Do not Add to His Words: Decision23 May 2015
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.
Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you.
(Gospel of Thomas 5)
One December night, early in my study of the Fathers, I found myself fuming over the complexity of Christian history. What I believed did not fit with the evidence before me. I turned on the computer and began to play a Tetris-style game. My world did not make sense. All the idiosyncrasies of Scripture and its history did not fit the nicely packaged, glossy Evangelical package I knew. I was tormented.
Liberalism seemed to be a cop out, assuming a Christian guise while denying every aspect of the Faith. I would do better as a secular humanist, abandoning any pretense to be Christian. But the prospects of going through liberalism into atheism seemed to be an abysmal end, not only to what faith I had, but to the humanity I treasured. Life lived for its own ends? Hardly. I should die first.
“Is Christianity true? Where is the proof?” I genuinely felt betrayed and wounded, yet was willing to trust and try to be faithful to Christ in the midst of intellectual agony. I desperately wanted to be a Christian, whatever that meant. I still knew of no one who could compare with Jesus. His brilliance had only grown with my studies.
The night wore on and I found myself sucked through the colors of the screen into the same glassy world, electron-charged, nonsensical, broken down into the machinery of life. Was I weary or listless or simply not caring, I don’t know. Here I was, in a community that cast the ancient Faith as if Fad. The rapid fire of my fingers numbed into automaton in the rapid drop of pieces in time marked by timelessness, marked by the loss of any sense of what I was meant to be doing or who I was or what the world meant or how foolish I had been to think that I had the world figured in the palm of my mind now supinely turning to slush as the swish of the bricks falling at the fingers flying rapid fire fell.
Sometime the next morning I coldly shut off the machine and went to bed, not even caring if I believed any more or not. I didn’t care.
In this depression I encountered the Orthodox synthesis of Scripture and the Tradition. I was deeply skeptical. But in the doubt, as I listened to the Orthodox message, I saw the possibility of new, unexplored vistas that resonated with the heart I had when I made a decision to follow Christ. Here was the chance not only to preserve the Christianity I had, but to restore it to its original state and allow it to blossom. I saw within the Faith of the Orthodox a way of looking not only at the Bible but at the world and creation, a perspective that promised new depths of reality in my relationship with Christ.
I continued to read the Fathers of the Church and the initial thrill I had began to bear fruit. Entering their deeply spiritual scope, I found new ways of looking at the Scripture I would have never considered before. I felt I was becoming a Christian all over again.
But what about…? A host of Bible verses might come to mind to serve as proof against Orthodoxy. All these verses have very satisfying answers that cannot be explained in these essays.
More important than hiding behind objections is committing ourselves to become like Christ. It is easy to point out the faults of other people or churches in order to justify our own refusal to change. That is not Christianity. That is the faith of the stubborn, proud, and arrogant. That is the faith of Hell, for it judges and accuses by a rule we ourselves will not accept.
If our commitment to Christ is the most important part of our lives, then might it not be time to pray and ask how we can change to be a blessing instead of a curse? Rather than pointing at the problems of others, who may be more aware of their faults than we realize, how about volunteering to give up our own theological arrogance?
This is a starting point. But some of us will need to go even deeper, begin to read the Fathers, and pursue faithfulness to the historical Christian faith. It may lead us to learn from Christians we might have disregarded. It may lead us to conversion.
Be warned. The decision to become a pilgrim is a dangerous one. It could cost you your reputation, ministry, and vision. Consider carefully before you choose to journey toward Orthodoxy. It is a path most difficult.
Yet most evangelical.
- John Allegro. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Reappraisal. London: Penguin, 1956.
- James Barr. Escaping Fundamentalism. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984.
- Bill Bright. Footpaths to Discipleship. San Bernardino: Here’s Life 1971.
- J.H. Charlesworth, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. London 1983-85.
- Eusebius. The History of the Church. Trans. G. A. Williamson, rev. Andrew Louth. London: Penguin, 1989.
- Kirsopp and Lake, trans. and ed., The Apostolic Fathers. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard 1912.
- Josh McDowell. Evidence that Demands a Verdict. 2 vols. San Bernardino: Here’s Life, 1979.
- Roberts, ed.. Ante-Nicene Fathers. 10 vols. Reprinted, Peabody: Hendricksons, 1995.
- All Bible quotations, except Apocryphal, which come from the New American Bible, are taken from the New American Standard Bible.
May 1996, rev. 2003