Becoming Orthodox – Deeper Exploration: Victims of our Time16 December 2014
Joel 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.
Victims of our Time
This becomes one of the most important parts of my story, yet it must be kept intentionally vague and over-generalized.
We interpret Scripture through an epistemology that comes from our community. As Westerners, this means that our approach to the Bible is often laden with the philosophical assumptions of our culture and not necessarily Scriptural ones. Within the Aristotelian meanderings of the West in this millenium, the Reformation is comfortably twinned with Renaissance and humanist thought. The Anglican process of determining their doctrines operates on the assumptions of Empiricism. Dispensationalism simply borrowed an Enlightenment epistemology and laid it like an iron grid over Scripture. The Pentecostal movement can be seen as the popular after-effects of 19th century transcendentalism, existentialism, and romanticism.
Western Christendom has been in a love-hate relationship with philosophy, particularly since the time of Thomas Aquinas, who sought to reconcile Christianity to an Aristotelian framework and “prove” the truth of the Gospel. Champion to a long line of scholastic theology, Aquinas heralded trends that were to later prove disastrous for Christian orthodoxy.
We are victims of our time. Many innovations to Western Christendom have entered through Evangelicalism. For instance, in the question of the ordination of women, the first example in the history of the Church came in 1853 with the ordination of Antoinette Brown, a student of Charles Finney, in the Congregational Church.
The East, on the other hand, has remained relatively unchanged. The concept of a Reformation, so powerful an image in the West, is largely incomprehensible in the East. Rather than working with legal categories, the East has held to relational ones. Rather than starting with Reason to which the individual must attain, as in the West, the East begins with the Spirit already present within the eternal Church, within which we gather as community and understand the world.
Whereas I had conceived of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as the same beast, the East see Catholics and Protestants as opposite sides of the same coin. The Pope, for them, was the first Protestant. Luther and other reformers objected to the authority of the Pope, so they simply declared everyone to be their own Pope, capable of interpreting and practicing Scripture as they personally saw fit. Faith in the West belongs to the individual, as reflected by an emphasis on the unity of God; faith in the East belongs to the community, stemming from reliance on the threeness of God.
A Viable Alternative
Through my reading and questions I began to see another possibility of looking at the Christian Faith. It personally made more sense and it helped me to deal with many of the discrepancies of the Scriptures, problems that would ordinarily have driven me into liberalism.
Instead of starting with the Bible, as an unchangeable, eternal book, I began to start with Christ. Christ truly came in the flesh. Instead of writing Scriptures, he fulfilled a perfect mission of atonement and trusted his Apostles and the Church, through the power of the Spirit, with the message of the Gospel. These Apostles were truly anointed and chosen by God and, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they delivered an infallible message, a true Tradition. The Scriptures are the authentic core of this Tradition and are infallible by virtue of being from Christ. At the same time, the work of the Apostles, in ruling a united, holy Church, left behind a community that would maintain that Tradition until Christ’s return. This Catholic and Orthodox Faith has been passed down in thought, word, and deed for the last nineteen centuries via the Church, and will continue to be so until the New Creation. The Spirit speaks to my heart through the beauty of the mutual embrace of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church, the three locked in a love embrace across time and space.
We cannot claim to be objective or to somehow have the cipher of life figured out on our own. This is an earmark of liberalism and modernism. By pretending to have direct access to the Truth we circumvent the Christian Church as an historical reality and treat the Bible as a textbook, except when inconvenient. This approach affects our worship and the way we treat people outside the Evangelical community.
Many of us embrace the Bible as our starting place and act as if we simply believe the plain words of the Bible, when in reality it is our treatment of the Bible that motivates us. We call for unity on the essentials, as defined by Scripture, but when it comes to our practice, our list of essentials is based, not on Scripture, but on the mutual agreement of those denominations we include in a consensus labelled “Evangelical.”
How else could Evangelicals agree on an ironclad list of 66 books, something never determined in early Church history, while doctrines such as baptism and the laying on of hands, called by Scripture “elementary”  are treated as being non-essential? How is it that we are solidly agreed on a legal imputation of Adam’s sin to humanity that Christ had to pay to fulfill the justice of God, a concept never made explicit in Scripture, while we are hostile to any single pattern of Church government? Did the Apostles really simultaneously establish episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational Church structures while advancing the legal satisfaction theory of atonement?
It is time for second thoughts. As Evangelicals, we have many good people in our ranks who are simply not satisfied with a Protestant worldview that scotch tapes together theology, the Scriptures, and our postmodern world. Some of our people have lost their faith to secularism. Still others, however, are silent, stewing over the inconsistencies of the Evangelical world, afraid to challenge the powers that be for fear of being seen as a “heretic” or as a Christian with weak faith.
This alternative, which seeks to embrace a heritage rightfully belonging to all Christians, is not without its problems. It is a way to harmonize many of the stories in Scripture and bring them into symphonious dialogue with the history of the Church, our modern world, and all the question marks of what it means to be human. Many of us are tired of the easy and “obvious” answers to life, the universe, and everything, when the reality behind our claims is so often simply not there. Many of us, depending upon our apologetics, feel betrayed when we find evidence that demands a verdictopposite to what we’ve been told. Unfortunately, some have withdrawn faith in Christ because of this sort of thing.
Meanwhile secularism rapes the world. In this war against materialism, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox have suffered together. How shall the war be won?
32. An introduction to Western philosophy is very helpful to understand the deep relationships between the Church and culture in the West.
33. For an excellent assessment of this phenomenon, see S. M. Hutchen’s article in Touchstone, “The Unicorn and the Professor,” Spring 1995.
34. See Michael Harper’s Equal and Different, which skillfully argues for the traditional gender models upheld by the Church in a style accessible to both Evangelicals and Catholics.
35. See, for instance, Colin Gunton’s The One, the Three and the Many and John Zizioulas’s Being as Communion.
37. See Fr. Romanides’ article, “Original Sin According to St. Paul.” The legal satisfaction theory of sin popular amongst Evangelicals was developed and promoted by scholastic theologian Anselm.
38. This is why books such as Dave Tomlinson’s excellent The Post Evangelicals are being published. There are ways of thinking in our theology that begin with principles promoted by the Enlightenment.