I’ve come to a realization.
When I started looking into Orthodoxy, I did so as a Reformed Christian following proudly in the tradition of Calvin, Luther, Whitefield, Warfield, Spurgeon, Machen, and many others. Years ago I had a desire to be the next big thing in the world of Reformed Polemics (I even had a podcast!), and my argumentative nature and background in philosophy were well-suited for “heresy hunting”.
However, I did always strive for consistency. I wanted to make sure that while my critiques were harsh and direct that they were, in fact, valid. Naturally, I had thought that Roman Catholicism was blatantly heretical, believed in a pseudo-works-based salvation, and had a whole host of historical problems with the Pope that their claims to be the apostolic faith were entirely without warrant. With all this, though, I had never really looked at the Orthodox Church aside from a few cheeky comments with scare quotes about the “orthodox” “church”; I essentially — like most Protestants — viewed the Orthodox as Pope-less Catholics with maybe a little less heretical baggage.
So what’s a Reformed Edgelord to do?
My initial thought was this: I need to figure out if the Orthodox are heretics like the Catholics are. Seriously, that was it. Since the Orthodox claimed to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith once and for all delivered to the Saints, I figured I needed to test that claim. Having searched a bit for Orthodoxy’s online presence, I was continually warned by the Orthodox faithful that internet Orthodoxy was a cesspool. I decided that given the emphasis on the priesthood in Orthodoxy, I’d simply stick with listening to Priests and get some of the basics just to make sure that I could differentiate between the Orthodox and the Catholics.
My very first exposure to Orthodoxy — apart from the architecture— was the podcast list for Ancient Faith Radio. My very first listen was to an episode of The Areopagus, where Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick basically talked about movies for an hour-and-a-half. Okay, so their priests are human, I thought. But I needed some meat. Finding Fr. Andrew’s style rather winsome, I decided to see what else he produced. I found a few books, a few other podcasts, and a few Youtube videos. I checked out the videos. Here was the first one I saw:
Perfect! I thought as I watched. There were some clear-cut differences, and I found that a lot of the novelty I disliked with Catholicism was not accepted by the Orthodox Church. Also, being reminded that nearly 1000 separates the two was a friendly reminder that a lot can happen in such time (just look at the Reformation which just turned 500). I watched the rest of the videos in the playlist and learned some of the basics. I felt like I was ready to dig in a little more, so as I hit up the Youtube search bar again, I found this cheery guy:
Enter Fr. Barnabas Powell. This is a guy who sounded familiar. Sure enough, I learned of his past evangelical credentials and the figures he had worked with previously. My Step-mother would love him, I thought. I had my “born-again” moment at an Evangelical Free church with a charismatic bent, due largely in part to her influence. To this day, when I hear Fr. Barnabas, I have flashbacks. His delivery was familiar, genuine, and punctuated by a chuckle here and there. What in the world is this guy doing as an Orthodox Priest? was my next thought. Throughout those videos, I found out. He did something that a lot of Bible-Believing Baptists™ say they want to do: he went back to the way they did things in the early church. I’ve heard this a hundred times from various people, perhaps you have too, “We don’t want to be denominational or anything, we just want to believe the Bible, and do things the way they did it in the book of Acts”.
Fr. Barnabas basically said he did this, and it caused him to join the Orthodox Church. My next thought was only natural: he’s off his rocker!
So there I went, Polemicist extraordinaire, to prove him wrong. I decided I was going to go back to the source.
Reading the Fathers
Over the course of the next few weeks, I discussed Orthodox theology with a number of believers, continued to listen to some Ancient Faith podcasts, and felt like I had a good enough idea of the “big picture” that I could compare what the Orthodox were saying with what they were saying about Church History. With that in mind, I decided to go all the way back. I decided to read through the Church Fathers in chronological order — or as close to it as I could — in order to see where these errant doctrines popped up.
I found a book on Amazon for $2.99 which contained over 64,000 pages of primary sources from the Church Fathers. What a time to be alive! I dug in instantly, finding a few lists that had the earliest of writers. My first stop was Ignatius.
All this talk of Bishops… Great, Church polity got messed up really quick, I thought. How quick? Well, Ignatius was a disciple of John, the Apostle John. So, I concluded, the structure of the Church was so quickly perverted that the second generation had widespread recognition of Bishops. Well, that didn’t take long.
I slept on that.
Then I woke up.
Was I really so arrogant to think that the entire structure of the Church was corrupted by a man who learned from the disciple whom Jesus loved? Was a man who I learned was supposed to be one of the children who met Jesus Himself to be so easily deceived into poor ecclesiology within a generation of the apostles? That seemed like a tall order, especially given the significance Ignatius attributed to the Bishopric. I had to admit, I may have been mistaken about church polity if an episcopate was that close to the beginning. I concluded that I needed to keep reading.
Next up on the list was Polycarp and the account of his martyrdom. Polycarp, himself a Bishop, wasn’t exactly going to give me reprieve from the Church governance issue, but he complicated things even more. He seemed to have a somewhat proto-Apostolic-Succession argument he was making to the Philippians, and he didn’t stray from Ignatius — to my knowledge — in any of his teachings.
