Thursday, January 31, 2008

Do Orthodox "Know the Gospel"?

The following is a comment I left on Jim's blog HERE. It's a fine post he's written, and I'd recommend reading it for context as to what I'm about to place (slightly modified) here.

I confess to being an AFR junkie; it’s almost all I listen to on my iPod. I am particularly fond of Dr. Bradley Nassif. I may not respond with such vehemency as he has to the state of Orthodox clergy, but I do see -- and I'm not alone in this -- a need for increased awareness not only of the content of Scripture among the faithful, but of the central, saving message of the gospel.

I think the awareness of the need for this within the Church is (at least) several decades old; Father Alexander Schmemann wrote of his own awareness of it in the seventies. Father Tom Hopko states repeatedly that “it’s all about God,” and not anything else. So folks in the “upper eschelons” of the Church here in America are aware that, when folks don’t know the basic Bible Story characters in the OT, or don’t know any of the parables of Christ, then something is wrong.

Granted, in my time as a Southern Baptist growing up, I met my fair share of similarly disinterested youth (and adults!) who came on Sunday morning and little else (or, if the youth came more often, it was for social purposes only; they seemed bored to tears during the worship and “sermonette” time). So I don’t want to come across as too one-sided.

Ultimately, though, I think what folks in the West are dealing with is (surprise, surprise!) two different extremes. On the one hand, the Evangelical world that dominates our American (and, in particular, southern) culture is severely truncated in its gospel message. Redemption, according to this particular stripe of Christianity, is seen almost always as a forensic “statement of intention” on God’s part, and nothing more. The Son has changed the Father’s mind about us through a contract written in Blood, so we have an ironclad guarantee that moves the Father’s hand away from the gate to paradise so that we can be allowed — snow-covered dung though we still are — to enter heaven. The Father looks on us with favor instead of vindictive wrath now, and all sin (whether it actually is still present in our hearts post-profession of faith) is forgotten by God, and we are granted passage to heaven. This gospel message is preached, long, loud and strong by Evangelicals, though without my post-convert ramifications added, I’m sure.

On the other hand, we have the Orthodox, whose idea of salvation is a body/soul/spirit infusion of the very life of God into the believer, and is rooted not only in Calvary, but in the Manger, the Mount Tabor, the Empty Tomb, the Mount of Olives (Ascension). The entire advent of Christ thus brings man from ontological death to actual life through a life-long cooperation with divine grace. This idea is intertwined in every hymn, every fast, every Scripture reading, every sacrament, to such a degree that we have at our disposal the most thorough Bible commentary and study resource available to mankind. The simple message at the core of all of our often “over-byzantined” worship, however — that “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first” — though it be prayed in every divine liturgy, is quite often missed, the forest of this glorious statement being looked over for love of all the trees (icons, vestment and chant styles, rubrics, ethnic social activities, language issues, and more).

What this leads to, then, is Evangelicals looking at us and saying, “I like the way I do it better than the way you don’t.” Hmm. Harsh, but perhaps something we need to keep in mind. As Father Tom states in his talk on the book of St. John’s Apocalypse, everything in our worship service is meant to point us to the revelation of Jesus Christ. That’s why the Gospel and the Eucharist are the two ways in which Christ is brought out to us in the Divine Liturgy; He is revealed in the Apocalypse as the Word of God (the Gospel) and as the Lamb of God (the Eucharist). St. Ignatius, I believe, stated that our teaching is in agreement with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our teaching (I may be misquoting this; if so, forgive me and, please, correct the quote in the comments, as I can't seem to google it at the moment). Both the didactic proclamation of the good news given through hearing the written Word of God through reading and worship, as well as the intimate, physical, sacramental acts that unify us — body, soul and spirit — to our Incarnate Lord are needed to bring us into a holistic union with Him. It’s not that the Orthodox Way has been tried and found wanting, but rather that it’s been found difficult and left untried.

