resist the Truth, it is not the Orthodox Church we are resisting, it is the nudging of the Holy Spirit.

And if Christ chooses to assimilate believers who are not Orthodox into his very life outside the confines of the Orthodox Church, that’s his business. Of course, he’ll have to answer to the Bishop. Everyone’s answerable to the Bishop in these matters, but I think Christ can handle himself on that front (wink, wink).

But all joking aside, there is empirically verifiable evidence that precisely that sort of thing has happened frequently to Protestant saints. And this is the fundamental paradox of the ecumenical question. The Protestants are the Samaritans of the Jesus’ story. They are beyond the pale, but they are ones who are doing the right thing.

Even George Hunsinger admits his proposal is a pipe dream, but for a moment let’s just imagine that it comes to fruition. Will those fully realized and ecumenicalized Protestants be assimilated into the Orthodox Church? They will certainly be assimilated into Christ because if they reach that “fully realized and ecumenicalized” state they will have passed through their own veil and into the light of day. But whether the Orthodox Church has anything to do with it is a toss-up. For that to happen, the Orthodox would have to remove its own shroud, and that’s a different story than this essay tells.

As Jesus so deftly reminds us in his answer to the lawyer, the true follower of Christ is not always who we expect.

You Will Be Assimilated. Resistance Is Futile.

Part 1: A critique of George Hunsinger

I recently finished reading George Hunsinger’s book, Eucharist and Ministry: Let Us Keep the Feast, as part of a discussion group of Lutheran and Orthodox clergy, pre-clergy, and post-clergy folk (the last category being me, of course). Hunsinger brings a handful of specific proposals to the discussion table; proposals that he believes will help further the goal of mutual recognition of various Christian communions (which is tantamount to unity in his view).

First, a word about the book: There’s nothing groundbreaking in it. His “new proposals” are common knowledge that have been bandied about ever since the late 80s. (The reason for the date is a long story that will become clearer later in the essay.) In that sense, the book is more a compendium of old ideas than it is a breakthrough proposal that will further ecumenism.

Second, great theologians who come up with groundbreaking ideas are poets at heart. Poets have the ability to see beyond, to see through, to see into, existence as it is now, and in that process, they are able to distinguish “what is” both from “what can be” and what ought to be” (ie, the telos – the goal, completion, or perfection – as well as the interim steps to reach that goal). Hunsinger is no poet. He’s mostly a technician, taking data points, deftly arranging them in a manageable order, and presenting this new outline in a lucid manner.

Arguably, Hunsinger has done ecumenism more harm than good by ordering, clarifying, and managing all these data points in such a marvelously technical manner. Without the poet’s imagination he has inadvertently transformed difficult ecclesial realities that are deliciously gray into black and white choices that could divide rather than unite.

In spite of the shortcomings of the book, his proposals are spot on (they’re just not new) as long as you accept his very Protestant assumptions. The key assumption is that the way we achieve the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” as an earthly reality is for each communion to move forward and align itself with an ideal. When each communion has reached that ideal, then all communions can fully and unreservedly accept each other’s sacraments and ministry and full communion will have been achieved.

This assumption as to what the goal ought to be seems utterly obvious to Hunsinger. The problem is that his assumption is based on a world view that is utterly foreign to classic Orthodox thinking. (It is also foreign to the Roman Catholic ethos, but not being RC, I will not pursue that here.)

The Ecumenical Movement has had a handful of key moments which help define the movement as a whole. Many of those have involved the “Faith and Order Commission” (F&O) of the World Council of Churches. The F&O meetings in Lausanne (1927) and Edinburgh (1937) set forth the imperative and direction of ecumenism for the next several decades. At Lima, Peru, in 1982, with the publication of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, ecumenism was fundamentally re-envisioned. (This new vision of ecumenism is what Hunsinger is trying to quantify in his book.)

But ecumenism has always been a Western effort. At the F&O meeting in Oberlin, Ohio (1957), the Greek Orthodox representatives released an authoritative paper explaining how the Eastern Orthodox sense of unity is fundamentally different than the one defined at Lausanne and Edinburgh. According the preamble:

All Christians should seek Unity. On the other hand, we feel that the whole program of the forthcoming discussion has been framed from a point of view which we cannot conscientiously admit. “The Unity we seek” is for us [Eastern Orthodox] a given Unity which has never been lost, and, as a Divine gift and an essential mark of Christian existence, could not have been lost.

In other words, for the Orthodox there’s no moving forward together into unity. Unity is already here. And needless to say (these are Eastern Orthodox theologians writing, after all), the Unity is not in the Orthodox Church, it is the Orthodox Church, which is in Christ. Let me put it in their own words:

We begin with a clear conception of the Church’s Unity, which we believe has been embodied and realized in the age-long history of the Orthodox Church, without any change or break since the times when the visible Unity of Christendom was an obvious fact and was attested and witnessed to by an ecumenical unanimity, in the age of the Ecumenical Councils.

The Russian Orthodox still sit at the F&O table and provide their valuable input. But the Orthodox (all Orthodox) weren’t in the mood to give any ground in 1957. They still aren’t, and this document has remained the last and most definitive word on the subject ever since. (It should be noted that the Ecumenical Patriarch has recently said things that could be perceived as contrary to this document, but in so doing has caused scandal among the rest of the Orthodox, who increasingly suspect he has been seduced by Western sensibilities of centralization and the resulting increase in power that would come his way. But that’s another debate of which I am aware, but which I do not fully understand.)

So in the end, from the Orthodox perspective, the telos of the Ecumenical Program would be that each communion would grow into the church that they were supposed to be. Having achieved that status, they would realize that “one thing remained” (as Jesus told the rich young rule): The obvious next step would be to convert to Orthodoxy, and having envisioned the truth, they would convert. Problem solved.

As the Borg say so poetically in Star Trek, TNG, “We are Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”

And let’s face it. From a Protestant perspective, this is precisely how the Orthodox sensibility is perceived. But if the Orthodox are correct (and they are, I assure you), one begins to realize that the Orthodox statement is the result of great humility before the amazing reality of the Body of Christ, not a hubris based on the confidence in one’s own institution.

And this is precisely the point for many of us converts. We were deeply committed to the F&O vision of ecumenism (that is, returning to Nicene Christianity by going forward). As we steadily groped out of the fragmented Church, putting together our little shards of light so that we could see just a bit farther through the thick darkness despair, we dimly glimpsed a great light, went toward it, and discovered that what we were trying to recreate had been there all along. But because of the thickness of the veil of human brokenness we had failed to see it. (And let’s be honest about the other side of the coin. Ethnic Orthodoxy goes to great lengths to keep itself hidden behind a shroud, as well. The problem is doubled: a veil of ignorance on the Protestant side and a shroud of fear – or sometimes superiority – on the Orthodox side.)

But conversion is antithetical to the Ecumenical vision; it’s choosing a particular communion at the expense of the many. From a Protestant perspective, we converts have simply drunk the Kool Aid™. But from an Orthodox perspective we have “partaken of the holy, divine, immortal, and life-giving mysteries.”

Or, as the choir sings after the people are finished communing: “We have seen the true light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity: for he hath saved us.”

Wow! That’s some Kool Aid™.

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!

Imagine, if you will … (5 of 6)

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.

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.

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).