Why I Won’t Convert

In the wake of my post “Honouring Mary as Protestants,” I found myself drawn into an amicable Reformed-Orthodox dialogue of sorts on Orthodox-Reformed Bridge.  In the discussion, I was challenged to explain my rejection of the idea that any tradition preserved intact and entire the timeless essence of true Christianity–did this not make me postmodernist, rejecting the objectivity of truth?  Was this not just an excuse for Protestant subjectivism, picking and choosing my own little mix of traditions as I saw fit?  In my replies, I summarized my view on the relationship of Protestantism and tradition, and why I see the call to “submit” to “the Church” as a cop-out, fuelled by a desire for easy solutions to doctrinal corruption and division.  The following is adapted from those comments: 

I am not a “postmodernist”–I do not think that all we have are “fragments of the Gospel.” I believe that the Gospel once delivered to the saints is a rock upon which the Church is built, and from which it can never depart. I believe that the heart of that faith remains constant over the millennia, but as history moves forward, the Church grows (and occasionally backslides) in its understanding of that faith, and that, so profound is the truth to which we are called to witness that no single formulation of it can claim to have captured it fully; on the contrary, all we can claim is to have testified to an aspect of it, and must be ready to consider that other Christians, or other eras of the Church, may have testified to another aspect, which we should not immediately rule out simply because it doesn’t line up exactly with our own. I also believe that under the guidance of the Spirit, the Church is advancing, and that we can be confident that on the whole, our grasp of the truth of God in Christ will grow rather than shrink.

There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture. This is not postmodernism, because it presupposes that we all are actually looking at the same object, and seeing something real there outside ourselves. But it is not naive objectivism, which assumes that the object simply is what we have perceived–no more, no less.

You may be right in being concerned that this seems to give no simple, straightforward basis of combating “liberalism.” I believe that the search for some kind of magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow, leaving only orthodox forms of the faith standing, is a fool’s errand. I believe that the kind of patient and humble submission to Scripture that I have described does give us the ability to identify and defeat inauthentic forms of the faith, false testimonies to Christ, but it will always have to be a patient and careful struggle. The magic weapons of the Magisterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are illusory–they are themselves embedded in the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history from which they claim to rescue us. The latter may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time, but new issues are always confronting the Church. The former may promise an authoritative answer to all of these new issues, but at the cost of its own consistency over the centuries, and without escaping the problem of interpretation–think of how many contradictory forms of Catholicism right now claim to be in submission to Vatican II.


The alternative is a commitment to semper reformanda.  This need not mean, as critics will say, opting for a self-indulgent “continual smorgasbord” and “convenient selectivity.” Rather, it’s about a constant wrestling with the voice of Scripture, and the voice of its interpreters through all the ages of the Church, a willingness to never rest satisfied that we have all the answers, and instead to always allow ourselves to be interrogated by the Word. In this, we must always be open to the possibility that our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights, but in confidence that God does not change, and he has been faithful in leading his Church into truth in the past. Therefore, we may rest confidently upon the historic creeds of the Church, determined that even as our growing comprehension of the truth of the Gospel may shed new light on these foundations, it must never lead us to contradict them. 

It’s hard to see how this can be dismissed as “convenient selectivity.” To my mind, this posture is a far more difficult and uncomfortable one than that which seeks the comfort of some ossified and de-historicized tradition that will decide in advance all questions, so that we can simply rest on, say, the determinations of the first 700 years of the Church (or some idealised compendium of them), without having to wrestle with the Scriptures ourselves.

The critic may respond that this makes us each into our own popes, listening to no authority but ourselves. I would suggest, on the contrary, that it requires us to listen to authority even more. Instead of simply taking one set of authorities from one period of the Church, we have to take seriously the authority of Augustine, of Athanasius, of Gregory Nazianzen, of Anselm, of Gregory Palamas, of Aquinas, of Luther, of Hooker, of Newman, of Schmemann, of John Paul II, of our own parents and pastors and all those that God has put into our lives. We have to do our best to listen respectfully to all these voices, instead of just one or two, and to submit our own judgments to their greater wisdom, seeking to find harmony when they disagree with one another, and when we cannot harmonise, making painful decisions about who to follow. And let me tell you, this is a hard thing to do. It cannot, in any case, be rightly done in an individualist, me-and-my-Bible way, but only in constant dialogue with other Christians, waiting patiently for the Spirit to guide us through the wisdom of our communities.

I should add, moreover, that this should always be done from a standpoint of submission to a particular tradition in which one has been called, using the language and categories of that tradition as one’s starting point and interpretive grid. For me, that’s the Reformed tradition. I have all kinds of problems with that tradition, but that’s where God has put me, and I believe therefore that I am called to, as much as possible, critique and revise that tradition where necessary from within itself (while listening attentively, as I have said above, to other voices from Church history), not by constructing a personal postmodern smorgasbord that contains pieces of all traditions but the heart of none.

34 thoughts on “Why I Won’t Convert

  1. David

    Brad,Please allow me a little friendly 'devil's-advocacy' that might sharpen our perceptions. Given the attractive eloquence of your post, what seems increasingly obvious here is that we have two views of Christian Discipleship. Though similarities and common doctrinal commitments certainly exist between us, there are fundamental differences. Our Protestant view of Discipleship is Progressive. The Church is our community of faith into which we are baptized and changed. Yet as we diligently develop our ever-changing (maturing) theology, liturgy and practice, we are active worker bees – in a Church (as you noted) too grand for any single man or group to fully comprehend. In this She becomes our great, collective, multifaceted science Project. There is no expectation, other than several core beliefs, that She will look the same to our our great-grandchildren as She does today – indeed, this is a good thing that proves our progress and maturity. There is an unmistakable entrepreneurialism, and structural liberty here in the various quests for innovation and progress.If I have understood correctly, Orthodoxy, though offering some common doctrinal stones, has a very different vision for discipleship. The Church is not nearly so much to be built, as received. Rather than a giant science project ever morphing into something new and improved, the Church is the pillar and ground of Truth – once and for all delivered to the saint. Rather than searching for ways to change Her, the Orthodox are change by Her – in the practiced repetition of Her receive Divine Liturgies, prayers, Sacramental mysteries, sacred fasts, close communion with a vast array of saints… By these, through Her the world is changed from glory to glory. Rather than cultivating the spirit of innovation and progress – She cultivates submission, humility, and union with God – what they call theosis. Obviously, this is not all that can be said, or should be said as we seek to learn from each other. Let me again commend your irenic spirit that allows for such friendly dialogue.


  2. Brad, In retrospect, I think I was asking the wrong question when I asked if you were post-modern. I think the question should have been: Are you a theological modernist? I raise this question because of the following paraphrases that summarize what you said:(1) There is an objective truth but it is so big that no one of us has the entire picture; theology is like a mosaic that we and others collaborate to piece together;(2) We must be open to the possibility that "our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights"; and (3) I am called to "critique and revise that tradition from within itself" while listening to other voices from church history. If I understand you correctly, you see Christian theology as based upon a reasoned inquiry that rests upon sola scriptura and semper reformanda. You see it as incremental, developmental, and progressive. It also seems you view theological discourse being based mutual contestation much like the way modern scientists test and challenge rival hypotheses. I can see the appeal this approach has for you; it is inclusive, non-hegemonic, and reasonable. I was both amused and perturbed by your colorful rhetoric. You certainly have a way with words but extreme language like "ossified and de-historicized tradition," "fool's errand," and "magic weapon" impede reasoned dialogue between those who advocate the Eastern Orthodox way of doing theology and the Protestant way. For example you oversimplified the Orthodox approach when you stated that one must do more than just "simply taking one set of authorities from one period of the Church." Orthodox theology does not restrict itself to a particular period. It includes modern day theologians like John Zizioulas, John Meyendorff, Georges Florovsky, Vladimir Lossky, et al. but it gives special place to the early Church Fathers. At the same time it excludes heterodox theologians because their theological systems rest on foundations different from that of Eastern Orthodoxy. I have two observations about your reading list of Christian theologians. One, it strikes me as being a heavy burden to expect anyone to have read all these theologians. This echoes a complaint I made elsewhere about the heavy burden of adhering to sola scriptura. Two, it strikes me as rather provincial and narrow. It leaves out modern Protestant theologians like Karl Barth, Adolf Von Harnack, John A.T. Robinson (Bishop of Woolwich), Paul Tillich, Friedrich Schleiermacher, John Hick; and modern Roman Catholic theologians like Hans Kung, Leonardo Boff, and David Tracy. Your exclusion of the major modern theologians strikes me as arbitrary and "conveniently selective." Lastly, I was concerned by your claim to be in submission to a particular tradition (the Reformed tradition) while also being called to "critique and revise" that tradition. This combined with your earlier statements about the progressive and developmental of Christian theology reminds me of the theological liberals I met and read during my time in the United Church of Christ. Much of twentieth century liberalism started off with an optimistic sincerity before it developed into unexpected beliefs and practices. I am not insinuating that you will become a theological liberal but I doubt your comprehensive Anglican approach to theology combined with the Hegelian dialectical approach advocated by Schaff to church history will be able to help stem the tide of theological liberalism and capitalistic consumerism that is already radically reshaping Protestantism today. You may find yourself in a comfortable Reformed niche but I fear that you will find the broader Protestant world will have morphed beyond recognition over the next several decades. I will close with three cultural references. One is Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken." You and I have reached the point where the road diverges into two separate directions. You have gone down one path and I the other. It may be one day our paths may cross. Another is Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son in which the younger brother sets off for a far off country. I worry about what may befall you in the far off country in your quest for a progressive Reformed catholicity. I came home from the far off country several years ago and now I see you heading out there! The third is Paul Simon's poignant "So Long Frank Lloyd Wright" addressed to his music partner Art Garfunkel before their breakup. I feel a theological kinship with you due to our common appreciation for Mercersburg Theology. I look forward to future conversations with you but it is quite clear that you and I are moving off in different directions.


