At the Midwest Founders Conference this past week we were blessed by the “Ark Singers,” a group from the Ukraine. Great guys. I got to sit down with them at one point just to chat. I was not surprised in the least when they told of how very hard it is for them to evanglize amongst the Russian Orthodox in their homeland. Just as in Roman Catholic countries (and, let’s be honest, in some parts of Texas!), “cultural religion” is a wonderfully effective way to keep people in slavery to their sins while salving the conscience. Cultural religions, whether it be Roman Catholicism in Italy or Mexico, or Orthodoxy in Russia or the Ukraine, or Baptists in the Southern United States for that matter, always create nominalism, along with a power-structure that is self-generating and concerned only with maintaining its supremacy in that culture. The Ark Singers, however, also mentioned another aspect that I immediately recognized: so often, when they would get to speak to folks who had grown up in Orthodoxy, they found their hearts very open to the conviction of the Holy Spirit. This made sense, for Orthodoxy does not have a biblical view of man and his sin. The biblical call of repentance would definitely find a place in that context.

There is a thread unfolding on the Reformed Baptist Discussion List regarding Orthodoxy. I haven’t had much time lately to be reading the list, but a number of folks in #prosapologian were discussing it today, so I took the time to read up on it. Turns out the person is a member of a Reformed Baptist Church, but is obviously moving to Orthodoxy. In fact, in my experience, once someone like this makes the kinds of statements I’ve been reading, the “move” has already taken place: now comes the explanation/defense/justification of a decision that is already, for all intents and purposes, in the past. Now, of course, there can be that rare occasion when there is still an openness to dialogue, even to correction, but my history with these kinds of situations indicates that for most, the decision, for at least the forseeable future, has already been made.

Orthodoxy is an enigma, not only to most in the West, but to itself. If you think it is merely Romanism without a Pope, you have not learned that real Orthodoxy thinks in categories downright obscure to the Western mind. Want to know what Orthodoxy believes? Give up finding “a book” that will tell you. The very question is nonsense to authentic Orthodoxy. You are to look to the liturgy, to the prayers, to the tradition. That is as close to “systematic theology” as you are going to come.

It does not follow that you cannot determine what Orthodoxy believes, you just have to be careful about making assumptions about connections that would exist of necessity in Western thinking, but not in Eastern thought. This leaves most Evangelicals in the dark, however, for they either find the discussion so obtuse as to quickly lose interest, or, they encounter a more Americanized version of Orthodoxy that differs a good bit from the “original.”

Generally, the “attraction” of Orthodoxy in the West is liturgical: the “theology” comes after, more as an afterthought than a compelling argument up front. But unlike its native situation in Russia or other such nations, Orthodoxy is forced to enter into the apologetic realm in some fashion in the West where it finds itself in a small minority. And when it does present apologetic argumentation, it often sounds very much like Rome. Denials of sola scriptura, emphasis upon tradition as an authoritative source of divine truth, and very familiar sounding appeals to patristic sources and the “universal view” of the early church, appear throughout Orthodox writings in the West. The person who has studied Rome’s apologetic will find numerous parallels.

But, one will also find differences. Historically, the “apostolic sees” were geographically divided in such a fashion that there was only one such center of authority in the West (Rome), but a number in the East (Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, for example). It is hardly a surprise, then, that the organizing principle of ecclesiastical authority in the West is monarchical (the Papacy), but in the East collegial (the Patriarchs of the major sees). One will often find material in Orthodox sources that is useful in arguing against the Papacy, and vice-versa. That conflict has been going on for a long, long time.

But one of the major areas of difference is to be found in the soteriological differences between East and West. It is very difficult for the person who is immersed in the historical debates surrounding sin, punishment, the cross, justification, faith, works, and grace, to find a real foot-hold in the Orthodox literature on the general field of “soteriology.” Indeed, the term itself is not overly useful, at least, again, in authentic Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy focuses its attention upon theosis, union with the divine, and “incarnational” emphases in reference to salvation. They believe the West has missed the boat, in essence, in focusing upon sin, punishment, penal atonement, substitution, and all these related issues.

Of course, one immediately runs into the same problem in dialogue with the Orthdox that you do with Rome: the biblical text is not ultimate in matters of authority, and though there are differences in how this is played out, in both Romanism and Orthodoxy, exegesis is determined by outside considerations (dogmas for Rome, liturgical tradition in Orthodoxy), not by the text itself. One must defend the ultimacy of the inspired text in pretty much the same fashion in both situations, apologetically speaking.

The Reformed Baptist-turning-Orthodox asks a number of the most common questions you see in situations like this in his writings on the RBDL. First he asserts that there was a “universal” view of the early Fathers regarding a “sacramental view of the church,” and asks why we should reject this “universal view.” Secondly, the old question of how the church is led, combined with the idea that, in essence, to belong to any other organization than one of the “historical” churches (i.e., Romanism or Orthodoxy) is to believe that the “true” church is an unheard of minority, appears once again. And thirdly, though rather closely related to the first point, how do Reformed Baptists in particular defend the idea of holding to a “radically different theology than the early church”?

Where does one begin? We have addressed so many of these issues before, but mostly in reference to Rome’s claims regarding them. In tomorrow’s entry I’d like to address the common problem with the first and third questions: the idea, prevalent in Orthodoxy via tradition, but present in Rome via dogma, that there is some kind of universal viewpoint of the early church that we have “abandoned.” Is that the case? Does a fair reading of the patristic sources substantiate such a belief?

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