Why I’ll Never Swim the Bosphorus
* For those not up on their ecclesiastical-nerd-lingo–that’s the technical term– “swim the Bosphorus” means converting to Orthodoxy.
Back in December 2010 I was regularly being asked why I’d committed to the Anglican tradition rather than converting to Roman Catholicism. The question was so frequent I decided to write “Why I’ll Never Swim the Tiber.” Today the question is being asked of Eastern Orthodoxy, which is the impetus for this sequel.11.To be clear, it’s a more than fair inquiry. I openly acknowledge having much more doctrinal affinity with the Orthodox than I do Catholics. If circumstances were such that I absolutely had to pick between just those two options, it wouldn’t be a difficult choice. To keep the spirit behind the first post intact I’ve decided to use the same preface:
A bunch of people have recently asked me why I committed to Anglicanism rather than [Orthodoxy]. I’d become flustered by the prospect of repeatedly having the same conversation about something I don’t enjoy talking about in the first place, so I’ve decided to write a quick post I can point people toward. Emphasis on the word quick. Again, I don’t like this topic so I’m going to crank this sucker out in no more than  minutes. This isn’t a theological treatise. It’s not an assault upon [um, Istanbul? Moscow?] It’s not even an argument for why others should follow suit. And I’m in no mood to deal with the schmoes who try to sound smart by nitpicking the crap out of everything. Just give me the benefit of the doubt that I’ve thought things through more than I’m writing, OK? Thanks.
This time I’m going to spend 30 minutes copying/pasting from earlier posts in addition to the 30 minutes writing fresh material. But I’m definitively stopping at 1 hour:
- Mystery. I have an intense love-hate relationship with how Orthodox understand mystery as well as when they appeal to it. On the one hand, to their infinite credit they avoid the Western tendency to over define the hell out of everything.22.For example, many Western theologians almost seem to treat the sacraments as divine pez dispensers dolling out a sort of quantifiable grace. Thank God the Orthodox don’t! On the other hand, they always seem to conveniently appeal to the mystery exactly when the weaknesses in their joint doctrine-practices are being illuminated. It’s like the theological implementation of deus ex machina.33.Which I find socially disingenuous and intellectually dishonest.
- Filioque Controversy. I agree with the descendants of the Greek East that the Latin West was gravely mistaken in modifying the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed without consultation of the universal Church at an ecumenical council. Yet I disagree with both side’s exact formulation of the economy of the Trinity, which the Orthodox will tell you is central to their faith. In short, I believe the Father begets the Son, and the Holy Spirit (having been sent by the Son) proceeds from the Father.44.For a fuller explanation of my view, please read “A Moderate View on the Filioque Controversy.”
- Exclusivity. I like to refer to myself as humbly Anglican, by which I mean that I don’t consider my tradition the “one true church” or necessarily even the best tradition for all Christians. Not so with the Orthodox and Catholics. I find their practices both pretentious and historically untenable.55.This is perhaps most clearly seen in their practicing of a closed-communion.
- Ecclesiastical Authority. In my opinion, the Orthodox place a disproportionate emphasis upon tradition. As an evangelical Anglican who likes to half-jokingly refer to himself as Western Orthodox, I place a great bit more weight upon tradition than most of my generically evangelical peers.66.Specifically, I hold to an elevated view of the Bible (Prima Scriptura) and see apostolic tradition as an authoritative lens through which Scripture must be interpreted. Yet when it comes right down to it, I make a central distinction between historic orthodoxy (essential doctrine) and adiaphora (secondary doctrine) that Orthodoxy doesn’t.
- Ecclesiology. Protestants and the Orthodox differ on their point of emphasis. The former hold to a bottom-up where believers make up the Church. The Orthodox are top-down where the Church makes up believers. My own view is somewhere in between and the only tradition I’m aware of reflecting that tension is the Anglican tradition.77.To see a fuller description of my perspective, click to my Anglican page and scroll down to point #10.
- Ecclesiastical Structure. I affirm the bishopric, but have reservations about strong top-down governance in any organization. It’s not from Scripture or anything, but I agree with the principle that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Naturally, I have a moderate conception of church polity. Orthodoxy’s power isn’t as concentrated or hierarchical as Catholicism’s, but it still makes me innately uncomfortable.
