Becoming Orthodox – Enter the Search: New Teachings5 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.
Here, I summarise a few of the things I discovered in my search through ancient Christianity, highlighting especially what struck me as different from Evangelicalism.
Early Christianity maintained that we are saved by faith in Christ through baptism. We are being saved now and will be saved if we abide in Christ. Their writings are full of warnings against falling away from Christ, with the understanding that it could and does happen. Even though they had no understanding of eternal security, the Fathers had no “eternal insecurity.” They understood that God initiates our salvation by sending his Spirit and power into our lives, a love that we reciprocate. The concept of salvation by faith alone or by irresistable grace was a concept foreign to the Church. Rather, the Calvinist system, which I had embraced for many years, finds unusually strong echoes in the teachings of Gnostic sects.
Known as the Eucharist, this supper was believed to be of divine institution and power. It was much more than a symbol or representation, it was God with us. The elements were transformed by the Spirit into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, on which believers could feed to maintain the life of sacred devotion to God. The Eucharist was seen as a sacrifice, the earth’s gifts that we offer back to God in thanks at the altar of the New Covenant. Ironically, once again, it was Gnostic sects that were habitually anti-sacramental.
Again, the earliest Fathers believed that they, as a community, were the New Israel, and that a departure from the visible communion of the body of Christ was the same as a departure from the faith. Their Church structure was hierarchical and based upon the trifold ministry of bishops, presbyters, and deacons. They believed that maintaining the unbroken succession from the Apostles through the bishops was an essential element of the Catholic Church. Schism from this One Church was seen as being among the worst possible of sins, for it was an assault against the Body of Christ. Although not a monolithic organisation, the early Church was One, without division, and spread throughout the world from India to Britain.
Without exception, the worship of the early Christians revolved around liturgy. Rather than eclectic or creative services, the primitive Church was content with that which they received, a liturgical worship handed to them by the Apostles. The worship of the early Church was both an extension of the Old Testament and a dramatic exclamation of God’s visit to man in the Incarnation. Rather than centring around the sermon, Sunday worship centered around the Eucharist. Their understanding of worship operated on a level different than those of Evangelicals since it did not assume immediate, direct access to God, but rather an ongoing contemplation of the mysteries of Christ. Worship was part of a lifelong struggle to see God.
Life after Death
The early Fathers held that when we die, we go to an intermediate place of rest to await the resurrection of the flesh, when we will be judged for our sins and be rewarded with heaven or hell. They distinguished between Hades and Gehenna. The former referred to the place of the dead while the latter referred to the place of eternal torment.
I had always been taught that Scripture teaches a position quite different than those just outlined. Brazenly confident of the Bible’s position, I could tolerate people who held to different beliefs, just as long as they didn’t pretend the Scriptures justified them. Citing the Reformers as my patrons, I thought the story was ended.
Surprise. As I returned to the Bible with the new perspective of the early Church Fathers I began to see verses for which I had never given second thought. With time and patient reading I was forced to shift my disregard for Catholic and Orthodox teaching to a begruding acceptance. Point after point, doctrine after doctrine, I slowly realized that, as Evangelicals, we have been missing the Tradition of the Church. It was painful. I have always demanded reason for belief and here it was before me in reamfuls. And it hurt to take my own medicine.
With further studies and a struggling reflection on the Scriptures, I came to believe what I read in the Fathers. The Bible made more sense in light of the early Church than it did in light of modern Evangelicalism. Scripture took on a profound new character as the Spirit spoke to my heart freshly. I felt as if I was now under the guidance of Christians who knew the mind of Christ. For the first time ever I realized that, as a Christian, I am part of a religion with a history, with real heroes and real faith, not simply a bundle of words penned by men on a different planet. The spiritual explosion ignited on Pentecost was not extinguished. The gates of Hades did not prevail against the Church!
16. For initiation into an early Christian understanding of this essential doctrine, good starting places are “II Clement” and “To Diognetus,” and On the Incarnation of the Word of God, by St. Athanasius. The patristic position on salvation is sustained by a multitude of Scriptures most of us tend to explain away when discussing the subject. Irenaeus’s book Against Heresies and Origen’s Against Celsus are excellent introductions to heretical and philosophical understandings of salvation. Lutheran scholar J. Pelikan, in his Development of Doctrine series (vol. 1), is one of the few Protestants who acknowledge and try to deal with the striking similarities between the Gnostic and Protestant positions on salvation, although I personally believe he dismisses it without adequate explanation.
17. Good starting places to understand the Eucharist include the epistles of Ignatius, Justin Martyr’s First Apology, and Irenaeus’s Against Heresies. The interpretation of what the early Christians may have specifically meant remains disputed, but three basic positions find consonance with the early record: Lutheran (consubsantiation), Catholic (transubstantiation), and Orthodox (similar to Catholic, but with a more mystical approach). The Anglican position is undefined, but would generally be classified with the Lutheran understanding.
18. Excellent points of reference with early Christianity in the subject of ecclesiology include Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians, Ignatius’s Epistles, Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew and Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church. The concept of an invisible Church was not to come into Christian thought until the sixteenth century, yet even this was resisted by many Reformers. See, for instance, Frank Cross’ Anglicanism, which documents the process of reform in the Anglican Church through the seventeenth century. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, III is an excellent introduction to the subject of Apostolic Succession and its importance to the early Church. While Alistair McGrath (Christian Doctrine) and others may downplay the importance of ecclesiological structure in the early Church, the writings of the Fathers speak otherwise.
19. Hippolytus’s The Apostolic Tradition and the early liturgies of the Church (v. 8, ANF) are excellent introductions.
20. For an excellent summary of early Christian belief on the after-life see the fragment “Against Plato” ascribed to Hippolytus.