Questions and Answers about Orthodoxy
Over the past several weeks, there has been more than a little stir regarding my spiritual condition (as on Palm Sunday I became Orthodox) and my physical condition (as I recently had a bone marrow biopsy).
During a recent staff meeting, I answered questions in our CRI board room on these and other topics. Thereafter I thought it appropriate to share the answers I gave that day with my dear friends and supporters. Thankfully, my staff added appropriate verses and quotations to my impromptu remarks.
Lord willing, fuller detail regarding my journey will be forthcoming on future broadcasts, vlogs, and in a book titled, Truth Matters, Life Matters More.
Questions and Answers about Orthodoxy
Q. What led you to become Orthodox?
A. In a word, it comes down to “theosis” (union with God) — my growing realization through prolonged prayer and extensive reflection that this transformative process — and ultimate transformation — is the very purpose of human life. What’s more, I’ve come to realize that we can experience the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That Holy Communion, rightly understood and administered, is vastly more than memorial. It is the primary means by which we may become by grace what God is by nature. Or as Peter puts it, become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Increasingly, I’m yearning to know not only about Jesus Christ as the way and the truth but also Jesus Christ as the way and the life (John 14:6).
Moreover, my orientation toward worship has been radically rearranged. The moment I enter church, the engagement of my senses alerts me to the reality that I am there to worship the one true and living God. Orthodoxy, of course, makes use of earthly perceptible means to set our sights on spiritual verities. Also, I am blessed to live near an Orthodox community of believers that has been impacted by the work of the Christian Research Institute. Reciprocally, this community has impacted my life and that of my family greatly.
It is worth noting that I have been studying, memorizing, and publicly teaching Scripture for more than thirty years. My view of Christianity — in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity — remains steadfastly the same. I will and have always championed mere Christianity and am well aware that God has His people in Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox communities.
Nonetheless, we live in an age of rapid change and, frankly, hermeneutical chaos — an age in which the evangelical church indulges in what may best be described as interpretive free-for-all with respect to the teachings of sacred Scripture. The broader culture imposes its illiberal sexual values on the Christian community, and all too often Christians capitulate.
From within the Christian community, radical elements impose bizarre notions that deny central teachings of the historic Christian faith, including escapist end-time scenarios that have dramatic geopolitical ramifications, counterfeit revivalism, unbridled subjectivism, and the idea that a Christian must never confess sins and seek God’s forgiveness. Moreover, “moralistic therapeutic deism” and biblical and historical illiteracy increasingly characterize the declining spiritual and intellectual state of the American church. Although Orthodoxy is not a panacea, the local body of believers I have connected with has provided a welcome refuge and respite for my family and me in both teaching and practice.
Q. Does this mean that your positions have changed? Will CRI be changing?
A. None of my positions on the essential or core doctrines of the historic Christian faith have changed. My positions are clearly outlined in over twenty books — I’ve not rescinded any of my writings — and my commitment to “mere Christianity” remains unshakeable (see “Have I ‘Left the Christian Faith’?” and Memorable Keys to Essential Christian D-O-C-T-R-I-N-E). CRI’s positions likewise remain unchanged. There will, of course, be changes in CRI’s increasing efforts to expand its outreaches through digital and social media channels to equip Christians at home and abroad to think and live Christianly.
Let me acknowledge one significant shift in emphasis. The core message of CRI has been that we do what we do “because truth matters.” Several years ago, we changed the motto to we do what we do “because life and truth matter.” While in no way diminishing the criticality of truth, this shift underscores the importance of the abundant life — the life that is truly life (I Timothy 6:19). Too many apologetically minded Christians in their quest for truth have embraced an arid rationalism and intellectualism that tragically mistakes the map for the territory, the symbol for the Reality to which symbols merely point.
Put another way, they have mistaken the menu for the meal. The lamentable outcome is that with millions of Christians hungrily searching for the Bread of Life, instead of real spiritual meals, they are handed menus. Is it any wonder, then, that so many starving for “the real thing” are leaving the church spiritually famished?
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis tells the story of a “hard-bitten” Royal Air Force officer who had little patience for reading the Bible. From his perspective, anyone who has experienced God alone in the desert has little need for the rubbish of reading things about Him. On one hand, the officer had a point. As the territory is more real than the map that portrays it, so an experience with God in the cool of a desert night is far more viscerally authentic than just reading things about Him in the Bible.
