Searching For The Historic Christian Church: The Allure Of Eastern Orthodoxy

Does Reformed Christianity have anything to offer the believer in search of the historic Christian church?

It is important that Reformed leaders take seriously the desire of those who are looking for continuity to the ancient church. We need to instruct the members of our congregations on how they can be confident that they belong to the historic Christian church. We need to help everyone see how Christ has been faithful to his promise to build his church, and why we believe Reformed Christianity is a full and robust expression of that spiritual building.

 

In the past five or six years, I have known several people who have left Reformed Christianity for Eastern Orthodoxy. Their reasons for making that decision varied. Some were mesmerized by the beauty of the Divine Liturgy. Others found Eastern Orthodoxy (hereafter EO) to offer a greater appreciation for mystery and religious experience than what they had known as a Protestant. All of them, however, were attracted by and eventually convinced of EO’s claim to be the original church founded by Christ.

While I do not agree with their decision to depart the confessional Reformed churches of which they were members, I sympathize with their desire to be part of the historic Christian church, one that stretches back to the days of the early fathers. Many Protestants and evangelicals attest to feeling disconnected with the ancient church, and desire greater certainty that the church they attend has not been drastically changed by the world over the passing centuries. I remember feeling that way when, as a young Christian, I left Calvary Chapel (a movement that began in Southern California during the 1960s) to join a Reformed church that confessed the ancient creeds and Three Forms of Unity.

These are legitimate concerns, ones to which leaders in Reformed churches should listen with charity and pastoral sensitivity. Then, having listened, how should we respond? What does the Protestant Reformation have to say about EO’s claim to antiquity? Does Reformed Christianity have anything to offer the believer in search of the historic Christian church? How can we do a better job of showing the Reformed church’s continuity with the ancient church?

I do not pretend to have all the answers to those questions. But I believe there are good reasons for Reformed Christians to be confident that they belong to the historic Christian church. What follows is a brief survey and Reformed critique of some of EO’s claims to be the church unchanged since the days of the apostles. Rather than make exegetical arguments for the Reformation doctrines of justification by faith alone or the authority of Scripture (as necessary and worthy as those arguments are), I want to explore the allure of EO’s claim to antiquity with a view to showing what the Reformed tradition has to offer, as well as how we might improve.[1]

The Quest for the Ancient Church

If you listen to the testimonies from Protestant and evangelical converts to EO, you will inevitably learn of their deep sense of dissatisfaction with the modern evangelical church. As they retell their stories in books, blogs, and Youtube videos, people who have made this journey describe how they found their evangelical or, in some cases, Reformed church to be shallow and unfulfilling, partially because of its apparent severance from the ancient church.

For many of these people, this frustration involves more than feelings of nostalgia. Some express a genuine desire to know what happened in Christian history before their particular tradition emerged, and how their tradition connects to that history. Some complain that the Protestant narrative of church history makes an illegitimate jump from the era of the apostles to the Reformation, as if the Christian church barely existed during the centuries in between. As one convert explains, “I grew up in a fundamentalist ‘Bible church’ that loved God and had a clear desire to serve him, but I questioned why my church was so isolated from other Christians. By the time I graduated from high school I found something in the more historical faith of Reformed Presbyterianism but still wondered what exactly transpired between the first century A.D. and 1517.”[2]

Three areas where many people long for this sense of connectivity to the historic church are worship, doctrine, and church government.

Concerning the first of these three areas (worship), many converts to EO explain how they desired to worship God in the way of the early church, and that modern Protestant worship did not satisfy those desires. Burned out with worship services that reflect far more of popular culture than the liturgical practices of the historic church, many find the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church attractive. Even some who have attended Reformed churches see its appeal:

During my first year of college, I attended a Reformed Church on Sunday mornings and a Roman Catholic Church on Sunday evenings. My theology was still Reformed, but I longed for rich, liturgical worship saturated in Scripture. I encountered Eastern Orthodoxy and knew immediately that this was where I belonged. General dissatisfaction with evangelicalism led me to search for the historic church of liturgy and sacraments. And while Reformed Christianity sometimes has these elements, I found the fullness of them only within the Orthodox Church.[3]

