Today, Tim Kimberley and I had the privilege of meeting with an Eastern Orthodox priest here at the Credo House in Edmond, OK. The meeting was called because there is a young man who desires to work as an “under-monk” (barista) at the Credo House. While we are a Protestant Evangelical organization, we often call ourselves Evangelical “on the last notch of the belt.” In other words, in the spirit of Evangelicalism, we don’t want to unnecessarily divide over non-essential issues. While devoted to his Eastern Orthodox church, this prospective employee loves the Credo House and what we stand for. As discussions went on behind the scenes about whether or not I wanted to deal with the PR of explaining to everyone why we had an Eastern Orthodox employee (along with all the charges of postmodern doctrinal relativism, etc.), as well as the laborious discovery of whether this guy was truly an Eastern Orthodox or an Evangelical attending an Eastern Orthodox church, Carrie set up a meeting between this young man, his priest, Tim, and me.
The following took place at approx. 2:15 CST at the Credo House, 109 NW 142nd St. Suite B, Edmond, OK.
We made cordial introductions and exchanged some background information The priest was a former Evangelical who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy during college.
The Credo House doctrinal statement was the subject of dispute, as the priest sought to distinguish the Eastern Orthodox position from that which is represented by our doctrinal statement. The potential employee sought both the permission and wisdom of his priest to see if working for Credo House was acceptable. I had already determined that, barring some unforeseen (and potentially delightful) complications, Credo House would not be willing to offer employment to a committed Eastern Orthodox.
There were not really any surprises.
Below is a point by point account of the dispute using our doctrinal statement as an outline:
Bible and Revelation: We confess that the Scriptures are verbally inspired and true in every respect. We also confess that the rightly interpreted Scriptures are the only infallible source of revelation.
It may surprise many to know that the issue of sola Scriptura (rightly defined) is not a major point of departure between Protestants and Eastern Orthodox. The subject of church tradition was brought up. We both agreed that tradition stands guard beside the interpretation of Scripture but does not stand in front of it. We also agreed that tradition does not add anything to the Scripture, but is a tradition in which the Scripture is to be interpreted. Tim called this the regula fide (common terminology here at Credo). I was amused when the priest said he did not use the Latin terminology (i.e., it was in western theological language). But we both agreed that there was no living infallible interpreter of Scripture. Scripture is the final source, yet we look toward history to aid in our understanding.
He did ask what we meant by “verbally” inspired. I informed him that this means that the Bible is inspired down to the very words, not just the concepts. However, this does not mean that we believe in “mechanical dictation.” He agreed. He just wanted to clarify that we did not hold to a view of inspiration like the Muslims.
God: We confess that there is one God, creator of all things, invisible and visible, who eternally exists in three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all of whom are fully God, all of whom are equal in power and dignity. We also confess that God is all-knowing and is sovereign over all the affairs of His creation.
This was an interesting (and unexpected) discussion. He thought our confession here about God bordered on modalism. It was hard for me to process what was being disputed. Historically, it is true, the eastern church has accused the western church (Protestants and Roman Catholics included) of emphasizing the oneness of God to the neglect of his threeness (modalism). The western church has accused the eastern church of emphasizing the threeness of God at the expense of his oneness (tritheism). However, I had thought we got past this quite some time ago. Nevertheless, he would have preferred that we said “We confess that there is one God, the Father . . . ” He said that, “You cannot separate the oneness from the person.” In the end, he said it was a “minor” point of wording. I did not have much of a problem with what he said (although I can see where the western church would think this sounds somewhat tritheistic).
Christ: We confess that Jesus Christ is God’s eternal Son, the second member of the Trinity, who exists as one person in two natures, being both fully God and fully man. We further confess that He lived a sinless life and willingly died on a cross as a substitution for the sins of man. We confess that He rose bodily from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father; from there He makes intercession for man.
“Substitution for the sins of man.” This was one of the two major points of departure. Every time I have discussed the issue of the atonement with an Eastern Orthodox, this is where deep emotions turn into deep wrinkles on their face. There is quite a bit of passion involved here. The Eastern Orthodox church completely rejects vicarious penal substitution. They do not believe that Christ bore the wrath of the Father. According to him, Christ is our substitute only in the sense that he was the “substitute man” who did what Adam could not. I explained that Evangelical Protestants believe that Christ did indeed become the “second Adam” and that we often, sadly, fail to do justice to his sinless life as part of the atonement. However, I explained that Christ’s life prepared him for the apex of the atonement that took place on the cross. There was a foresaking where He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf and it pleased the Father to crush him. Therefore, the “transaction” between the Father and the Son on the cross, while incredibly mysterious, was real and essential. He disagreed and we moved on.
