An Orthodox Introduction to the 2nd Edition of the Romanian Translation of ‘Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism’ – 2

  1. WHAT DO WE HAVE TO LEARN FROM ONE ANOTHER?

Of course, we often ask ourselves, not without some degree of self-assurance (as we must acknowledge), whether we have anything to learn from one another, Orthodox from Evangelicals and Evangelicals from Orthodox. If we are honest with ourselves, there can only be one answer: Yes! We have many things to learn from one another! But among these benefits I would like to highlight just a few, which, I judge, would be useful to us along the ‘path of dialogue’ if we do indeed wish to walk it together.

  1. Orthodox have to learn from Evangelicals:
  • How much work they still have to do to make the Gospel of Christ much clearer and much more central in the lives of Orthodox Christians than it has been up to now[1]. The Orthodox Church needs to overcome a huge disadvantage, namely the so-called phenomenon of ‘biblical illiteracy’, and Evangelicals are, here, an example for what needs to be done for us to escape from this impasse. This example is not one to be ignored. A year ago I initiated, at the Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Cluj, a biblical programme with the title “Let’s read and learn the Bible together!” Many attend. Half the time is devoted to interaction with those present. But I was very surprised to discover two things:

  1. Many Evangelical Christians too participated in person in the programme – or listened to the live radio broadcasts (the programme being broadcast on Radio Renasterea [Rebirth] which is under the patronage of the Orthodox Archdiocese of Vadu, Feleacu and Cluj).
  2. As for online reactions, whether they were requests for additional clarification, or intended to express reservations about some of the affirmations made (there being fewer in this second group), or asking for a private discussion in connection with the topics debated, these did not come from the Orthodox but from Evangelicals. And I have to recognise that behind all these questions one could discern in-depth bible knowledge or spiritual interest.

The fact that the Book of the Gospels[2] is to be found, at particular liturgical moments, in the centre of the Church, and that Orthodox believers bow before it and kiss it, does not mean that they have also understood its message or that they have appropriated it. The fact that it is said of Orthodox Christians that they “kiss the Gospel but do not read it”[3] is not a positive evaluation. It is a somewhat unpleasantly-intentioned joke, but one behind which there lies a truth: the distinctly evident absence from Orthodox church services of explanatory preaching of the holy Word. It is true that the Gospel contains the Word of God, as a work of His which is identified with its author, the work being inseparable from the person who created it[4]. This is the reason for this act of bowing to and venerating the Gospel, but, beyond the action, there remains the sad truth of the lack of knowledge or, at least, of a poor knowledge of the Holy Word.

  • The example of the bringing together of the Life of Faith and day to day living. Evangelicals are not above criticism in this regard, but they express this integration, at least outwardly, to a greater extent than is the case with Orthodox Christians. The consequent dubbing of Evangelicals, by the Orthodox, with the expression “Pharisees” is but a sign of the recognition of a sense of dissatisfaction connected with the identity of the latter and is in no sense a value judgment. We must not for one moment forget the fact that we are all called to show consistent behaviour that is full of generosity, compassion and humility and to put aside all traces of arrogance, condescension and disparagement towards our neighbour irrespective of the way that he expresses his faith (cf. Galatians 5:22).
  • The emphasis on mission as a personal and collective aim. People in the ultra-secularised society in which we live need to be ‘re-evangelised’ and ‘re-christianised’, not by a repetition of Baptism but by a new birth through the Word of God. The Orthodox Church is conscious of the need for a renewed interpretation of the Word of God for each generation in the life of the Church. This means that the Spirit enlightens every Christian generation through the language and circumstances of its time in order to lead believers into “all truth”. This activity presupposes individual and collective mission. It is true that Evangelicals carry out this kind of mission but they most often do so with the aim of proselytism, which generates a reaction of rejection from the Orthodox.

We have said so many times that the Church of this millennium cannot but be a ‘missionary’ one, rather than a mere reactive-contemplative one. I believe that only a Church of that kind will ever be taken seriously in the very near future, a Church which will challenge people’s consciences and will itself go out into the world rather than waiting for the world to come to it.

