(By Jeremy Carey)
After over two years of thought, prayer, and struggle, I am officially becoming a part of the Orthodox Church. God willing, I will be baptized during Holy Week and have my first communion on Pascha, that is, Easter, 2013. Most of you know about my long interest in Orthodoxy, but I haven’t spoken of it in much detail. For my own sake, to try to collect thoughts that have been long in forming (though I know many must escape words), and for the sake of any who care about me and might be interested, I thought I would try to put down in writing the main considerations that have led me to what for many seems a strange and exotic form of Christianity.
Orthodoxy is richly traditional, and, like all real traditions, has to be experienced over a period of time to have any real grasp of its meaning. Therefore, I can’t pretend to do any justice to what really eventually draws one into Orthodoxy. Still, at the surface level, at the level of what can be communicated fairly clearly, it seems to me that the things which attracted me most can be clustered into two main issues: the nature of the Church, and the nature of salvation. I’ll say a little bit about each of these.
Before I do so, it’s worth pointing out something that can be easily misunderstood. Though it’s fairly easy to focus on the differences between Orthodoxy and other forms of Christianity (for my purposes, primarily Protestant Evangelicalism), they do share much important in common. Though I will have some things to say about what I find problematic about contemporary Protestantism, I don’t see my transition to Orthodoxy as a rejection of my previous experience so much as a fulfillment (and, naturally, at times a corrective) of all that was good in that experience.
Those who know me well know that I grew up in a church whose theology was and is, by the standards of historical Christianity, problematic (to say the least). It wasn’t until my second year in college that I found I could accept the doctrine of the Trinity.
This background and the changes that my thought and practice had to go through naturally had an effect on my mindset and the way I approached Christianity. I had grown up thinking that Christianity took a turn for the worst very soon after the death of Christ, and that most Christians for most of history were mistaken in fundamental beliefs. The denomination I grew up in taught that not only was the doctrine of the Trinity, which was so central in the intellectual and spiritual development of the Church, wrong, but it was harmful.
Though I think it has since weakened its stance, I was also taught that salvation depended on a certain way of being baptized and the attaining of certain spiritual experiences, requirements most self-identified Christians throughout the centuries did not meet. As I began to reject these problematic claims, my understanding of the history of Christianity would also have to change, but I never settled how or even gave the matter much explicit thought. Though I was intensely interested in Christian theology, this meant that, like most Protestant Christians, I studied contemporary theologians or, at the limits, those going back to the years after the reformation.
All of this changed for me when my cousin, with whom I’m extremely close, began also to question the same problematic claims of our shared childhood denomination which I had recently rejected. Initially, he seemed at a loss for what to do next, flirting with various non-Christian philosophies and religions. I did my best to steer him towards the reasonable Reformed Christianity of which I was then a part.
To my dismay, it soon became clear that the only options he was taking seriously were Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. As we debated for the next year or so, I was forced for the first time to confront my understanding of Christian history and the nature of the Church, and to think seriously about the knee-jerk objections I had been raised with against distinctive practices of the historical churches like prayer to saints and the veneration of the Mother of God (I will not be discussing these here – if you have questions or worries about them, I’d be happy to discuss them further). In the end, he became Orthodox.
By that time, though I had not yet set foot in an Orthodox Church, I was intellectually convinced that Orthodoxy contained a beauty and a fullness that I desired and seemed to me so lacking from my previous understanding of the Church and Christian life. Here I hope to give some hint of this fullness and beauty.
Soon after I came to accept the doctrine of the Trinity, it began to seem incredible to me that most Christians for most of history were so misguided on so many issues that I now had the right answers to. These were men who were closer to the time of the apostles, who shared more of their culture, and who were willing to die for what they saw as the understanding of Christianity needed to ensure the salvation of mankind and the world. Surely these characteristics made them more likely to understand the truth than me, living in comfort and sitting in my ivory tower.
