My assistant, Eudora Mathewes (granddaughter), came across this Facebook post I’d written in April 2017, and thought I should put it on the blog here. The occasion was that Hank Hanegraaff had just been chrismated, and there was much misunderstanding in the Protestant press about what Orthodoxy is, and what that conversion meant.
I saw only today the Baptist Press article reporting that one of the radio networks that carries Hank Hanegraaff’s show has decided to replace him, because he is now Orthodox. The article questions the validity of his interpretation of Scripture now, because he joined our Church.
The article is mistaken (understandably) at several points. First, it claims that there are many different Orthodox churches, eg Russian, Greek, etc, and you can’t join “the Orthodox Church” by itself, but have to go through one of those subsets. Yes, that is true, you have to join a specific local congregation. I think that is true of all churches, in every denomination. You can’t join a church in theory, you have to get along with other people in a local setting.
But there is no international administration or organization for Orthodoxy. When people band together naturally, it is along the lines of “people, tribes, tongues, and nations,” and that is the highest level at which the Orthodox Church is administratively united. While some other churches have an international organization that unites at the global level, the Orthodox Church does not. Orthodoxy rejects the idea of a “vicar of Christ” because Christ doesn’t need a vicar–he himself is with us. He is the head, not any earthly person or organization.
This author claims that there are “cultural and theological” differences, and of course there are cultural differences, for example, what kinds of foods people eat in different lands. There are similar cultural differences among Protestants who are in the same denomination but live on different continents. Cultural differences are not a problem. (I’ll get to theological differences below but, basically, they don’t exist.)
Traditionally, missionaries go out to a new “people, tribe” and bring them the Gospel. At first the missionaries might be Greeks going into Russia, for example, a thousand years ago. In time, the natives of Russia acquire their own Russian Orthodox Church and are no longer a part of the Greek Orthodox Church. In 1794, the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries into Alaska. Orthodoxy spread south and east from there, and then Eastern European immigrants came from the East coast of America, spreading westward. Most Orthodox churches in America still have in their name the nation that originally sent the missionaries, but the congregation will be a mix of many Orthodox backgrounds and many converts–around 50%.
As was the case in Russia, there will eventually be a single American Orthodox Church here. It is frustrating that this administrative unity is taking so long–dismantling administrations is difficult–but one reason it does is that we already function as a single church. We attend each others’ services and take communion; if we move to a new city, we might join a church of a different background than our old church. I like to say, the main difference is the kind of pastries served at coffee hour. Since we already have unity at the ground level, the irksome task of dismantling and re-building administratively doesn’t feel all that urgent.
Yet even though the Orthodox Church appears in various national groupings, they all have the same theology. This seems impossible in the West, where even very forceful leadership is unable to compel theological agreement. When I was Episcopalian, the Episcopal church one mile away taught different theology than we did. It seems impossible to have everyone willingly embrace and uphold a single theology. And yet Orthodox Christians do.
One reason is that we didn’t have the intra-Christian struggles that the West did. Orthodox cities were attacked and conquered by people of other faiths, and Orthodox were clear about how their faith differed from that of non-Christian, which likely caused them to bond more closely to each other and overlook disagreements. Persecution drove them together. Yet they grasped this unity without being overseen by a powerful international organization; it happened organically and voluntarily.
The main reason for this unity is that the faith is taught mainly by participation in worship. You don’t even have to be able to read–you can get the equivalent of a seminary education by just standing in worship and listening. Worship is held in the local language, which is essential to that learning. The tradition has always been that Orthodox missionaries translate the Scriptures, prayers, and hymns into the local language; if there is no written language, they produce an alphabet and then translate them. So there’s no language barrier; every member of the church, from a milkmaid to an empress, can learn the faith just by going to worship. If the priest starts preaching something wrong, the laity can recognize it and refuse to follow him. St. Basil the Great describes lay people praying in snowy fields rather than worshiping in a church led by a priest of the Arian heresy.
(I recount a story in “Welcome to the Orthodox Church” about a Brooklyn priest who went to a conference in Chicago in 1893, and talked about his belief that all religions are equal, they all worship the same god, it doesn’t matter what name you use. When he got home again he put his key in the lock and it wouldn’t turn. His congregation had already changed the locks on him.)
Since no one has the authority to change those prayers and hymns, the faith remains the same. What the grannies remember is what their grannies remember, and on back through time. A person who advocated changes could only demonstrate that he had left the Church.
The faith constitutes the Church. The faith itself is the authority.
And when it comes to interpreting the Bible, no one anywhere actually believes in Sola Scriptura. Everyone knows that the bible has to be responsibly interpreted. Everyone believes that some interpretations of the bible are better, more accurate, than others. And everyone sees that leaving a wholly untaught person free to invent his own interpretation of the bible is dangerous.
So the question is: where did you get your interpretation?
Protestants often look back to one or several of the Reformers: Calvin, Luther, etc. But these men lived only 500 years ago. What’s more, they were the inheritors of a deeply-established theology based on reading the Bible in Latin translation.
The early church, on the other hand, were people who spoke bible Greek (koine Greek) in their everyday life. It was the language of commerce, as English is today. The authors of the New Testament were members of that community, and wrote with that same community in mind, picturing them as their audience. The early-Christian interpretation of the Bible is going to be more accurate than that of other Christians–no matter how learned or sincere–who lived at a far later time and place.
(Especially if they have already thoroughly absorbed an interpretation of the Bible based on century after century of reading it in Latin translation. Just one example is the word energy, or energeia in Greek, which St Paul uses some 30 times to describe divine and demonic powers. Paul says God “energizes” in us, but there was no Latin equivalent, so modern bibles say, much more weakly, that he “works.”)
More-recent Bible interpreters are simply at a disadvantage, in comparison with the early church. This is not a claim that the early church was more holy than Christians today, only that they had a distinct advantage when it comes to understanding the Bible. And that is the interpretation held by the Orthodox Church.
The role of the Church Fathers is to be a chorus expressing that interpretation eloquently and usefully. No one of them is an expert, as Calvin or Luther might be seen to be. All Church Fathers are capable of asserting ideas that are mistaken (someone said “100% of the Church Fathers are right 80% of the time.”) The Church Fathers are not the authority; the faith itself is the authority, the faith handed down from the Apostles. But the Church Fathers often express that interpretation in a useful and clear way. They learned the faith the same way everybody did: through listening to worship over the years, as the cycle of the year repeats again and again and understanding deepens.
Every church and denomination offers an interpretation of the Bible. The Orthodox interpretation is the earliest, rooted the time of the Apostles, and based on reading the Scriptures in the original Greek.
I could write a whole other post about how the the Orthodox continually faces a test of “Is it working?” We Orthodox expect the faith to do something. We expect that life in Christ will transform people, most of us in quiet ways, but always some in every generation who become so united with Christ that it shines out of them in miraculous ways. The existence of such saints in our own time, who repeat the pattern from every age and century, are the evidence that Orthodoxy actually works.
This is perhaps the biggest difference between Orthodoxy and Western versions of Christianity: that the latter became occupied with battling over ideas, and so ideas became the most important things, and personal transformation was often ignored. In Orthodoxy we believe that, if your theology is right, then you will know God, and you will shine with his light (in some cases, literally). Orthodoxy can continually test whether its theology is correct by checking to see whether it is still producing saints. Look up a few 20th century saints, like St Porphyrios, St Paisius, St. Silouan, St Sophrony, St. Gavrilia; you’ll see what they have in common, the marks of humility and love (and, in some cases, a good sense of humor) that are the proving ground of Orthodox theology.