  1. What do Evangelicals have to learn from the Orthodox?
  • Fundamental aspects of the faith which are deeply rooted in the doctrine and in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church.
  • The richness of the spiritual legacy of the Church Fathers. The patristic literature is indispensable for an understanding of the spiritual experience of Christendom down the centuries, and also for understanding the spiritual message of the Scripture. Theoria[5] as a patristic principle for interpreting scripture ought to be studied more seriously by Evangelicals to help them to also understand the sacred text in a way that goes beyond “Scriptura Scripturae interpres”.
  • An understanding of sanctification as a progressive process of becoming completely holy, culminating in theosis[6].
  • A greater emphasis on the communal aspect of salvation rather than on individual salvation.
  • The value of a hierarchical institutional-ecclesial pattern of organisation. It is seriously difficult for the Orthodox to understand who their partners in dialogue are when Evangelicals are concerned. Evangelicals needs to define their institutional-ecclesial identity more precisely. It is well known that the Evangelical movement is a complex phenomenon, but in order for a well-articulated thematic dialogue to be able to develop, the ecclesial identity of the partners in the dialogue needs to be very well defined. The Orthodox do not really know who they should be discussing with in a possible official dialogue.
  • The Church – the most suitable forum for the interpretation, preaching and liturgical celebration of the Word of God. Although personal interpretation of Scripture is welcome and to be encouraged, it somehow loses its right to authority if it is detached from any connection with the ecclesial Body and with the Tradition of the Church. This does not mean that the exegete’s deductions and reflections are pre-determined by the doctrine of the Church. Nevertheless, Orthodox exegetes sustain the absolute necessity of submitting one’s reflections to the phronema ekklesias, that is, to the “thinking of the Church”[7].

And in order that we may be able to learn from one another, I believe that we ought to reflect more on the two bold analogies put forward by Bradley Nassif: concentric circles, and the tree and the seed. In the first we have the smaller circle (the Evangelicals), which includes within it fundamental doctrines, essential and common to the two entities, and the larger circle (the Orthodox), which includes those doctrines considered essential by the Orthodox but frequently ignored by Evangelicals. With reference to the second analogy, with the seed representing Evangelicals and the large, developed tree representing the Orthodox, Bradley Nassif states: “There is great theological potential in that seed of the Evangelical movement, which has almost (but not quite) everything it needs in order for it to become the tree of life and of Orthodox thinking” (pp 117-118).

  1. POINTS IN COMMON AND POINTS OF DIVERGENCE

Within the ambit of theoretical issues there are a number of points of convergence and divergence on which I would like to comment. Under the heading of disagreements, I will list several topics which can in no way be neglected when the foundation of a future dialogue comes to be laid:

  • Ecclesiology. From the Orthodox point of view, it is impossible to speak about the Church without dealing with the mysteries and the priesthood, on the one hand, and the significance of the cross as its foundation, on the other. In an ecclesiology of this kind, what becomes paradigmatic is the ontological union of the Christian with Christ, in His mystical Body, by means of the sacraments.
  • Mariology and the veneration of the saints (including, here, also the veneration of icons) – important areas that distinguish the spirituality and piety of Orthodox Christians.
  • Theosis – as the culmination of the process of sanctification.
  • The authority of the Fathers in the interpretation of Scripture.

Points in common:

  • Scripture understood as the written part of Tradition. The Orthodox accept this formulation, but it does not exclude Tradition in its non-written form, understood as the second means of the transmission of Revelation. The scriptural basis of the affirmation of Tradition can be a point of reflection for the understanding of a Biblical hermeneutic that sets out to interpret the text from other coordinates as well. Indeed the Orthodox reject the notion of scriptural autarkeia or “self-sufficiency”, as expressed in the syntagm Sola Scriptura, but accept unreservedly the canonical and normative role of Scripture in settling issues of faith, discipline or individual or collective behaviour.
  • Belief in the Triune God.
  • A history and a shared acceptance of the Ecumenical Councils, with the exception of the Seventh, in their major dogmatic definitions.

Revd Professor Stelian Tofana, PhD

____________

[1] For a discussion of the theme of the centrality of Christ and His Gospel in the life of Christians, see Stelian Tofana, “ ‘Evanghelizare’ sau ‘centralitatea’ lui Hristos intr-o societate secularizata” [‘Evangelism’ or ‘the centrality of Christ’ in a secularised society] in Dimesiunea sociala a Evangheliei [The Social Dimension of the Gospel], theological supplement to the journal Pleroma, Bucharest, 2011, pp 15-33.

[2] The writer has “the Gospel” here, using the accustomed Orthodox expression. This has been rendered in English to convey the liturgical practice of lifting up a book containing the four scripture Gospels in the presence of the congregation. [Tr.]

[3] Cf. John Breck, Sfanta Scriptura in Traditia Bisericii [Holy Scripture in the Tradition of the Church], trad. Ioana Tamaian, Cluj-Napoca, Patmos, 2003, p. 32.

[4] See the relevant details in Dumitru Staniloae, Iisus Hristos sau restaurarea omului [Jesus Christ or the Restoration of Man], Sibu, 1943, pp 219-224.

[5] See Vasile Mihoc, “Actualitatea exegezei biblice a sfintilor parinti” [The relevance of the Holy Fathers’ biblical exegesis] in Revista Teologica, VII, (79), 1997, no.2, pp 52-74.

[6] The Romanian word is literally ‘holiness’ but it has been rendered ‘sanctification’ because of how it is described here as a gradual process. Whether this would equate to the usual Evangelical usage of the term sanctification would be something discussion might need to clarify. [Tr.]

[7] For further explanations and details on this subject, see John Breck, op. cit., pp 61-63.

(English translation by Stuart & Dorothy Elford.)

To be continued…

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