Orthodox America

Why Isn't Clendenin Orthodox?

The past decade has witnessed a steadily increasing stream of converts to the Orthodox Church. Where do they come from? Not surprisingly, many are disaffected Roman Catholics, but there is growing interest among evangelical Protestants, sparked by the conversion to Orthodoxy of some 2,000 Evangelicals en masse in 1987, and, in 1990, of Frank Schaeffer, whose late father was a prominent evangelical theologian. It is understandable that evangelical leaders be concerned about such defections. This concern is reflected in an article by Protestant theologian and writer Daniel Clendenin, published not long ago in a leading evangelical Protestant magazine, Christianity Today (Jan. 6, 1997). The article, "Why I'm Not Orthodox," is evidently aimed at dampening interest in Orthodoxy before it carries more Evangelicals into the fold of the historic Church. Will it achieve its intent? We asked Reader Peter Jackson, a former evangelical Protestant, for an assessment.

My aim in responding to this article is two-fold: first, to demonstrate to the evangelical reader why Clendenin's arguments are not convincing, and second, to equip the Orthodox reader with an understanding of the more common evangelical misgivings. As Orthodoxy comes to be more and more a force to be reckoned with in North America - may God grant! - Orthodox believers will have more opportunities to address the concerns and questions of their evangelical friends, neighbors and co-workers.

To say that Clendenin has done his homework would be understatement. He has not only done research on Orthodox Christianity and written two books on the subject, he also lived in Moscow for four years, during which time he had many Orthodox friends and acquaintances, and attended many Orthodox services. With all this exposure, why hasn't he become Orthodox? It is a question which his friends in Moscow asked him, noting his evident knowledge about doctrines, practices and history of the Church. His article, which purports to answer the question, never really does. (It does give a more favorable impression of Orthodoxy than was probably intended.) It ends on a weak note:

To my friend who asked why I had not converted to Orthodoxy, the answer was surprisingly easy. I responded by writing back, "Because I am committed to key distinctives of the Protestant evangelical tradition.

To paraphrase: "I am not Orthodox because I am an Evangelical." This is hardly an adequate response. It merely begs the question: "Why is Clendenin so committed to the Protestant evangelical tradition?" Let us go back through Clendenin's article to examine more closely these "key distinctives" of Protestantism and how they measure up against his assessment of Orthodox Christianity.

To begin with, in noting that Orthodoxy means "right belief," Clendenin cites Saint John of Damascus: "We do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set, but we keep the traditions just as we have received them." He then notes, "Liberalism is not a word in the Orthodox vocabulary." But curiously, Clendenin's response to Orthodoxy's conservatism is to enlist the Orthodox in the evangelical struggle against liberalizing forces in society: "Evangelicals eager to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3) will find an ally in Orthodoxy's allegiance to the basic truths of Christianity." The quote reveals two of the working assumptions of Protestantism: the principle of sola scriptura, and the idea that the Holy Scriptures reveal what Clendenin and others call "the basic truth," some sort of "bare minimum" to which each denomination then contributes its own customs, practices and optional beliefs.

Unable to deny that the Orthodox have not "changed the everlasting boundaries," Evangelicals often feel compelled to identify themselves with "ancient Christianity." For example, in a recent issue of the Christian Research Journal, an evangelical publication which puts Jude 3 right on its masthead, one author ably defended the Orthodox doctrine of the deity of Christ, citing Church Fathers such as Saint Athanasius. But what was his conclusion? "Convinced that Scripture is 'sufficient above all things,' Athanasius acted as a true 'Protestant' in his day."* (As if Protestants have a monopoly on honoring and quoting Scripture!) What this author failed to note was that Arius quoted Scripture right back at Saint Athanasius, just as the Jehovah's Witnesses do today in support of their version of Arianism. It takes much more than an encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture, and an ability to quote it, to be able to claim that one holds the true Faith. Being able to quote Saint Jude about "contending for the faith" does not at all mean that one is actually doing so. Even the Jehovah's Witnesses have this verse in their Bible.

So just what faith is it that Clendenin is contending for? For one thing, it is a faith which makes a habit of citing fragments of Scripture out of context, and Clendenin's use of Jude 3 serves as a fine example of this questionable method of determining and defending one's faith. If Clendenin had finished quoting the sentence, it would be clear that the Apostle Jude was speaking of the Orthodox Faith rather than an innovative Protestantism, for the brother of our Lord here speaks not of any faith, but specifically and pointedly of "the faith once delivered to the saints." This cannot be a faith based on Reformed theology of the sixteenth century; rather, it is the Apostolic faith transmitted ("delivered") to the first Christians. This transmission of the true faith is what the Church means by Sacred Tradition.

As an Evangelical, I was taught to distrust any tradition, since tradition comes from men. (Ironically, this teaching itself is based in tradition, a Protestant tradition.) Clendenin points out that Calvin objected to the "tyranny of human tradition." But where does Holy Scripture come from? Is it not also a human tradition? Protestantism often acts as if the Bible fell from the sky, fully-formed. By denying this absurdity, are we Orthodox then claiming that the Bible is merely a human composition? Certainly not. The Bible is human and divine. Every doctrine of the Church proves to be intimately linked with one's understanding of who Christ is. And in this case, the Church's understanding of Scripture as being a union of the human and the divine reflects the Orthodox view of Christ's two natures. If someone has a faulty view of the nature of Scripture, chances are they also have a faulty understanding of who Christ is. Liberals who reject the divine origin of Scripture also reject the divine nature of Christ. Likewise, conservative Protestants who minimize the human authorship of Scripture, inspired by a desire to avoid introducing anything human (read: sinful and fallible) into the sources for our faith, often tend to diminish Christ's humanity. The fact that one aspect of one's faith, such as one's understanding of the nature of Scripture, automatically reflects one's view of who Christ is, is the reason why the Church cannot accept - nor has the Church ever taught - that there can be some sort of "bare minimum" about which all "Christians" can agree. Who would dare draw the line between one aspect of our faith and another? Who is to say which points are essential and which are a matter of opinion? If one were to say that all that mattered was one's doctrine concerning the Person of Christ, would this not inevitably have ramifications for every other aspect of one's faith?

