FW: THE ORTHODOX CENTURY
- FROM "CHRISTIANITY TODAY," JANUARY 2007
Will the 21st Be the Orthodox Century?
Fascination with the Great Tradition may signal deep changes for both
evangelicals and the Orthodox.
Bradley Nassif | posted 1/04/2007 08:50AM
Jaroslav Pelikan, the late professor of history at Yale University, wrote of
the Christian tradition on a scale that no one else attempted in the 20th
century. Then after nearly a lifetime of studying the history of doctrine,
Pelikan, a lifelong Lutheran, was received into the Orthodox Church, just a
few years before he died last May at age 82.
Related articles and links
Pelikan is just one of a growing number of people who are joining the
Eastern Orthodox Church. It makes me wonder if the 21st century will be the
century of the Orthodox. Will there be a rebirth of the church's theological
vision, if not its numerical growth? I'm not a prophet, nor do I want to
evangelize evangelicals or reinvent Orthodox identity. But I would like to
(a) offer a theological explanation for why I believe more and more
Christians, especially evangelicals, may well be attracted to Orthodoxy in
the 21st century, and (b) explain why more and more Orthodox need to become
I haven't merely thought about Orthodox and evangelical compatibility; for
most of my life, I have lived it. I'm a Lebanese American who grew up in the
Orthodox Church of Antioch and was transformed by Christ during my high
school days in Wichita, Kansas, through the leading of evangelical friends.
I did my doctoral studies under the late Orthodox theologian Fr. John
Meyendorff. A portion of my scholarship over the past two decades has been
devoted to introducing the Orthodox tradition to evangelical students and
faculty in North America. I've also pioneered dialogues between Orthodox
believers and evangelicals, and I have spoken on the subject at World
Council of Churches meetings in Egypt and Germany.
Thus, I bring an intellectual and experiential knowledge of both
communities, which is probably why I have a love/hate relationship with
them. I'm not fully at peace with either one. Although I'm absolutely
committed to the theological truth of the Orthodox church, I'm equally
persuaded that we have not made that truth meaningful or accessible to our
own parishioners or to those who peer inside our windows. And because of my
Orthodoxy, I'm also committed to the evangelical faith.
The Rebirth of Orthodoxy
Scholars define the Great Tradition as the theological consensus of the
first 500 to 1,000 years of Christian history (there is some disagreement on
exact dates). This consensus encompasses the church's universally agreed
upon creeds, councils, fathers, worship, and spirituality. Some key
teachings and figures include the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Definition,
the works of Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory
of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa), the spiritual writings of monks like
Anthony of Egypt, and certain biblical commentaries and pastoral works.
During the past two decades, mainline and evangelical scholars have
rediscovered the creative relevance of the Christian East, with its
insistence on the authority of the first 500 years of Christian teaching and
practice. One recent sign of evangelical interest is Thomas Oden's The
Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco,
2002), in which Oden uses the lowercase o in order to embrace all Catholic,
Protestant, and Orthodox Christians who adhere to the first 500 years of the
Great Tradition. Oden sets forth six layers of evidence to show that there
is, indeed, a widespread rekindling of "the orthodox spirit" at the dawn of
the 21st century. These layers include:
(1) Personal transformation stories. The lives of ordinary Christians and
leading academics who have been dramatically changed by the testimony of the
classic tradition, including Jaroslav Pelikan and Richard Swinburne, who
became Eastern Orthodox, and Robert Wilken and Richard John Neuhaus, who
joined the Catholic church.
(2) Faithful scriptural interpretation. Patristic methods of exegesis are
receiving more attention now than at any time during the previous century.
They are fast becoming a core concern of biblical studies, as evidenced by
the growing number of ancient translations and commentaries being made
widely available by publishing companies such as InterVarsity, Baker, and
(3) The multicultural nature of orthodoxy. No modern multiculturalism is as
deep or fertile as the ecumenical multiculturalism of antiquity. The
cross-cultural richness of the early church is becoming increasingly evident
(4) Well-established doctrinal boundaries. After decades of uncritical
permissiveness in the church, we are now witnessing a renewed energy for
drawing boundaries around questions of religious truth. Thousands of the
faithful are together relearning how to say no to heresy on behalf of a
greater yes for the truth of classical orthodoxy.
(5) Ecumenical roots reclaimed. Confessing and renewing movements in
Protestantism are changing local congregations and even entire
(6) Rise of a new ecumenism. Actually, what we're seeing is a revival of the
ancient ecumenical method of theological decision-making set forth by
Vincent Lerins: "We hold to that which has been believed everywhere, always,
and by all." Laypeople can easily grasp this, and they are doing so.
The problem with the usual Protestant approach to the Great Tradition,
however, is the gaps and inconsistencies in retrieval efforts. To many, the
Great Tradition is like a library, a place you go to pick out the books you
find most helpful. You can discard the ones that no longer seem relevant,
while choosing the ones that have proven to be of lasting value.
So what makes me think that this renewed interest in the Great Tradition may
lead to more Christians joining Eastern Orthodoxy, or at least embracing its
theological vision? Simply put, I think more and more people will recognize
the vital relationship between the major movements and themes of Christian
antiquity and the organic life of the Eastern Orthodox Church from whence
these themes came.
In two areas, especially, the Orthodox church has maintained its unbroken
succession with Christian antiquity, and these areas are particularly
attractive to an increasing number of Christians.
Scripture. We all agree that the Spirit's witness through the Bible is the
main criterion of the church's faith. Tradition simply witnesses to,
safeguards, and corrects itself by the integrity of the biblical message.
