One theologian noted, â€œChristians must attend [the communion]; and this they do not as a duty, but as a distinct privilege. They may feel unworthy to attend it, and yet they know that they are welcome by our Lord, Who numbers them among His chosen peopleâ€¦.â€ No, this wasnâ€™t written by John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Hodge, or even John Wesley. It was written by Nicholas Elias, a Greek Orthodox priest.
In his book, The Divine Liturgy Explained: A Guide for Orthodox Christian Worshippers, Elias makes several comments about the Lordâ€™s Supper that any Calvinist and many other Protestants would wholeheartedly agree with. And it unmasks a serious flaw in how evangelicals frequently treat other Christian groups: too often, we shoot first and ask questions later. Our defenses go up because we know that weâ€™re right and theyâ€™re wrong. In blissful ignorance, we sit as judge and jury. This is no better than what many Greek Orthodox laypeople think of us: when we tell them that we are Protestants, they say that thatâ€™s the same as being Catholic! One of these layfolks (though a man who was theologically trained) asked us if we believed that John the apostle wrote the Apocalypse. When we said yes, he was surprised. He thought that all Catholics and Protestants denied this! Ignorance can exist on both sides of the fence, and when it does the path of least resistance is to condemn from afar rather than to seek to understand.
So, in this blog, I wish to note a few things that I have learned about the Christian faith from the Greek Orthodox, especially while on Patmos. Today is our last day in Greece, and it is fitting that I offer some reflections about our time here among the Orthodox. These reflections are not only mine; they are those of the whole team from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscriptsâ€”Emmanuel Guegain, Billy Todd, Andrew Wallace, and myself. Iâ€™d love to get some comments on this and dialogue with you about these matters. Here goes:
1. As I alluded in the beginning of this blog, Orthodoxy celebrates the Lordâ€™s Table at least once a week. This is far closer to the apostolic pattern than what most Protestant churches practice.
2. The rich symbolism in the serviceâ€”which reaches back several centuriesâ€”reveals both a dedication to a biblical worldview and unmasks the frequent poverty in low-liturgy Protestantism. There are some high-liturgy denominations within Protestantism (Episcopalian, Lutheran, and to some degree, Presbyterian). But most, at least in America, put as little emphasis on liturgy as possible. Although a high liturgy, complete with repetition of ancient practices, has its problems, it also focuses on Christ and involves a time-tested ritual that does not try to be avant garde. Thereâ€™s something to be said for that.
3. Protestantism has no central authority, leaving each denomination or, worse, each local church, to define truth and what it means to adhere to it. One of the things that is attractive to me about Orthodoxy is that it has a hierarchy of leadership which is responsible for maintaining true Christian belief and practice. There are no Lone Ranger leaders; each answers to someone up the chain.
4. The Protestant Reformation gave impetus to the elevation of reason over revelation, an idea that in essence gave birth to the Enlightenment. Even though we might not think that the elevation of tradition is a good idea, Protestants have largely failed to replace that with anything better. Once we claim that special revelation is our final authority, it raises a significant question: how do we access the meaning of that revelation? Luther appealed to his conscience; well and good. He also noted that the church fathers and popes disagreed all the time. True, to some degree. But he also opened the doors to the use of our own intellect as the final arbiter on truth, in spite of the fact that our minds, too, are tainted with sin. In Orthodoxy as well as Catholicism, tradition stands on much higher ground. And especially in Orthodoxy, it is appealed to in matters of credo. This has safeguarded the Orthodox branch from theological corruption that is especially the hallmark of Protestantism.
5. Along these lines, Orthodoxy has a strong connection with history. They recognize that the Holy Spirit did not wait until the 21st century to begin teaching us! He has been doing so all along, and it is to our peril and shame that we neglect the great lights of the faith who have gone before us. Evangelicals believe that itâ€™s â€œthe Bible aloneâ€ that is our final authority. But too often this means that the Bible alone is our only authority.
6. At least on Patmos, we were treated with incredible hospitality. The Abbot called us brothers and said we were free to visit him and make requests of him any time we needed to. On our last day, he kissed and hugged each of us as we left! This man is very high within Orthodoxy and showed us incredible Christian grace. He considered co-laborers in protecting the scriptures. My question is, How would we treat Orthodox priests who came to America to photograph our books? Would we look at them with suspicion? Would we tolerate them, but just barely? I learned a great deal about grace and humility from Abbot Antipas on this trip.
7.Â Finally, there is a strong emphasis on rationalism within Protestantism vs. mysticism within Orthodoxy. This can be illustrated by what we value. On our last day on Patmos a year ago, we gave the Abbot books; he gave us icons. Now, please understand: I do value reason and am a true son of the Enlightenment. But I do not think that it has all the answers. I also believe that there is a strong mystical element to the Christian faith that western Christianity has essentially ignored. Why is Pentecostalism the fastest growing Christian group in third world countries? Where do we see Godâ€™s intervention in our lives today? Do we anticipate it, yearn for it? Or just find it in the Bible alone? Why is that many evangelicals in America are jumping ship and joining the Roman Catholic church or becoming Orthodox? Is it possible that the felt needs of these people are not fully being met within the evangelical community and that that lack is due to some genuine deficiencies?
Please, letâ€™s dialogue on these points!
Sincerely in Christ,