Likewise, looking at the Atlantic Ocean from the vantage of a beach is far more real than merely looking at a map of the Atlantic. “Turning from something real to something less real; turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper.”
But here is what needs to be understood. The map is based on the experience of hundreds of thousands of people who have had an experience with the Atlantic. Not isolated experiences — innumerable experiences. Moreover, “if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary.” After all, writes Lewis, “The map is going to be of more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.”
The Bible is like that map. Merely reading it is less real than the R.A.F. officer’s experience in the desert. But without it, one is bound to get lost. While the territory may be more significant than the map, the map nonetheless matters.
As the map is not the territory, so the Bible is not God. As someone has well said, “The Bible is the cradle in which we find Christ, and it is a serious error to attribute to the cradle the honor due its occupant.”
What the Bible entails is “the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God — experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused.” You won’t get anywhere by just looking at a map. But you will likely not get to where you’re going without one. While the life that genuinely matters is ultimately dependent on truth, both life and truth matter. We do well to recall that Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
This truth was made poignant for me during my travels in Asia. While visiting with persecuted Christians, who are among the most Christ-like and joyful people I have ever met, I began to ponder the meagerness of my own Christian experience. I had become a master at dotting the “I’s” and crossing the “T’s” of doctrinal correctness. Yet, the notion of redemption as a profound and radical transformative experience with the very energies of God (Colossians 1:29) was largely lost on me. I recognized life without truth to be a dangerous doorway into deviant doctrine. But I had failed to perceive truth without life to be a slippery slope toward spiritual malnourishment. Simply put, to know about and to know are not the same. To know doctrine as a set of logical truth propositions is not the same as the “empirical immediacy” of knowing the One from whom those logical truth propositions are derived and to Whom they point. Once again, critically, the menu is not the meal. The map is never the territory.
Today the moniker “life and truth matter” is far more than a mere logical truth proposition. For me, it is a daily experiential reality. So much so, that it has radically altered the course and trajectory of my life and ministry.
Q. Why are critics saying that you have “abandoned the faith”?
A. Some simply don’t know better. They are more eager to “sound off” than they are genuinely to understand what they are criticizing. Others who should know better are reacting from a stance of doctrinal tribalism; unless others embrace their narrow notions of what constitutes orthodoxy, they can’t be “true” believers or believers in any sense.
Here is an analogy. The LGBTQ employs an iron boot to grind dissenters, as it were, into the pavement. Frequently, there is no opportunity for the free exchange of ideas. We are no longer allowed even to ask if homosexuality is abnormal, but rather objections to it are now considered abnormal. We used to talk about gender identity disorder, but now gender is determined by feelings instead of one’s biology. And those who dare question the LGBTQ narrative are silenced as bigots.
I mention this by way of analogy to point out that, lamentably, there is a similar Christian fundamentalist intolerance that raises its head whenever its parochial doctrinal interpretations are questioned. In some sectors, if you do not swear to a pretribulation, premillennial eschatological perspective, you are considered suborthodox at best and heretical at worst. There is no need to name names, but the informed reader will understand what I am talking about.
Throughout more than three decades of ministry, my commitment to truth has required me to go against the grain in many ways. I wrote Christianity in Crisis, Counterfeit Revival, The Millennium Bug Debugged, The Prayer of Jesus, The Apocalypse Code, and all of these volumes went decidedly against the grain of a Christian politically correct culture. CRI has repeatedly paid a tremendous price for that, but truth is not for sale. The simple reality is that error is error even if everyone believes it, and truth is truth even if no one believes it. Yet despite the repeated hits we have taken, we have seen tremendous dividends in that people’s lives have been revolutionized for Christ and testimonies to the glory of God are legion.
Q. Does the Orthodox Church believe in the authority of Scripture?
A. Of course. Orthodox Christians embrace the authority of Scripture as defined in the first seven ecumenical councils in which Christianity assumed much of its historic shape that has persisted for 2,000 years.
I am deeply committed to “the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and to the Holy Scriptures, the only infallible repository of redemptive revelation. Both our Lord and His apostles viewed Scripture as the unerring word of God:
“The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35);
“Not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law until everything has been accomplished” (Matthew 5:18);
“It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law” (Luke 16:17);
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35).
