An Orthodox Introduction to the 2nd Edition of the Romanian Translation of ‘Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism’ – 3

  1. WHAT HAS HAPPENED IN CONCRETE TERMS IN ROMANIA IN REGARD TO DIALOGUE?

In terms of events that have given concrete expression to the concern for dialogue between Orthodox and Evangelicals in Romania, a number of initiatives may be mentioned.

In 2009, the Babes-Bolyai University, through the Centre for Lifelong Learning, the Faculty of Orthodox Theology, the Centre for Biblical Studies, World Vision International and the Iasi-based Adoramus publishing house, held a conference at Cluj-Napoca with the title The Paschal Mystery and the Liturgical Life of the Church, at which Dr Bradley Nassif, professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University, Chicago, was an invited speaker.

The conference was followed by the launching of the Romanian translation of the book Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism. Three Perspectives. Those who spoke on this occasion were Professor Nassif, Dr Danut Manastireanu and the Revd Professor Stelian Tofana. All three speakers stressed, in their addresses, the book’s significance for non-official theological dialogue between Orthodox and Evangelicals in Romania.

Following these two events, and on the same day, there was also a round-table discussion on the subject “Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism. Perspectives in Dialogue”, which took place at the university staff club. Those who attended this discussion were priests and teachers from the Cluj-Napoca Faculty of Orthodox Theology and a number of Evangelical pastors and believers from Cluj and from other Romanian cities.

The discussion focused specifically on the need for the official establishment of such a dialogue in Romania, with the prospects and challenges involved being very openly expressed. I cannot say that the discussions were of much encouragement in allowing us to be more hopeful than we had been previously in terms of Orthodox interest for such a dialogue. The Evangelicals were much more open. I do not know if they stayed just as optimistic after the event as well. The dialogue-discussion had rather the effect of showing us the distance, still a very long one, which we would still have to travel before we could find a common language in which to identify points of doctrinal agreement and shared worship.

The unity of which the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, spoke shortly before His death, and which He expressed as His last will and testament, and as a Christian desideratum, is still expressed in different and frequently conflictual terms both by Orthodox and Evangelicals.

Besides these events, we could also include among the efforts made towards concrete dialogue between the two ecclesial communities the participation of both sides at various national and international symposia held by the Bucharest Pentecostal Institute, the Emanuel University, Oradea, and the Cluj-Napoca Centre for Biblical Studies. It is true that the Orthodox side is much more reserved in the way it issues invitations to the Evangelical world to participate in these kinds of academic events. Of course such a manner of relating to the Evangelical world is not at all positive. But we may hope for a change of paradigm in the future.

  1. OBSTACLES, PROSPECTS, SOLUTIONS, CHANCES FOR DIALOGUE

Obstacles arise, of course, from an incorrect approach to and understanding of ecumenism, on the one hand, and of dialogue on the other. Personally I cannot regard as effective the kind of ecumenism and dialogue that moves from the centre to the periphery rather than in the opposite direction. A mountain cannot be seen from close up but only from a certain distance away. It is only from there that we can see properly what it looks like and how many steps we still need to take before we reach it. In other words, we need to move from the bottom towards the top, that is, to start from the concrete missionary situations that characterise our communities, and not try to go from the ideal to the concrete. It is true that in such a kind of hazy dialogue the results can just about be made out somewhere on the distant horizon, but we need to have more confidence in small steps than in seven-league boots.

As for the prospects for dialogue in the immediate future and the medium term, it is hard to make definite judgements. What is certain is that, in the absence of dialogue, we will never come to know each other, and each group will continue to regard the other as its old enemy as we run on our parallel tracks, with the Orthodox characterising the Evangelicals in a “brotherly” manner as “heretics”, while the Evangelicals similarly call the Orthodox “non-Christians”. But these descriptions have no basis in reality. The Evangelicals are not hopeless heretics, nor are the Orthodox non-Christians in need of being made into Christians. We are all brothers and sisters awaiting the love of the other. Likewise, without dialogue we will not know either where we have gone wrong or where we have been right.

For this reason, if we start with what unites us, I believe that the first more concrete step to be undertaken would be the setting-up of two working groups. They would be tasked with deciding what are the common and divergent points that unite and divide the two ecclesial bodies and with making the preparations for a Romania-wide inter-confessional conference on a shared theme, to be held in the near future. The results of this would then be brought to the notice of the Orthodox hierarchy and discussed with theologians who relate in good faith to this dialogue.

Meetings of this kind should be points of departure aimed at defining the common effort over the medium term. For the moment, I do not think we can hope for more than this. In fact the difficulties which will be encountered along the way are both institutional and connected with mentalities.

