Orthodox America

Why Isn't Clendenin Orthodox?

by Reader Peter Jackson
(Concluded from issue 149)

(The past decade has witnessed a steadily increasing stream of converts to the Orthodox Church.  Where do they come from? Not surprising, 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 write 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.)

Clendenin is downright baffled as to why anyone would be drawn to traditional worship, apparently unaware that this is how Christ and His disciples worshipped. The early Church certainly didn't have pews and organs, as Evangelicals would have it, or guitars and overhead projectors if you are a Pentecostal. Clendenin is afraid that "formal worship" will have little appeal for "those committed to full ministerial status for women..., charismatically inclined groups, [and] seeker-sensitive churches attempting to reach baby boomers or Generation X'ers with novel worship formats." I do not recall Christ enjoining the Apostles to make disciples of all nations in "novel worship formats." On the contrary, our Lord commanded them to teach their disciples to observe all that I have commanded you (Matt. 28:20), which would include the Apostolic tradition of liturgy and sacraments. If any of his fellow evangelicals are somehow dissatisfied with "novel forms of worship," Clendenin suggests that they can easily be accommodated in the Protestant smorgasbord. "One need not join Orthodoxy to immerse oneself in the patristic past ... Protestants have long [!] enjoyed rich liturgical traditions of their own... If a richer liturgical life is what a believer wants, converting to Orthodoxy is hardly necessary." So often our Protestant friends have reacted to our Orthodoxy by saying, "Oh, that's fine if you like liturgy," as if it were a matter of personal taste. The fact is, before I discovered Orthodoxy, I disliked liturgical worship. This is because non-Orthodox liturgy lacks the Grace which gives it life. Sadly, many Protestants dissatisfied with the traditional worship formats offered by their denominations are seeking meaningful worship in charismatic groups, where "life" is equated with noise and movement. (I've been there.)

Most converts to Orthodoxy probably remember sitting in their former church thinking, "Why are we here? What are we supposed to be doing?" This is because the rush to be "relevant" ends up sidelining the sacraments, indeed, any sense of the sacred. This is what is so striking about one's first visit to an Orthodox service. You step into Heaven itself. It has nothing to do with "formality," but with sacramentality, which means much more than simply performing sacraments. Even when Protestants do celebrate them, the pastor is quick to declare that nothing supernatural is happening, that the water of baptism, or the bread and wine of communion, are certainly not "doing" anything. "Remember," I was warned countless times, "this is just bread and grape juice!" The difference between the Protestant and Orthodox view of the sacraments is a fundamental difference of worldview. In the West, a symbol reflects reality. But for the Orthodox, a symbol is a reality. It makes no sense to ask, "Is this the Body and Blood or symbols?" The answer can only be, "Both."

The philosopher Bishop Berkeley claimed that nothing is real beyond our senses. A wit countered that he knew a rock was real, because if he kicked it, "it kicked back." Likewise, we Orthodox know that the sacraments are real because we witness their effects. Clendenin's concern, and that of most Evangelicals, is that a belief in the reality of the rite will undermine the participant's role. That is, if the sacrament is active, the persons involved are reduced to passive spectators. If what is received is actually the Body and Blood of Christ, then my faith - so goes the Protestant argument - is irrelevant. I don't have to have faith, because the sacrament will "work" anyway. Therefore, the Orthodox do not value faith. QED.

But this misses the point. Saint Paul warns the Corinthians not to partake of Communion unworthily, because by doing so some have fallen ill and even died. The rock does kick back! Some branches of Protestantism hold that one's faith causes Christ to be present in the elements, but then how could mere bread and wine kill someone? So then, where does our faith enter in? Clendenin claims that "Evangelicals urge the necessity of personal conversion through the faith and repentance of the individual believer, as opposed to the Orthodox idea of regeneration by the sacraments." Again, where Protestants see an "either/or," the Orthodox see a "both/and." Why should real sacraments preclude true faith and repentance? Anyone who thinks that the Orthodox can approach Communion without faith and repentance have only to browse through a prayerbook to see that this is not true: "Teardrops grant me, O Christ, to cleanse my defiled heart, that purified and with a good conscience I may come with faith and fear, O Master, to the communion of Thy divine Gifts." And as for infant baptism, no one denies that the infant must grown in faith. Stalin was baptized, but the Grace he then received he later trampled underfoot.