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
When Christ disputed with the Pharisees concerning their view of tradition, Jesus said, “Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition” (Mark 7:13). Scripture therefore stands over and judges tradition. But the reality is that pitting apostolic oral tradition against written tradition was unheard of for the first 1500 years of church history. In fact, what precipitated this aspect of the sixteenth-century Reformation was the corruption those such as Martin Luther saw within the medieval Roman Catholic Church.
Regarding such corruption, said Luther, was the idea that Scripture could be interpreted solely through the teaching Magisterium (the Pope and his bishops). This promoted the notion that written and oral repositories were inaccessible to the average person in the pew. Roman Catholics and Protestants began to view the oral and written repositories of the faith once for all delivered to the saints as distinct and separate sources of Christian faith and practice.
Orthodox Christians do not engage the debate in such terms. Instead, they see the church as the pillar and ground of truth in accord with 1 Timothy 3:15. Because the church is the body of Christ, it is instrumental in dispensing the precious grace of the Holy Spirit. But Scripture is the final authority for teaching and practice (faith and morals).
The people of God must properly interpret the Scriptures according to sound principles of biblical interpretation in conjunction with community memory. Why favor a sixteenth-century Latin speaker over the interpretation of a first- or second-century speaker of secular Koine Greek in which the New Testament was written? An example of such communal memory is found in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians:
“What I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:3–8, emphasis added)
The community of Christians following the death of Christ communicated the gospel itself in oral creedal form, which Paul codified in this epistle. Indeed, prior to the closing of the canon of Scripture, the church functioned on the basis of community memory. To say that the Scriptures are the only means by which we can know about Christ and the life and practices of the early church would be short-sighted and historically inaccurate. Indeed, the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ was itself safe-guarded and originally passed on through community memory. Again, however, I do hold that the Scriptures are the only infallible repository of redemptive revelation on which the church bases faith and practice.
And even that last statement requires qualification in that when we make such statements we have in mind the original writings, not the manuscript copies or translations.
Note also that even in our day when every household owns one or more Bibles, translation remains an obstacle. Just as a scientist brings his or her presuppositions into the laboratory such that experimental results are inevitably colored by those presuppositions, the same is true with biblical translation. One advantage in Greek Orthodoxy is the emphasis on teaching the Greek language with the result that translation issues are significantly mitigated.
Q. How does the Orthodox Church respond to the notion of sola fide?
A. I have a great appreciation for taking the complex and making it simple. But sound bites can be dangerous. I would feel much more comfortable using biblical rather than manmade designations. For example, if you want to know about sola fide (faith alone), it’s very helpful to memorize Ephesians 2:8–10:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
And reread the Epistle of James. It’s short, pithy, and profound, and it lets one know that Christianity is not merely transactional but also transformational in the sense that we are saved by God’s grace through faith on account of Christ, and something happens to us such that we no longer live according to the ways of the world and the desires of the flesh. Now we are building on the foundation of Jesus Christ:
“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.” (1 Corinthians 3:11–13)
For context, think back to Western Europe before the Reformation. Eastern Christians had no context for the polarization of faith and works. The great ecumenical Councils had long settled this conundrum through the recognition that salvation comes through faith in Christ who fulfills the law.
As Paul put it in Romans, “Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (5:2 NKJV).
Moreover, the Eastern Church saw true faith not as a momentary transaction but rather as a transformational way of life. Through His great kindness toward us, we are justified by faith and empowered by the Trinity to give the cup of water and the piece of bread to those in need and, as such, bring glory to God.
Q. I occasionally hear references to the “real presence of Christ.” What is that?
A. Stay tuned. I’m touching on that in the forthcoming book Truth Matters, Life Matters More: Discovering the Authentic Christian Life. But let me give you a hint. There are different views depending on different traditions, but essentially, the “real presence of Christ” means that in the Eucharist (from the Greek for thanksgiving) — or what many Protestants would refer to as “Communion” or “Holy Communion” — Christ is really (and not just symbolically or metaphorically) present.
For the vast majority of church history, all Christians believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Even Martin Luther, who wanted badly to disagree with the papists at this point, believed with all his heart in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And so this is not a novel idea. In fact, the idea that communion is solely an occasional remembrance or memorial is the view that is new. As I’ve often said on the Bible Answer Man broadcast, if something is new, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is not true. But if something is new, we ought to examine it carefully.