  3. David, at the risk of oversimplifying matters, we have two views of the church presented: that articulated by Littlejohn in the above post, which has continuity with the best in the Protestant tradition (as well as much of RC), and that which you have articulated in the above comment, which has continuity with the EO tradition. My question for you, which I hope you will answer in as direct a way possible, is what criteria do you think one ought to employ in determining which of these two models is correct?


  4. David

    Hey Robin,First, how I characterized Orthodox praxis applies partly, to Reformed communities. Some would argue it's not EITHER Progressive theological development innovation, OR Received Liturgical and Sacramental nurturing Tradition – but BOTH. This is true in part for many Reformed Churches. Yet it's not nearly so central, given the same weight, form, or detail as found in Orthodoxy. So, my previous summary, thus modified, still grasps the dominant expression of discipleship & mission for each group.Now, to your question: what criterion best tests the correctness to the two models? I suggest two, though there're likely others: Scripture and History. Biblical & Covenant Theology progressivly develop in the Old Covenant. For example, the Adamic/Abrahamic/Noahic Covenants are not as rich/full as the Mosaic or Davidic. But since our concern is with theological development after Christ's ascension, the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the establishment of the Church – not before – this is no consolation. These are prior to the consummation of all Covenants in Christ.So, did the Apostles engage in progressive theological development after Christ's ascension…? Does the Great Commission demand progressive theological development and innovation to teach Christian Disciple “all things I have command you”? Christ connected the dots which reveal Him in the Old Testament on the road to Emmaus – as did Phillip for the Ethiopian eunuch. The Apostles also taught these connections, fulfillments and subsequent implications of Christ in continuity with Old Testament promises in their teaching and writing of the new Testament. Is this innovative development – or just the clarification of biblical continuity and history? Also, is there continuation after the writing of the New Testament and Apostolic age with early Church Fathers? Are today's Protestant theologians only doing what the Apostles and Fathers did before them, say through Seven Ecumenical Councils? Ephesians four, verses 13, 14 might argue for Orthodoxy's stability and maturity in the Early Church, with the implications of Heb. 5:12-14. While some are charged to…no longer be “children, tossed to and fro…” others need strong meat, are not babes needing milk, but teachers skilled by reason of use…” These exhortations & rebukes imply a stable maturity, as is found in a host of their writings, just as one might expect by reeving Christ's unique promises via the Holy Spirit. (We Protestants typically imply a self-serving childishness and vulnerable instability to the early Church and Fathers – which of course collapsed the Roman Empire and turned the world upside down – and upon whose giant shoulders we stand! Hum…this becomes both difficult if not awkward to sustain, or to a priori assume.) Here, the historicity of the Church must be soberly faced. What do we find? Do we find a Protestant style of theological innovation and development? Or, do we find a early, stable, elaborate Liturgical and Sacramental Tradition zealously guarded by Church Fathers and Bishops? Is the belief and praxis of the early Church largely Protestant – or overwhelmingly Orthodoxy? The Apostles lived the balance of their lives under the promise of Jn. 14:26. What did the Holy Spirit bring to the remembrance of the Apostles…that they taught Timothy, Ignatius and their other disciples in time, on earth? I hope this has been helpful and, of course, there is more to be said, and said wtih more flare. But these are wonderful issues to ponder over as we seek to please Christ…and woship and serve Him rightly.


  5. Thanks Daivd, but just as you say that your characterization of Orthodox praxis applies partly to Reformed communities as well, who affirm that it's not EITHER Progressive theological development innovation, OR Received Liturgical and Sacramental nurturing Tradition, but BOTH, wouldn't it also be true that within Orthodoxy it is also both, or at least was up until a certain point in history. Because consider, if you walk into an Orthodox service today it does not look like a service in the first century, since the liturgy emerged progressively under the inspired imagination of men of God like Saint Basil and others (I can prove this historically from EO writers if it becomes necessary). Orthodoxy simply picked one point in time and decided not to innovate past that whereas Protestantism has continued to evolve. Orthodoxy is like a train that stopped ten miles past the starting point, whereas Protestantism is a thousand miles past it and has kept moving. Thus, the disagreement is not so much qualitative as quantitative, and the two positions are in principle perhaps a lot closer than we realize. Also, we would have to ask whether the innovating is occurring under the direction of the Holy Spirit.


  6. Robin,You're right about the Orthodox Liturgy not being the same as the first century liturgy. Part of the confusion comes from Orthodox Christians emphasizing how they have kept the Faith without change. The Orthodox understanding of tradition is organic. In place your train on a railroad track analogy I would like suggest we view the Orthodox liturgy like a growing mango tree. The seed and the emerging plant are quite different from the mature full grown tree but the basic features are still there. It's still a mango, it hasn't mutated into a banyan tree. With Protestantism there has emerged a quite different form of worship: the sermon centered worship as the dominant form of Sunday worship. I know that there are Protestants who will point out that the original Reformers gave priority to the proclamation of the Gospel and the sacraments but in general it is the sermon centered worship that has become the dominant de facto Protestant form of worship. Another Protestant departure from the historic worship is the abandonment of the episcopacy. Ignatius of Antioch insisted that a valid Eucharist could only take place under the authority of the bishop. Orthodoxy still holds to this ancient view. Given some of the rather bizarre forms of worship that have emerged in Protestantism in recent years I would have to disagree with your claim that the difference between Orthodoxy and Protestantism is more quantitative than qualitative.To reiterate, I would say that the Orthodox liturgy has retained its basic shape even as it developed over time. The same cannot be said about Protestant worship. I think Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral, Chuck Smith's Calvary Chapel, Willowcreek and other megachurches, Pentecostalism's exuberant worship, Billy Graham and the Baptists' practice of altar calls represent not so much progress on the same railroad track, but a train jumping off the railroad track all together.


  7. Brad Littlejohn

    David, I am afraid you have imputed something to me that does not really reflect the words of the post above.  You speak of me advocating a concept of the Church as something that we always actively construct, rather than passively receive, "ever morphing into something new and improved," envisioning the Church as a giant science project, in which we tinker and experiment and change things just for the heck of it.  But this is not the kind of language I used.I spoke of the Gospel as a constant rock under our feet, as a solid object which we are called to contemplate and come to a fuller and fuller grasp of.  I spoke of patient and humble submission, of letting ourselves be interrogated by the word, of resting confidently on the historic creeds, of listening respectfully to the voices of the great teachers from church history, and of submitting to one's own tradition.  In other words, when you say that for the Orthodox, "The Church is not nearly so much to be built, as received," that "rather than cultivating the spirit of innovation and progress–she cultivates submission, humility, and union with God," that sounds an awful lot like what I was describing with all those phrases.  But here's the thing–think about what you are saying.  If the Church is the pillar and ground of truth, what are pillars and grounds for?  For building upon.  The Church is not the whole building of the whole truth, but is the foundation of it.  That doesn't mean there isn't any more work to do.  You say that for the Orthodox, the Church and its teaching is to be "received."  Ok, great.  But what are you supposed to do with a gift you receive?  Go hide it in a closet?  No, use it.  Reception is not purely passive, but active.  If I gave you a book–say, if I gave you a book that I'd written (and this seems a good metaphor for the Church passing down its tradition) would I want you to treasure that book in a shrine?  No, I'd like you to read it, engage with it, ask it questions, argue with it.  And I wouldn't want you to come away from it just echoing everything I'd written, not unless I were a pretentious ass.  Rather, I'd want you to improve upon it if necessary, to interact constructively and suggest where I could say what I wanted to say better. The active/passive, dynamic/static, innovative/submissive dichotomies you're trying to draw are simply way too stark.  We need humble, thankful reception which is not afraid to carry forward what it receives.


