Becoming Orthodox – Deeper Exploration: A Call to Kenoticism

18 December 2014

Joel Kalvesmaki authJoel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in late antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.

The Evil E Word

Evangelicals excitedly anticipate the year 2000. This target date has caught our imagination not so much as an entry into a new millenium, but as the end of our current projects. Our best plans anticipate the next five years, then evaporate into hopes for a swift rapture. With the writing of triumphal books such as Alistair McGrath’s Evangelicalism & the Future of Christianity, we have rarely felt better about ourselves than in this age. All major denominations have spread across all national boundaries. We boast of over 5% of the world’s population. We have one of the highest growth rates of any religious group in the world. Who couldn’t be excited and optimistic?

In spite of this optimism, it is time for us to begin to wake up to some hard realities. Already a significant number of the leading Evangelical lights are finding their way back into the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. This stream will increase, particularly with the turn of the millenium, when our Evangelical dreams and plans lay uncompleted and subject to the vagrant winds of change. Even then, Evangelical churches will continue to grow, but the definition of Evangelical will be pushed to new limits. Meanwhile, the pilgrimage to ancient Christianity will become stronger, as a new generation prepares to be faithful to Scripture and the Tradition. More and more Evangelicals are beginning to see that the apogee of their faith is really found in a place such as the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The time is right. Now, more than before, Catholic and Orthodox leaders are praying that the zeal for and commitment to Christ that Evangelicals have will be a part of their communion. Beyond the theological issues, there are bishops and priests in each of these communions who genuinely appreciate the Evangelical call to holiness, sanctity, faithfulness, and knowing Christ.

One of the greatest obstacles to this happening is the tendency for many Bible believing Protestants to pour contempt upon ecumenism. I too was taught that this word is dirty. All that it conjured up was pictures of liberals wanting to gouge out the heart of the Christian message for the sake of a superficial unity. Coming together on the basis of the least common denominator has betrayed the Church, not brought it together.

This sentiment is shared by many in the Catholic and Orthodox folds. The vision shaping modern efforts at unity has basically been a liberal Protestant one. And, as a result of this frustration, a new type of ecumenism is being born, driven by a desire not for the least in Christianity, but for the most. Instead of embarrassment at theological differences, this new movement recognizes those differences and assumes that the approach of love is to talk honestly and openly with other Christians, with a heart to be changed and reconciled.

Too often in the past, by means of anti-intellectualism, sectarian pride, or liberal castigation, Evangelicals have cut themselves off from the broader world. They have learned about other Christian traditions only from their own unfair books of apologetics, many of which are out of touch with good scholarship and have perpetuated myths and stereotypes. As the number of Evangelicals returning to the Tradition increases, how will leadership respond? Will they play the propaganda machine and maintain their position on the periphery of Christendom, or will they allow their churches to mature by beginning to open themselves? Ecumenism could be completely redefined by the choice Evangelicals make.

Call to Kenoticism

But before we can be this blessing, we Evangelicals must begin to own up to our lack of identity, coherent theology, and realizeable future. We should begin to humble ourselves corporately, not waiting for the year 2000 and the end of our current plans. Without a common repentence and journey back to the Catholic and Orthodox communions we face a future Evangelicalism that could be both a zoo and a museum.

The naive promotion of any author who carries a Bible and speaks the right talk has weakened the Evangelical consensus to the point where a definition of evangelicalism that is not useless is nearly impossible. Our clarity will continue to unfocus and the knee-jerk reactions already underway will simply cause our churches, once on the “cutting edge,” to freeze in time and slowly wither.

Imagine the high-tech megachurch complexes currently blossoming. Is it possible that in a century these churches could ring just as hollow as many of Spurgeon’s churches do today in London? The faith of the future will not be the rational, capitalist, excited, “explain-all” Christianity we know today in the Evangelical Church. Rather, it will be the ancient Faith, in communion with the Church of all ages and all times.

Kenosis is the Greek word describing how Christ emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant. The Orthodox way is also the kenotic way, maintaining the primitive Christianity ethos that sought the same. Evangelicalism shares many of these virtues, but usually only on the level of the individual. It is time to take down the barrier that prevents us from applying our personal spiritual standards to our structures, our theology, and our worldview. It is time to pursue the kenotic way.

My experience is peculiar. I have been both wounded and healed by the early Church. The mercy offered by them has been most helpful, for it has replaced an eroded confidence in Protestant theology with a Christian walk that is emerging into something more real, authentic, and kenotic.

In the awkward confrontation with my spiritual and intellectual pride I would exchange this pilgrimage for nothing else. It has brought me closer to Christ, the Scriptures, and the Church. The further I go, the fewer easy answers I have to our complex world. There are the same old sinners within Orthodoxy, and yet I find within it the right paradigm with which to view our fallen world.

Unsettling as this is at times, I am learning how to appreciate being a Christian pilgrim. Turbulent my road to Orthodoxy may be, but it is the fulfillment of my Evangelical visions. And the Spirit is calling for more pilgrims.

Copyright 1996, 2003 Joel Kalvesmaki