Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, edited by James Stamoolis, seeks to answer the question, ‘Are Evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy compatible?’ Part of the Counterpoints series (see Arthur’s comments here), it brings together 5 scholars of differing views to present their own papers and respond thoughtfully to each others. Bradley Nassif (Orthodox) answers yes; Michael Horton (evangelical) and Vladimir Berzonsky (Orthodox) answer no; George Hancock-Stefan (evangelical) and Edward Rommen (Orthodox) answer maybe. In this post, I’ll review the book as a whole and in the next I’ll give some of the conclusions this book helped me to reach.
Defining the Terms
The first difficulty of this topic is defining what is meant by ‘evangelical’ and ‘Orthodox’. The latter is a little more concrete because it refers to a particular institution, but even within that, there are some disagreements. There is also at times a difference between theology and practice so working out exactly what to learn from or critique is tricky. Evangelicalism is even trickier. Nassif identifies 5 uses of the word in his essay which range from those who identify themselves as ‘evangelical’ to those who stand in a particular theological tradition (e.g. the Reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries). Again, sometimes their theology and practice are not consistent.
Things that were disappointing
- This confusion over terms did mean that the discussion was cloudy at times. One side would criticise the other’s practice only to have them maintain that such practice did not reflect the true nature of the church. If the editor had clarified the terms at the start, this may have given the writers a common definition to work from.
- I found Vladimir Berzonsky pretty antagonistic. Calling one opponent ‘jaundiced’ in his views (p.149) and suggesting that the other was not open to change (p.225) is uncharitable to say the least and it’s disappointing to find such a tone in a Counterpoints book, since these are generally known for their irenic nature.
- In all three essays from the Orthodox scholars, I didn’t find any discernable explanation of the significance of the filioque clause. (That’s the bit in the Nicene Creed where Western Christians say the Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son’. The ‘and the Son’ bit is a later addition, one that the Orthodox don’t recognise.) Since it was so contentious and arguably the catalyst for the 1054 schism, I would expect to see some kind of defence of it, especially since for many evangelicals, such a tiny clause seems inconsequential.
Things that were helpful
- Both Bradley Nassif and Michael Horton interacted with a generous spirit that is well worth learning from. Both recognised where their own traditions need to learn from the others. Since I’m an evangelical, I was especially interested in Horton’s reflections that evangelicals need to: become more familiar with the incarnation as the beginning of our salvation (not just a pragmatic means of it); learn from Christians in the past; correct a tendency to play down the physical and elevate the spiritual (an Augustinian emphasis that is largely Platonic in evolution).
- George Hancock-Stefan’s paper is written largely out of his own experiences of Eastern Orthodoxy and is full of pastoral and emotive anecdotes that help the reader to see how this is personal and real in the lives of many.
- This book helped me to understand parts of Eastern Orthodoxy that I had previously found pretty inaccessible – such as why the churches are so ornate, what the role of icons is and why the liturgy is so important. (For those interested in icons, it’s because in the coming of Christ, they see that God gave us an image or icon of himself and that in that, all matter is redeemed so that it can point to God and be helpful in worship.)
In the next post, I’ll put up some of the conclusions I came to as I read this book.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.