A second area where many Christians complain of feeling an historic void in their faith is doctrine. Just as they want to be confident that they are worshiping God the same way the apostles and early church did, they also want to be sure that the teachings and beliefs of the church they attend conform to that history as well. Many former Protestants describe how their church seemed to have little to no continuity with the beliefs of the past, at least not further back than the Protestant Reformation: “Evangelicals essentially told me that the Christian church fell into heresy right away and did not recover until years later when Martin Luther rescued the faith from the hands of Roman Catholicism. Reformed thinking is more generous to the early church, but still takes significant pause at what transpired between Jerusalem and Geneva.”[4]

A third area of disconnection to the ancient church is ecclesiastical government. Given the plethora of different practices of worship and standards of beliefs among the thousands of different Christian churches and denominations today, some wonder how biblical worship and doctrine can be preserved in every generation apart from some form of apostolic succession in its ecclesiastical government. Many turn to EO for this very reason.

The Church Unchanged: Eastern Orthodoxy’s Claims

Concerning these three areas of disconnection from the ancient church (worship, doctrine, and government), EO makes claims which many troubled souls find comforting. In the first place, EO contends that its worship has not changed since the days of the apostles. They claim that the Divine Liturgy “was in practice right after the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Disciples of Christ on the 50th day after His Resurrection.”[5] While they admit that the Divine Liturgy saw subsequent development and did not take its final form until the fourth century, they maintain that the basic structure of their worship has not changed since the early church. As one Orthodox monk put it, “You have to understand, the words we are saying in today’s liturgy are the same words that Christ was saying, the same words that saints from the first century, the second century, the third century, the fourth century [were saying].”[6] Unlike American evangelicalism that undergoes constant updates and changes in its musical and liturgical styles, the Divine Liturgy appears to remain untouched by the passing fads and whims of popular culture.

The two essential components of the Divine Liturgy are the Liturgy of the Catechumens (or Word) and the Liturgy of the Faithful. The Liturgy of the Word consists of Scripture readings, preaching, and a series of chanted litanies, prayers, and verses from Psalms and hymns. The Liturgy of the Faithful is another series of litanies, prayers (including the Lord’s Prayer), and songs, but instead of Scripture reading and the homily, includes the recitation of the Nicene Creed and the celebration of Holy Communion. EO’s representatives are apt to point out that it was the practice of the early church to receive the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day, often citing New Testament passages such as Acts 2.42 and 20.7, as well as first- and second-century sources as the Didache and Justin Martyr.

Incorporated into EO’s worship is the veneration of icons (images depicting Christ, Mary, saints and angels) and the observance of twelve special feast days that honor key events in the life of our Lord and his mother Mary. These practices have a long pedigree and play a prominent role in the life of the Orthodox Church.

Secondly, while EO describes itself more as a way of life than a system of belief, it nevertheless claims to represent the unbroken succession of apostolic Christianity in its doctrine, which is summarized in the seven Ecumenical Councils (Nicea [325], Constantinople [381], Ephesus [431], Chalcedon [451], Constantinople [553], Constantinople II [681], and Nicea II [787]) and their respective creeds and canons.[7] For the Orthodox Church, these Ecumenical Councils constitute its confession:

The Orthodox Church of Christ is the Body of Christ, a spiritual organism whose Head is Christ. It has a single spirit, a single common faith, a single common and catholic consciousness, guided by the Holy Spirit; and its reasonings are based on the concrete, definite foundations of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Apostolic Tradition. This catholic consciousness is always with the Church, but, in a more definite fashion, this consciousness is expressed in the Ecumenical Councils of the Church…Such Ecumenical Councils the Church recognizes as seven in number. The Ecumenical Councils formulated precisely and confirmed a number of the fundamental truths of the Orthodox Christian Faith, defending the ancient teaching of the Church against the distortions of heretics. The Ecumenical Councils likewise formulated numerous laws and rules governing public and private Christian church life, which are called Church canons, and required the universal and uniform observance of them. Finally, the Ecumenical Councils confirmed the dogmatic decrees of a number of local councils, and also the dogmatic statements composed by certain Fathers of the Church…In this way, the decrees of the councils concerning faith express the harmony of Sacred Scripture and the catholic Tradition of the Church. For this reason these decrees became themselves, in their turn, an authentic, inviolable, authoritative, Ecumenical and Sacred Tradition of the Church, founded upon the facts of Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition.[8]

In addition to the seven Ecumenical Councils, EO recognizes as authoritative the writings of the early church fathers. This is “for guidance in questions of faith, for the correct understanding of Sacred Scripture, and in order to distinguish the authentic Tradition of the Church from false teachings.”[9]