So the Holy Scriptures are both divine and human. They are inspired by God, while written by human hands at specific times and places, in specific contexts. The Bible has never existed in a vacuum, nor can it. It arose within a living context, was compiled in a living context, and it continues to exist in a living context. And this living context is called the Church. Outside the Church the Bible has no meaning, because there can never be any meaning without an appropriate context.

A British friend gave me an analogy. Any bookstore will sell you a Shakespeare play. Now it goes without saying that there is a world of difference between reading a play and seeing it performed. (Christianity is more than just a book!) But even aside from this, my friend noted that the stage directions in a Shakespeare play are quite sketchy. They might tell you "Romeo exits," but you won't know where the characters are standing, and so forth. A director who decides to put on a Shakespeare play may end up staging it quite differently from another director. However, there is the Shakespearean tradition. Shakespeare knew how he wanted his plays staged. He had no need of writing these directions into the script, since the script is for the actors, not for the director. Those who studied under Shakespeare learned how these works were to be performed, and they in turn passed these unwritten directions down to our day. So if you want to stage "Hamlet" as the playwright intended, you have to learn from a Shakespearean director. Of course, you can pick up the scripts and direct the actors any way you choose, but it is debatable whether you can still call this a Shakespeare play. It would end up similar to Shakespeare, but what would Shakespeare think of it?

The Apostle Paul instructed Saint Timothy: the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also (II Tim. 2:2). This shows that the deposit of the faith was entrusted by the Apostles to the next generation of bishops. Saint Timothy was then to pass this tradition down to his successors, and so forth. Four generations of Apostolic Tradition in one verse! And not a word about passing on a specific collection of twenty-seven separate writings. What would come to be known as the New Testament did not receive its final formulation until the end of the fourth century. It is said that the Protestants believe in Christ because the Bible says so, while the Orthodox believe in the Bible because it is Christian.

Archimandrite Sophrony, in his book The Monk of Mount Athos, has this to say about Staretz Silouan's teaching about Scripture:

Suppose that for some reason the Church were to be bereft of all her liturgical books, of the Old and New Testaments, the works of the holy Fathers - what would happen? Sacred Tradition would restore the Scriptures, not word for word, perhaps - the verbal form might be different - but in essence the new Scriptures would be the expression of that same "faith which was once delivered unto the saints." They would be the expression of the one and only Holy Spirit continuously active in the Church, her foundation and her very substance.*

Clearly, in the end it is not the "letter" which matters, but the Spirit which inspires the letter. "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." And this life is transmitted through the living Body of Christ. Outside this Body, the Bible is devoid of any real meaning. Ironically, Clendenin seems to understand this. He notes Fr John Meyendorff's view on the different ways that East and West understand authority. For the West, dogmatic authority is external, whether it be the papal infallibility of the Roman Catholics or the sola scriptura of the Protestants.

In contrast, Orthodoxy offers a view of theological authority that is internal and pneumatic rather than external and dogmatic. The Spirit of God himself, realizing the sacramental presence of Christ in the Church, speaks to us in tradition. Thus, George Florovsky once referred to tradition as "the witness of the Spirit."

Clendenin objects to the Orthodox view that Scripture and Tradition are "complementary means of one organic whole through which the Spirit of God speaks." Yet he never presents a defense of the Protestant view of authority stemming solely from the Bible. In a revealing moment, he says that "Orthodoxy explicitly rejects the historic Protestant ideal of sola scriptura," letting slip that he, too, puts his trust in a tradition - the tradition of the Reformation.

At various points in his article, Clendenin belies his ambivalent attitude toward tradition. On the one hand, any tradition must take a back seat to Scripture. Yet the only reason he can cite for accepting sola scriptura is that it is a "historic" idea. Of course, any number of heresies can claim a rich history. Moreover, the only reason a Protestant can cite for accepting the Bible at all is that it has been handed down by the Tradition of the Church.

Shortly after discovering Orthodoxy, my wife and I went back to visit our Protestant church. The pastor performed an "infant dedication" that morning, proudly proclaiming that this was "an ancient Protestant practice ... going back at last a hundred years." Protestants find themselves wanting to appeal to antiquity on the one hand, yet simultaneously rejecting anything old in the name of making the Gospel "contemporary." Five minutes in a Protestant bookstore will demonstrate that there is little appreciation for anything written more than a generation ago. Clendenin insists that Protestantism is "patristic" because Calvin and Wesley frequently cited the Church Fathers. Yet not only will you rarely find any patristic works in a Protestant bookstore, you would be hard pressed to find any of the classics of Protestantism, so great is the need to leave the past behind, a lesson they learned from their own forebears. Thus, Clendenin has difficulty understanding why the Orthodox object to Western missionaries working in Russia. After all, "Whatever failings Western missionaries might bring to their work, and whether Orthodoxy likes to admit it, many Russians are responding very positively to a clear, contemporary presentation of the Gospel." No one is denying that the Russians are responding, the objection is to this idea of a "contemporary gospel." I am convinced that the main impediment to more Evangelicals entering the Church, besides the obvious lack of publicity on the part of us Orthodox, is their inability to step outside their own time and place. As far as Protestantism is concerned, there is no history. There is only the Bible and the Now. Thomas Howard has observed in Evangelical is not Enough that Evangelicals act as if the Bible were written yesterday and that each believer is the first to pick it up.

Concluded in issue 150.