I also began to notice the strangeness of our current ecclesial situation, with thousands of denominations believing so many different things, and many more started every year. Surely this was not Christ’s plan or that of the Apostles in the early days of the Church. This strange situation, which is so easy for us to take for granted, is in fact historically new. There was a time when the Church was (for the most part) unified, and when unity was seen as a necessity.
But what was the basis of this unity? This is an important question in our own day, when Christians are more and more feeling the effects of their separation and longing for a reestablishment of unity. But this unity cannot be cheap. Christians disagree about so much – baptism, the nature of the Eucharist, the church calendar, veneration of the saints, the Sacraments, church hierarchy. How are we to know what is fundamental and who is to judge? Back in my more, let’s say, optimistically ecumenical days, I would have probably proposed something like the acceptance of the Apostle’s Creed at face value as the measure for essential Christian unity.
As long as one can say the creed and mean it, that’s all that matters. Of course, it’s not clear what “face value” means here, and Catholics and Orthodox will mean something very different from Protestants when they talk about the Virgin Mary and the communion of saints and the catholicity of the Church. And what about baptism, which plays no role in this creed? And what about the Eucharist itself?
Though I think it’s correct that there is something like what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”, and that the things which bind us are far more important than the things that separate us, it’s also easy to overestimate the similarities. The fact is that Protestants, by definition (though some groups more than others), consciously reject a huge portion of what most Christians believed and how they acted for the majority of the Church’s existence.
At the least, between, say, 300 and 1000 AD, Christian practice and understanding was fairly uniform and would involve things like a hierarchy of deacons, priests, bishops, and patriarchs; a veneration of relics and holy places; an understanding of the centrality of the Eucharist and Christ’s real presence therein; a special respect for Mary as the Mother of God; following a calendar which includes regular and occasionally intense fasting; ritualized and highly symbolic liturgy (to name just a few – the rejection of these last two seems especially strange to me given how obviously important they were to Judaism and the enormous likelihood that they would be taken up by the earliest Christians, who were primarily Jewish).
Most of these things play no role in the faith of many Protestants and are viewed by them as, at the very least, unnecessary. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, for example, your average Christian from 1000 years ago would feel pretty comfortable in an Orthodox liturgy or traditional Catholic mass of today, but would be at a complete loss in a typical Protestant service (though this depends significantly on what type of Protestant we’re talking about).
But the key question in all this is not really about how similar or different various Christian groups are, but what Christian unity consists in. And it seems to me that the answer that developed within the lifetime of those who knew the apostles stressed two things: (1) apostolic succession through the office of bishops, and (2) accordance with apostolic tradition (what Irenaeus calls the “rule of faith”, and which was never seen as a competitor with Scripture, but as the proper interpretation and use of Scripture). Here are representative quotes from two important sources:
(1) St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-108 AD):
“To the end that you may obey the bishop and presbytery without distraction of mind; breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live for ever in Jesus Christ.” Epistle to the Ephesians, 20:2
“Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1-2
(2) St. Irenaeus:
“For [the Church] is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? … Now all these [heretics] are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the Churches… since they are blind to the truth, and deviate from the [right] way, they will walk in various roads; and therefore the footsteps of their doctrine are scattered here and there without agreement or connection. But the path of those belonging to the Church circumscribes the whole world, as possessing the sure tradition from the apostles, and gives unto us to see that the faith of all is one and the same….” Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 4; Book 5, Chapter 20
[Discussing the authority of the writings of St. Clement of Rome]:
“To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.” Book 3, Chapter 3.
These are just a few statements but I think they illustrate the approach to the unity of the Church I mentioned, and they both happen to be very early – when these men became Christian, it was under the influence of people who knew the apostles themselves. And what is striking to me is the fact that the marks of unity defended here – faithfulness to apostolic tradition, secured by apostolic succession – are precisely those which Catholics and the Orthodox still claim to have and which the reformers gave up on.
