Considering Orthodoxy & Tradition (Part 1)

In all sincerity I want to begin this series of posts with a prayer.

O Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father, Thou hast said, “Without me you can do nothing.” In faith I embrace Thy words, O Lord, and bow before Thy goodness. Help me to complete the work I am about to begin for Thine own glory: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Old wooden Russian Orthodox Church

Judaism can be carried in the arms of a single man: the Torah scrolls transported the faith during the two thousand years of the Diaspora to every continent. Similarly, Protestantism is Bible-based; a Bible in the vernacular can function as a miniature church, enabling a missionary to take the Gospel anywhere, or a believer to stay connected to his faith. But to a great extent, Russian Orthodoxy exists for its believers in its liturgy[.] ~Garrard & Garrard, Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent

The Church gives us not a system, but a key; not a plan of God’s City, but the means of entering it. Perhaps someone will lose his way because he has no plan. But all that he will see, he will see without a mediator, he will see it directly, it will be real for him; while he who has studied only the plan risks remaining outside and not really finding anything. ~Fr. Georges Florovksy

I have said before that I grew up a Baptist and later became a kind of reformed non-denominational quasi-Calvinist. My sense of Church Tradition has been to be wary of such things as Tradition. † Tradition, as I am told, is a screen that obscures Truth, a trap that lures the needy, a comfortable cloak that warms the damned. Am I right to be wary? Is there a Christian tradition, including a liturgical tradition, handed down by the apostles and the early church, which I have been shunning? Has that Tradition been preserved since the time of the first Christians? Should my understanding of Truth include both Tradition and scripture, with scripture actually being a part of Tradition? These are live questions for me. Keep in mind that for most Protestants, and especially those who are modern, evangelical, reformed or non-denominational–and especially American–early church tradition is all about when the church turned away from God and Christ and entered into a dark age, slouching towards what Luther eventually called the Babylonian captivity (or some such thing). Historical Church Tradition, according to many Christians, and according to the tradition (ironic?) that I grew up with, should be thrown out and the Bible picked up. The Apostles: Yes. The Reformers: Yes. The latest charismatic preacher (and his best-selling book): Yes. The Church Fathers: No, or more likely, “Who?” Again, am I not right?

I am gradually thinking that there might be a tradition, the Tradition, that was somewhat lost by the Church in the West, then abandoned altogether by the Reformation (especial the Radical Reformation) and its inheritors–either through ignorance or arrogance–but that it might have been preserved all along in the East. I am still very much in process on this topic. My experience with these ideas is fairly new, and I know very little about Orthodoxy; most of what I know comes from books and not participation. And I am looking for guidance; consider this post an appeal for thoughtful feedback and Socratic discourse in the pursuit of wisdom.

Agape fest, catacomb fresco

Deep in History

If your Bible has some maps at the back, at least one of them probably shows the missionary journeys of the Holy Apostle Paul. † What those meandering colored lines around the Mediterranean represent are the travels of a man, traveling often with other Christians, to various cities and towns, where he preached the Gospel, planted churches, made friends, established deep and meaningful relationships, lived within communities of believers, lived his life in full view of others, served and worked, ate and slept, had innumerable discussions, answered questions, dealt with doctrinal issues, taught, wrote, chastised and encouraged, and struggled. What we have in his letters represent only a tiny fraction of all that he did and said (alas). Although we can be fairly certain that most all of what he wanted to say in terms of the Gospel (the essence of what it is, what it means, etc.) is contained within his epistles (either directly or, quite often, by implication), I wish we knew more of what is not in his epistles. How did he lead and guide the Church? Was he “religious” in worship? Did he have a liturgy of some kind that he taught these early converts? Did he lead his local congregations in worship and teach them how to do “church?” Did he give them traditions? Did he give them a Tradition? The same questions go for all the Apostles and, of course, for our Lord Jesus Christ. I look to the Bible and sometimes I wonder if there is more, if the Bible does not (and was never meant to) give us the “entire picture.” I have my doubts about sola scriptura. In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 the Holy Apostle Paul wrote:

Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (NKJV)

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us. (NASB)

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (ESV)

What do we know of these traditions? What do we know of the “spoken word” or the “word of mouth?” Could it be that standing firm and holding to the traditions has to do with more than continuing to believe critical doctrinal positions? If so, could it also be more than an ethic? Could these traditions have to do with liturgy and doctrine not specifically addressed in any of the epistles we have preserved for us today? Could it be that the Holy Spirit continued to grow and preserve the Church throughout those early centuries, both with scripture and with Tradition, and that the Orthodox way which seems strange to us early 21st century Americans, actually says that we are the strange ones?

We know the early church grew quickly though it was frequently persecuted. Christians carried the Gospel (in their minds and hearts) through most of the known world and churches began to spring up everywhere. And with the spread of Christianity went the Church’s liturgy. What was the liturgy passed down from the Apostles? Did they even pass one down? There must have been something. Right?

Now with that word “liturgy” comes a raft of questions and cautions for me, a child of the Radical Reformation. † When I see the elaborate liturgy of a Catholic or Orthodox church I wonder where in the Bible do they get that? The Orthodox church claims they are holding to the traditions handed down by the Apostles and their direct students/disciples, though those traditions may have taken on certain geographical and/or ethnic characteristics over the centuries. Protestants, and especially those of the Radical Reformation, take a rather skeptical view of all that. Four bare walls and a pulpit are all that are needed. In his book For the Life of the World Alexander Schmemann highlights this issue and points first to a broader concept of liturgy:

[H]e who says liturgy today is likely to get involved in a controversy. For to some–the “liturgically minded”–of all the activities of the Church, liturgy is the most important, if not the only one. To others, liturgy is esthetic and spiritual deviation from the real task of the Church. There exist today “liturgical” and “non-liturgical” churches and Christians. But this controversy is unnecessary for it has its roots in one basic misunderstanding–the “liturgical” understanding of the liturgy. This is the reduction of the liturgy to “cultic” categories, its definition as a sacred act of worship, different as such not only from the “profane” area of life, but even from all other activities of the Church itself. But this is not the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia. It meant an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals–a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It meant also a function or “ministry” of a man or of a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community. Thus the leitourgia of ancient Israel was the corporate work of a chosen few to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. And in this very act of preparation they became what they were called to be, the Israel of God, the chosen instrument of His purpose. (p. 25)

Schmemann then goes on to say:

Thus the Church itself is a leitourgia, a ministry, a calling to act in this world after the fashion of Christ, to bear testimony to Him and His kingdom. The eucharistic liturgy, therefore, must not be approached and understood in “liturgical” or “cultic” terms alone. (p. 25)

Thus we can understand that liturgy is the process (the acts) of the Church becoming and being the Church. It is more than only what happens on Sunday morning, for example. On the other hand, there is what happens on Sunday morning. In some churches Sunday morning is a couple of songs and a long sermon. In others it is an elaborate, almost ritualistic, multi-faceted event. I previously described my experience at an Eastern Orthodox church. The Divine Liturgy I experienced at St. John the Wonderworker Serbian Orthodox Church was of that elaborate kind, totally different in virtually every way from the “liturgy” I am used to in my non-liturgical, reformed, non-denominational, quasi-Calvinist un-church. Which is right? Does it even matter? All of my background and training in Christianity says it either does not matter, or that liturgical churches–at least in the vein of the Orthodox Church–are wrong. However, I am beginning to think the Orthodox might have it right and I have been wrong.