EO claims that, unlike western Christianity, it has experienced doctrinal unity and harmony over the past two millennia. According to one of EO’s bishops and leading theologians, Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, Orthodox Christians “have known no Middle Ages (in the western sense) and have undergone no Reformations or Counter-Reformations; they have only been affected in an oblique way by the cultural and religious upheaval which transformed western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”[10] Through the eyes of Orthodox Christians, the Protestant Reformation was merely a schism within the Roman Catholic Church, which itself departed from the historic church (the Orthodox Church) by exalting their bishop (the pope) over all other bishops, and unilaterally altering the words of the Nicene Creed by adding the Filioque clause. These acts led to the Great Schism of 1054.

Finally, EO offers connectivity to the ancient church in its government through its claim of an unbroken succession from the apostles to the current bishops of the Orthodox Church. EO has three tiers of church hierarchy in its government: bishops, presbyters, and deacons. These offices, EO claims, have direct lineage to the apostles, that is, the men who serve in these offices today were ordained by men who were ordained by men (and so on) all the way back to the apostles. Without this apostolic succession, says Orthodoxy, a church is not a true church: “The succession from the Apostles and the uninterruptedness of the episcopacy comprise one of the essential sides of the Church. And, on the contrary: the absence of the succession of the episcopacy in one or another Christian denomination deprives it of an attribute of the true Church, even if in it there is present an undistorted dogmatic teaching.”[11] In defense of this claim, they appeal to several ancient sources, namely, Irenaeus (c.130 – 202), and Tertullian (c.155 – c.240), and Eusebius of Caesarea (c.260 – c.340).[12]

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[1] The material in this article is taken from my contribution to the report of the study committee on Eastern Orthodoxy of Classis Southwest U.S. of the United Reformed Churches in North America.

[2] http://journeytoorthodoxy.com/2012/05/07/reformed-calvinist-converts-to-orthodoxy/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] This is according to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith7117

[6] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mt-athos-a-visit-to-the-holy-mountain/

[7] “Many misunderstandings and prejudices concerning the Orthodox Church thus go back to a wrong approach as students try to form, merely with the help of sources and scholarship, a picture of Orthodoxy, which is not really doctrine but a way of life, with its own system-related criteria and thought forms.” Anastasios Kallis, ‘Orthodox Church,’ in Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eeardmands, 2003), 3:866-8.

[8] Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1983, 2009), 40-42. In his survey of EO, Robert Letham concurs: “Insofar as the Orthodox Church has a doctrinal standard, these councils provide it.” Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2007), 23. See also Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1969), 25-8.

[9] Ibid., 43. See also Ware, Orthodox Church, 22, where he states that the Orthodox Church possesses a “Patristic mind” that considers “the Fathers…as living witnesses and contemporaries.”

[10] Ware, The Orthodox Church, 9.

[11] Ibid., 257-8. Pomazansky adds, “The Apostles established in the Church the Grace-given succession of the episcopate, and through it the succession of the whole Grace-given ministry of the Church hierarchy, which is called to be stewards of the Mysteries of God, in accordance with 1 Corinthians 4:1.” Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, 247.

[12] Pomazansky writes, “From the Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea we know that all the local ancient Christian Churches preserved lists of their bishops in their uninterrupted succession. [Moreover,] St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes; ‘We can enumerate those who were appointed as bishops in the Churches by the Apostles, and their successors, even to our own time.’ And, in fact, he enumerates in order the succession of the bishops of the Roman Church almost to the end of the 2nd century (Against Heresies 3.3). The same view of the importance of the succession is expressed by Tertullian. He wrote concerning he heretics of his time: ‘Let them show the beginnings of their churches, and reveal the series of their bishops who might continue in succession so that their first bishop might have as his cause or predecessor one of the Apostles or an Apostolic Father who was for a long time with the Apostles. For the Apostolic Churches keep the lists (of bishops) precisely in this way. The Church of Smyrna, for example, presents Polycarp, who was appointed by john; the Roman Church presents Clement, who was ordained by Peter; and likewise the other Churches also point to those men whom, as being raised to the episcopacy by the Apostles themselves, they had as their own sprouts from the Apostolic seed.’ (Tertullian, “Concerning the Prescriptions” against the heretics).” Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, 247. See also 301-2.