The hierarchy is not fully persuaded of the need for such a dialogue. Critical voices, some of them coming from outside Romania, from the wider world of Orthodoxy, are still putting pressure on the hierarchy and causing it to be timid. The Orthodox side needs to put greater emphasis on the fact that the making official of this kind of Orthodox-Evangelical dialogue would not mean any capitulation of Orthodoxy but rather the promotion of its values at an academic level. Conservative feeling does not always take the legitimate form of caution but often manifests as fear. And fear, in this context, stems more from ignorance than from any genuine threat.

An Evangelical theology cultivated and produced in prestigious universities abroad can no longer be ignored by the Orthodox. There are voices, increasingly weighty ones, which demand a hearing. A familiarisation with this theology can involve nothing but gain in terms of knowledge of that other tradition which we share at many points. But in order for steps to be taken along this road there is need of courage, of skill, of mutual respect, of people who will understand that truth is not what you obstinately propagate but what you do not need to defend.

Solutions do exist, and neither are they far from us. A return to origins, to “orthodoxy” as it was defined in correct doctrine before the great historical ruptures – first the great Christological controversy of the fifth and sixth centuries, which led to the appearance of the Eastern or non-Chalcedonian Orthodox churches, and then the culminating events of the Great Schism (1054 – the division between the East and the West) and the Reformation (1517 – the appearance of Protestantism) – constitutes the only shared basis from which it is possible to set out on the long road of dialogue.

The appeal made by the Orthodox should be centred more on the idea of “non-Orthodox” returning not to the Orthodox Church but to genuine orthodoxy. Once we reach that place, both groups will see what we need to leave behind, if we have made additions, and what we need to add, if we have omitted it. If we fail to do this, we will be speaking two completely different languages, with the Evangelicals accusing the Orthodox of cosmeticising “genuine orthodoxy” by importing Tradition into it and by laying excessive stress on the authority of the hierarchy of the Church, and the Orthodox charging the Evangelicals with mutilating “genuine orthodoxy” by filtering its assimilation and interpretation through one sole court of final authority, Scripture, and of instituting lay authority in the Church. It will be understood that I cannot include here all the arguments “pro and contra” that would add the necessary nuances to what has been stated. All I am considering here are the general principles on which the reciprocal “characterisations” that lie behind the “friendliness” of the dialogue are based.

There is a need for greater clarity in the definition of terminology that seems to be keeping differences alive. This too appears to be a way forward that offers hope for the future. In this context Bradley Nassif is correct when he states that “it is a risky ecumenical exercise when Orthodox and Evangelical theologians, experts in their own traditions, embark upon dialogue without defining their terms or without possessing a responsible understanding of the theological vocabulary of the other camp and of the diversity of opinions that exist within it”.

It is only in an academic climate of this kind that we can speak of the chances of dialogue and of the possibility of concrete results. The chances of success are real, but what is less well founded is a hope for communion or for full doctrinal convergence between the two ecclesial communities.

What we need to highlight now are the steps that need to be taken in order to give a realistic prospect of a fruitful dialogue. Here are a number of relevant suggestions:

  • efforts made at the individual level are less likely to be able to transpose into reality a vision that should be a shared one;
  • Evangelicals need to speak the language of shared values rather than one of proselytism;
  • the holding of joint conferences and symposia;
  • the facilitation of the involvement of Evangelical theologians in research into Eastern spirituality, with its concrete results in the form of doctoral theses, dissertations, monographs, etc.;
  • the Orthodox need to encourage initiatives of this kind. The results will be positive ones for both churches. We are well aware of Romanian Evangelical theologians who have studied in an Orthodox context and have given final form to their work in impressive doctoral theses. I might mention Emil Bartos, Danut Manastireanu, Danut Jemma and Ciprian Terinte, and these are not all;
  • the encouragement that has come, in our days, from only a few professors (Vasile Mihoc, Ioan Sauca, Stelian Tofana, Ioan Ica) who have grasped that doctorates conferred on Evangelicals are not weapons turned against the uniqueness of their faith but rather routes via which Evangelicals may come to access Patristic spirituality, so characteristic of Orthodoxy, needs to be redoubled by other Romanian Orthodox theologians coming to hold this point of view;
  • outdated mentalities need to be abandoned. You cannot make your theological treasures known by keeping them hidden. The Orthodox are still suffering from this mentality;
  • shutting the truth of the faith and the spiritual inheritance up in an ivory tower means you are not protecting them but concealing them.

Revd Professor Stelian Tofana, PhD

(English translation by Stuart & Dorothy Elford.)

To be continued…

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