(Again, to be fair, different Protestants will feel differently about this – many will claim to be faithful to a true apostolic tradition which in others has been corrupted by various pagan influences. I suppose I just don’t find these arguments convincing; at any rate, their idea of apostolic tradition is simply whatever can be gleaned by the best reading of the apostolic writings rather than what was the passed down (“traditioned”) understanding of those writings and the way they are best put into practice.)
This living tradition of the Church, the body of Christ active in the world through the Holy Spirit, also helps to solve the problem of authority that had come to bother me so much in my attempt to study the Bible. Though I came to believe that the Trinity is a biblical doctrine which is normative for all Christians, my own long experience in the oneness tradition showed that this could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt from the texts themselves.
This is a problem if Scripture is the only source of authority for Christian doctrine. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura seems to require the corollary doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture – that the meaning of Scripture must be clear to anyone who approaches it with an open mind and a good will. But this doctrine seems clearly a failure in practice – for members of all of the thousands of Protestant denominations claim to find different things in the clear meanings of Scripture. It is perhaps too easy to simply deny that those we disagree with really have an open mind or a good will, but such a tactic is problematic. My own struggles to find even as central a doctrine as the Trinity taught clearly in the text of the Bible showed me that common sense and an open mind are not enough.
Worse, Sola Scriptura is self-defeating. For it is a matter of doctrine what the Bible is, something that there was debate about in the early centuries, and this is not something that can be found out from Scripture itself. Are the so-called apocryphal books parts of the Bible? What about the book of James or Revelation? What about the Shepherd of Hermas? What doctrines one finds in the Scriptures depends on what one believes the Scriptures to be.
Furthermore, such a doctrine requires that in the earliest days of the Church, there were no fundamental doctrines, nothing that had to be accepted in order to be a Christian. This is because for the first several decades the Church existed without any of the New Testament writings, and it was much longer after that before the books circulated as a single entity called ‘the New Testament’. So how did they know what to believe, about Christ? How did they organize their worship services and conceive of the Christian life? The answer is: based on the teachings of the apostles, and those appointed by the apostles. Why think that things changed dramatically with the formation of the canon as we now know it?
The basic problem here seems to me a separation and distinction between God’s written Word, and his living Word, that is, the Church, which is the body of Christ. The Scriptures and the Church cannot be thought of as separate sources of God’s work. The Scripture comes from the Church and is God’s Word in a unique sense because it is the Word of his Body. But the Church’s life, insofar as it is the life of Christ, is also a source of revelation.
There’s much more to be said about the Church, but I want also to say something briefly about the Orthodox conception of salvation, which has changed the way I think of Christianity. Before I even thought seriously about Orthodoxy, I had come to question the standard Protestant presentation of what exactly the basic story of the gospel is. On that story, the basic problem which Christianity solves is God’s wrath against sin and, therefore, since we are sinners,
God’s wrath against us. This problem is solved by Christ’s atoning death, which is thought of as a sort of penal substitution – Christ experiences God’s wrath instead of us. Because of this atonement, we are ‘declared’ righteous with Christ’s righteousness, and therefore set free from the consequences of our sinfulness. Though I don’t deny that this story captures something of the truth, it seems to me to have two central problems:
First, its conception of forgiveness seems troubling. Why does God’s wrath have to be ‘discharged’? Why can’t he just forgive us if he loves us, without someone needing to be punished? Can it really be the case that justice and mercy conflict with each other in this way? There are various ways of answering these questions, none of which end up seeming to me fully satisfactory. But the second and bigger problem is just that this story seems relevant to such a small part of our everyday lives – it seems less than the Good News that we need.
As George MacDonald put it, Jesus was so named because he would save us from our sins, not just from the consequences of our sins. Our problem is not just that we have sinned, thus incurring God’s wrath, but that we are sinners, and, because of that, we continue to hurt each other, to isolate ourselves, to destroy our planet, and to be subject to physical and spiritual death.
In other words, our main problem is existential and relational, and not the sort of thing that can be solved completely merely by another’s death and a declaration of righteousness.
