05 June 2007

Orthodoxy and Evangelical Protestantism

Benedict Seraphim has drawn attention to this report on Biola University and the Orthodox (Biola? Sounds like some kind of health drink!).

For those who may be interested, it is a comprehensive statement of what Orthodoxy looks like from an Evangelical Protestant point of view.

It has some serious flaws, however.

In the first item, on "justification", it points out, quite correctly, that Orthodoxy does not accept the Protestant idea of forensic justification (based as it is, on the notion of penal substitution). But it makes the error of supposing that the Orthodox understanding of Theosis is comparable to the Protestant understanding of justification. A fairer comparison would be between Theosis and the Protestant understanding of sanctification. There may be differences, but at least it would be like comparing Cheddar with Camembert, rather than comparing chalk and cheese.

Much of the remainder of the document seems to make the Orthodox Church look like the Roman Catholic Church in precisely the areas where the Orthodox Church sees itself as differing from the Roman Catholic Church. The problem here is with the frame of reference. The Biola report looks through Western spectacles, with a Western frame of reference, and does not really take into account the different frame of reference.


Kristen said...

Yes, this report's been around for a while. My brother in law (an Evangelical Minister of Missions) once asked me to read it and say whether or not it truly represented Orthodoxy. It was a difficult task because so much of what the report said about Orthodoxy was true but then twisted somehow. It seemed like the philosophical equivalent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. By taking the truths of Orthodoxy out of an Orthodox context in order to look at them from a Protestant perspective, the truths were themselves changed and no longer really represented our faith and practice. I guess that's why the Orthodox mantra is always, "Come and see."

Steve Hayes said...


Yes indeed. The report has "Enlightenment worldview" written all over it, or at least between all the lines.

The Scylding said...

Indeed Steve, as we discussed before, modern evangelicalism is essentially a "baptised" enlightment worldview, with a dosis of pelagianism and a dosis of gnosticism thrown in - see my post on "When Simon met Pelagius"...

philjohnson said...


As one who has grown up in Australian evangelicalism I can "feel your pain" over the Biola document. I think that the overwhelming majority of evangelicals know next-to-nothing about Orthodoxy, and there is some simplistic thinking in various evangelicals corridors that typecasts Orthodoxy as Catholicism minus the Pope!

I would be inclined to say that the Biola document represents a particular position inside the US evangelical household. Biola (originally the Bible Institute of Los Angeles) was set up by the preacher-scholar Reuben Archer Torrey. It is within the dispensationalist tradition of evangelical thinking.

While it has some very well educated faculty members there (e.g. Craig Hazen in religious studies/apologetics, William Lane Craig in philosophy of religion), it has its own eccentricities too (e.g. faculty and students alike sign a pledge stating they will refrain from various kinds of activities - smoking, drinking alcohol, etc - that are left over hang-ups from a much earlier era of fundamentalism).

In other words not all American evangelicals (let alone evangelicals elsewhere) would necessarily agree with the Biola document on Orthodoxy.

Quite apart from the obvious historical-geographical circumstances that have kept much of Orthodoxy "far away" or obscured from view among evangelicals, there is the problem of evangelicals who rarely make a conscientious effort to walk outside the boundaries of the culture to become acquainted first-hand with Orthodox churches.

An exception to this is Amos Yong the Pentecostal scholar who takes his students along to attend an Orthodox church service as a compulsory part of their coursework.

Another key issue is found in the strong heritage in evangelical circles to want to define and test everything in doctrinal terms (but here meaning the doctrinal dialect spoken and known among evangelicals). So when encounter other religions (Buddhism, Islam, New Age etc) the tendency is to define religion in terms of static unchanging doctrine and drafting up a comparative chart based on categories like "doctrine of God" "doctrine of Christ", "doctrine of salvation" and showing how the other group is disqualified.

When it comes to comparing other Protestants, Catholics and Orthodoxy, one of the primary moves will be around "justification". If you do not fit in the category as defined in evangelical terms then the questions begin arising in the evangelical's mind -- are you really a Christian??? This is particularly a problem among lay folk who lack theological training. However even in theological colleges it can be a challenge for lecturers to immerse themselves in the literature and thought of a tradition other than their own. I do not "defend" this but merely jot it down here for the record!

In effect, then doing deep and reflective motif studies in theological systems outside of evangelicalism is something that only a handful ever bother to do.

On the other side of the evangelical coin though I would want to plead for Orthodox folk to likewise be careful about evangelicals.

My point here is that if evangelicals are guilty of reductionism and misunderstandings, then the same thing can be said about the way in which some non-evangelicals perceive evangelicals. James Barr's Fundamentalism is one case in point; secular media attention on the Christian Right in America and Australia comprises another case in point.

Evangelicals live in a rather large and rowdy household with each room occupied by different groups with different theological flavours, and different socio-political approaches.

In the US context quite a few evangelicals have made the transition into the wide family of Orthodoxy such as the story told by Peter Gillquist in "Becoming Orthodox" (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989). A somewhat "angry" account is found in Franky Schaeffer's writings (he is the son of the late Francis Schaeffer of L'Abri fame).

On a different tack there was Daniel Clendenin who spent a year or so teaching at Moscow State University and offered his own impressions of Orthodoxy in his book "Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective" (Baker Books 1995), and edited an anthology "Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader" (Baker 1995).

While evangelicals generally need to work a lot harder at reading Orthodox works and becoming personally acquainted with Orthodox people, I would hope that Orthodox folk won't judge evangelicals on the basis of the Biola document.

On a personal note I am delighted to say that in my BD studies I had the privilege of being taught by Archbishop Stylianos of the Greek Orthodox Church's Sydney Diocese, and that I likewise studied alongside several ordinands for the Greek Orthodox church at university. I have in my own collection various books by Meyendorff, Lossky, Kallistos Ware etc. I would not want to be tarred by the same brush of Biola.


Steve Hayes said...


Yes, I think what you say is true. And in the circumstances (determining whether an Orthodox member of staff could conform to the Biola statement of faith) one can't really take it as representing a definitive Evangelical take on Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the fact remains that they don't "get Orthodoxy" in much the same way as the secular media don't "get religion".

And yes, evangelicalism has quite a variety, though perhaps it is perceived from outside as either having too much on the one hand, or one size fits all on the other.

I've just been reading a book Charismatic renewal in Africa, a collection of essays mainly by Lutherans in East Africa, and one Lutheran theologian complains that Evangelical/Pentecostal/Charismatic evangelicals visiting from America don't get justification by faith either (perhaps he's feeling pain because they aren't paying royalties to the Lutherans for it!) As he puts it, "there are cases in which faith tends to become a work though which one gains merits in front of God. If one is not healed in a prayer meeting, the easy explanation is that the one looking for healing did not have enough faith."

I'm sure that is not Biola's view - I suspect that they belong to the school that regarded Penetcostal/charismatic manifestations with as much suspicion as they did Orthodoxy. But then I know an Anglican priest who studied at Biola, and he doesn't have hangups about talking to Orthodox or charismatics.

Steve Hayes said...


I've just stmbled across a blog post that has links to others that discuss it from a more dialogical point of view: Just an apprentice: Emerging church and orthodoxy, and also has links to some posts on the Jesus Creed blog. It's a bit late, but I might write a separate blog post about it, once I've read it all.


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