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From the December, 2005 issue of Touchstone

 

Irenic Encounters by Warren Farha

Irenic Encounters

Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism edited by James Stamoolis

Zondervan, 2004
(294 pages, $14.99, paperback)

reviewed by Warren Farha

We received the letters which your love sent us and the booklet which contains the articles of your faith. We accept your love, and in compliance with your request we shall endeavor to clear the issues in which we agree and those in which we disagree” (Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople to the Tübingen theologians, writing on the Augsburg Confession in May 1576).

“We ask your holiness to accept our reply with a glad countenance and a gentle spirit, to read it attentively and carefully . . . to scrutinize it commensurate with your own piety and wisdom in these great matters. We will piously and peacefully discuss the articles in dispute” (from the theologians’ reply to the patriarch).

I only seem to begin this review with a digression. The remarkable correspondence of the patriarch and the Lutheran theologians is a direct precursor of the book under review, unmistakable evidence that true Christian ecumenism is a centuries-old project. Its erudite and irenic spirit and its structure of statement and response are mirrored in Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, the most recent addition to Zondervan’s Counterpoint Series.

Editor James Stamoolis, former graduate dean at Wheaton College and author of Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today, has assembled for this volume: Brad Nassif, professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University in Chicago and for decades an Orthodox leader in Orthodox-Evangelical dialogue; Michael Horton, professor of theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary and a minister in the United Reformed Church; Vladimir Berzonsky, an Orthodox priest and theologian; George Hancock-Stefan, a Baptist theologian and pastor and adjunct professor of church history at Eastern Baptist Seminary; and Edward Rommen, an Orthodox priest and an authority on missiology.

These men speak about Orthodox-Evangelical encounter through years of theological and existential struggle. Stamoolis is a convert from Greek Orthodoxy to Evangelicalism; Nassif, raised an Antiochian Orthodox, converted for a time to Evangelicalism but returned to Orthodoxy during his studies at Conservative Baptist Seminary; Hancock-Stefan was born in Romania but left Romanian Orthodoxy to become Baptist; and Rommen taught missions and theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School before converting to Orthodoxy.

Yes, No, Maybe

The book is divided into three sections, answering the question, “Are Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism compatible?” with a “yes,” “no,” or “maybe.” Position papers are presented for each answer, followed by responses from the other contributors and a concluding statement by the original presenter.

The “yes” position is set forth, in the longest and (along with Michael Horton’s) most substantial essay, by Nassif. It is a cry from the heart of one who has spent most of his life communicating his conviction of the essential compatibility of Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy.

Drawing upon Mark Noll’s American Evangelical Christianity, he defines the essentials of Evangelicalism as the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, the Bible as the inspired word of God, conversion and personal commitment to Christ, and evangelism. He then describes the theology of the Orthodox Church through this fourfold definition, and finds common ground within the Orthodox tradition for every Evangelical essential.

He finds in the Orthodox doctrine of theosis (or divinization, becoming “a partaker of the divine nature”) an implicit affirmation of the central Protestant concern with atonement and justification, though articulated and emphasized differently. He argues that the depth of Orthodox theologies of the Incarnation and the Trinity are not matched in mainstream Evangelical thought (though that is recently being remedied by such Evangelical theologians as Colin Gunton, the Torrances, and Ray Anderson).

He believes the rich theology of human participation in the intimate communion of the Son with the Father through the Holy Spirit directly meets the Evangelical concern for personal relationship with God. In the liturgical life—specifically in the liturgy of the service of baptism—he sees the Orthodox parallel to the Evangelical emphasis on personal conversion.

Responding to Evangelical concerns about the doctrine of inspiration of Scripture, Nassif emphasizes its role as the principal authority for Orthodoxy, but within the larger, organic reality of Tradition. Here Scripture interacts with the teaching of the church fathers and Councils, the lives of the saints, and the liturgical life of the church.

Classical Closeness

Michael Horton is Nassif’s principal respondent, and his response, together with his position paper representing the “no” answer, lays out an extremely provocative classical Reformed statement of faith. Horton is insistent, first of all, that classical (or “magisterial” or “confessional”) Reformed Protestant theology is something distinct from contemporary mainstream Evangelical thought.

Horton argues that in some ways his tradition is closer to Orthodoxy than to Evangelicalism, quoting Calvin and Luther at length to show their high regard for the church fathers and the early church Councils, and maintaining that their views of the sacraments share much in common with Orthodox sacramental theology.

But he believes that Orthodoxy, in its emphasis on the “transformational” aspect of the Incarnation (think theosis), has dangerously neglected clear “juridical” themes of original sin, the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement, and our being righteous in God’s sight only through Christ’s imputed righteousness. He accuses the Orthodox tradition of overlooking or completely misinterpreting St. Paul, especially in Romans 5.

Full disclosure: This reviewer is Orthodox, and disagrees with Horton in multiple ways. But while Horton asks the Orthodox the hard questions, calling us back to examine scriptural and patristic texts anew, he does so in a way that is completely winsome and honest.

Here is a gentleman who can accuse you of heresy with complete equanimity and gentleness, even love. I hope I could do the same, for I believe that such is the mark of hard-core, authentic ecumenism.

As for the “maybe” answer, re-counting his own experience as a Romanian convert to Baptist Protestantism who yet longed for and loved the sobriety and mystical authenticity of Orthodox worship, Hancock-Stefan expresses the painful conviction that nominalism is often the rule among Orthodox worshipers in ethnic communities. He struggles to reconcile these two perceived realities, which influence his understanding of the sacraments and of salvation itself.

Edward Rommen supplements this “maybe” with a careful description of the great deal of common ground between Orthodox and Evangelical understandings of Scripture and salvation, as well as areas where no compatibility is possible.

Passionate Conversation

I must offer two criticisms of this book. The “yes/no/maybe” structure added an unnecessary layer of complication to what could have been a straightforward presentation of statement and response. The statements of the contributors were too nuanced to easily fit into the fixed categories assigned them, because in a real sense they were all arguing “yes” and “no” and “maybe.” And there was a considerable degree of repetitiveness, perhaps because the contributors did not have all the other essays before them as they crafted their own.

That being said, I must conclude with a decisive vote in favor of the value of this volume. As Orthodoxy becomes truly indigenous in the West (calling into question the very use of the term “Eastern” Orthodoxy) and Evangelicalism deepens its appreciation of the ancient church as it seeks to define itself in a secular culture (how many books from Evangelical publishers have you seen lately with icons on the cover?), books that deepen each tradition’s understanding of the other will become increasingly important.

Three Views of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism allows us to eavesdrop on a learned, yet passionate and accessible conversation, and invites us to participate in the mutual respect and straightforwardness its writers exhibit.


Warren Farha is the founder, owner, and operator of Eighth Day Books (www.eighthdaybooks.com) in Wichita, Kansas, where he lives with his wife and three children. He and his family are Orthodox Christians and attend St. George (Antiochian) Orthodox Cathedral, where he helps with catechism and his wife directs the choir.

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