- Anachronistic. I’m not sure if the Orthodox got the memo, but it’s not the 8th century anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I love history and tradition.88.In fact, the foremost reason I committed to the Anglican tradition is that my soul longed for an intentionally historically-rooted expression of Christianity that connects the Body of Christ through time and space, consciously seeking the wisdom of those who’ve come before us. It was exhausting to feel like the weight of all of Christianity rests here and now on my shoulders. Finding historical continuity with ancient practices removed that sense of burden. I find spiritual fulfillment in ancient practices. But in my estimate continuity must be kept in tension with renewal. For a tradition that so values incarnational theology, they sure seem to struggle in even seeing the need to incarnate contemporary culture let alone actually doing it. It often seems like they’re stuck in an Eastern European, Patristic time warp.
- Cultural Religion. Eastern Orthodoxy in Europe has long been guilty of being a cultural religion not unlike evangelical Protestantism in the American South, Catholicism in Ireland, Anglicanism in England, or Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia. In each case their places of worship are chalked full of practitioners who are just walking through the motions, which I’m absolutely opposed to. Without question all religious expressions are prone to digressing into cultural religion and traditionalism, but, whether this is fair or not, it seems to me Orthodoxy, because of its very nature, is particularly prone to these vices.99.What do I mean by traditionalism? Jaroslav Pelikan provided this helpful distinction: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”
- Heresy Accusations. Though I strive to maintain the tension between being challenging and being irenic, I’m a clearly a staunch critic of Reformed Theology and would emphatically distance myself from that label. Yet I count many Reformed Christians among my best friends, closest mentors, and favorite scholars. The same could be said of Anabaptists and many others. As such I find it terribly offensive that the Eastern Orthodox dismiss these groups as heretics. Not cool. Not cool at all.
- Missions. Straight up, the Orthodox are terrible at missions.1010.Of course, they emphatically disagree and inevitably offer a litany of factors why this has been so historically–geography, politics, economics, etc. Without minimizing all those factors, why can’t they just humbly admit that this is a weakness in their tradition? I do this sort of thing all the time with Anglicanism. There’s a reason Orthodox Christianity is confined primarily to Eastern Europe. Take a look at history. Their greatest missionary endeavor involved the Russians coming to them. In this way, Orthodoxy tends to reflect an OT, Solomonic view of missions where the world will come to them rather than going out to the world.
- Priesthood. I disagree with the whole intermediary between God and man idea, including the absolution of sins, etc. It was Thomas Cranmer who decided to keep the nomenclature while fundamentally redefining the nature of the priesthood within the Anglican context. I affirm his view.1111.“[Thomas Cranmer] sought to retain the terminology of minister as “priest”–only because it was an English translation of the New Testament term for “elder” (presbyteros)–and invest it with new meaning. For him the priest was the person ordained by the church to preach and teach God’s Word, serve in pastoral labor the spiritual needs of the congregation and administer the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. The office of priest in the Church of England was envisioned as not distinctively priestly in nature but rather as prophetic and pastoral. According to Cranmer, only Christ is our true priest who mediates between God and the believer in intercession, forgiveness and imparting grace.” – Roger Olson
- Gender Roles. I affirm Discernmentarianism.
- Icons. I’m not opposed to them. Icons were upheld at an ecumenical council, so who am I to question their legitimacy within the bounds of historic orthodoxy? That doesn’t mean, however, that I personally am comfortable with them. Throw in the relics and I get downright fidgety.
- Church-State Relations. The Orthodox have a long preferred Caesaropapism as their tradition’s ideal church-state model. Sadly, there’s a mountain of historical evidence suggesting things get ugly in a hurry whenever the church gets in bed with the state.1212.Among the problems that arise from this is the inevitable attack upon the church when the state falls. Look no further than the Bolshevik Revolution for evidence of this. The Orthodox are loath to admit this, but a big part of the reason Soviet persecution was ruthless was because of how intimately the Russian Orthodox Church was tied to Czar Nicholas II and his predecessors. And still, after the entire Cold War, they’re reverting right back to it because of the tradition’s cultural church-state norms… Unreal.
- Hellenization. I’ve long been critical of the degree to and manner in which early Christianity was synthesized with Greek philosophy. At the very least, I think we lost a lot of the richness and beauty of the faith as articulated from a generically Ancient Near Eastern and specifically Jewish context. Thankfully, many Protestants and even Catholics are coming to see this. I think of N.T. Wright’s work with Second Temple Judaism, for example. Unfortunately, it seems as though Eastern Orthodoxy is particularly insulated against correction because of its unwavering dependence on tradition.
One hour is up!