(Another important point, which I’ll discuss a bit below – this standard gospel story doesn’t tell us anything about why the Resurrection was important and necessary, though it was the lynchpin of the apostolic preaching. If all that was needed was Christ’s atoning death, why did he need to be resurrected physically? What does the resurrection do for us?)
Contrast this with the Orthodox conception of salvation. To get the full story we have to go back to our creation in the image of God, meant for fellowship with God. Our identity, our essence, is tied up with three related things: our relationship with God, our relationship with others, and our vocation in this world. Man was created to know God. Though created in the divine image, the divine likeness was something to be attained. Just as God is a community of loving Persons, we were to find our true identity only by a loving communion with others.
And as a microcosm of the universe, being both spirit and matter, man was to serve as the bridge between these elements. As one theologian puts it, the entire world was a gift of God’s love, destined for deification. According to another, “[man was] created just for this purpose: to actualize the created potential of his being to achieve a fully realized community between all creatures and their Creator.” Our problem is the loss of these, one after the other; i.e., the loss of our humanity, and the way that affects the whole universe. And Christianity is only good news if it constitutes the solution.
In Orthodoxy, salvation is often primarily thought of as theosis, that is, deification, or, as St Peter puts it, partaking of the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4). This is the restoration of what was lost and given up in the fall, only made possible through the incarnation of the divine Word: Because man failed at his task, a new Man was needed. And salvation, for us, and for the world, is nothing less than incorporation into this new man (that is, Christ). Thus, the incarnation and resurrection are central – in the incarnation, God shows his love for us by bridging the gap between us, forming a union between divinity and humanity.This union reaches its fullest expression of love when the impassible Son of God takes on our sin and experiences, though blameless, the loneliness and death that are the consequences of our own sins.
Finally, the union is established forever through the resurrection. We make this union our own in the Church and through our own struggles to unite ourselves to Christ, and our task is to bring the rest of the world into this union as well (“creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” Rom. 8:19). In this way, no aspect of our lives or our place in this cosmos is unaffected by Christianity, and salvation is not a matter primarily of individual forgiveness, but of union with God, which cannot be separated from our relationships with one another and the material world around us.
To be clear: I am not saying that the (standard) Protestant story about salvation is wrong or merely that I don’t like it (though I do have misgivings about its emphasis on penal and juridical categories), but that it is only a fragment of the story – it doesn’t fully answer the problem that religion is meant to solve.
It is true that this is partly just a matter of emphasis (Classical Protestants still think ‘sanctification’ is important, even if they (wrongly, in my view) separate it from salvation, and those in the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition have a view of salvation closer to that of the Orthodox in many ways, but at the expense of an increased individualism and distance from tradition), and that the Protestant can appropriate whichever aspects of the Orthodox conception he or she chooses. But then what?
The Christian life cannot be lived on one’s own, and sanctification doesn’t just happen by a change in one’s beliefs, but by a change in one’s desires and practical orientation to the world (ironically, perhaps, the book that has most impacted my views about this and the importance of liturgy is Desiring the Kingdom, by Calvinist philosopher Jamie Smith).
So this leads us, I think, back to the Church and its tradition. The Church is a treasure house of the wisdom of the saints, and a communal striving toward holiness. We are not meant to be left to our own devices, and there is no need to be.
The Church keeps us well-rounded with its liturgical calendar, delights our senses with its beautiful worship, connects us directly to God in the sacraments, corrects our desires with its set times of fasting and ascetical expectations, connects us with each other as we strive together, and in so many ways brings us into communion with saints of the past. As I mentioned above, to remain Protestant is to reject a very large part of this wisdom and tradition.
The Protestant world, especially in its evangelical form, is too fragmented, too modern, too celebrity-oriented, too centered on relevance, too individualist. While I would never say that holiness is impossible in this world (I know it is not because I have been blessed to know so many holy people), I have come to the realization that I need something more, roots that are deeper and wider.
I need a full-blooded and satisfying Christianity that fulfills me intellectually and also gives me real tried-and-true resources for becoming more what I ought to be.
And I believe I have found that in Orthodoxy.