This faith is, let me say again, much harder than what Evangelicalism teaches. This may seem overtly hostile to many devout Evangelicals, and I am aware of many Evangelical groups that stress holiness of life and struggle against what we Orthodox call "the passions," but I believe this to be in spite of their soteriology, not because of it. God will not “guarantee” or “make” good works come out of someone. No false comfort is given to someone in the Orthodox Church to make him think that “he’s already believed, so good works will, ultimately, come”; God will never override free will and, as such, we must never be haughty, but fear, as our God, the Consuming Fire, will appear, and those of us who’ve loved His appearing will be purified in glory, while those of us who did not conform ourselves to Christ in spite of the grace given to us — perhaps even through laziness or a false sense of security brought on by all this “I know that I’m saved!” talk — will wish the rocks to fall on us.

This is another facet of the Gospel that the Orthodox Church preaches, yet I thank God that Her saints bear witness that our God loves mankind more than anything else and, though He will not ever trespass our free will in order to monergistically “establish good works,” always wills that we (continually!) repent and (continually!) come to the knowledge of the Truth.


James the Thickheaded said...

Love AFR and Dr. Nassif as well and in particular. And I thought he only gave the monks a hard time. Hmmmm. :)

If you like him, an you're an Orthodox iPod junkie... you might also try some of the material from Fr. Evan Armatas... St. Spyridon in Colorado. Lots of podcasts... and many on the parables. Seems to have stressed bible class quite a bit, too. Here's the link:

Dixie said...

Wow, I have to fight the pride I am feeling for being in such good company...both David Bryan and JTT share my appreciation for AFR podcasts and Dr. Nassif!

David, I was just thinking this morning how I jumped into Orthodoxy without really looking and how HARD it actually is! (I was already thinking about Lent and how difficult it will be.)

I have a couple of dear friends who are in the process of converting from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy--in fact they are the Lutheran couple I saw visiting the Orthodox Church in our town the day of my first visit! Yet they are only now committed to becoming Orthodox. Why? Because they were wise enough to see how difficult the narrow and ancient way is. They didn't want to jump in wtih reckless abandon like I did, rather they wanted to be certain they were ready.

That said...that narrow and ancient way is undeniably the most beautiful way, the way that feeds, the way that nurtures...even if at the same time it is difficult.

Jim said...

David -- I think this is the best writing on this topic I've come across.

I would say you answered my question!

Anonymous said...

I just realised you are back! So a belated welcome back. God bless.

And a great post to come back too.

Lucian said...

As I see, You've risen from the dead, David! :-)

David's risen from the dead,
trampling on his promise,
and unto his defunct blog
bestowing life.

Just in time, amigo: You've been tagged! :-)

1. Pick up the nearest book ( of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Re: #5 above: it's "do unto others as others have done unto You". ;-)

Gabriel said...

Isn’t Nassif’s “thesis” essentially, “Orthodox [clergy?] don’t read the Bible like I do, therefore they do not read the Bible”? I think that one has been played out before, only typically between Protestants and Catholics. Anyhow…

Perhaps I am just extraordinarily fortunate in which parishes I have landed in over the years, but I can’t think of a time when the content and message of the Gospel were not preached. I am deeply skeptical of people who claim one or the other is missing in Orthodoxy, especially since one cannot listen to the Resurrectional Sticheria on Saturday Vespers and, if they are so fortunate, the canons of Matins and not receive both. (The one obvious and galling exception is if the services should be in an unintelligible tongue.) I get the sense that Orthodoxy—or at least some within the Church—are extraordinarily lazy; they seem to be saddled with abysmally short attention spans which never allow them to grasp much of anything unless the clergy is pounding a lectern and walking them through the text line-by line. (Yes, there are benefits to this, but it has its practical limits.) I am uneasy with the gross separationism between the “Gospel message” and the services themselves, as if the order and content of those services somehow masks the Gospel or, rather, has nothing to do with it whatsoever. I understand that is not what you are necessarily advocating for, but it’s difficult not to see that trend come alive in Nassif (and others).

