Becoming Orthodox – Deeper Exploration: Stuck

12 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.


I plunged the depths of early Christianity. Daily, as I scoured the pages of the writings of the Fathers, I continued to discover things that demolished hidden expectations. I began with fear and suspicion, but after a couple of weeks my skepticism melted into embarrassment at my own cockiness. Instead of arguing with the Fathers, trying to fit them into my own theological grid, I sought to have them tell me their story. As I assembled the faith and practice of the early Christians I began to compare this with the state of modern Christendom. I needed to resolve my knowledge with a living faith.

The three great divisions of Christendom?Protestantism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy?became my focus. I studied the Reformation and the theological and historical differences prompting the different splits[21]. The East, I discovered, also had a number of divisions.[22] In the long process of comparing primitive Christianity with catechisms of today’s churches, I found myself focussing on Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy. These seemed to be the body of Christians who had most faithfully preserved the ancient faith. For several restless weeks I battered around the pros and cons for each group in the light of the testimony of primitive Christianity. At one point in this frustrated exercise I compiled the following table:




open to correction
bridge to other churches
internally divided
thin, spotty tradition
open communion
open to innovation
nearly insignificant in the 20th century


little innovation
deep, unbroken tradition
thoroughly Apostolic
deep spirituality
quite significant (2nd largest)
exclusivist (but changing)
set in its ways
internal splits

This table, although written when I was a bit muddled, was tremendously helpful. I was excited to see that I had already changed. For the first time, for instance, I saw the Anglican emphasis on “bridging” Christendom as a positive aspect. It felt somewhat odd to actively pray for the visible union of all believers and to discover the many good aspects of ecumenism, a word I had generally learned to despise.

In spite of progress, not everything made sense. I had what seemed a very clear picture of primitive catholic Christianity, but there didn’t seem to be any group that exactly fit their description. I had also considered Roman Catholicism and Oriental Orthodoxy, but they seemed to have their own mismatching with the early Church. No one fit exactly, although some groups came closer than others.

It seemed that each week I looked at Christendom in a slightly different way, depending upon my mood. My focus could be on the East-West divide and, by recognizing one side as theologically more orthodox than another, I could proceed that way. Or I could look at the churches with ancient origins versus those with modern ones, which would automatically exclude nearly all Evangelicals and Protestants. Or I could concentrate on the evidence of lives of godliness which, although arbitrary, would probably land me in radical Evangelicalism or the Mennonites. Or I could concentrate on mission and outreach, which would find me seriously considering Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, to the exclusion of the East. All four starting points, each based on an aspect of early Christianity, led to very different conclusions, despite using the same material! At the same time, as I consulted other people who were reading the writings of the Fathers, I noticed that, although moving in broadly the same direction, they were landing in different spots.


From here my journey entered into epistemology and hermeneutics. Epistemology is the means by which we justify our beliefs to be true. It is the science of knowledge. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. By our epistemology, we develop a hermeneutic of the world. Put another way, the way we think (epistemology) determines the way we understand what is going on (hermeneutics).

It was not enough that I was simply reading the writings of the early Christians. I was approaching their writings with a package of beliefs that shaped the results for me.

This first bothered me when considering the issue of Sola Scriptura. I knew that my worldview entailed Scripture as the final authority. But was this the outlook of the authors of the New Testament? I puzzled over this until I finally admitted that, no, the assumptions of the authors of the New Testament are anything but a 20th century Sola Scriptura.[23] The language, references and premises of Scripture scream out for a context. The surviving letters of Paul leave us only half a conversation. Some verses assume the reader is familiar with an ongoing correspondence between the writer and the community, in the context of a long relationship between the two,[24] Some authors make references to other spiritual writings with which they assume their audience is familiar.[25] Some text is completely irrelevant to us.[26] The way the New Testament transmits and interprets the text of the Old Testament precludes Sola Scriptura.[27] In fact, the “stick to the obvious meaning of Scripture” approach was more characteristic of the Sadducees, not Christians.[28]

These points were hard to admit, and I fought against them. I genuinely, desperately wanted to believe, not to surrender to what I thought were core beliefs of liberalism. My fear surfaced: Those who embrace these things become total relativists, don’t they? By examining these issues I felt I was not only questioning Scripture, I was jeopardizing my eternal security, and my career goals within Evangelicalism.

So many of us, myself included, are taught that our faith is either founded on the Bible only or it is completely unfounded. To ascibe authority to anything besides Scripture was heretical. Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and everyone else adds to Scripture. We don’t. Anyone who superimposes the traditions of men upon the plain words of the Bible thereby preaches a different Gospel and a different Jesus.