  8. Brad Littlejohn

    Robert,First of all, much as I appreciate the interaction, let's get something straight.  You're not my lifelong theological mentor.  I didn't know you from the man in the moon a week ago.  So, I'm not sure what the deal is with the patronising posturing as a comrade who has come to a tragic parting of the ways, of an older brother who is watching me wander off to a far country where I will be condemned to eat pig's slop–but do knock it off.  Second of all, a word about rhetoric.  I wasn't intending to indulge in any kind of colourful rhetoric, and I'm surprised it came across that way.  Nor do I think there's anything particularly "extreme" about those metaphors, or any reason why accusations of "ossified and de-historicized tradition" should be more harmful to reasoned dialogue than accusations of postmodernism or theological modernism.  In any case, I was not applying these critical descriptions to you personally, or indeed to anyone interested in reasoned dialogue.  I have known people who do convert to Rome or the East because they are looking for a magic weapon, and have a very de-historicized ideal of what those traditions have to offer.  When people think that way, reasoned dialogue becomes very difficult to have, however much I might want it.  Third, your "observations about my reading list" seemed very odd indeed.  For one thing, I never laid down the burden that everyone should have to read all these theologians.  I think Protestant theologians, probably, ought to have read all of these, among others (though I haven't read Palamas), and it is our job to mediate this wide-ranging attentiveness to the Christian tradition to laymen in pews who haven't time to wrestle with the whole range of Christian theology on their own.  For another, it's beyond me why you have pretended that this was supposed to be an exhaustive list.  I was simply picking names–Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant–out of a hat.  All of the ones you list, as well as a host of others, merit study as well…though I would say that by the time you get to people like John Hick, you're hardly talking about a recognisably Christian theologian. Finally, then, your new charge–that I am a "theological modernist."  If those three affirmations that you list at the beginning qualify one for theological modernism, then are we all damned?  Do you really want to maintain the opposite of each of these?  1) You or I can really have a complete unqualified grasp of who God is, and understand fully his work in the world and our place in it?  2) We should not expect our understanding to grow and lead us to new insights, but should be confident that we already know everything worth knowing?  3) My tradition never needs any critique or revision, but are untainted and a perfect image of God's revelation; I should thus never feel the need to listen to how other Christians have put things?  I don't think you would want to say any of these things.  So calling me a modernist on the basis of these statements is more than a little unfair.  While affirming the provisionality of human attempts to grasp truth, I nevertheless affirm God's faithfulness to his Church, through his Holy Spirit, by which we can have assurance that however much we may misunderstand things, he has not allowed his church to get it completely wrong on the essentials in the past, and will not in the future.  So, unlike a modernist, I do not think the core truths of our credal confession are revisable.  Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God come in human flesh.  He died for us, rose for us, lives eternally in glory for us, etc.  We always have to keep working to understand rightly all the implications of these profound truths, but they are not negotiable.  And that means that sometimes we have to be exclusive, hegemonic, and unreasonable.  And I have no problem with that.With reference to the last two paragraphs–you should know that, on the contrary, I am far more stable and confident in my theology now than I have been in a long time.  If there was ever a time when I was wandering aimlessly into some far country, I certainly don't think it's now.  Richard Hooker wouldn't let me get away with it.  Nor would I wholeheartedly affirm Schaff's Hegelian dialectical approach to church history–there's definitely something undeniably Hegelian about how history, including church history, often seems to work, but it's far too complicated and messy to be mapped out the way someone like Schaff perhaps wanted to.  Nor am I in a comfortable Reformed niche right now–perhaps I was a few years ago, but I assure you that the University of Edinburgh, and St. Paul's and St. George's Church, do not answer to that description, and I strive to be contextual in my theological reflections.


  9. David

    (Sorry Brad, wrote this before your post…response to your excellent posts will have to wait)I understand Robin's point above, but believe it overstated. While we certainly shouldn't strain to maximize our differences – it might be as foolish to minimize them. I included the caveat to be fair – the Reformed Traditon (unlike most all of Protestantism) has not altogether repudiated the validity and benefits of a formal Liturgical and Sacramental life. Indeed, many of us have begun recently to re-learn as novices. To sumise this merely a difference of quantiy, and not also a distinction of kind and quality, is to have the caveat cause you to miss the point altogether. First, I don't believe the Orthodox would conceed they have ever engaged in innovative development theology. I suspect they'd argue that the Liturgical and Sacramental Theology they practice is largely inherited (received) from the Oral Tradition of the Apostles themselves via the Holy Spirit. This form has remained essentially intact despite its fleshing out over time, and the additions of new saints, as you noted (hard to venerate Saints not yet born). Thus, they argue that if the Apostoles or Patristic Fathers were to visit an Orthodox Divine Liturgy, or pious household today – they would be at home, recongnizing it as very familiar. This process continues under the direction of the Holy Spirit active in the life of the Church, and confirmed by the Councils, Bishops and Churches over the centuries. This praxis is a far different in both form and process, than a couple Protestant worship leaders deciding on Wednesday night what they wanna do in the worship service (Liturgy) the next Sunday – OR what a few demonimation's theological gurus discovered last month in bible study, to tweak the liturgy yet again. If I've understood rightly, to liken the Orthodox mindset to Protestant notions of innovation, development, and progress is completely hostile to Orthodoxy's theological mindset. It's not so much that the Othodox theological train stopped ten miles after starting, but that Protestantism insists on playing the prodical by repudiating its inheritance & history delivered to them by the Apostles, Fathers and Holy Spirit. Paraphrasing my prior post: for the Orthodox, the Church is not a project that needs to be BUILT, so much as as the supernatural body of Christ to RECEIVED. Or, the Church is not so much a science project forever morphing into something new and improved – but the pillar and ground of Truth, once and for all delivered to the saint. While the differences between Orthodoxy and Reformed Protestantism are certainly NOT absolute – the differences are those of starkly divergent presuppositions, history, Discipleship, Church Mission and praxis.


  10. One more point for Robert:You said: "I would like suggest we view the Orthodox liturgy like a growing mango tree. The seed and the emerging plant are quite different from the mature full grown tree but the basic features are still there."I believe this is Bl. Newman's doctrine of development, and not the Orthodox one.


  11. David

    Hey Brad. Though I was responding to your Blog post, I assumed my tongue-in-cheek devil's advocacy allowed me some liberty to generalize. Not every comment is a direct response to you personally – anymore than you directed your “ossified and de-historicized tradition” remark at me personally. Please forgive me if I've overstepped my latitude. Your post eloquently noted areas of received tradition that the Reformed & Orthodox communities share in common. Reading Bishop Ware's _The Orthodox Church_ I remember being struck by his conciliatory remarks about our areas of agreement. My concern was not to highlight and revel in those areas of agreement, but to focus on HOW they are received and APPLIED after their reception. You say I've made the differences too stark. Perhaps I have, yet Robin largely misses the point. (Recall Mr. Chaney's character on the old TV show Green Acres, whose every point made, died the death of his own multitude of qualifications!) Yes, there's agreement, at least in some sense, of the Church RECEIVED. The disputes revolve around HOW we “carry forward” and APPLY what exactly is received. Now I ask you to notice “the thing” and think about what you are saying.” You say you reverently receive & reverence the Traditions of the Church – allthewhile insisting that however wise, deep (multi-layered) our beautiful mosaic might be – it yet must allow for our revision, innovative development. ('spect Moses had the same problem, egh?) Isn't this Rome's view! Little wonder the Orthodox see this sort of “Receiving” and “Submission” with caution. You receive the Filioque, but reject the Pope's authority, you receive and revere Mary theologically, but reject Her liturgically (?), you receive the Trinitarin formulations of Nicene & her Creed (mostly) yet reject parts of the Councils…Fathers – exactly as you reserve the right to “respectfully receive” or reject any theologian on your list – or any point of their unanimous agreement. (Luther/Jiminy Cricket's conscience mustn't be bound!) Ultimately (however much you are not altogether comfortable with it)…you ARE your own Pope! This is Protestantism and you are (WE are!) straining to make it as plausible & wise as we can. But let's at least be honest. It's a selective “receiving” a selective “humility” & a selective “submission”– all submerged in modern Individualism. Perhaps we will prevail! :-)Perhaps we suffer from an unspoken malady that lies beneath our tensions. We can not fathom HOW a received Tradition from outside our history and knowledge, however rich in Scripture, Liturgy, Prayers, Sacraments, Prayer rules, Fasts, Icons, Services, Chants, Incense…(likely far more than we Protestant can grasp from the outside) – can possibly be “ENOUGH” for us to move forward? Do we subconsciously believe that the potency and power of the Gospel really lays outside our pious & practiced repetition of these things? The faithful Israelite boasted in God's Law, challenging the nations to come and see its wisdom. Why is the depth of our far more elaborate Christian Theology and deep Traditions “Not-Enough” for us to conquer and prevail? Honestly don't pretend to know all the answers here (shocking!). Yet in God providence, we must at least ask the questions. God bless and keep you brother. 🙂 Please forgive any unintended impertinence.