Could the Orthodox Church do better in bringing Holy Scripture to the faithful? Perhaps. There seems to be a lot of hope hanging on the Orthodox Study Bible, though there has been an extraordinarily rich set of resources available to Orthodox for a number of years. I’m not sure if the Church is to blame for people refusing to make the effort. (I do wonder, once the OSB is released, how many Orthodox who were otherwise disinclined from reading the Scriptures (especially the Old Testament) will be invigorated to do so. I suspect a lot of OSB’s will be in’s “Used Books” section in the next couple of years.) Some might argue that the Church could do more as a whole to encourage the faithful to read the Bible. Ok. But how? There’s a great deal of what I would call “Protestant taint” in the “pro-Biblical” camp; they advocate for a reading of Scripture which is not unlike the Protestant approach (i.e., Bible-as-“life textbook” rather than Word of God). Even the inclusion of so-called “Study Notes” in the OSB has its limits. The original New Testament edition’s notes were riddled with errors, contained only loose references to the Fathers, and came across as a loosely-edited variant of what one might find from a standard NIV “Study Bible” published by Zondervan.

In the end, I wonder: What basis or what meaningful criteria exists for assessing the state of Orthodox in relation to their knowledge of the Gospel—both content and message? The placing of Orthodox in an International Pan-Christian Bible Bowl? How does memorizing the “characters” of the Old Testament lend itself to understanding the Gospel and, from there, living in accordance with it? Keep in mind that for an overwhelming majority of Christianity’s (not just Orthodoxy’s) time on the planet, it was beyond the means of society to provide full texts of Scripture to all parishes, let alone all Christians. Not until the last two hundred years could it be presumed that most Christians living throughout the world were capable of reading. Sometimes these sorts of laments run dangerously close to a general conclusion that Christians prior to the modern era were likely doomed due to their illiteracy and the inaccessibility of the Bible. Yet we—the Orthodox (and this is true of the Catholics as well)—believe that Salvation was available to them; we believe that the Faith was transmitted through the Church; and we also believe that Holy Spirit guided the Church in these efforts. Now, believing that isn’t the same as believing it was all right, good, and perfect. Certainly the deficiencies in learning which came about after the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the so-called “Western captivity” of the Russian Church (which, really, had more than a few positive outcomes) placed a low ceiling on the faithful’s understanding. It may have even caused a soul to go astray here and there. Yet we should be careful not think of those times or even the relatively recent times as pure “dark ages” which the “light” of a “Back to the Bible”-style movement within Orthodoxy is going to correct for the better. Yes, promote Scripture and its reading, but not at the expense of drawing false implications about the Church’s longstanding capacity to transmit the Faith to countless generations, under numerous circumstances, and within greatly varied contexts.

David Bryan said...


Thanks for your insightful comments.

I disagree with your assessment of Dr. Nassif's comments -- he's not commenting on whether or not, or even how, clergy are reading the Scriptures, but rather how are they making it accessible to the faithful.

I'm glad you've been in parishes where this was done. I feel the same way, as educational opportunities outside of liturgy, as well as excellent homilies within the liturgies, were there to explain what was read in the epistle, gospel, canon of St. Andrew, and OT readings. Church school was provided to give the kids a context for what they had just been in the middle of. So not all parishes are like what Dr. Nassif describes.

I think the problem is that many people grow up attending Orthodox Divine Liturgies on Sunday who see no reason to "listen to the Resurrectional Sticheria on Saturday Vespers and, if they are so fortunate, the canons of Matins." As you said, the short attention span needs to be acknowledged, and intentional emphasis of these truths needs to be given in various forms, both in hymn and homily, both in study and stichera, if you'll forgive the alliteration, which truly was not planned.

I also don't think Dr. Nassif is attemtping to separate the “Gospel message” and the services themselves, any more than I am, and I think his podcasts make this clear. Yes, his difficulty growing up was that everything was in Arabic (a language I guess he didn't speak himself), but nowadays, with most services in English, the hurdles are different. I think he's very clear in his lauding of the fullness of the faith and the richness, beauty, and catholicity latent in our liturgical life; nothing seems to be lacking in that area. What is lacking, however, is a conscious attempt to use that liturgical life aggressively in order to bring to life the understanding that is there, but may need to be repeated in other contexts for the attention span-challenged.

