Walk into my apartment at seminary and you may find a few objects that have led more than one visitor to question my Protestantism, not to mention my salvation. Hanging over my bed such that he’s the first thing I see when I wake up, is an icon of an ‘obscure’ (to most Americans) saint from the southern Balkans: Clement of Ohrid. Clement also has many companions on the adjacent wall – Emperor Constantine, St. George, and one other guy whose name I don’t know because I have trouble understanding the Greek shorthand that is used to title icons, is shown lunging a sword into some poor soul.
On one shelf above my desk is an Eastern Orthodox New Testament in the medieval language of the Slavic people. On my other bookshelves are works by Russian theologians, a handful of texts about the Byzantine Empire, and one particularly startling book: Becoming Orthodox. My parents once stumbled upon the receipt for that book, and I would not be surprised if they spent the next half an hour searching my closet in my old room back home for black robes and incense. Other parents search normal kids’ closets for drugs and alcohol… But I was never a normal kid.
“Just say no to asceticism,” should probably be hung above my doorframe.
I have, for many many years, had a fairly unexplainable (to me anyway) interest in parts of the world where Orthodox Christianity (or ‘Eastern Christianity,’ more broadly, which includes Nestorian and Monophysite Churches) features. I am personally a committed Protestant. And I am an Evangelical Protestant, specifically. And while I am not without my criticisms of my own tradition, I believe strongly in the best of what Evangelicalism has and can offer Christianity: Biblicism, Revivalism, ecumenism, and a focus on keeping the ‘main thing’ the ‘main thing’ (serving others and telling people about Jesus). This is who I am, this is my tradition, and this is what I remain, and I want serve the rest of Christianity with these distinctions.
But I love what I have gained by drawing from the Eastern roots of our faith. And I don’t consider these to be foreign roots, though they do assume lives and experiences different than my own. They are, however, my roots too because Eastern Christianity is part of the big family of Christ, of which I am a member. It is a part of my heritage, a part of who I am, and to now know them is to feel alienated from part of myself.
I believe firmly that we need one another and that we can learn much from one another. We can better know God and understand Scripture and serve Him by learning from one another’s different lives, and our different insights and practices.
I take my inspiration from the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church in London, Kallistos Ware. He said at a symposium on Orthodox-Evangelical dialogue titled “What Can Evangelicals and Orthodox Learn From One Another?’:
“At first sight, Orthodox and Evangelicals appear widely different, even opposed. But, in fact, we share in common far more than might at first seem evident. We share a common faith in God, the Holy Trinity; a common faith in Jesus Christ, as fully and truly God, fully and truly human. We share a common faith in his virgin birth, his miracles, his sacrificial death on the cross for our salvation, his bodily resurrection, his second coming. We share a common faith in Holy Scripture as inspired by God and altogether truthful.”
“As with every Inter-Christian and indeed Inter-faith dialogue, we are seeking to get to know one another better, so that we may come to love another more fully and so may be enabled by God’s grace and mercy to fulfill the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ for his disciples “that they all may be one”. (John 17:21).”
For whatever reason, I have a particular affection for Orthodox Christianity and want to do my part to reach out, learn from one another, and help us all become a little closer.
As wars and persecution ravage Christianity in the Middle East, and we face an increasingly antagonistic secularism in the West, Eastern and Protestant Christians cannot afford to be at odds with one another, to distract from the work of the Gospel by fighting against one another. This does not mean that we do have significant points of disagreement, that at times we will necessarily be at odds in our goals, visions, and values. But the more we can love and respect one another, and focus on the One we have in common, our Lord Jesus Christ, the greater glory we can bring Him.
Studying Eastern Christianity makes me a better theologian, I think, too. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the questions of our context that we forget that the questions that seem so earth-shattering to us are barely blips on the screen to someone coming from an entirely different perspective. You see your own assumptions and biases much more clearly by getting some outside vantage point. I very much appreciated this recent piece by an Orthodox Christian giving his two cents on recent Protestant controversies in the Gospel Coalition.
He writes, regarding the relationship between faith and works and the controversy that this has long posed in Western Christianity:
“My main concern with this debate is that both sides apparently presuppose a legalistic Christianity—one based almost entirely on merit and moralistic perfection. In other words, either we must be perfect, or we must receive and rest upon Christ’s own perfection, by virtue of our covenantal union with him. This issue of merit and legalism, of course, lies at the heart of the Reformation itself. Instead of fully reforming the doctrinal edifice of the Latin church, the Reformers presupposed and repackaged a whole wealth of late-Medieval Scholasticism. What was championed as a reformed Catholic church was a religion still centered around merit. While merit has found its way into Orthodoxy (especially between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries) to a certain degree, I find it to be a largely deficient and even unhelpful way to explain both the Gospel and our salvation in Christ.”
Many of us Protestants may find disagreement here, but it sure is provoking to be told that, to an outsider, what appears to us to be the defining life-and-death debate, looks like two sides of the same coin to someone from another angle. I believe this is a healthy provocation that can help us think more clearly.
I have learned many things from Orthodox Christians. I have learned to better understand what it means to be a part of God’s saved community and not merely one with an individualistic and isolated relationship to God, I have learned to better appreciate the mysteriousness of God, I have learned to better appreciate Christ’s role as a liberator and victor over death; key theological emphases of their tradition. And I hope that, like Kallistos Ware advocates, Orthodox Christians can learn something from us too. I believe the best of both our traditions have much that go together. And in this mutual learning, I think we can become better Christians together.
If you want to take this journey with me, and get to know our, other, Eastern half, I have some books to recommend. But I think it’s more important that you go out and make a friend. Email a church and ask if you can visit an Orthodox liturgy in your own city. Hang out at a Greek restaurant in town.
And so, while I have considered (and am still considering) starting a separate blog for exploring dialogue, connections, and thoughts as I (and others) muse over both Protestantism and Orthodoxy, over West and East, I have decided to instead devote a ‘category’ of posts that will be an ongoing series. I call it: “East and West: Orthodox and Protestant Adventures.” Every now and then, I will have posts that fall under this category.
“In order to unite, we must first love one another. In order to love one another, we must first get to know one another.” -Cardinal Suenens (as quoted by Kallistos Ware)