  12. Bradley

    Given some of the rather bizarre forms of worship that have emerged in Protestantism in recent years…

    I'd just like to squeeze in here briefly and point out a pet peeve of mine. A common accusation against Protestantism is, "Oh, look how many different bizarre forms it takes…look at all the heresies and the weirdness. Obviously Protestantism is flawed." Regardless of whatever one happens to believe, I don't believe this is a fair accusation.(And for what it's worth, there are some pretty weird strains of Roman Catholicism out there…but that's not my point right now, so I don't want to get distracted by that.)Protestantism will always be weirder than Roman Catholicism….by definition. And here's why: branches of Christianity like Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are positively-defined. Anybody within *this* circle counts as RC, or EO, or whatever. But Protestantism is negatively-defined. Anybody *not* in the other circles automatically counts as Protestant. Therefore, practically anybody could be in that category, sane men and insane men alike. In the current nomenclature, Protestantism is by definition the "miscellaneous drawer" of the Church.So of course there are weird things in Protestantism. Many of them have absolutely no relationship to one another. For example: Free Will Baptists, unlike most baptists, trace their historical roots to the Radical Anabaptists; Southern Baptists are completely different and trace their historical roots to the Particular Baptists within the Reformed tradition; Methodism historically began as a revival movement within the Anglican Church; the Union of Utrecht is basically a bunch of Roman Catholic churches that split away from Rome over the issue of Papal Infallibility; there's a denomination called "The Church of God With Signs Following", and I have no idea where they came from, but I know they like to handle snakes in their worship services. All of these things and more count as "Protestant", not because they are related to each other in the slightest historically or theologically, but because they all fall into the "miscellaneous" category of Christianity. The Roman Church and the Eastern Church get to decide who is and isn't RC and EO. But nobody in Protestantism gets to make a decision about who is or isn't….by default, anybody who wants to be a Protestant is one! Nothing anybody can do about it.You see what I mean. It can be tricky comparing something positively-defined with something negatively-defined. A bit like apples and oranges. Depending on the discussion, it might be more helpful instead to speak of certain traditions within Protestantism, i.e., Reformed Presbyterianism or Traditional Anglicanism or something like that. Circles that you can actually be excommunicated from. Then it's more like apples and apples.


  13. Brad,No, I'm not your mentor and we've never met. But I did appreciate your positive opinion of Mercersburg Theology. Mercersburg Theology played a major role in my theology so I was delighted to come across your book. I wasn't trying to be patronizing in my comment and I apologize if I offended you. I still stand by what I wrote. As far as your rebuttal about my comments about the bizarre forms of worship in Protestantism I pointed to examples that fall within the mainstream of contemporary Protestantism. I took care to make sure that I wasn't setting up any straw man arguments. There was a time when Protestantism could be defined in terms of clearly defined groups from which one could be excommunicated but that no longer applies as Protestantism has evolved into families of groups and movements. How one defines what a Protestant is a matter of choice given the diversity of social manifestations. I think your narrower definition works well for the earlier part of Protestant history but not for the later periods as Protestantism began to undergo differentiation. I don't see any reason why the groups I mentioned should be excluded from the category of Protestantism. Matthew Petersen,You might be right about my tree analogy being similar to John Henry Newman's developmental theory. I wish I had read this important essay but I haven't. Perhaps I should. My tree analogy is an attempt to summarize what I read about Orthodox Tradition.


  14. David

    Robert, I think Matt is likely right about the Tree analogy. It work very well for God's erternal covenant. The seed of the Covenant with Adam — blooms through Abraham, Noah, Moses, David and reaches its consumation in Christ — full grown and in full bloom. There is development and progress. Palmer Robertson's excellent book, _The Christ of the Covenant_ unfolds this very well (seed-to-full bloom).Perhaps (and I'm thinking out loud here so don't roast me too unmercifully) the Gospel once and for all delivered to the Saints is different — more like the Law of Moses — a desposit of revelation to be received? The Apostles & Fathers assume the role of Moses receiving and delivering it to the Saints. It is rich, deep, and like the Law, not to be ammended so much as to be ritualized in Liturgy and Sacrament — to be sung, searched-out, contemplated and glorified before the nations. And by its pious and practiced repetition, it transforms men into the image of God, then families and nations from glory to glory. The debate or question before us is: to Whom do we look for (not the only) but the Fullest/Richest expression of this Holy Gospel, the Charismatics, Reformed, Roman Catholics or the Orthodox…..?


  15. Bradley

    Hello Robert,Just to clarify, my name is Bradley Belschner (not to be confused with Bradford Littlejohn), and I was the one who posted the comment about bizarre forms of Protestantism. Please understand, I was only articulating a pet peeve of mine—I don't think it would qualify as a "rebuttal" of anything you said. In fact, I agree with you when you say "I don't see any reason why the groups I mentioned should be excluded from the category of Protestantism." That's precisely my point. Protestantism will always contain those bizarre groups, because of how Protestantism is defined. The term lumps together Pentecostals, Reformed Presbyterians, the Amish, and Anglicans. In some ways it's useful to lump all these miscellaneous groups together, because they do have one thing in common: they aren't Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox (or Assyrian Orthodox…the forgotten little brother of Church History). But that's the only thing they have in common. Sometimes you can make useful criticisms of that category…for instance, if you criticize them for not holding a Roman view of authority, or something like that. But that's about it. If you start to criticize certain practices, or certain bizarre forms of worship, well then, that doesn't apply to everybody in Protestantism. My congregation has about as much in common with the Amish as yours does. Theologically and historically, we're miles apart. So if you're making specific accusations, make sure you're talking about specific circles. Otherwise, it's just meaningless.In summary: logically, it makes sense to criticize Protestants for what they aren't. But it doesn't make any sense to criticize Protestants for what they are, because that will vary wildly by definition.


  16. Bradley makes a good point about Protestantism being defined by what it isn't. It is easy to argue against Protestantism because, by definition (by virtue of being defined through negation), it includes so much, including stuff that is really 'out there.' I found that point of Brad's very helpful.The historic reformed tradition is simply not like Robert and David are claiming since historic Protestantism believes it is receiving the whole package delivered to the Saints and does not claim the right to amend it (at least not in theory, though we would have to look in practice to see what has happened). Protestantism would actually argue that, as far as EO is concerned, the shoe is actually on the other foot. Historic Protestantism claims to increase in understanding the meaning of that package it is receiving, but then so does EO in the Councils and the development of Liturgy (since we have already established that EO worship evolved from the first century until a certain point in time where the evolution suddenly ceased). So a lot of this is simply the stuff of straw man argumentation.


  17. However, if we want to say insist that Orthodox mean "Presbyterian Lutheran and Anglican" by "Protestant" we'd better be prepared for the fact that by and large the churches which are heirs of the Presbyterian Lutheran and Anglican traditions, are only marginally heirs of Christ. We get Spong and Robinson and all the similar Presbyterians and Lutherans. We get, as Protestant, the PCUSA (2.0 million communicants), and the ELCA (2.4 million confirmed members), and TEC (2.1 million baptized); not the PCA (0.3 million) LCMS (1.8 million) or the REC (0.01 million). True, things are different in Africa, but I think our opponents are doing their best to be charitable when they treat Protestants as Evangelicals. And actually, I'd be willing to bet we consider Evangelicals to be Protestant before we consider liberal Anglicans to be so. As a case in point: New St. Andrews requires that their students "regularly attend a confessionally evangelical and orthodox Protestant church."There might be eye-brows raised if a student wanted to attend an Charismatic church, and only a few have attended a broad Evangelical church; but students are forbidden from making their home church the liberal Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Episcopal churches. (And also from attending an Orthodox Church.) This statement says that the ones we at Christ Church and Trinity identify with are the broad Evangelical "Protestants", not those in the actual Magisterial tradition; and moreover, definitely not the Catholics and Orthodox.I believe this should temper our enthusiasm for insisting on true Protestantism a little, and also our claims that Protestantism is like Orthodoxy and Catholicism. If we actually believed this, we should act as if it were true.


