What Can Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical Christians Learn from Each Other?

May 23, 2022

Article ID: JAF5451 | By: Bradley Nassif


This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, in the viewpoint section of  volume 45, number 1/2  (2022). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.


John Meyendorff, one of the greatest Eastern Orthodox theologians of the 20th century, observed that Orthodox “contacts with ‘Evangelicals’ are minimal, the primary reason being mutual ignorance and suspicion….Such obstacles can and should be overcome within American society….If mutual ignorance still persists, it is due to a continuous lack of dialogue.”1 The Wesleyan scholar William Abraham likewise observed: “Sorting out the relationship between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism can be a spiritual and intellectual nightmare. Often it looks like both sides have crashed at the red light and neither wants to leave the scene of the accident.”2 Thus, the purpose of this article is to build a bridge between these two very different traditions by exploring some of the ways we can learn from each other for the sake of Christ and His gospel.

The following reflections are selected points taken from my recent book, The Evangelical Theology of the Orthodox Church.3 A few introductory words about the book will provide readers with an understanding of the perspective I bring to this article. The product of over fifty years of experience in both Orthodox and evangelical communities in America, Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, this book addresses both Orthodox and evangelical audiences. Part One shows how the gospel is presented in Orthodox worship, doctrine, and spiritual life. I then address Protestant evangelicalism in Part Two, exploring the elements of faith that Orthodox and evangelicals share, without glossing over our differences, thereby offering a means of mutual understanding and enrichment. I rely on the four identity markers of evangelicalism given by the noted British historian David Bebbington, which are: (1) the Bible as the inspired Word of God (biblicism), (2) the work of Christ on the cross (crucicentrism), (3) the need for personal conversion (conversionism), and (4) the imperative of missionary outreach (activism).4 I conclude with the history of an emerging global dialogue5 and an essay assessing the (in)consistencies between evangelicals and the Church’s Great Tradition.

Will the Real Evangelical Please Stand Up?

What can Orthodox and evangelicals learn from each other? The first difficulty we encounter is the nature of evangelical identity itself. What does it mean to be an evangelical? Historians are not in agreement. Broadly speaking, evangelicalism can be described as a trans-denominational movement whose adherents share a common religious experience and a common set of theological emphases. It includes Christians from different denominations. There are Anglican evangelicals, Baptist evangelicals, Wesleyan evangelicals, Free Church evangelicals, and so forth. It is also important to recognize that evangelicalism in America looks quite different from evangelicalism in Russia, Eastern Europe, England, and other countries outside our own. Particularly in America, evangelical identity has become a moving target. The relationship between evangelicals and American politics has become so intertwined that the term “evangelical” is often perceived as an extreme political platform. This has led some in the movement to disavow the word entirely, while others want either to retain it or step away from it temporarily until the term regains its spiritual emphasis. It makes one wonder, “Will the real evangelical please stand up?” This terminological confusion is not prevalent outside of America where evangelicals still retain Bebbington’s fourfold description of the movement. My analysis in this article, therefore, will follow Bebbington’s model.