As Timothy Ware has well said:
“The chief place in Christian worship belongs to the sacraments or, as they are called in Greek, the mysteries. ‘It is called a mystery,’ writes St. John Chrysostom of the Eucharist, ‘because what we believe is not the same as what we see, but we see one thing and believe another….When I hear the Body of Christ mentioned, I understand what is said in one sense, the unbeliever in another.’ This double character, at once outward and inward, is the distinctive feature of a sacrament: the sacraments, like the Church, are both visible and invisible; in every sacrament there is the combination of an outward visible sign with an inward spiritual grace….At the Eucharist he or she receives what appears from the visible point of view to be bread and wine, but in reality is the Body and Blood of Christ.”
Ware’s point is that in the Eucharist, believers frequently encounter the mysterium tremendum et fascinans — the mystery that makes us tremble and yet attracts us. The Orthodox community — the early Christian church — never attempted to explain the mystery of the Eucharist any more than they attempted to explain the other two great mysteries of the Christian Faith: The Trinity and the Incarnation. In saying that they did not attempt to explain these mysteries, I simply mean that while there are words to state the doctrine conceptually — read the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed to apprehend the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Creed of Chalcedon to apprehend the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ — we cannot automatically or fully comprehend these mysteries.
Q. What’s with the icons in Greek Orthodox churches? Aren’t they “idols”?
A. Just the other day, an acquaintance walked up to my son Hank Jr. as he was working on his golf routine. In the ensuing conversation, this friend suggested (much to the chagrin of my son) that by worshipping in an Orthodox church, I was in danger of idol worship.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Icons have been used since the earliest days of the Christian church and were commonly found in places of Christian worship. Including symbols such as the cross, the fish, and the lamb, icons have been used to help teach the faithful about God and to aid in prayer and meditation.
In fact, in a very real sense, every church is filled with icons — because every church is filled with people who bear the image and likeness of God and, therefore, are icons of Christ. Icons are windows into another world — windows through which we can glance, as it were, at those who have gone on before. The Christian church does not believe in dead people — for God is the God of the living, not the dead (Matthew 22:32). We hold that Christ, by His resurrection, parted the veil between this world and the next. I think Christians often underappreciate this aspect of the Resurrection, such that in Scripture we see that the great cloud of witnesses — both heavenly saints and earthly saints—in some mysterious sense have been united (Hebrews 12:1–2, 22–24). And thus while we would never pray to saints, we most certainly hope that the saints are praying for us. They are in God’s presence. I ask my family and friends to pray for me — why would I not hope that the saints in the presence of God are praying for me as well?
As I have said many times, when you get to heaven, you will not have less knowledge but more knowledge. Icons are another example for me of God using earthly perceptible realities to point to spiritual verities. These are the windows by which we see the martyrs who have gone on before us. By which we see those saints who have lived exemplary Christian lives we want to emulate.
In Orthodoxy, one may not worship an icon — that would be a grave sin, an abomination. But we can venerate the persons to whom the icons point. My personal favorite icons are of Jesus and Mary. I look at an icon of Mary and think I want to be like her, a meek and lowly servant of the Lord, even though she was chosen to be the one person in all of human history — out of all the billions of people who have lived on the planet — Mary alone was sovereignly selected by God to undo what the first woman did. The first woman was deceived; the second woman conceived the Son of God. And Mary was the instrument through whom God brought His Son into the world in order to redeem the world. What that means is she is an icon or image of Christ so filled with Christ that she becomes the person I most want to emulate.
Also, given the Orthodox perspective on Mary, no one can ever accuse the Church of being patriarchal. The Orthodox chose Mary as the number one icon of Christ, and, as such, the number one person to be venerated (i.e., regarded with great respect). I want my life to reflect the Christ-likeness of Mary, for multitudes the most “God-ized” person in the world.
Q. Why have significant numbers of Protestants joined the Orthodox Church?
A. Over the last several decades, substantial numbers of Protestants have joined different liturgical churches, including the Orthodox Church, because of the richness of their traditions and worship and the “groundedness” of their history. While literally thousands of Protestant churches have splintered into a doctrinal “free for all” that ranges from soggy liberalism to the prosperity gospel, Orthodoxy continues in unity to adhere to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
Q. Is the Greek Orthodox Church really all that different from Roman Catholicism?
A. First, I should say that some of the greatest logical minds and finest Christian apologists have hailed from the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). That said, there are a number of important differences between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.