At this point one might say that I am confusing two different ideas of Tradition. There is the tradition of how we do church and there is the influence of tradition on doing theology and Bible study. They would say that one can pick whatever “style” one wants in terms of doing church (though some would make sharp distinctions) but that the scriptures stands above all traditions and one should set or push aside any tradition and only study scripture from a blank slate. That way one can get to a more pure theology and an unencumbered understanding. I see the dichotomy, but I don’t buy it anymore. I was trained to think this way and it makes a lot of sense to me. However, I now believe the dichotomy is false, and the situation a lot more complicated than the simplistic Tradition vs. Bible scenario which is, as I see it, a bifurcation driven to some degree by historical agendas and a lack of historical understanding. Now this is a big shift for me. I would have sacked any Christian tradition in favor of the Bible, and depending on how I squint I still will, but only if a tradition clearly contradicts the Bible, which is actually rare. Consider Baptism. There are a lot of Christian traditions and corresponding debates about baptism. The Bible gives us very little by way of a clearly outlined tradition, and what it does provide can be interpreted in various ways. In that case one can either say there really isn’t a tradition, or one can accept one of the historical traditions. So what should one do? Should one decide that baptism is not that important, or that one should not bother with traditional practices associated with baptism? I am inclined at this point to consider the Orthodox perspective on baptism correct until proven wrong. I am leaning in this direction because I have become ever more convinced of the value of the historical Church. The Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman famously said:

“One thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches . . . at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this. And Protestantism . . . as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination . . . of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone. . . . To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” †

I love that phrase: To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant. I want to be deep in history.

I believe the same perspective can be applied to liturgy. I am leaning towards the Orthodox liturgy and away from the non-liturgical un-church perspective. I think this might be critical and not merely a matter of personal choice. In this sense liturgy is more than a style, rather it speaks to the life of the Christian on the whole, including Bible study and even “being” the Church. I wonder if the tendency to disregard or easily manipulate liturgy in many of today’s churches is a response to the radical fracturing of the Christian experience and ideologies that came about because of the Reformation. I wonder if it comes from a psychological need to un-entangle ourselves from potential divisiveness over perceived non-consequential elements. But have we thrown the baby out with the bath water because we have also disregarded the first 1,500 years of church history? Are we being arrogant because we are ignorant?

Repentance, Spiritual Intellect, and the
Inclusivity of Tradition

If, as Schmemann says, liturgy is “an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals” then is a non-liturgical church, one that is based almost entirely around Bible teaching and little else, actually doing the work of a church? Teaching, especially good Bible exegesis, is critical to our Christian life, but corporate worship may be more important. Although I believe that the scriptures should have a central place in the life of the Church, I also believe that if every church in America this coming Sunday were to set their expository preaching aside and just fall on their faces in repentance and worship, that would be a good thing. Extending this I would say that it makes sense for this to happen every Sunday.

If this is true, that is, if repentance and worship are to precede, accompany, and critique our Bible study, and if Bible study is to be done as part of our corporate action of “being” the Church, then we have a here a typically non-Protestant idea of what it means for someone to “become” a Christian. It is not an intellectual assent, or even an inarticulate feeling that is still purely rational at a tacit level, rather it is a spiritual process.  Rationality will play a part but only in a supporting role. Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer (one of my heroes) and an Orthodox convert, writes:

We Orthodox believe that we become Christians by imitation of Christ, the Theotokos, the Apostles, and the Saints, not through intellectual assent to dogmatic propositions. We believe that we learn Truth through Divine revelation to our spiritual intellect, not through bare reason. In other words, we do not believe in a theologically filtered faith. We believe in direct, unfiltered access to the Truth through grace, as it is revealed to us within the discipline of ascetic and sacramental struggle. (Letters to Father Aristotle, p. 17)

At this point the Protestant skeptic will wonder if this way of thinking will merely lead to a squishy kind of mystery-faith where anything goes. For the Orthodox Christian, as I understand it, there is a lot of room for wonder, personal journeys, and mystery, but there is also clear teaching on what is right doctrine and what is false doctrine. The history of the Orthodox Church is a history or fighting against heresy. According to Bishop Kallistos Ware, to an Orthodox Christian Tradition means:

. . . the books of the Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons–in fact, the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, spirituality and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages. Orthodox Christians of today see themselves as heirs and guardians to a rich inheritance received from the past, and they believe that it is their duty to transmit this inheritance unimpaired to the future. (The Orthodox Church, 1963/1997, p. 196)