Evangelical Gifts to Eastern Orthodoxy

The kinds of gifts that evangelicals can offer the Orthodox are those that may increase the effectiveness of the Church’s ministry to believers and unbelievers alike. They challenge the Orthodox to more fully apply the gospel that is formally present within the Church’s tradition. The first challenge is for us (Orthodox) to make the gospel clear, central, and compelling in every life-giving action of the Church. It may seem strange to suggest that even though an evangelical ethos is embedded in the entire structure of the Church’s tradition, many clergy and laity still need an awakening to the core message of salvation. Despite the gospel’s presence in the Church, it can actually remain hidden from our eyes simply by not talking about it clearly. People can grow up religious, but lost. The gospel that is ever-present needs to be made ever-clear! This is not to say that sermons are not preached. But many times they amount to little more than “try harder” messages that leave people feeling guilt-ridden and incapable of living the Christian life despite their best efforts. The biblical gospel is replaced with liturgical legalism, as if simply “going to church more often” is the cure for all spiritual diseases. We seem to rely more on the flesh through our own powers of human persuasion than on the Holy Spirit. I sometimes wonder, “Are our people evangelized, or just sacramentalized?” A renewed concentration on the gospel — in the power of the Spirit — will enliven participation in the liturgy, sacraments, and prayer. Orthodoxy has its own “evangelical identity” that must be recovered based on the Scriptures and apostolic tradition of the Church. Unless the saving message of God’s redemptive work in Christ is kept clear and central, the Church can unintentionally impose on people the evils of religious formalism and barren ritualism. I realize these are strong words, but radical illnesses call for radical remedies, and the gospel is the strongest remedy of all. Our churches will thrive the most when they treasure the gospel by keeping the main thing the main thing.

A second gift of evangelicalism is its biblical emphasis on salvation as the “gift” of God (Eph. 2:8–10). That emphasis is often eclipsed in church when its leaders (clergy and lay alike) present the Christian life primarily as an obligation. Salvation is presented in moralistic categories, as if human effort can “earn” entrance into heaven by fulfilling a plethora of religious obligations. Too often there is an insufficient stress on the heart of Christianity as being the “gift” of God’s own Son. Certainly, the gospel brings both gifts and tasks; it entails a synergy of both blessings and demands. But more fruit will come to parishes that stress the gospel first and foremost as a gift from God.

Finally, evangelicals invite each individual to respond to Christ’s invitation to take up the cross and follow Him. It is a message that is abundantly present in Orthodox Christianity, especially its monastic teachers. Yet again the gold that lies within the Church’s tradition needs to be mined. The nature of the gospel as a gift requires also a response. Our people need to be asked from time to time where they stand in relation to Jesus Christ. Although the Orthodox Church does not have altar calls, the invitation to examine one’s personal commitment to Christ can happen in preaching, confession, counseling, Bible studies, home and hospital visitations, feasts and fasts of the liturgical year, or simply over a cup of coffee. Regardless of when or how it happens, internal evangelism is urgently needed among lapsed or nominal Orthodox parishioners as a renewal of their baptismal vows. Even the Eucharist itself (the central act of Orthodox worship) calls us to embrace the gospel because it “proclaim[s] the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).6 The Eucharist is a ritual witness to the worshipping community about the centrality of the gospel. In short, when the Church weakens its focus on the gospel, the parish becomes weak; but when the Church strengthens its focus on the gospel, the parish can become holy fire!

Orthodox Contributions to Evangelicalism

The strength of both evangelicalism and Orthodoxy is our common conviction that doctrine matters. Bishop Kallistos Ware states the Orthodox view: “Before there can be reunion among Christians, there must first be full agreement in faith: this is a basic principle for Orthodox in all their ecumenical relations” (emphasis in original).7 Perhaps the most important gift the Orthodox offer evangelicals is how the Church approaches history. Both sides share a common interest in Christian history because God became human in a particular time and place (Gal. 4.4). The Orthodox, however, appropriate the past differently than do evangelicals. Evangelicals seem unaware that the early church is the Orthodox Church. They seem to read the word “church” in antiquity as an invisible body of believers instead of a visible community of local churches who share the same faith and sacraments, and are led by bishops who are in communion with each other in apostolic succession. Bishop Ware again explains: “These three forms of unity — oneness of Eucharist communion, dogmatic oneness, oneness around the bishop — are complementary and interdependent, and each loses its true meaning if divorced from the other two.”8 Evangelical communities are not visibly linked with the faith and order of historic Christianity. Instead, evangelicals tend to approach the early church as if it were a library of writings that can be taken or left at the discretion of the individual’s will instead of filtering through the collective mind of the Church. Evangelicals stress the invisible body of Christ as the basis of unity and are happy to permit the visible disunity that exists in Christianity today. The Orthodox, however, maintain that the invisibility of God’s people is not contradicted by the visibility of the Church. Visible disunity is seen as a counter-witness to the unity of the Church.