But church practice does not match the lofty ideals with which we struggle. Our presentations of Scripture rely heavily on traditions, such as the naming of the Gospels [29] and the acceptance of books that were at one time of questionable canonicity.[30] We often add our own traditions to Scripture. Our sermons and teaching tapes are sometimes nothing more that our own ideas, with the endorsement of a few verses taken out of context. As I explored more, I soon realised that, within Christendom, Evangelicals have been just as prone as anyone else to add traditions to whatever Gospel they received.[31] Although usually a generation or two late, Evangelicals have been quite faithful in reflecting their world.

Nevertheless, some of us are patient. We believe and seek to resolve our difficulties within a faithful obedience that does not presume to have all the answers. We try not to be embarrassing about things. We carry on within some powerful, overwhelming ambiguities and contradictions, crying out for an answer within Christ since we realize life outside Jesus is sickeningly hollow. But we are often aware that Evangelicalism often cannot answer its own criticisms of others.


21. There are many books that thoroughly document the Reformation, or rather reformations. Instead of simply being a homogenous wall of change, there were at least six distinct movements: the counter-reformation (Catholic), humanism (Erasmus), Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anabaptism, and Anglicanism. Each had a distinct approach to the restoration of the Church. An excellent introduction to the English contribution to the Reformation, setting it in the context of the continental reform movements, is found in Stephen O’Neill’s Anglicanism.

22. An excellent start to Eastern Orthodoxy is found in Bp. Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodoxy Way and The Orthodox Church. For a good introduction to the Oriental Orthodox Church, see Adrian Fortescue’s The Lesser Eastern Churches or The History of Eastern Christianity by Atiya.

23. An excellent introduction to the problems of Scripture in Western and other cultures is found in Nida & Reyburn’s Meaning Across Cultures, which is very frank about some of the incongruities. D. Edwards, for his part, states some of these problems well in his dialogue with J. Stott in Evangelical Essentials.

24. The letters to the Corinthians are case in point. Is I Cor 7:1 Paul’s teaching or the statement of the Church in Corinth? What was the context of Paul’s injunction for women to wear headcoverings in I Cor 11, and did Paul mean for it to be binding today? What kind of salvation did Paul have in mind in I Tim 2:15?

25. Jude quotes the Book of Enoch (14-15) as an invective against apostates. Whether Enoch was “canonical” in Jude’s mind or not is irrelevant. Categories of canonicity were to arise much later in the Church. In his argument Jude appeals to the authority of the words of Enoch, a prophet of Jehovah, and he expects Enoch will persuade his audience. Paul also assumes knowledge of either the pseudipigrapha or Jewish tradition on Timothy’s part (2 Tim 3:8) and the author of Hebrews assumes knowledge of the Martyrdom of Isaiah (Heb 11:37). See also Jude 8, a reference to the Assumption of Moses.

26. Examples are hard to not imagine. How many sermons have used Rom 16:14 as their text? What about Num 7 & 26, Jos 14-19, and I Chr 1-7? We probably need to re-think our doctrine of Scripture being equally inspired: it is not reflected in our practice.

27. The New Testament frequently cites the Old Testament as Christian prophecy when, given the historical context of the Old Testament, the passage is anything but Messianic. For example, Mt 2:15 cites Hos 11:1 as a prophecy that the Messiah would dwelt in Egypt. The context of Hosea, however, revolves around the Exodus and says nothing about Christology. There are many other examples of this, such as Paul’s allegorizing of the Old Testament (I Cor 9:9-10; Gal 4:21-31) and Hebrew’s lengthy eisogesis of the Melchizedek priesthood (Gen 14:18-20). There are questions of Old Testament text type as well, since the New Testament authors generally prefer the rendering of the Greek Septuagint to the Hebrew. A refreshingly honest, but rather reckless book is Bible scholar James Barr’s Escaping Fundamentalism, which includes more examples of this kind.

28. This distinction comes out most clearly in the issues of canon and the resurrection of the dead. With the former, they believed it blasphemy to add Scripture to the Torah and their devotion to “Sola Scriptura” would have prevented any of them from even thinking of a “new testament.” In the case of the latter, they had a strong case, in that only a handful of Old Testament verses speak about post-mortem resurrection. In fact, the Old Testament is strangely mute on the question of life after death, leaving cries of hope, but no word of assurance comparable to the teachings of Christ.

29. The ascribed authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John of these four Gospels does not spring from the New Testament text itself, but upon an early tradition traceable no earlier than Irenaeus.

30. Dubious books of the New Testament in the early centuries included James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, and Revelation. For an interesting picture of the complexity of the canonicity of a book like Revelation, see Eusebius, Eccl Hist 3.25; 6.25; 7.25. The five easy tests mandated by Geisler & Nix in From God to Us and Josh McDowell’s postulation of a patristic, “If in doubt, throw it out,” contradict the historical record.

31. It is this tendency that caused Newman to label Evangelicals as the party between Apostolicism and Liberalism.