On November 4th, Russ Warren wrote a “short” comment in response to my posting “Icons and the Veneration of the Saints” that raised a number of interesting points. Rather than bury it in the comments section I decided to turn my responses into a separate blog posting. Russ Warren’s comments are italicized.
Re. Do Protestants Take the Incarnation Seriously?
I do get tired, and please forgive my audacity here, of hearing from various Orthodox — both on the lay and clerical levels — that because we don’t have icons we don’t believe in the Incarnation; it simply isn’t true.
You may get tired of the Orthodox criticism that Protestants don’t really believe in the Incarnation but please keep in mind that the Reformed and Orthodox traditions have quite different understandings of what it mean to believe in the Incarnation. For the Reformed Christian to believe in the Incarnation is primarily intellectual assent to the biblical accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth by Mary, and the doctrine of Christ having two natures: human and divine. For the Orthodox Christian believing in the Incarnation means: (1) accepting the biblical accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth by Mary, (2) his two natures as defined by Chalcedon, (3) the climactic revelation of God through the person of Jesus which far surpasses all other forms of revelation, (4) Jesus as the Second Adam, the new Man into whom we are united through baptism, (3) Mary becoming the Theotokos (God Bearer), the Throne of God, the Ark of the Covenant; (4) the Church as the Body of Christ, (5) the invisible God becoming visible not only to the first Christians but also to later Christians through icons, (6) the transcendent God becoming accessible through the Church the Body of Christ, and (7) the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.
For the Orthodox, if one takes the Incarnation seriously one will: (1) celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25th) every year, (2) publicly honor Mary by addressing her as the Theotokos, (3) confess the Incarnation in every Sunday worship, (4) celebrate the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) every Sunday, (6) affirm the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, and (7) display pictures of Jesus in his incarnated state. For the Orthodox faith and action go together. It is not enough to have a strong mental affirmation of the Incarnation or to have systematic theology texts with well articulated exposition of the Incarnation. For the Orthodox theological belief is expressed not in theology books but in liturgical worship. If we don’t see something in your worship we will think that it is not that important to your faith. To use an analogy, it would be like a husband who likes to tell his wife he loves her and writes to her that he loves her but skips giving her kisses and hugs, and eschews pictures of her and taking her out on their wedding anniversary because these are unnecessary to their marriage.
To conclude, when Orthodox Christians complain that Protestants don’t believe in the Incarnation, they probably have in mind the broader sense that goes beyond the Protestant intellectual/doctrinal approach. My advice to you and other Protestants is to affirm that you do believe in the Incarnation but not in the broader sense that the Orthodox do. Start from what both sides have in common then seek to discuss the differences in a charitable manner seeking to learn from each other.
Icons and Scripture
…we don’t necessarily see any justification in the New Testament itself that the 2nd commandment has been substantially changed (even John, whom I see as the most “Orthodox” apostle, reminds us at the end of his first epistle to “Little children, keep yourselves from idols”).
In light of the Preamble in which Yahweh declare himself to be Israel’s God and the First Commandment in which Yahweh forbids allegiance to any other deity, the most natural sense of the Second Commandment is to read it as a prohibition against imitating the worship practices of the pagans. This makes the most natural sense for I John 5:21 which was most likely written in the pagan setting of Asia Minor. For your iconoclastic reading to be persuasive you would need to provide evidence of the use of images in worship as the focus of controversy during the time John wrote his first epistle.
Re. Roadblocks in Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue
In the end, and this may be the roadblock that we hit again and again in our dialogues, the question is what role Scripture has within Tradition (I think it is a bit myopic for some, certainly not all, Reformed to still speak as if Tradition is an escapable reality)….
One of the major roadblocks in the Reformed and Orthodox dialogue here stems from the way we do theology. Reformed Christians do theology from the standpoint of sola scriptura, and Orthodox Christians do theology from the standpoint of Holy Tradition. While the Orthodox and Reformed traditions share Scripture, they have different interpretations of the same verses. The way I deal with the conflicting interpretations is to look for the exegetical tradition that is marked by antiquity and catholicity, i.e., mirrors that of the early church fathers. Where the Reformed tradition disagrees with the Orthodox tradition it has adopted interpretations and positions that are novel and at odds with the church fathers. Let me put it this way, where the Reformed tradition is in agreement with Orthodoxy, it can claim a theological heritage two thousand years old. Where the Reformed tradition is not in agreement with Orthodoxy, it is part of five hundred year old tradition and for that reason cannot claim antiquity. The Reformed iconoclasm is part of a five hundred year old tradition. Iconoclasm has not been shown to have antiquity nor catholicity.
One of the limitations of a theological debate confined to Bible alone is the problem of multiple readings from identical texts. That is why much of my arguments on this blog is not based on the claim that I have a superior interpretation of the Bible but rather that the position I uphold has a Scriptural basis and is part of an exegetical tradition that goes back to the Apostles. A Reformed Christian can put forward a logically consistent interpretation of a Scripture text that is at odds with the historic Christian faith. There is a certain logical consistency to Reformed theology, but it must be recognized that this consistency arises from the selectivity that shapes the premises for Reformed theology. I respect the reasoning behind the Reformed reading of the Second Commandment but it is not part of the historic Christian faith; it is a Protestant novelty. I am of course open to your presenting evidence of the antiquity and catholicity of your understanding of the Second Commandment.