Closely related to the way history is appropriated is the need for evangelicals to acquire the “mindset” of the Church. The mind of the Orthodox is an ecclesial or churchly mind. It is a mind that “follows the holy Fathers,” as stated in the Preamble of the Chalcedonian Definition (451 AD). This mindset is not simply an appeal to the past. Antiquity may simply contain old error. To “follow the holy Fathers” is to follow the same faith of the Fathers and to have the same theological reflexes of the Church to which they belonged. There is an inseparable link between the Church and its dogmas, worship, and spiritual life. A beautiful flower can illustrate the point. The stem may represent doctrine, and the bud may represent the spiritual and sacramental life of the Church that is nourished by the doctrinal stem. Both belong together. To accept the Nicene Creed or Chalcedonian Definition (as evangelicals do) while rejecting the visible Church that produced those confessions is like cutting off the stem from its flower. Both belong together. The Orthodox witness invites our evangelical brothers to reassess the historical consistency of their convictions. They accept the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology, but reject the Church which bore witness to these theological truths. The

Fathers of the Nicene Creed expressed their trust in the Church when they affirmed: “we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”9

Finally, evangelicals may benefit from Orthodoxy’s maximalist vision of the faith. The Orthodox tradition shares the same four principles of evangelical faith that were outlined by David Bebbington above. The major difference, however, focuses on how the Orthodox Church has developed those principles in its theological vision. Orthodoxy embraces the larger cosmic and ecclesial consequences of those four marks in ways that few evangelicals have done. An evangelical faith lies at the very heart of all the Church’s dogmatic definitions, ecumenical councils, liturgies, sacramental theology, church fathers, icons, architecture, spirituality, and mission theology. Evangelicals may enrich themselves by reflecting more fully on the theological implications of the Orthodox doctrines of creation, the Trinity, and the Incarnation as they relate to salvation, the nature of the Church, its structures of unity, and the sacraments.10 In short, evangelicalism is in need of developing a robust theology of tradition — one that more fully reflects biblical and Christian history.

Perhaps if Orthodox and evangelical Christians are willing to humble themselves before each other, they will see more clearly the strengths and needs of the other. If each side is willing to make the needed alterations, the outcome can lead to a greater common witness to the fullness of Christ in the life of the Church. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Col. 1:16).

Bradley Nassif is the author of the recent book, The Evangelical Theology of the Orthodox Church, foreword by Andrew Louth (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2021).

 

NOTES

  1. John Meyendorff, Letter addressed to The Evangelical Scholarship Initiative, University of Notre Dame, December 24, 1990.
  2. William Abraham, book endorsement of Bradley Nassif, The Evangelical Theology of the Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2021).
  3. Nassif, Evangelical Theology.
  4. David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Britain: From the 1730’s to the 1880’s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 2–17.
  5. The most productive international dialogue over the past decade has been the Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative (www.loimission.net).See also Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism: Contemporary Issues in Global Perspective, Bradley Nassif and Tim Grass (MDPI Books: Religions, 2021). Open access online at https://www.mdpi.com/books/pdfview/book/4648.
  6. Bible quotations are from the NIV.
  7. Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 2015), 303.
  8. Kallistos Ware, “Church and Eucharist, Communion and Intercommunion,” Sobornost 7 (1978), 555.
  9. These and other points are developed in Nassif, Evangelical Theology, 227–40; 277–83. For a more comprehensive introduction to the “mind” of the Orthodox Church, see Eugenia Constantinou, Orthodox Thinking: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2020). More reflection seems to be needed, however, on the role of reason in theology.
  10. I compare and contrast our two theologies in the essay “Evangelicalism through Orthodox Eyes,” in Nassif, Evangelical Theology.
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