I’ve said consistently that the RCC is a true church with what I believe to be significant error. Neither I nor the Christian Research Institute have ever said that the RCC is a false church with some truth. No, it is a true church.
For the first millennium of church history, there was essentially one orthodox New Testament faith rooted in seven ancient ecumenical councils. This may well have remained so had it not been for the Bishop of Rome assuming dominance and, apart from an ecumenical council, altering the universal creed of the church. Since the Great Schism (1054), Catholicism has deviated from Orthodoxy in significant ways. For example, Roman Catholicism forwards the notion that in the intermediate state after death, there are certain sins that can be atoned for by way of temporal punishment in purgatory. Orthodoxy considers the notion of purgation — defined by the Council of Florence (fifteenth century) and defended by the Council of Trent (sixteenth century) — to be a late innovation lacking precedence in both Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers. In distinction to the Catholic idea of purgatory, the Orthodox community views the intermediate state as a foretaste of either eternal reward or eternal punishment, both of which are ultimately fixed on the Day of Judgment.
Catholicism and Orthodoxy are also divided on the validity of papal infallibility (the idea that when the pope speaks ex cathedra — “from the chair” — he does so infallibly). Case in point: in 1950, Pope Pius XII dogmatized the widely held view that Mary “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Orthodoxy resists such unilateral dogmatization. From the Orthodox perspective, papal infallibility — defined during the first Vatican council in 1870 — has no basis in the creeds and confessions of the historic Christian faith.
Likewise, Orthodoxy considers the Immaculate Conception — defined by Pope Pius IX in the 1854 bull Ineffabilis Deus — an unwarranted innovation. According to this Catholic dogma, from the moment of conception, Mary was kept free from the stain of all original sin. While Orthodoxy venerates Mary, they hold that she was born with the same broken nature as all other human beings.
In sum, unlike Protestantism, which shares a common history and geography with Catholicism, Orthodoxy was not a part of the Western narrative. They did not have a Reformation, did not participate in the selling of indulgences, and did not subscribe to such dogmas as limbo or the celibacy of the priesthood.
Q. As Christians, we seem to have mastered the art of rejecting those who don’t agree with our often rigid doctrinal formulations or denominational traditions? What’s up with that?
A. As an old proverb puts it, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” Simply put, we are to a significant degree the products of our upbringing, our personal histories, and our highly subjective experiences — be those narrow or broad. Heeding Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17, CRI seeks to judiciously avoid the divisions and rancor wrought by a misguided focus on nonessentials. We have always embraced the axiom “In essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”
Everyone approaches facts with a set of presuppositions, and we all need to be mindful of our paradigms — that set of beliefs we hold about the nature of reality along with corresponding community habits.
One of the persistent and pervasive problems associated with paradigms is that given the transactional nature of perception, we don’t think about them nearly as much as we think with them. Paradigms function unconsciously as frames and filters. That is, paradigms often serve as a set of blinders, limiting our peripheral vision and screening out data incompatible with our existing conceptual structures and values.
In short, we generally see only what our paradigms allow us to see. And unless we are unusually alert, there is a predictable tendency, sadly, to confuse our psychological certainty with epistemological validity. Left to ourselves, we tend to cloister within our own socio-psycho-epistemological echo-chambers.
When we are able to more objectively and dispassionately evaluate our presuppositions and paradigms, we often discover they are faulty. Unfortunately, no human being enjoys the gift of “immaculate perception.”
Q. To better understand Orthodox beliefs, can you suggest some reading?
A. For starters, try Frederica Mathewes-Green, Welcome to the Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2015) and
Michael Shanbour, Know the Faith: A Handbook for Orthodox Christians and Inquirers (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016).
Being a perfectionist, I do not normally allow my private impromptu answers to be put in print. However, given that there are so many that are asking questions regarding my place of worship, I was willing to provide my preliminary thinking on the questions raised above. Again, I am grateful to my staff for adding biblical citations and quotations. If there is one final thought I would like to leave you with for now, it is this: the entirety of my perspective is ultimately governed by a deep desire to order my life and that of my family around the divine. Blessings, dear friends.