Tuesday, March 27, 2012

My best guess as to why I'm not an Eastern Orthodox Christian

Original location here.

Dear Robert,

So. The Eastern Orthodox Church. You asked what eventually turned me from it.

Short answer: I'm not sure what turned me from it.

Long answer: During the winter of my senior year at Hillsdale (known in some circles as the worst four months of my life), I was about ready to kiss an icon and phone it Constantinople. I don't know what others' flirtations with the East entailed, all I know is that I was attending Orthodox services and meeting with a priest back in Corvallis, Oregon, over Christmas break that year. I was all but convinced. I don't know why exactly I didn't swim the Bosporus. The mix of influences tending that way will probably never again be as strong or as compelling as they were in that season of my life. I don't think it will happen again, which is to say that I'm as close to completely sure as I am likely to get that I will never go to the East. If it's possible to say that -- at the same time -- it's even less likely that I'll go to Rome, then....well, I'd like to say that. Rome has never been less appealing. The East has been more appealing than it currently is, but it's not particularly appealing, either...

...Dr. Jackson sure did a number on my ability to make a definitive statement.

Ultimately, I didn't go East because I think that on some important levels -- indeed, on the most important levels -- what the Orthodox Church teaches is untrue.

Let me put this another way:

It's a beautiful poem. It's incredibly compelling. It's mystical. It's at once esoteric yet more traditional than anything else out there. And it's the best Pascal's Wager imaginable when it comes to Christianity. Seriously, everyone accepts their sacraments, but they don't accept anyone else's sacraments. It's kind of hilarious -- the strongest point of agreement between Rome and the East is the validity of the latter's sacraments. If an Orthodox priest goes over to Rome, all he has to do is vest, and then he can celebrate (as celebrant, i.e., consecrate) the Eucharist in a Roman church. Hilariously, if a Roman priest wants to go East, he was to go to confession with an Orthodox priest, be absolved (of his heresy..tee hee), and THEN he can go celebrate the Eucharist...

But I digress...

I just don't believe it. I mean, I just don't believe that Eastern theology covers even close to enough of what Christian theology is truly about: the forgiveness of sins. Absolution. Ironically, the East preaches roughly half of the content of the Gospel. As expansive as it is, their theology is too small. It expanded on the wrong direction. So, yeah, it's a beautiful, swollen half-theology. I mean, don't misunderstand me -- when I read John Zizioulas's work, I find it incredibly compelling. I find his Eucharistic theology amazing. That chapter from Being as Communion that Jackson had us read, "Personhood and Being" -- it changed my life. It's amazing. I even ordered the whole book, I liked it so much...please don't ask me if I've read the rest of it yet. Seriously, though, it changed me.

But at the end of the day, I absolutely believe in juridical atonement, in forensic justification, in the substitutionary nature of Christ's sacrifice. With all my heart. Sold out. Because it's what Scripture teaches. It's in Christ's own words, especially in His last will and testament, given to His disciples the night when he was betrayed. It's what the Holy Apostles taught. It's what the Church Fathers, when they were doing exegesis, and not just philosophizing, taught. I know that saying so doesn't make it so. But...well, I find that as a Western (Lutheran) Christian, I have little trouble believing practically all of what the East teaches about atonement. And more. And the "more" is crucial -- literally. It's the crux theologorum. And it's here that the East swings wide.

The East doesn't understand that the sinner is not just sick, but dead; that he is not just distracted from what is good, but totally inclined towards what is evil, "desperately wicked" in ways hidden from himself, even. The East does not believe that the righteousness credited to you on account of your faith in Christ -- faith which is itself a gift, and not the product of your own reason or strength -- is everything. They do not think that God's pardon is enough. They, like Rome, do not think of grace primarily as God's merciful disposition towards us sinners, but as some magical substance which enables you to somehow "work out your salvation", which -- contrary to Jesus last words -- is most emphatically not finished. While they nicely avoid the errors of Roman legalism (briefly summarized: the belief that you need to use the little bit o' prevenient grace you get at conversion/baptism/baptism of desire/whatever to win more grace from Jesus's Treasury of Merit -- a task which Mary and the saints can help with, since Jesus is grumpy and not at all inclined to listen to your pleas for grace but just might be less onerous and grudging if His mom asks on your behalf; it's the big holy hedge-fund in the sky, complete with insider-trading), they instead fall in with an unmitigated, un-Scriptural mysticism. The Eastern Orthodox are pretty much the original hipsters.