From my experience, Protestants celebrate sacraments because they know they should, but they do not really know why. If someone is "saved" before they are baptized, is not baptism superfluous? If communion is merely bread and wine, is it really necessary? If it is not actually the Body and Blood of Christ, what then does it mean? To a Protestant it means, "I am a Christian." It is merely an act of affirmation and testimony, just as baptism is reduced to a public affirmation of a previous, private "experience."

Whatever view of the sacraments an Evangelical holds, it will take a back seat to the "conversion experience," such as occurs at "altar calls" (Another "ancient Protestant tradition"). Baptism, if and when it follows, becomes an anticlimactic symbol after the "born-again experience." This is not to deny that people can have pre-baptismal supernatural experiences. Cornelius and company were filled with the Spirit before Saint Peter baptized them (Acts 10). But Scripture is clear that one is only "born again" by water and the Spirit (John 3).

Clendenin relates that he asked an Orthodox priest "whether I, as a Protestant theologian, might be considered a true Christian. His response: 'I don't know.'" Clendenin understood this as an evasion, since a Protestant would have no qualms about making such a judgment. "Have you asked Jesus to be your Saviour? Then you're a Christian." But the priest said he did not know simply because the Orthodox see salvation as a process. Protestants love to quote John 3:16: or Acts 16:31: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved..., but they are blind to passages from Scripture such as, he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved (Matt. 24:13; Mark 13:13) or, give diligence to make your calling and election sure (II Peter 1:10)

The Protestants claim that the Church is invisible, but the book of Acts reveals a quite visible Church, with a visible leadership and clear-cut boundaries. When Ananias and Sapphira sold some property, there was no doubt as to where the money should go: they were to lay it at the feet of the Apostles. When they were caught in a lie, there was no question that Saint Peter had the right to separate them from the Church - in a drastic fashion. The Church is spiritual, but also visible, just like Christ. Just as the Protestants strip the Bible of its human element, so too do they spiritualize the Church. Again, this is to deny the two natures of Christ, since the Church is the very Body of Christ.

Where is this Church today? I was raised to believe it had disappeared, though no one could tell me when or how. But those who claim that there is no visible Church must be challenged with two questions: 1) Where did the Bible come from? and 2) why can you not baptize yourself? A bit of reflection on either query will reveal the necessity of acknowledging the reality of the visible Church. The Bible did not drop from the sky; it was compiled and passed on by the Church. And no one can baptize himself because there must be an organic connection to the Body. Ask a Protestant who they were baptized by and who baptized the one who baptized them. It is unlikely that they will be able to trace a line back more than a few generations. So how can they claim an Apostolic baptism? And if they insist that it doesn't matter who baptized them, just as long as they were baptized, it is not inappropriate to ask why they needed to be baptized at all.

When I first discovered Holy Orthodoxy, I was convinced that the reason we do not see more people coming into the Church is a lack of understanding of what Orthodoxy truly is. Usually those most opposed to the Faith are those who are the most ignorant about it. That is why Clendenin's case stands out. Here is a man who has studied Orthodoxy, written on Orthodoxy and lived in an Orthodox country. He has heard a priest say that Orthodox theology is "music made in the conservatory" while Protestant theology is "music made in honkytonk bars." Indeed, Orthodoxy is the only Christian faith whose theology is communicated through poetry rather than textbooks. Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky, Way Apart: What is the Difference Between Orthodoxy and Western Confessions, Alpha & Omega Information Services, Lowell, MA,1996.) of blessed memory remarked that "Certified theologians do not know our Prologues, our dogmatic hymns (stichera and canons)... Official theology cannot tap this source, even out of curiosity."* Yet in spite of all his knowledge and experience, Clendenin prefers to remain "committed to key distinctives of the Protestant evangelical tradition," a tradition dating back a few centuries and stemming from Western, humanistic culture.

So why isn't Daniel Clendenin Orthodox? Why not, indeed. We can only pray that, like so many others that have "kicked against the goads," he soon will be.

Peter Jackson, Reader


Passages of Scripture helpful to remember in discussing Orthodoxy with Protestants

On Salvation:
He that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved. (Matt. 10:22)
...give diligence to make your calling and election sure (II Peter 1:10)

On Veneration of the Mother of God:
for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed (Luke 1:48)

On Sacred Tradition:
And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. (John 21:25)
Stand fast and hold the tradition which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. (II Thess. 2:15)

On the Church:
... upon this rock I shall build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18)