To delve further into the attention span bit, I think that's the reason that it didn't matter as much in previous centuries that folks didn't know how to read. An issue of USA Today contains more information (or, depending on your view, misinformation) than someone living 200 or 300 years ago would have had access to throughout their entire lives. They lived, mostly, in small, rural communities which centered around the church, and these communities were used to things taking a long time (harvesting crops yearly will do that to a person). So these were people who were used to oral storytelling, who were used to listening. Nowadays, though, we're so bombarded with instantaneous information, distraction and amusement that, instead of finding the church service as a natural part of the slow rhythm of life, many see the repetitive, somber services of the Church as nothing more than ritual, and thus don't really want to hang on for more than a few minutes (or, if you like, one or two stichera verses) before zoning out. With increased literacy and increased knowledge comes increased need for understanding "the goal of our instruction." The fact that the illiterate, tenth-century peasant couldn't read to know who Mephibosheth was doesn't excuse us from appreciating how our King seeks out members of a formerly antagonistic family of people and adopts them as His own. These lessons can only increase our awareness of God's love for us; let's not let arguments of "necessary?" get in the way of making the Scriptural accounts and testimonies of God as accessible and well-known as possible.

As for the OSB -- we're awaiting our pre-ordered copy. We also hope, as you do, that the notes are much improved and the patristic quotes much expanded. We are grateful, however, that the seeming emphasis of an "Introduction to Orthodoxy" Study Bible is there, as it can serve as a great tool for folks who don't know all that much about their faith to begin with. Good starting point, but not all that heavy-duty...and definitely not a cure-all for what ails us. But a good help, nonetheless.

A question: how would you describe the ideal Orthodox reading to which you alluded: that of a reading of Scripture as "Word of God"?

In the end, I wonder: What basis or what meaningful criteria exists for assessing the state of Orthodox in relation to their knowledge of the Gospel—both content and message?

An excellent question. Bible Bowls and parish Bible Studies are nice, and, on a parish-by-parish basis, might indicate some growth. But again, this is probably something best measured parish by parish, or even individual by individual. An increase in confession, in home prayer, in attendance of more than just Sunday Divine Liturgy, an increase in gratitude for the "Great Mercy" we so often sing about and for an increased awareness of the "everywhere present" God who always searches and tries our hearts -- with the exception of service attendance, I know, these aren't measurable, but I tend to think that what St. Herman stated -- that, “If we love someone, then we always think of that one, we strive to please that one; day and night our heart is preoccupied with that object...[we] often turn to Him...always remember Him...always pray to Him and fulfill His Holy commandments" -- such an attitude will come to characterize our parish coffee hours. It'll vary, of course, in how certain folks express their experience with God, but the most important thing is for (and as a parent I know I'm biased) for the young to see the older members participating in the liturgy with voice and deliberate intention, with a desire to "always think please...[to] often turn to Him...always remember Him...always pray to Him and fulfill His Holy commandments." And, I would add, to tell others about Him and invite them to come experience this Holy Faith.

This is nothing, I don't believe, that is out of step with the Orthodox faith. It's all present in the rites of the Church. No ones calling for reform of the liturgy, least of all Dr. Nassif and myself. What is being called for is a utilization of all we have at our disposal to bring forth the "one thing needful" that Fr. Alexander Schmemann constantly referenced: the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, at hand and within us, made present in our worship.

Rhology said...

Galatians 3 certainly makes a big deal out of the inability of works, embodied in the Law of Moses (which law is holy, righteous, and good) to save us. Preceding that, Paul says that those who would change that Gospel are to be damned even if they be an angel or apostle.

But EOC does not teach thus. What does that say about whether Orthodox know the Gospel?

(getting the thread redirected a bit at the original target)