To be fair, the testimony and content of the Scriptures is rather unbelievable. It's a simple truth to which the natural man responds in disbelief, "What?! That's it?!" It's insulting to our intelligence. Sola Scriptura is for rubes, right? I mean, remember at Hillsdale when even people whose churches totally held to Sola Scriptura (and not much else) would take snarky potshots at it? It's not nuanced, apparently. (Well, it's straw man isn't -- that's for sure.) It's passe to say that the deposit of the Holy Apostles' teaching is enough, and that the proclamation of the truth contained therein is itself a means of grace by which the Holy Spirit creates faith and converts sinners. So be it. I guess at the end of the day (I say "at the end of the day" a lot -- a lot of days end when I write) I'm very much a "one-thing needful" Christian. It's just Jesus. It's all about Jesus.

That right there -- isn't that unbelievable? Yes, it for sure is. Maybe that's why so many don't believe it.



O-K. We can call this portion of the show "Theological Truisms with Trent."

But, really, the fact that it's unbelievable is why even Christians (like this one) often don't believe it (Lord I believe; help Thou my unbelief). To make matters better (or worse, depending on where you're standing), Jesus even gets His Holy Spirit involved, so you don't even get the credit for believing. Jesus does everything, and He doesn't need your help. In fact, what you would like to offer to Him as help, He would have you do as a free offering of love -- not to Him, really, as though he needs your good works (he surely doesn't), but to your neighbor (who surely does). This is not to say that you're not going to have to work hard. You will work. Very hard. It's just that you're not going to (are not really even able to) work hard for your salvation. It's done.

Here is, I think, an entirely natural response (one that I've had, in fact) to the ad hoc absurdity I have concocted in the foregoing paragraphs to represent what I, as a Lutheran, believe. The parenthetical comments will be "real Trent":
No, that can't be it. I mean, "only Jesus" is a good slogan (we might say). But I don't want to sound like a Baptist. I mean, such a statement is something we can nod our heads "yes" to, but...I mean...when we say that, what we really mean, deep down inside, is that it's all about Jesus and me. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, right? Like salvation! I can do salvation! I can save myself through Christ...who strengthens me! Jesus is on my team, and He helps me do all the stuff that I need to do to get right, be right, and stay right with God. (In order to avoid icky Western juridical connotations of "rightness", we could retool that last sentence by substituting "noetically reverberating" for "right".) The suggestion that I'm justified right now, where I stand, simply because Christ atoned for me on the cross, propitiated God's righteous wrath, expiated the contagion of my disease, forgave my crimes against God and man...and that I not only don't get to, but can't add to that, cuz what could you possibly add to that?...THAT suggestion irks me. Jesus may be Batman, but I'm sure-as-hell Robin (beneath this protest usually lurks a person who actually thinks of himself as Batman and Jesus as Robin).

I don't think God really knows how bad I was, and how big of a change I'm going to need to make. So I will invent my own obstacle course of supererogatory gymnastics, flexaroos, and jazzercises. I'm going to show God how truly devout and repentant I am by not accepting His kind offer of sonship, but by serving Him. What's that, God? Unearned adoption as your child, like all the bad stuff never happened? Well, that's pretty good, but how about THIS! I'll see your sonship, God, and raise you SERVANTHOOD!