So as far as the roadblocks are concerned, I am not surprised if we do run into roadblocks on this blog. There are some issues that we cannot find common ground and which we will simply have to agree to disagree in a spirit of charity and humility. The only way full agreement can be reached will be for the person to reassess and revise their theological methods. For me to become Orthodox entailed not just the acceptance of certain doctrines but also a different way of doing theology. I made these changes reluctantly after concluding that Protestant theology was untenable on biblical, patristic, historical, and sociological grounds. What especially pained me was reaching the conclusion that Protestantism represented a faith tradition separate from the early Church and that to be a Protestant was to be out of communion with the early church fathers and the Ecumenical Councils.
Re. Can Scripture Challenge Tradition?
…can Scriptural exegesis (whether Christological, historical-critical, grammatical-historical, redemptive-historical, or whatever mode you please) challenge and readjust the liturgical and ecclesiastical traditions? Even ones that go back millennia?
I am going to start with a quick answer: (1) if your answer is ‘yes’ then you are taking the Protestant position, and (2) if your answer is ‘no’ then you are taking the Orthodox position. The real question is not “can” but what position does the preponderance of evidence point to? One can start out with an open ended question but eventually one will need to arrive at some conclusion. For the sake of clarity, it is important to keep in mind that for Orthodoxy there is Tradition with a capital “T” which is universal and binding on all Christians and tradition with a small “t” which is local.
I would urge you to read A.N.S. Lane’s fine essay “Scripture, Tradition, and Church: A Historical Survey.” If your answer is ‘yes’ then you are taking the Protestant ancillary view which assumes that the Church can and has erred in matters of doctrine and assumes that the Christian church suffered a major break in historical continuity. If your answer is that Scripture, Tradition, and the teachings of the Church coincide then you are taking the coincidence view and the answer is ‘no.’ This views assume that there exists a church group that has maintained a continuity in faith and practice going back to the original Apostles, this is the Orthodox view.
So, to answer your question: Can Scripture be at odds with Tradition? The Orthodox answer is that because Tradition consists of a written apostolic tradition (Scripture) and an oral tradition, and because the two derive from a common source (the Apostles), they cannot contradict each other. The possibility of an oral tradition at odds with Scripture arises if a novel or alien practice enters from without (e.g., Gnosticism). Another possibility is a misunderstanding of the received tradition, e.g., heresies like patripassianism, Apollinarianism, modalism, Arianism, Nestorianism etc. The early Church settled these Christological and Trinitarian issues through the Ecumenical Councils. The key means of rebutting heresy is through an appeal to apostolicity, antiquity, and catholicity. This is the criteria used by Irenaeus of Lyons and the other church fathers.
Re. John of Damascus
One quick point: no matter how many times John of Damascus is brought up, it isn’t going to get any hard core Reformed person to change their mind about icons. Why? He isn’t biblical.
I agree with you that John of Damascus is not on the same level as the Apostles. He is a teacher of the Faith and an expositor of Scripture. As a church father he stands in a hermeneutical tradition that goes back to the Apostles. And for the Orthodox he formulated one of the most articulate apologia for icons. We invoke John of Damascus much in the same way Protestants invoke Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley. If you are a Protestant, I am not expecting you to automatically yield to him but I do hope you will engage in his reasoning. Show where you find his reasoning problematic and unpersuasive.
Re. Nominalism Among Ethnic Orthodox
What is the Orthodox Tradition (which, of course, was not a main concern of the Reformers) doing to make sure that your understanding of icons (nicely nuanced as it is) is being held to by the rank-and-file, especially amongst the ethnic enclaves which are (stereotypically at least) fairly nominal in their actual engagement of the Church’s official dogmas and explanations?
Regarding your questions about the attitudes towards icons by nominal Orthodox Christians, especially those in ethnic enclaves, I would first say that this is a very tangled question. First of all, nominalism is a problem everywhere, in Orthodoxy, mainline liberalism, and Evangelicalism. Second, it is somewhat arrogant and judgmental to insinuate that nominalism is problem especially among “ethnic enclave” (ethnic Orthodox parishes). It can be a temptation for a convert to Orthodoxy to assume an attitude of spiritual superiority over nominal ‘ethnic’ Orthodox. Furthermore, almost all Protestant groups can be labeled ‘ethnic enclaves’ associated with particular cultures or sub-cultures: Ivy League universities, the deep South, British culture, surfing culture, the Gen X culture etc. So let me just say that your question is a spiritually dangerous one to ask. While I respect the reasons for ethnic parishes, I have come to the conclusion that we need more Orthodox parishes for whom America is their home and English the language of worship.
So what is the Orthodox Church doing to deal with the problem of nominalism? The first step is to begin with your own spiritual state through repentance and an intensification of one’s devotion to God. We can seek to become consistent in our daily Prayers, in the reading of Scripture, and listening to the teachings presented in the liturgies and prayer services. Great Lent is a good means of personal spiritual renewal. Below is the Prayer of St. Ephraim of Syria. The Orthodox consider this prayer as the most succinct summary of the spirit of Great Lent.
O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, idle curiosity (meddling), lust for power and idle talk.
But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity (integrity), humility, patience and love.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother. For blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Then we can encourage others in our parish to deepen their relationship with God. We can pray for others and we can encourage our priests, but ultimately the priest is responsible for the spiritual health of the parishioners.
Another way to counteract nominalism is through a love for Scripture. This is one thing I learned from my Evangelical days and which I took with me into Orthodoxy. I try to show how Orthodoxy is very much grounded in Scripture. My recent rebuttal of soli deo gratia was not knee jerk reaction but a careful analysis of the Bible from both the Old and New Testament. To do this analysis I drew on my Evangelical training. I would say that as more Evangelicals and Protestants convert to Orthodoxy and as they bring their love of Scripture, preaching, and evangelism the Orthodox Church will become a stronger church.