But it was the churches of the early centuries (both East and West) that
decided, piecemeal, which texts constituted the canon of Scripture, by
virtue of their apostolic origin and wide acceptance within the worshiping
community. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Spirit embraced
the believing community through the choosing of the canon, rather than that
the church chose the canon. Still, the canon was composed within the context
of the believing community by members of the church. Scripture was never
"external" to the believing community. This does not mean that Scripture
owes its authority to the church, but that the Spirit was inseparably united
to the church and its sacred texts. The church functioned as the mediating
authority that bore witness to the work of God within it.
So whether they are aware of it or not, every time evangelicals pick up
their Bibles, they are relying on the historic church's judgment on the
colossal issue of canonicity! Without acknowledging it, evangelicals
validate the authority of the Spirit-led tradition in determining
canonicity. That same Spirit-led tradition has governed the Orthodox church
over the centuries.
I believe an increasing number of people fascinated with the early church
will see that the Spirit, the Bible, tradition, and real, historical,
identifiable churches are inseparably united, then as now.
Historical continuity. I imagine that the deeper evangelicals delve into
church history, the less they will confine the meaning of "orthodoxy" to the
first 500 or 1,000 years. They will come to embrace the "whole story" of the
faithful, not just the parts they personally like. They will discover that
the fullness of Christian orthodoxy does not end with a date in the history
books, but lives on in what Georges Florovsky called "the mind of the
church" and what John Meyendorff described as the church's "living
tradition." Evangelicals will see that the theological and institutional
history of the Great Tradition is directly tied to the Great Church<namely,
the contemporary Orthodox churches of the Middle East, Greece, Russia,
Eastern Europe, and their children in the West. They will recognize that
today's "rebirth of orthodoxy" cannot do justice to classical Christian
faith without keeping it connected to the church that most fully produced
and inherited its achievements. Few will dispute the historical continuity
between the modern Patriarchate of Antioch, for example, and the Book of
Of course, faithfulness to the truth of the Great Tradition, not
organizational continuity, is what counts most. My point is simply that
those who value classical faith will increasingly engage with Orthodox
churches, which incarnate the Great Tradition day by day as a living
tradition. I'm not arguing that the Great Tradition is the exclusive
property of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is not. Early church fathers,
mothers, ascetics, councils, creeds, art, music, and spirituality are the
rightful heritage of all orthodox Christians<Catholics, Protestants, and
Orthodox alike. There is no room here for Orthodox triumphalism or
romanticism. All orthodox believers share a common ecumenical heritage. But
few historians would dispute the conclusion that in comparison to the 20,000
Protestant denominations in existence today, the Orthodox community can most
justifiably claim to be the fullest heir apparent of the Great Tradition.
At the same time, my evangelical passions prompt me to suggest that this
renewed fascination with the Great Tradition may indirectly revive
Orthodoxy. And if it doesn't, it should. Little by little, our parishioners
are being touched by evangelicals who are rediscovering the creative
relevance of the Christian East and repackaging it far more attractively
than we have been doing for ourselves.
But revival will not happen automatically. Dialogue at the local church
level will help, even if evangelicals learn more from the Orthodox than the
Orthodox are willing to learn from evangelicals. The time has come for us
Orthodox to rediscover the evangelical character of our faith on its own
terms, not defined by using some form of the model of evangelicalism.
Because of our maximalist vision of theology, our evangelical identity will
look and act very differently than yours. I wouldn't exhort my Orthodox
brethren to regain their evangelical focus as passionately as I do in
lectures and articles if I didn't think they would respond, and thankfully
they are doing so in increasing numbers.
So I suggest that the Great Tradition of our Great Church cuts both ways,
and we ourselves are judged by it! Even if the gospel is formally a part of
the life of the Orthodox church, as we believe, that does not mean our
people have understood and appropriated its message. "Catholicity" (i.e.,
"the whole and adequate" expression of the faith) must be discerned and
applied if the church is to be spiritually viable in today's world.
More and more Orthodox, as they study the Great Tradition, are admitting
that our leaders and laity don't have a mature grasp of their own faith.
They recognize that the church isn't free from ethnocentrism or religious
bigotry, that it hasn't contextualized its faith and liturgy in the modern
world, and that it hasn't figured out how to relate to unchurched people in
North America (its converts consist mostly of disillusioned believers from
other Christian traditions). More and more Orthodox, as they explore the
early church afresh, see that there are parts of its ancient liturgies that
seem to have no biblical justification and that we cannot simply regard the
Reformation and the last millennium in the West as nothing more than a
To be sure, there are countless cases of people whose spiritual lives are
flourishing in vibrant Orthodox communities. Still, the most urgent need in
world Orthodoxy is the need to engage in an aggressive "internal mission" of
spiritual renewal and rededication of our priests and people to Jesus
Christ. I know from experience that it's possible to be "religious, but
lost." That's why all of us Orthodox<bishops, priests, and people<need to
make the gospel crystal clear and absolutely central in our lives and in our
parishes. We must constantly recover the personal and relational aspects of
God in every life-giving action of the church. Naturally, if this happens,
it will lead to a revival within Orthodoxy, which will cause the church to
blossom in unprecedented ways.
Yes, these predictions and exhortations are speculative; they may never come
to fruition as I hope and imagine. And I admit that my commitment to an
evangelical Orthodoxy predisposes me to hope like this. That being said, I
still see signs that suggest that these two great expressions of the
Christian faith, the evangelical and the Orthodox, are gradually coming
together in vision, if not in worship, and that the 21st century may be
known as the Orthodox century.
Bradley Nassif is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at
North Park University and is currently writing the Westminster Handbook to
Eastern Orthodox Theology (Westminster John Knox, 2009). He is a member of
the Antiochian Orthodox Church.