Furthermore, I reserve the right to be stressed out about my salvation, and to spend my life doing something about it. The story of my salvation is like Lord of the Rings! It's a faith-adventure! I'm part of the Fellowship! It's big, it's beautiful, and it's angsty. I'm going to go to Mordor and throw my sin in Mount Doom, and I'm going to hang out with some elves (who are perhaps emergent church types), fight orcs (Presbyterians -- pretty sure), and cavort with dwarves (I think we all know who they are...rhymes with Beastern Borthodox). When God sees my sincere efforts, I'll be sure to get into His good graces.

Okay, okay...again, I'll make it more Eastern: serving God IS ITSELF His good long as I'm always doing, my doing will be my being and I'll have...Presto! Being as Communion. As long as I'm participating in the life of the Church, we're cool...

That was perhaps more fun to write than it will be helpful to read. Hmmm...

There's a certain caricature of Calvinist theology, specifically the teaching of "once-saved-always-saved", that says "you can fall on the boat, you just can't fall off the boat." As a Lutheran, I hold to a somewhat paradoxical position: you didn't get on the boat yourself, and it's impossible to fall off the boat, but you can sure as hell jump. So...don't jump? Anyway, it just occurred to me that you could caricature Eastern Orthodox theology in a similar vein (though I think it would be somewhat apt): if you stop walking around on the boat, THE BOAT DISAPPEARS!

I just don't believe it, Robert. The same things that I think are wrongheaded about non-denominational Protestantism are the same things I think are wrongheaded about both Rome and the East. At the end of the day, they stray so very, very far from Christ, and so very far from Scripture. All seem to me to end up with anthropocentric theologies of glory where we get to be protagonists in the story of our own salvation, at the expense of the Christocentric theology of the cross. They tend towards self-consciousness, and ultimately, self-centeredness. In making man more self-conscious, they make him less...well, actually conscious! They cloud Christians' already dim view of the Author and Perfecter of their faith, making it that much harder for them to fix their eyes upon Him.

It's certainly not impossible to find Christ in the Roman church or the Eastern church -- in fact, I'm sure that there are better Christians than I will ever be in these churches...including most of my favorite professors. But I'm too weak for such churches. If I were a Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox, I would probably have already apostasized and/or committed suicide by now. There's just so much needless extra stuff -- stuff which could be absolutely good, right, and salutary, if only they first resolved to know and make known Christ and Him crucified, first and foremost.

Interestingly enough, the same things that I think are -- if not absolutely essential, then at least vitally important, to the life of the Church, and that I am grateful that Rome and the East have kept and guarded (the historic liturgy of the Church, the Apostolic teaching concerning the Sacraments, the Office of the Keys, the Patristic tradition), those same things have, well...always existed among the churches of the Augsburg Confession, until about the 1870's, when American Lutherans got all weird and absorbed some of the worser aspects of American Christianity, including the latter's anti-Catholicism. But such things have always been a part of historic confessional Lutheranism as it has existed since the time of the Conservative Reformation. Thankfully, there is currently a renascence among world Lutheranism, and many (I don't honestly know if it's most) Lutheran church bodies are rediscovering their confessional identity, rediscovering their truly Catholic heritage (I'm totally OK with Catholic, with a capital 'C', even -- what's wrong with Roman Catholicism is not its catholicity, but rather its Romanism), and realizing that we never agreed to leave the Western Catholic Church, and that as far as we're concerned (and, we trust, as far as God is concerned), we never did -- the opinions and anathemata of the Bishops of Rome for the last five-hundred years notwithstanding.

Hokay. I was not planning on writing that much. Forgive me for bloviating, asked!

In no particular order, since this coffee shop is about to close:

My frank, somewhat autobiographical thoughts about this business, more of the same (more polemical, though), and more of the same, though not quite as autobiographical.

Better thoughts than mine on what Sola Fide means to a Lutheran, as opposed to the more common understanding of Sola Fide among other Protestants.

Oh, and Samuel Johnson contra Roman Catholicism. This is a beautiful piece.