Then I read the account of his martyrdom and learned that his followers collected his bones. Ah! Relics! That heresy was all the way back in the second century! I contacted a new Orthodox friend of mine to have him explain. He bluntly stated that we Protestants don’t take the incarnation seriously. After a good laugh, he unpacked that: basically, Protestants believe that Jesus was the God-man, but not that he brought the divine to the physical. He criticized our disdain for relics as a superstitious dismissal of the power of the Holy Spirit to truly dwell in the physical. I’ll admit, when he dropped the word “gnostic” to describe my angst with relics, I had to chew on it a bit.
I was really looking forward to reading Justin Martyr. As a philosopher, I figured I’d resonate with him more. However, as I read, he was pronouncing things that were completely different from the faith I knew. While his description of a church service was a nice validation for the kind of traditional worship I prefer, his emphasis on the traditions passed down left me unsettled.
Come and See
I had read a number of Church Fathers, and I asked my Orthodox friends a lot of questions for clarity. During one conversation, I was asked if I had ever attended a Divine Liturgy.
“Of course not. I’m not Orthodox” was my response. I was kindly reminded that if I’m researching a particular branch of Christianity, I should probably see how they worship. The general expression I kept hearing from the Orthodox was “come and see”. So eventually I did.
My first experience was a Vespers service at a gorgeous church. The singing was a bit rushed, it felt, but it was quite a lot of content. I actually enjoyed the service, but then the Priest said those fateful words near the end of the service. The Orthodox know what’s coming:
Most Holy Theotokos, Save us.
Oh no! Now you’ve done it! I knew there was Mary veneration in Orthodoxy just like in Catholicism, but I didn’t think they went as far as the Catholics in worshiping the woman!
That was about all the proof I needed to condemn the Orthodox to the pits of hell when I figured I’d do some due diligence and figure out what the heck they were talking about. Sure enough, Romaphobia was driving my thoughts on the matter more than I wanted to admit. The expression wasn’t a matter of salvation, per se, but asking that the mother of God would “save us” by virtue of her intercession for us to her Son with whom she has the closest relationship. The expression is also used in ways that don’t destroy Solus Christus like when Paul says “I have become all things to all people, that I might, by all means, save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22b).
It’s an expression. “I might save some”. In other words, by Paul’s actions, he was the instrument by which salvation was brought to many. By Mary’s relationship as the Theotokos, she intercedes for us — so say the Orthodox — as a means that we might be given grace and brought to salvation. I suppose, in the same way, I saved my wife when I was the means by which the Gospel was preached to her while we were dating. I still don’t like the language, but that’s probably because I was constantly told that only Christ saves and to use the expression “I saved so-and-so” was to diminish the work of God. Perhaps this is little more than a personal distaste for the wording.
Either way, I attended more services. I found the Byzantine rite to be absolutely fascinating. There was still that one refrain, “Calling to remembrance our all-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary” repeated a few times. Well, I know they venerate Mary. But that’s one part of an otherwise amazing liturgy, I kept thinking.
I kept getting invited back. I kept feeling like I should go back. Thus, I attended more services. I went to a few churches who are part of the OCA. I attended one in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. I even attended a Ukrainian Orthodox Church who — I was informed — did liturgy in English every few weeks. The service was still half in Ukrainian, but by then I could still follow along well enough. I also attended an Antiochian Orthodox Church. I must admit, that was the most impactful.
Prior to that time, I didn’t have a category in my mind’s eye to understand a Middle Easterner as a non-Muslim, let alone a Christian. But there I was, in a church about half-filled with Syrians doing something that caused me to reshape some perceptions: they were crossing themselves! One woman sitting next to me had a prayer rope that she was praying through during the Eucharistic prayer, and during the Eucharist itself, I was given multiple pieces of antidoron by a few different people.
I also caught a unique line in the liturgy, praying for the safe release of their Bishop from captivity. The Church was Antiochian, seated in Syria. I’m pretty active in politics, so I have a good understanding of what is happening in Syria recently, and hearing them pray for their Bishop — who I later discovered was kidnapped 4 years ago — was both deeply saddening and encouraging: saddening in the sense that it forced me to remember that millions of Christians around the world are met with violence and hostility for their faith, but encouraging in that it reminded me that Christianity is all over the world.
So I’ve been to — and enjoyed — a number of Orthodox liturgies. I have continued to read the Fathers. Not only have I found that much of what I see in the Orthodox tradition is represented in the Early Church, but I’m beginning to see that many of my own beliefs are not.
I’ve been seriously challenged on both Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide, and I’m not sure that I have the responses to the criticisms I’ve received that I would have hoped to have.
Then, it finally hit me:
So, what exactly am I? I’m certainly no longer a wannabe Reformed Polemicist. I’m not even really Reformed anymore. I find myself longing to continue attending the Orthodox Church that I’ve grown attached to.
All of this is complicated by family matters. My wife has little interest in Orthodoxy, and I’ve dragged her across the country for a military career, back across it for college, and through multiple moves and whims from seeker-sensitive college churches to Reformed Baptist churches to pastoring a small church in the suburbs.
I want to make sure I’m not just chasing another whim here, and I don’t want to drag my family along with me if that’s what I’m doing.
Please pray for me, friends.