Holy Spirit: We confess that the Holy Spirit is the third member of the Trinity, equal to the Father and the Son in power, authority, and dignity, deserving worship. We further confess that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to point to Christ by enabling and empowering all believers to serve God and to grow in Christ likeness.
There were no notes here. We were good.
Man and sin: We confess that man was created by God, for God, and in God’s image so that man can joyously live in communion with God. We believe that Adam and Eve, the father and mother of all mankind, disobeyed God in Eden thereby causing all people to become like them in guilt and nature. Therefore, we confess that all people are born separated from God and in their natural state are at enmity with God, unable to make any move toward God on their own. We confess that the image of God, while distorted, remains in all men. We confess that when a person dies, the immaterial part of that person consciously goes to either be with Christ or to a place to await judgment.
Here we encountered a second major point of departure. He made it clear that the Eastern Orthodox could not accept any idea of imputed guilt. While they believe that we have inherited corruption, we are not held guilty for the sin of another. He rightly pointed out that Protestants and Roman Catholics both believe that we are held guilty for the sin of another. His argument against inherited guilt was very practical. “How could God hold a baby guilty for a sin he did not take part in?” was his question. I told him that we may be two boats passing in the night here. I explained that all of humanity fell “in and with” Adam. Therefore, when Adam was condemned, the entire human race was condemned with him. God did not necessarily strike the gavel for every baby conceived individually, but he struck the gavel with Adam, our federal head. God could have chose not to redeem humanity and “walked away.” Had he done so, we would be “condemned” to a life without God.
Interestingly, he objected to the statement that man is “unable to make any move toward God on their own.” He said that humanity retains some ability to choose God even if we don’t use it. I informed him that his wording was not, in my opinion, in the best traditions of his own church. The idea that we can make moves on our own toward God without his initiation was either Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. All the magisterial Christian traditions (Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics) see the need for God to, motivated by his grace, initiate salvation. We ended up agreeing here.
Salvation: We confess that God had every right to leave man in his depraved and helpless condition, but, by His own gracious and loving volition, He chose to intercede on behalf of man. We further confess that salvation is only possible through faith alone in Christ alone because of God’s grace alone. We reject that any works of righteousness contribute in any way to man’s salvation. We confess that when a person places their faith in Christ they are at that instant declared righteous through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as a gift of God.
He did not like the word “intercede,” instead preferring “intervene.” This came down to his distinction in the persons of the Trinity. I told him I did not have much of a problem with that.
“Through faith alone in Christ alone.” You may be interested to know there was not much dispute about this. He said that as long as we said that true faith would always produce works, he was good with the “faith alone” thing. But he did not like the wording of, “We reject that any works of righteousness contribute in any way to man’s salvation.” I did not like that he did not like this! He said that we cannot distinguish between faith and works. I said you can insofar as the works themselves do not “contribute” to our justification. I gave an illustration about a gift which we don’t pay for. Any attempt to pay for this gift (i.e., believing our works contribute to the acquisition of said gift) would not only be superfluous, but insulting to the gift-giver. We do good works because of a changed nature (rebirth, justification, adoption), not so that we can have a changed nature.
Last Things: We confess that Christ will come again to judge and reward all people. We confess the bodily resurrection of all believers. We confess the eternal blessedness of those who have trusted in Christ and the eternal damnation of all who have rejected God.
He wanted to make sure we did not believe only in the resurrection of all “believers.” He said unbelievers would be raised as well. I agreed.
It was a wonderful dispute. Again, no real surprises. I do appreciate the Eastern Orthodox church very much. In the end, however, we all determined that it would not be in the best interest of either party to continue to pursue employment at the Credo House. As Tim said, “We don’t want you to be untrue to yourself and we can’t be untrue to who we are.” The priest agreed, saying, “As an Eastern Orthodox priest, I could not sign this due to the two main issues: imputed guilt and substitutionary atonement.”