“A Premodern Sacramental Eclectic”?: Evangelicals Reaching for Tradition

An Evangelical friend who is interested in Orthodoxy sent this link to me:

Ten years ago I was a poverty-stricken Christian…and I didn’t even know it. My poverty was theological and it was the sad consequence of my arrogant sectarianism. By restricting my Christianity to the narrow confines of modern charismatic evangelicalism I suffered from a self-inflicted theological poverty. I needed the riches of the whole church. I needed to be able to draw upon the broad spectrum of Christian thinkers and theologians, mystics and writers. I needed to become eclectic in my approach to Christianity. A Christianity that is sufficiently broad and eclectic liberates us from an arrogant and impoverished sectarianism.

In my youthful arrogance (the word I really want to use is stupidity) I effectively defined and limited Christianity to my kind of Christianity — a charismatic flavored evangelicalism. As far as I was concerned, most Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and mainline Protestants needed to “get saved” — which is to say, they needed to become my “style” of Christian. There were times in my twenties and thirties when I was particularly antagonistic toward Catholics and mainline Protestants. I thought Catholics belonged to the “whore of Babylon” and mainliners were all “liberal goats.” How egotistical! How stupid! I’m ashamed of all that now. I have repented. Which means I’ve called my former attitude sinful and changed my mind — I simply don’t think that way anymore.

Go ahead and read the full article. It’s well worth it.

I’ve been getting more and more interested in how some Evangelicals are appropriating elements of historic Christian tradition, mainly from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. It’s part of an ongoing movement of Evangelical self-criticism, which is something I believe Orthodox Christians need to pay attention to and even (tactfully and where appropriate) offer some guidance to.

In this particular piece, pastor and author Brian Zahnd speaks of how he has been getting out of his “self-inflicted theological poverty” by reaching beyond the “sectarianism” of Evangelical Protestantism. It’s really exciting to me to see Evangelicals speaking in this way, because I think one of the biggest difficulties with modern Evangelicalism is that most Evangelicals are simply unaware that there are Christians who aren’t Evangelicals, and they most have never actually engaged theology beyond that world.

I remember when I was an Evangelical myself, I only had a vague idea that, outside of our world, there were “boring” Christians like Lutherans and Presbyterians and that there were also Roman Catholics, who certainly weren’t Christians (though there might be “real” Christians somewhere in the Roman Catholic Church, in spite of what their church taught and practiced). Orthodox Christians didn’t exist.

But there are still serious theological problems with the “eclectic” that Zahnd proposes, and this approach therefore doesn’t actually carry him beyond the Evangelicalism he is trying to transcend. The biggest problem is still ecclesiology—he presumes that Anglicans, Catholics and Orthodox are all part of the Church just as much as he is. But none of those groups (assuming traditional Anglicanism here) would acknowledge Zahnd’s church as being part of the One Church. He has presumed the denominationalist ecclesiology: everyone disagrees about doctrine and practice yet still is part of the One Church.

And because of this ecclesiological problem, the “eclectic” collapses in on itself. How do you determine which doctrines are actually true? What mediates between them? Is it just what Zahnd happens to like from Francis of Assisi or Origen or Athanasius or Cranmer? One has to presume that the individual is supreme in separating out orthodoxy from heterodoxy. Zahnd doesn’t like venerating Mary or a celibate, male priesthood, but on what authority does he reject them?

The underlying problem here is actually that most Evangelicalism just lacks a lot of theology, not that it thinks it’s right (“sectarian”). Because of the strong focus on individualized decisions-for-Christ, so much of what else has been contemplated by the older Christian traditions just isn’t even on the radar for most Evangelicals. So it makes sense that Zahnd wants to reach beyond Evangelicalism for answers to questions that it may have only recently occurred to him to ask. But what happens if he really embraces those answers is that he essentially just becomes a new kind of Protestant or he has to embrace a whole tradition and actually convert to something else.

May God bless him and everyone like him who seeks to broaden their theological horizons.


  1. Protestantism assumes that the Five Solas are right and therefore never looks or things beyond them.

    However, if we look beyond them, specifically the early Church, we find how central the Eucharist, Tradition and Apostolic Succession is.

    St. Irenaeus even used Tradition and Apostolic Succession as the primary evidence against heretics.

    I am a Protestant now, but after looking at the evidence and realizing there are ways of approaching Christianity (or any other religion for that matter) in a different way, I have been considering becoming a Catechumen in an Orthodox Church.

  2. It’s interesting really that every single Christian group appeals to tradition in some way – even the Sola Scriptura folks like myself. We all appeal to our own traditions to understand the scriptures and formulate our doctrine and worship practices. Evangelicalism appeals to their tradition more vehemently and passionately than the other boring Christians do. I think that Orthodoxy is the only group that readily admits to holding to Tradition and embracing it in fullness.

  3. Amen. I know many a Protestant, as a convert (to Catholicism, I should add) myself, that expresses frustration with other Protestants who “pick and choose” parts of Christianity to approve or throw out, while expressing equal frustration when their own picking and choosing is attacked. I thank God we don’t just have Scripture to rely on.
    On another note, I have to say the first thing I thought when seeing this article is “Where can I get a cross like the one in that picture?”, and I still would like to know that.

  4. I have grown up in Protestant traditions, first as a Methodist, then a Presbyterian, and now as a member of the Evangelical Covenant (came out of the Moravian tradition). I have gone from being a die hard Calvinist to gradually aligning with the synergistic soteriology of the Orthodox. The mind boggling thing to me over the years has often been the criticism aimed at the world outside of Christianity for its pluralism, yet pluralism inside of the churches is not frowned upon, but celebrated.

    Even Pilate asked, “What is truth?” The world always likes to think it is at least somewhat subjective because we can then create some wiggle room for ourselves – but it ceases being truth at that time.

    While I do agree that delving into Christian tradition is a good thing, just throwing everything into a Christian pantheon is not the answer.

    Thanks to Fr. Damick’s podcasts and book, Ancient Faith Radio, the writings of Kallistos Ware, and the mindblowing The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky, I have encountered a church, The Church, that is whole. I still have to take steps to engage with a local body here and have discussions about becoming a catechumen, but it seems to me that there is no pantheon needed when you begin to engage with Orthodoxy. I think I am finally beginning to understand the relation between faith and works; something that has puzzled me since I learned Attic Greek to read the Bible in its original language (or a good translation, in the case of the LXX). The nuances of the language come alive in the dogmas of the Orthodox, in the liturgy – and in true worship that is representative of the worship we are shown in the True Tabernacle that all our Earthly creations are mere shadows of.

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