What we can see from this rather inclusive list is that for the Orthodox the Tradition/Scripture split is a false dichotomy. Scripture is a part of Tradition, along with oral teachings handed down, liturgy handed down, doctrinal understandings handed down, etc. The question for the Western Christian, like myself, is whether the Orthodox Church has truly preserved what was handed down as Sacred Apostolic Tradition. Protestantism is the Christianity of Skepticism–all that came before is considered suspect, any denomination other than one’s own is suspect, Tradition is suspect. Therefore, as a trained Protestant I find within myself that same skepticism. But should I be skeptical? Does it all really just come down to me, my Bible, and my wits? Is the stripped down, sola scriptura, sola fide, personal relationship Christianity I inherited, really God’s plan all along? Or have I been missing something important and critical?

Concluding thoughts

Where does this leave me, child of the Radical Reformation, inheritor of the Protestant ethos? I confess deep reservations about so much of my Christian upbringing and training. I find the modern American version of Christianity to combine many non-Christian elements with a too-sparse version of faith. I think it’s possible that Protestants have taken away from the Gospel and that Catholics have added to it–though these days I find Catholicism more interesting than Protestantism. I am most intrigued by Orthodoxy though. However, I cannot yet say in the affirmative one way or the other. I am too much a ponderer. I tend not to be impulsive. It takes me a long time to make decisions. I can also be a Romantic. So I will continue to think about this. But I am more and more coming to realize that it’s not about me. It’s about God and the story He is telling. If God is trustworthy, if His Spirit is still working in the hearts of men, if Christ still remains the head of His Church, then I want to enter fully into that story, have that kind of heart, and walk unhesitatingly through the doors of that Church. I must be the kind of person who accepts God at His word and on His terms, or I am undone.

But God is God, and we are human; and so, while he posses us, we cannot in the same way posses him. (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 22)

† I am not sure when I should and should not capitalize the word “tradition.” I’m sure there is an easy answer, but it eludes me for now. So, don’t try to understand my choices in this post, they will be confusing.
† I am used to referring to this great apostle as merely Paul, as though he were a good friend, and I want to consider him a friend. I can hardly wait to meet him some day. On the other hand, as I study Orthodoxy, I find that my casualness–and the casualness of our American society–may not properly show deference, or even understand how and when to do so. In other words, we no longer know how to venerate, or if we do know we do not show proper respect as we should. The Orthodox, however, know how to venerate. I want to know Paul as a friend, but I want to show proper respect. When I see him at some future date I want to fall on my face before him and let him be the one who tells me to rise. Even this simple idea is almost laughed at in a culture that so desperately needs to equalize all that it finally reduces all. That is why the title “Holy Apostle” may sound strange to our ears, but also why I think it is a good thing to use it more.
† By Radical Reformation I mean those of a reformed bent, but taking the first Reformation, or Magisterial Reformation (that is of Luther, Calvin, Zwingly), to its logical conclusions. In other words, faith is seen as almost an entirely private affair, Bible study as personal interpretation, and the Gospel being primarily about avoiding Hell and going to Heaven. There are countless variations on these themes and, even within denominations (Baptist for example), there are innumerable subtleties of doctrine and philosophies of ministry. The Radical Reformation took the Magisterial Reformation and merely pushed it further away from Catholicism. For the Orthodox Christian the Magisterial Reformation was a kind of second or double apostasy; the Great Schism of 1054 being the first and the Magisterial Reformation being the second. In these terms the Radical Reformation can be then seen as Apostasy 2.5. This is the Christianity in which I grew up.
† More on this here.

1 Comment

  1. I am currently on a journey searching for truth. I am discouraged by the division among Christians and am seeking to find the true church that comes from Christ Jesus. I found this post because I am currently looking into orthodoxy but after reading this blog have discovered that you eventually converted to Catholicism. I’m very interested in how you came to this conclusion. Why Catholicism over orthodoxy? What made you believe that Catholicism was the true church of Christ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s