  18. Daniel

    Good point Matt, but Robin? You chide the Orthodox for not being continuously innovating as we Protestants are “a thousand miles past Orthodoxy” – only to claim Protestantism does not reserve any rights to theological progress! You go on to admit and defend the “evolution of historic Protestantism's understanding and meaning” while scolding the Orthodox of stopping too soon…deluded in thinking you have somehow “established” they evolved thru the seven councils…and have the gall to claim David and Robert are creating “strawman argumentation” This is embarrassing In this light is not the “deposit of the faith” delivered by the Apostles really just a “rough-draft” skeleton to be fleshed out? Robin wants this, but also wants the Orthodox in bed with him…but then chides them for getting out of bed – only then to claim he and Protestantism are (low and behold) not amending anything! As a Protestant wanting to see good arguments, one wonders just how any of this puts “the shoes on the other foot” for Orthodoxy as much as it puts Robin's foot in his own mouth. Sorry, Robin, don't mean to be mean, but you gotta do better than this. Much better. Has anyone dealt with the distinction Robert/David? made between the Law being delivered and rejoiced/gloried over, and taught to the nations, not subject to the same sort of development that the Covenants before Christ and the Church is establishment clearly did have? If so I've missed it. Also, how does Protestant-Magisterium as Church Authority work? Can Luther's Protestant conscience be bound (trumped) by Church Authority? Or, as was hinted, does Brad's (in principle) retain the right to individually reject the unanimous verdict of his favorite (selected) theologians, only to (with complete legitimacy) move on to devolve his own “new and improved” Liturgies, Successions, Sacramentalism, you name it? Men, let's live honestly with the choices we make, okay. I am comfortable, and would like to stay Protestant, but I'm feeling the sand shift under my feet.


  19. Brad Littlejohn

    As I recently posted, I'm on vacation now, and won't be engaging or moderating the comments here very much. I'm afraid Robin, Matt, David, Daniel, and Co. will have to have at it without my judicious mediation to sort out misunderstandings, or to, pope-like, declare the final truth of the matter. :-pVery briefly, though, to reply to those comments addressed directly to me:David: No, there was no offense. Generalization is fine, but can often veer into caricature, particularly if you're not being clear about what you're generalising from–my blog post, other things you've heard Protestants say, etc.Your third paragraph remains something of a caricature, since you move from a description of the Protestant position generally (accepting the filioque, rejecting the pope, accepting Mary theologically but not liturgically, etc.) to saying that acceptance of this consensus makes me personally my own pope, "submerged in modern individualism". I don't follow that. I am signing on to a defined theological tradition as well, and recognising the need to work within its parameters–the difference is that I don't think these parameters are exhaustively defined in advance. But just because I think they are capable of growth does not mean that I think I can undertake this unilaterally, as my own pope. If the mere fact of selectivity is the offence, as you imply, then I am again puzzled. The Catholic Church exercises selectivity–John Calvin and Martin Luther's views are out of bounds–indeed, for a long time, their books were banned and burned! At least Protestantism has often been more tolerant in its selectivity. Orthodoxy exercises similar selectivity. The difference is that for the one, this selection is based on the infallible declarations of one set of authorities within the Church today; for the other, on the infallible declarations of authorities in the past; for Protestants, we don't lay claim to such infallibility, but are willing to be more provisional about our selectivity. That would seem to make us less, not more, selective on the whole.Regarding your unspoken malady–well, it's not "subconscious." I have no hesitation in consciously denying that any set of human practices can be "'ENOUGH' for us to move forward." Only Christ and His Spirit are enough, and although the Spirit works through all the things you list here, we are on very dangerous ground if we start thinking that these in themselves are enough, instead of remaining always open to the Spirit who who transcends them all. I have no hesitation in consciously affirming that "the potency and power of the Gospel really lies outside our pious and practiced repetition of these things"! Such repetition is extremely valuable, but again, the potency and power of the Gospel lies only in Christ and his Spirit, not in anything we do ourselves. Again, I have no hesitation in consciously denying that our traditions are enough "for us to conquer and prevail"–the strength to do that lies only in Christ. He uses human instruments, yes, but your statements here seem dangerously close to confusing those instruments with the animating power itself. Robert,The offence is forgiven, though if you stand by what you wrote–if denying that the Church fully and perfectly understands God and his Gospel, and has nothing left to learn in this life, equals "theological modernism," then we are at something of an impasse. As the rest of your comment was addressed to Bradley, not me, as he pointed out, I'll leave it be.


  20. I would like to thank Bradley Belschner for clearing up the confusion about who's who. In response to Bradley's negative approach to defining what a Protestant is in his September 2 comment, I would like to suggest an alternative approach. My approach is to trace the group's historical lineage and its basic doctrines. If a group can be shown to have a lineage that can be traced back to the Lutheran, Reformed, or Anglican churches and if its Christology and doctrine of the Trinity are orthodox then I believe it is fair to label that group "Protestant." That is why I regard Baptists and Pentecostals as "Protestant" while leaving out the Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses. I like this approach because it is useful and concise, your negative approach strikes me as being rather abstract, vague and unwieldly. Also, I would like respond to Robin Phillips' comment also made on September 2 regarding the historic Reformed tradition believing "that it is receiving the whole package delivered to the Saints and does not claim the right to amend it." I can see where he's coming from on this based upon my readings of the Reformers but the question I have is where in today's world can one find the historic Reformed tradition and not some attempt at reconstruction? That was one of the major problems I had as a Protestant. But to answer Robin's point about the developmental nature of Eastern Orthodox theology. I wouldn't say that its theology evolved over time; I am using the term "evolution" in the sense of significant genetic mutation that results in a specie different from its predecessor. The early Church did not evolve from a non-trinitarian theology to a trinitarian theology, or from a vague semi-docetist or Arian Christology to a formal Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology. This understanding opens the door to this phrase I heard several times at a liberal seminary: 'Yesterday's heresy, today's orthodoxy.' My understanding of the early theological debates is that the early church fathers engaged in an elaboration and clarification of the received tradition. The New Testament teaching on the Trinity was mostly implicit, it took several centuries of debate and controversy for the church to come to a formal explicit definition of the Trinity. This is doctrinal development, not evolution. But when we consider how the Baptists and the Pentecostals differ from their predecessors I'm sure that Robin would agree that we have here a clear case of doctrinal evolution. Also, what does Robin make of the dominance of Charles Hodges' version of Reformed theology in America despite Nevin and Schaff's attempt to recover a more historic understanding of the Reformed faith? My point is that while "development" applies to Eastern Orthodoxy, a more appropriate word for describing Protestantism, including the Reformed tradition, is "evolution."


  21. Bradley

    Hey Robert,I'd like to respond, while stressing again that this issue isn't very important, it's only semantics, and it's just a pet peeve of mine. I don't think defining Protestant negatively is "abstract, vague, and unwieldy." That's simply who Protestants are: Christians who aren't Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox. The American Heritage Cultural Dictionary defines "Protestant" as:

    A Christian belonging to one of the three great divisions of Christianity (the other two are the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church).

    Jehovah's Witnesses don't count simply because they aren't Christians…not by any orthodox definition anyway. I'm not sure why you want to define Protestants exclusively as the descendants of Lutheran, Reformed, or Anglican churches. That would exclude the Quakers, Amish (completely unrelated as far as I know), Mennonites, Free Will Baptists (descended from the former), Congregationalists (unless you count them as stemming from the Anglican tradition), random Catholic sects that break away from Rome, etc. If all these churches aren't Protestant, what are they? Some Pentecostal churches (a minority) seem to have no historical roots whatsoever, at least not in any meaningful way—they seem to just randomly come into being (for example, some Chinese house churches). How would you categorize those sorts of Pentecostals?


  22. Bradley

    All that to say, once again, if you want to critique Lutherans and Presbyterians, just be clear and specify "I am now critiquing Lutherans and Presbyterians." If that's what you happen to be doing in a particular exchange, then there's no need to use an incredibly broad word like 'Protestant.'