OK. I need to go eat something. Have a good night. I hope the wildebeest has been good.





  1. Poor Robert. I wonder how he feels about his correspondences going public.
    I enjoyed reading this...aside from the bit where I was an orc.
    I'm so sorry to hear about your hard time senior year. Worst four months of your life did NOT sound good.

  2. Robert doesn't exist :)

    You're not an orc...only abstract Presbyterians are orcs, not any real ones...that I know of.

    And, really, everyone has a worst four months of their life. But, all the same, thanks. I'm over it.

    1. Oh really? This whole time...

      Oh I see. I really did like reading the rest of it. The boat analogy cleared up a LOT of things.

      Yes, true, but not all of us want to join the Eastern Orthodox Church over it. ;-) Glad it is over.

  3. Great read, thanks for posting. This is one of many lines I enjoyed "All seem to me to end up with anthropocentric theologies of glory where we get to be protagonists in the story of our own salvation, at the expense of the Christocentric theology of the cross. "

  4. I laughed very, very hard, especially at the LOTR portion concerning the Beastern Borthodox. Thank you

  5. Oh hey Trent. I re-found your blog. And since I'm still not going to church anywhere consistently, this seems right up my alley -- or at least the first half. Or at least the part where I'm kind of irritating and procrastinating from doing something else. Anyway, my complements to your use of parentheticals (my favorite part of writing, it turns out, and my own worst habit), and abject hatred for your preposterous and (I say this begrudgingly) use of LOTR. (Keaton). I suppose I came away with a couple thoughts and one question. So I'll go with the question, since I don't know the answer anyway. My apologies for not knowing how to phrase it and bringing up too many other questions outside the post:

    Regarding the bit about first resolving to know and make known Christ and Him crucified, first and foremost (since, well . . . yes): if you are a vessel, rather than an active participant in your salvation (cf. boat, paragraph pre-"hyperbolic trent") -- and I have never quite understood quite how deep that statement is supposed to be or what it says about the human being as being, not to mention human, so forgive me -- if this is true, then isn't all the needless extra stuff so essential to a proper understanding of Christ and His salvation, precisely (and,I suppose, mystically) because it is so extra and so needless, and since everything you might actually effect (if you get to effect anything) does have everything to do with your own participation (however involuntary) in the grace you've been given? Does it perhaps more have to do with humanity and the potential for human redemption than whatever diminished (or murdered, however you like the metaphor to go) godhood we might have had?

    I suppose I think of three things in the order stated: Camus and humanist existentialism, Marshall and his gouda cheese platter (HIMYM . . . sorry), the bit where the Little Prince walks very very slowly toward the drinking fountain . . .

  6. Tom,

    I don't understand your question. So, I sort of can't answer it? Help me out...

  7. I think it breaks down to something like, "If it doesn't matter what you do, might as well do something nice and pretend it counts," but less flippant, because the presumption is that even if what you do doesn't count on a grand God-perspective level initially, it might count on a local human-perspective level immediately (and always and right now), which means all the needless extra stuff -- the prostrations and the fasting and the ikons etc. etc. -- is actually, even as it is subsidiary, all-important and essential from the God-perspective as well, even if it doesn't actually matter what it is. Or something like that. (I'm avoiding the word "intention" with all of the ability available to me.)

    I guess I've never met anyone who simultaneously claimed to participate in Christ's death and resurrection and to have effected his own salvation, but it seems misleading to discredit an established traditional means of expressing that salvation, since it seems almost self-evident that active grace must have some outward effect. Something about vines?

    So if you take a pill every week that makes it so you don't have to drink water, what better to do than walk slowly toward the fountain and enjoy it deeply? Even if the physical walking and drinking and bow toward the water are all unnecessary, they manifest the only appropriate response and thus become undeniably important -- especially since you don't know if you're thirsty or not. Or, better, you know you aren't thirsty, and you are wrong.

    I slipped into metaphor again. In my defense, it was the LP. Does that help?