  23. Bradley,I think the "American Heritage Cultural Dictionary" is convenient but hardly suitable for the kind of discussions we're having. I prefer the "Evangelical Theological Dictionary" which begins: "In its broadest sense Protestantism denotes the whole movement within Christianity that originated in the sixteenth century Reformation and later focused in the main traditions of Reformed church life–Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist/Presbyterian, and Anglican/Episcopalian …. Congregational, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, and many others, down to the modern African Independent churches." It then listed several of the distinctive fundamental theological principles such as sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura etc. The thing to note is the it did not define Protestantism negatively. I would be more open to your negative definition if you could cite an authoritative theology or church history text. The two-fold approach I suggested was not intended to be rigid and exclusionary. The language I used in my response to Robin suggests a degree of flexibility. But still it is a very useful approach. For example, the Society of Friends (Quakers) are traced back to the radical wing of English Puritanism in the 1640s. The Menonites (of which the Amish are a subgroup) are traced back to sixteenth century Anabaptists who followed the teachings of Menno Simons. The Free Will Baptists derive from the General Baptists who originated with the ministry of Thomas Helwys around 1611. Historically, Pentecostalism emerged out of the Holiness Movement. While there may some highly unusual circumstances where a group comes out of nowhere, in the vast majority of cases one can trace some historical lineage going back to the sixteenth century Reformation. You shouldn't dismiss the Jehovah Witnesses out of hand so quickly. When one looks at nineteenth century American religious history one finds striking sociological resemblances between the Jehovah Witnesses, the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), the Seventh Day Adventists, the Dispensationalist movement, the Restorationaist movement, and the other precursors of twentieth century Evangelicalism. While the Jehovah Witnesses are non-trinitarian in beliefs, they resemble Evangelicals in their emphasis on evangelism, bible study, and anticipating the second coming of Christ. This is not all that surprising in light of the fact that the founder of the Jehovah Witnesses, Charles T. Russell, was raised in a Presbyterian family. So why am I critiquing Protestantism in general and not something more specific like the Reformed tradition? The point I was making to Robin was that while Orthodoxy has retained the shape of its liturgy, Protestant worship has gone off in many different directions. I believe that much of this can be traced to the theological principle of sola scriptura. In other words, sola scriptura opened up a Pandora's box of liturgical and doctrinal innovation as evidenced by the many Protestant denominations. The bizarre forms of worship are not separate from the early Reformation but are derived from it — people forming doctrines on the basis of their personal interpretation of the Bible. Protestantism as a whole is undergoing a massive crisis, much of which can be traced to its foundational principles. For this reason I find your negative definition of Protestantism not very helpful for understanding the nature of this crisis.


  24. Bradley

    Ah, I see what you mean now. Initially I misunderstood you and thought you were criticizing the mere existence of bizarre forms of worship in Protestantism (which wouldn't apply to everyone), but now I see that you're actually criticizing the historically origin and progression of those bizarre forms of worship….which in essence amounts to a critique of Protestant's historical roots: things like sola scriptura, and as you've said, the Lutheran/Reformed/Anglican traditions. That use makes sense semantically. Protestantism today is so broad that it can only be defined negatively (plenty of churches today don't believe in sola gratia, for example), but Protestantism historically is a lot narrower.I don't think the progression is quite as linear as you've made it out to be, though. Certainly, not having any centralized authority (a Pope) or unchangeable traditions (EO) renders Protestantism more liable to slide into new heresies and bizarre worship. I grant that. But for the record, I think it's also clear there are temptations and tendencies that come with a Pope and unchangeable traditions (forgive me if this seems to be a caricature of EO; it's honestly just my basic understanding of EO liturgy). But that's not the point I want to make right now. Even within Roman Catholicism, you find many "bizarre" forms of worship. Look no farther than South American Catholic/Pagan syncretism. Or if you think that example is too outlandish, just visit a Charismatic Catholic worship service. I have, and I have never been so weirded out in a church before. So clearly, it's not just Protestant beliefs that result in bizarre worship.


  25. David

    Hey Brad,Thankful to see your cathedral-hopping absence hasn't atrophied your brain too much! Saddened that my summary appears as caricature, but it's certainly not intended that way. I'm also happy to see more and more Protestants grow (as I certainly have) in their respect for Tradition. Yet I doubt we should assume the Orthodox believe their Tradition is so much Perfect and Exhaustive, as that their Tradition is sufficient – complete (enough) for the Church to grow up and mature in them – similar in attitude we Protestants have toward Scripture received via the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures aren't exhaustive/perfect saying everything they could about everything – but are perfectly sufficient for us to their intent by the Holy Spirit.I suspect the Orthodox would claim a very different understanding of selectivity than either Roman Catholics or Protestants. If we are merely selecting amongst the opinions of men, then the field is obviously open. But if we are selecting amongst the miracles, doctrines, sacraments, of the Faith once and for all delivered…then we are talking about a different body of options to select from. That the Orthodox receives the Traditions of the Fathers much as we do the authority of Scriptures, puts selectivity in an altogether different light. They do not see themselves selecting as you describe them, “based on the infallible declarations of one set of authorities within the Church today”. To them (and I could be wrong here) they see this more like we see scripture – as submission to the deposit of the Apostles via the Holy Spirit. So rather than select whatever seem good to them, they've submitted to what they see as received. I agree with you that most Reformed are less tolerant than Rome and the Charismatics about development and innovation in worship and praxis. You are certainly right to “consciously denying that any set of human practices can be "'ENOUGH' for us to move forward". But is this, seriously, what you believe the Orthodox think they are doing in their sacred Liturgies, Sacraments, Prayers, Vernerations…? Are these to them mere “set[s] of human practices” of men – or divinely received revelations from the Apostles via the Holy Spirit – or as you say “always open to the Spirit who who transcends them all.”? I apologize for assuming this was a given. I suppose I should have spelled it out more clearly so you would not have thought the Orthodox were just picking or selecting from amongst some variety of human practices they happen to like (say my stretching & sit-ups ritual before getting out of bed each morning). There I go assuming that you would have seen Orthodox sacramental rituals and praxis understood as a multi-layerd sanctifying pedagogy, received from the Holy Spirit, via the Apostles and Fathers…(much as we assume for the New Testament scriptures) and must always be performed with sincerity of heart and prayer that the same Holy Spirit that gave them to the Church for Her sanctification and glory…will bless their use and practice in the Church. Does this stifle or freeze growth and maturity. Not at all. The flock of God grow and matures in these by their pious practiced repetition and increasing understanding and strengthening grace. If we view these sacred Traditions much like the law of God received through Moses was viewed in the Psalmists poetry…Enough is a pretty good word. Finally, in this light believing “the potency and power of the Gospel really lies outside our pious and practiced repetition of these things" is to neuter the Spiritual power of Baptism, Bread and Wine, received Prayers…all those physical/material “sensible signs” in Creation God has ordained for our use as means to disciple the nations, and the worship of the Church become impotent. (This is not to imply that all evangelism/discipleship activities outside the formal liturgical worship of the Church thus become impotent…may it never be!…Both/And, not either-or.) God richest mercies to all. david


  26. Robin,You said that you do not want to take one authority or one period of the Church, and you apply Orthodoxy to this, but this assumes Orthodoxy to be as Roman Catholicism. We do not have a Pope and we have not turned Ecumenical Councils into dogma parties. The Councils are here to protect and NOT to necessarily establish doctrine. The Orthodox faith moves doctrinally in a very collective manner, but with the guidance of the bishopric. And if the Church collectively gets off track, a council is formed and heretics are excommunicated. You also say that you do not want to stick with one period of the Church but Orthodoxy does not do that either. You might be confusing the fact that for the first one thousand years, the church was unified (not without trouble, of course) but both east and west met for council then and the monarch was alive, well, and protecting the Church as it is supposed to be. This was not just "one" period. And now that there has been a massive schism, the east continues to expand on doctrine and teaching, albeit not as much as it used to, but nonetheless enough to grow and prosper to be larger than any Protestant denomination. Could it be that you are narrowing yourself to one period far more than the Orthodox? The Reformation was quite short and whatever lasted turned into liberalism. Most every Reformed church that succeeded from the Reformation has become completely liberal (European Reformed and most all of America). The 20th century schismatics from the Presbyterian and Anglican did not gain any dominion whatsoever from the "splits." Their numbers of people retained were very small, they lost most all of the properties, and they could not even hold themselves together doctrinally. The Reformed period was very short and ended in what is now liberalism and shopping-mall evangelicalism. I like the way you want to strive for unity of the gospel but why not do this within the "laying on of hands?" Why not strive within the apostolic Church? It does not make any sense to remain separate in order to begin unity. We already have unity, the same that you long to have. We wrestle with the Scripture, we debate, and honor theological education. You, again, mistake the Orthodox faith for the Roman. We have doctrinal latitude within our Church, more than Reformed, I would say (I studied in a Reformed OPC seminary and was an intern for the PCA). But we have little latitude within worship, as the Church did for over One thousand years. We do not allow renaissance and other modern philosophies to enter our worship. And we hold to the doctrine of Lex orandi, lex credenda, the Latin phrase for the ‘as we worship so we will live.’ There is much to be said about God working through unity! Saint Paul, Jesus, Saint Ignatius, and many others proclaim that without unity there is blindness! After the schism of the Church, there was much blindness spread, and when the schism of the schism happened (the Reformation) there was even more spread. We are living in perilous times, times where one cannot afford to be reivneting the Church on their own!


  27. David

    Thanks Michael, well said. While it seems Orthodox defenders are inclined to paint the best of the Reformed/Anglicans (however small a faction they might be) with the worst of Protestantism — it also seems we Protestants paint the Orthodox as historically frozen and rigid as possilbe. Neither is fair to either side. Of course the Orthodox would simply say that the Reformed (with the Roman Catholics) really have similar principles of progressive theology and developments — however more modest they apply it in practice. Then, the Protestants would counter that a modest, careful progressivism is preferable to a sifling historic Tradition.Which leaves us with whether the Orthodox can make a compelling enough exegetical & historic argument that Scripture both commissions and promises the Apostles precisely what they claim to have Received in Holy Tradition from the Holy Spirit — while the Protestants demonstrate from Scritpure and history, that this is simply not true. Not having all the baggage of the Roman Catholics, Orthodoxy would certainly claim the burden of proof far more on the Protestants, given the Holy Spirit's guidance of the Church via the Bishops for over a 1,000 years. Yet, we Protestants are unlikely to just concede an argument without a fight. It seems to me the fight is really over what should be our expectation from the Holy Spirit for the Church and Apostles the first 30-150 years.


  28. Benjamin

    I just wanted to drop in here, as an Orthodox Christian, and mention that I can only agree with what has been said above concerning the misrepresentation of Protestantism by Orthodox Christians, but also mention what was surprising to me about the original post and subsequent comments. In Orthodoxy, there is never any understanding that the Church has ossified with the 7 Ecumenical Councils. First, if the Church were ever frozen according to a body of Tradition, it wouldn't exclusively be the Councils, since there are Fathers, prayers, liturgies, saints, miracles, and all other manner of experiential manifestations of the Holy Spirit's divine salvation. I don't want to suggest wrongdoing, but in my experience, the common reference to the 7 Ecumenical Councils as the starting and ending point of all Orthodoxy is usually a weighty piece of Protestant rhetoric. It's easy to read a quote about the 7 Councils being integral and definitional to the body of Orthodox Tradition written by an Orthodox author, and then fashion this conception into a weapon to use against Orthodoxy, but the Orthodox experience has been present and active in every single century since the foundation of the world. A common set of catechetical texts on Church History actually includes one chapter for every century after the birth of Christ. Yes, that includes all those years in which the Church supposedly crusted over after the split with Rome. It's even sometimes hard for us to find the time to read the early Fathers and the Fathers of the "Middle Ages" because there are so many modern works to read, not just theological works, but works concerning God's direct action in the life of the Church today. I've never heard anyone within the Church characterize it as being stuck in the mud of the 9th or 10th century, and I must again suggest that those who hold such a conception of Orthodoxy, from outside of it, usually have only formed that conception because they either can't bring themselves to notice or recognize the mighty works of God in the life of the Orthodox, or more understandably from their perspective, can't recognize that the works present in Orthodoxy are of God in the first place. Most of exposure to this Protestant conception of Orthodoxy has been in the form of blog gauntlets being thrown down – "why I won't convert to Orthodoxy" and "why you shouldn't, either" and the like. From my perspective, no doubt still a flawed and incomplete one, however, it seems that Protestant criticisms of Orthodoxy are essentially flawed when they consist of insisting that Orthodoxy hasn't been witness to the saving grace of God in all generations of its life. Any Orthodox Christian with any knowledge of Church history should beam at the salvation that God has wrought through the centuries in the Church. The problem here is that if God is acting in all those dusty old traditions that Orthodox Christians believe were established and preserved by God himself, then that necessarily takes some of the selling sparkle off the Protestant selectivity, or dynamism, or adaptability, or capacity to encounter and deal with new difficulties in history.I converted to Orthodoxy for many heavy reasons, and many reasons that are only hidden within the caverns of my soul to be revealed in the future, but one of the most consequential considerations was the fact that the Holy Spirit is working miraculously in the life of Orthodoxy at this very moment, in the lives of all its members. It's easy to claim that Orthodoxy is a dusty old ideology with a bunch of empty rituals and old opinions, but the people that believe that are the ones that haven't experienced it.


  29. Daniel, since my example of the train was descriptive rather than prescriptive, it is therefore false that I chided the Orthodox for not being continuously innovating. I chided them for travelling ten miles down the track and then criticising the Protestants who were a hundred miles down the track for travelling. It would make more sense if EO were content to criticize Protestants for travelling too far then for travelling at all, since the qualitative argument is then self-refuting for the Orthodox who is bound to admit to certain qualified change mechanisms inherent within his ecclesiology, as indeed both Robert did above when questioned.It is also false that I claimed that Protestantism does not reserve any rights to theological progress and I would challenge you to quote my statements that allegedly claim this. If it is indeed false that I claimed this, then it renders void the alleged embarrassments in my dual admission of Protestantism’s evolution and Orthodoxy’s “stopping too soon.”Just to be clear Daniel, I claim that Protestantism does reserve the rights to theological progress and that Eastern Orthodoxy also does despite their denial of this fact. The alleged difference between Protestants and Eastern Orthodox is quantitative rather than qualitative because they do not disagree on the reality or necessity of change and innovation, but on the content and extent of that change. This has already been established by my (as yet) uncontested observation that if you walk into an Orthodox service today it does not look like a service in the first century, since the liturgy emerged progressively under the inspired imagination of men of God like Saint Basil and others. If I am pressed to drop the term innovation because of its pejorative connotations, then it is only fair that you drop it when describing Protestants. But what happens then is that the respective change methods inherent in these competing ecclesiologies begin to look similar in principle while not in practice.Consider: all legitimate Protestant changes could be explained according to the modalities that Robert and David have already invoked to account for change within Eastern Orthodoxy. That is to say, an historic Protestant could claim to increase in understanding the meaning of that package it is receiving (a change-mechanism already invoked to account for Orthodox change in the above exchange) just as a Protestant could account for change by the Newmanic mango-tree example earlier invoked by Robert. Or again, the Protestant might account for change by the "fleshing out over time" notion invoked above by David. Equally the distinction David made between the church being received vs. built only works within a Protestant ecclesiological framework. Daniel writes, “Robin wants… the Orthodox in bed with him, but then chides them for getting out of bed – only then to claim he and Protestantism are (low and behold) not amending anything!” Daniel, you are turning my arguments into metaphors and then mixing them. A perilous way to proceed if ever there was one! But if I could migrate over to the bed analogy: the Orthodox are in bed with Protestants qualitatively but not quantitatively. We both change and evolve: the orthodox just do it less, and then they don’t admit they do it. Or you might say that while maybe we’re in different parts of the bed, we ought to have the guts to admit that it’s the same bed. Unless of course what I wrote in the paragraph before this is false. But that would be hard to prove since what I wrote in that paragraph followed as the inevitable corollary to the undisputed remarks about change already made by Robert and David.


  30. Robin, I'll not attempt a detailed answer to every point in your recent post. Robert and Daniel can answer for themselves. Nor do I pretend as a Protestant, to understand all things Orthodox. But it does seem pretty clear to me that what you mean when you speak of “Change and/or Development” is not at all what the Orthodox mean, or consider themselves doing in called Church Counsels, via the Bishops, over the centuries – with the Liturgy and Tradition they inherited. How best to express these differences is more than a qualitative and quantitative matter, and is likely beyond my abilities. But here's my best quick shot at it for now. The US Constitution contains inherent provision of Amendments. It is expected from the get-go the change. Nevertheless, traditional “original-intent” conservatives argue that such amendments/changes should NOT violate original Constitutional provisions. Progressives and Liberals disagree and allow for far more latitude on just what can and can't “change”. Some argue that the Income Tax amendment, election of Senators by pop. Vote (rather by State Legislatures) are themselves amendments that violate prior Constitutional understandings. This is one kind of change. Just how open and how restricted the “field-of-change” is…is open to dispute. Contrast the above to our Marriage Vows. Do these vows change? Well, our vows don't really change…but our understanding of our duties per a more mature experience of those vows does change. HOW I understand and fulfil my marriage vows might be a good bit different at age 58 after 36 years of marriage, than it was at 22. But did the Vows themselves change? No, but my application of them has. But what do you do with a friend who imports “change” that his mature fulfilment of his vows now includes internet porn, threesomes, open marriage, bi-sexuality, divorce? It this the same sort of change…and equally legitimate? We'd both cry “foul”. My point in all this is to highlight that not all “change” is of the same nature or even exists in the same context. The Orthodox attitude and approach to the Apostolic Fathers and the Tradition they believe has been handed down to them, is simply a different attitude than the Protestant has toward the same inheritance and Tradition. The Orthodox “see themselves as heirs and guardians to a rich inheritance received from the past, and they believe that it is their duty to transmit this inheritance unimpaired to the future.” (Ware, The Orthodox Church page 196.) We don't. In our Protestant tradition, we see that since everything in the Liturgy, Prayers, Icons, Service book is not identical to what we imagine was true of the 1st century – the theological change-door is thus thrown wide open. What books belong I the bible? How many Sacraments? What about Saints, Prayers, Icons? Let's re-submit all Church Traditions to our own new and improved interpretation of the Bible. You said, “what I wrote…as the inevitable corollary to the undisputed remarks about change already made by Robert and David.” Well, I'm disputing it here. I don't believe what you wrote proves in any way, any semblance of “inevitable corrollary” between how the Orthodoxy regard theological “change” and the guardianship of their Tradition – and how we Protestants approach theological change or the same Tradition. If you cannot see a distinction, I am both perplexed and at a loss to show you…at least for now. God keep you brother.


  31. Hi Brad,I had trouble sleeping last night and so my mind turned to this post of yours. If I could, I would like to offer a friendly critique to some of the points you made.First, it is hard to interact with this post because it is sometimes unclear if your statements are merely biographical self-reports or objective truth-claims. I apologize in advance if I inadvertently confuse the former for the latter. Secondly, it seems that behind much of what you say is the sceptre of the type of crude populist polemics against Protestantism which claims that a consistent Protestant can’t really know anything and that consequently the choice is between complete epistemological scepticism or either the Magisterium of Rome or the Seven Ecumenical Councils of Orthodoxy. But this type of anti-Protestant apologetics is a recent phenomenon, is repudiated by respectable non-Protestant thinkers, and by no means accounts for the main reason why historically there have been so many Protestants who have converted to Rome or Orthodoxy. So I feel that it functions as a type of straw man, and if you remove this from the picture then much of your argumentation ceases to be relevant. Only a minority convert because they imagine that a non-Protestant tradition will offer “a magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow” or because they think the Ecumenical Councils can deliver us from “the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history” or provide “an authoritative answer to all of these new issues” that confront the church, etc. Certainly, this kind of thinking is becoming more prevalent today, especially for people who convert to Rome or Orthodoxy from reformed protestantism (especially Rome), but I would like to see you write a critique that is broader and addresses some of the more legitimate reasons a person might convert.Having said that, while non-Protestant traditions do not give us epistemological certainty in a Cartesian sense, they do at least claim to give us certain parameters for determining what is normative in certain areas that Protestantism does not. This doesn’t relieve the individual from the necessity of “private judgement”, for we must all still use our reason to form judgements about what we think is true, and this distinction tends to be obscured by a lot of the crude anti-Protestant apologetics.Thirdly, it is certainly true that the seven Ecumenical Councils of the church are of limited value because of their historical embedded-ness, being a product of “the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history”, and that consequently they “may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time” while being limited when it comes to addressing the issues that confront us today. I agree completely. And so does Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, it is precisely because the Eastern Orthodox church recognizes that the Councils have these limitations that they say it is necessary to have bishops to help us to interpret the councils, as well as the other historic teachings of the church, for our own day and age. At the same time as recognizing the limited use of the Councils (at least their limited use on their own without bishops guiding us in their application), we still need to ask whether their pronouncements are true, and whether they should still be considered authoritative. So while it is correct that any truth claim is going to be limited because nothing can address everything, limitation does not imply falsehood. So acknowledging that the Ecumenical Councils are limited, we still need to ask: are their (limited) dogmatic pronouncements are completely true, or whether they contain error? Fourthly, if the answer to the last question is the latter, then aren’t you merely begging the question, since this would only be the case if you begin by assuming the Protestant position that this post presumably is arguing towards? And moreover, you say that the “new foundations” must not contradict the theology of the historic Creeds, so why are you not prepared to say the same regarding the Councils? But if (as I think you would say) the answer is the former (namely, that while the pronouncements of the councils are of limited use, they are still true and authoritative), then what would you say to someone who contended that because the pronouncements of the Ecumenical Councils are true and continually authoritative, and because Protestantism (including the reformed tradition) has by and large abandoned the theology of these councils in numerous particulars (i.e., through their embrace of such ideas as the filioque, soteriological Monergism, iconoclasm, etc.) and because it is empirically verifiable that present day Eastern Orthodoxy has the most continuity with the church and theology of these councils, that there are consequently compelling reasons for a Protestant to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy?Fifthly, and at the risk of appearing to contradict point two above, if liberalism is defined as letting go of the theology of the councils (and while liberalism is more than this, it certainly isn’t less), then isn’t it true tautologically that the councils are a magic weapon against liberalism, in the same way as we might say that water is a “magic weapon” against wetness or A is a magic weapon against non-A? Sixthly, and echoing point two, some of the reasons you give for not converting are actually reasons why some people have converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. I know some people who believe that the following truths from your post could never be experientially realized within Protestantism but then were appreciated within Eastern Orthodoxy (though not always by the type of Orthodoxy propagated by Protestant converts, especially those from a reformed background): • “all we can claim is to have testified to an aspect of it”• we “must be ready to consider that other Christians, or other eras of the Church, may have testified to another aspect, which we should not immediately rule out simply because it doesn’t line up exactly with our own.”• “no single formulation of it can claim to have captured it fully” • There is not an “ossified and de-historicized tradition that will decide in advance all questions”• “There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture.”The strident dogmatism, implicit rationalism and top-heavy anthropology of most of the non-liberal evangelical traditions, can make it very hard to experientially realise these realities as a Protestant. Moreover the last quotation above describes very clearly the mentality of many Eastern Orthodox, especially those from monastic traditions, although this can be obscured by the approach taken by converts who naively imagine that Orthodoxy will provide something that it does not.Seventh, I wonder if your comments about why a Protestant need not be individualistic could again be a straw man. When the argument is made that Protestantism implies individualism, this need not mean that the Protestant is completely on his own without any interpretive grid, without the voice of scripture’s interpreters through the ages, or without the hermeneutical framework of one’s own church tradition. Few people are naive enough to think that. Rather, the contention that Catholics and Orthodox make against Protestants is that they are individualistic since the choice of which interpreters to privilege over others is either circular (i.e., I will listen to this authority because it happens to agree with what my interpretation of scripture already is) or it is determined by non-rational factors, such as where one happens to be born or where God happened to place you (this is implicit in the last paragraph of your post), or a combination of both, which is then the fallacy of the leaky bucket.If one must take seriously the church’s numerous voices, as you said, and “do our best to listen respectfully to all these voices, instead of just one or two, and to submit our own judgments to their greater wisdom, seeking to find harmony when they disagree with one another, and when we cannot harmonise, making painful decisions about who to follow”, then my question is what drives these painful decisions, and what criteria do we use when these numerous voices conflict, which they inevitably will? By the nature of the case, the criteria for settling such conflict (even settling it provisionally and partially) cannot be drawn from the voices themselves without implicitly privileging one, which would be circular reasoning. But if the criteria for determining which voices to privilege rests ultimately on whichever happens to already conform to our interpretation of scripture, then how does this avoid the charge of ultimately reducing to individualism? If the answer is a little bit of both, then again, how does this avoid the problem of the leaky bucket (two leaky buckets put together is still a leaky bucket)? It seems that this dilemma is avoided, or at least partially lessened, by determining which voices are consistent with the voice of the church as a whole, as witnessed in the Ecumenical Councils, which is precisely why a person might convert. Both Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy claim to be the voice of the church as a whole, and because both appeal to objective historical and empirical grounds their claims can be analyzed and assessed. This avoids some of the problem of circularity (i.e, determining which voice to listen to by an appeal to the voices themselves), since the appeal is to the much bigger testimony of the church as a whole, and this is only individualistic in the much more restricted sense that the individual must still use reason to draw conclusions from the evidence. Now this is not an argument for someone converting, because it raises almost as many problems as it answers, but it is an attempt to show that it does answer part of the problem of individualism in a way that I’m not convinced you have.Thoughts?


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