Time to get down to business. I have, in my previous 2 chapters, criticized the protestant church in America, and spoken positively about my experiences in the Orthodox church. Notably, I have pointed out both liturgical and theological issues that I have with the protestant church, while at the same time expressing a great deal of alignment with the Orthodox church. I have spoken at length in general terms and non-specifics. By now we are all no doubt tired of generalities. So let's delay no longer; let's get at some specific, meaty issues that seem to important to me. There is no end of hot button issues I could start with, and these issues form regular trenches and battle lines that separate the protestants among even themselves. But I have claimed deep, systemic, foundational flaws; taking a wise crack at whether or not you serve grape juice or Aldi's box wine at communion is not going to cut it. No, let's hit more to the heart of the matter: where better to begin than Christ and man, after all, it's all about Christ, is it not?
Ostensibly, yes, it is all about Christ, but just that one statement begins to hammer uncomfortably on the pillars of protestant life. To really bring this to the front, I should talk a bit about method. Too often in these discussions we end up divorcing high theology from everyday life; can we make a bigger mistake when approaching these issues? I am sure that somehow we can, but let's not try. We cannot hope to examine any theology in isolation or for its own sake, and come out the end of it unscathed. We ought to strive for a holistic view, and a major part of this is understanding the ramifications in reality of truly believing something. But too many people live a belief in denial. They say one thing, believe another, and ultimately lead lives that are inconsistent, driven by a framework of laws and rules, so as to avoid the contradiction of their principles. The power of a right theology is that one's framework simply bolsters the principles. As the book of Hebrews testifies throughout, a right faith withstands trials, while the frail shield of moralism or scholasticism crumbles all too easily. And at the very center of it all we must have a right understanding of our God, and no better statement of God's reality exists than in man and man's Savior, Jesus Christ. So, when I point to a foundational flaw in Protestantism, it behooves me to begin with Christ.
People commonly express the sentiment that all Christians believe basically the same thing about Christ, that only incidental issues, like baptism or communion, separate us among the various denominational lines. When speaking of the protestant church, to an alarming degree, they might be right. But often those same people draw a much thicker line between the Roman Catholic church and themselves. Very rarely (in fact, never in my hearing) has the Eastern Orthodox Church been given a serious consideration on purely soteriological grounds. This unfortunate omission leaves people with a narrow view of Christ. Worse, it's wrong. Protestants do not agree on Christ and the work of salvation, even leaving the rest of the Christian world out of it. In order to understand these differences, let's go back in history, when the whole church was considered to be one united body . Only those who take a naive and wholly inaccurate view of the past will think that the whole church at that time did not struggle with important theological issues, just as it does today. These issues were centered around Christ and who Christ was. These issues ought to have been settled by now, but the distance of time and language means that many of the same old heresies of olden days continue to reappear in various forms throughout the church. Unfortunately, the protestant church today is woefully unprepared to handle these.
Just as in past times, today there are many people saying a lot of things about who Christ is. None of it is new. Indeed, there were a series of ecumenical councils in the early days of the church that addressed these issues with unwavering certainty and dogmatic clarity. One of the greatest works of these councils to arise was the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end. And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
This is one of the greatest pieces of text to ever have been created by the church as a whole. And it was the church as a whole that came to grips with this. It wasn't some partial group, but representatives of the whole church over the course of multiple councils that came to this above statement of faith. There is a lot to be said here, but I think the main news is mostly good news. The vast majority of those who would call themselves Christians would accept the above: oh wait, they wouldn't. There is a well known issue that separates the Eastern and Western churches on the above text, called the Filioque, but that is for another time, since the Filioque debate is worth a significant amount of effort all on its own. For now, because I'm an optimist, let's ignore that and continue our assertion that, for the most part, the entire Christian world accepts this. There are still those in the Protestant churches that don't accept the above, or who refuse to use it, or otherwise. The reasons for this tend to center on issues other than Soteriology, though, so I'm going to skip those, and deal with them in another chapter.
So, the good news is that pretty much the whole of Christendom would accept the creed above in so far as it says anything about the work of salvation and Christ. Great, we have established some degree of common ground. We have a fairly clear statement of who Christ is, and we even have some statements to examine about the work of salvation. There are lots of places I could go from here, but I want to try to remain fixed on the issue of salvation right now, and so I'm going to ignore so many other points, and get to that. Sadly, while it would be nice to go on and start establishing more common ground, at this point, things start to fall apart pretty quickly. While the protestant church as a whole agrees with the above in principle, the practice and reality is quite a different matter, and when it comes to moving beyond the question of who or what, and into why and wherefore, we get into some real trouble.
While I want to talk about Tradition a bit more later, I do want to briefly touch on tradition now, since this helps to further examine the issues of salvation. Protestant churches take various views on tradition, from taking an official stance against tradition, to an embracing of specific traditions, but I want to put this out there right now: protestants have tradition, love tradition, and are mired in traditions. Indeed, one cannot escape tradition, whether you have a tradition of abhorring tradition, or otherwise. Accept and understand the role that tradition has in the world and in the church. God has always given traditions to man, and these traditions were for their good. Any church worth its salt, however, ought to be ready to discern and understand the difference between custom and the true tradition handed down faithfully. That is not to say that custom is not in itself of some value , but all things in their proper place. Protestant tradition however, for all intents and purposes, experienced its genesis amidst the Reformation in reaction to the Roman Catholic church. While there are notable and happy exceptions, when it comes to theology, Protestant knowledge of history usually stops or significantly falters any further back than that.
The very real and manifest danger exists, then, because of the way in which Protestant tradition came about. The Protestant movement is in essence a reactionary movement, and while this does not negate its value, it nonetheless disposes the movement to certain biases that are difficult to resist. Reactionary movements tend to have a certain degree of linearity and narrow focus that works against the holistic approach. There is a known
enemy that they work against, and as such, this tends to color much of the development of tradition. While I want to speak more on tradition later, the primary point of interest here is the strong anti-Catholic tendencies of much of Protestantism, coupled with the reality of their roots. The Protestant history finds its roots in the practices of Catholic scholasticism, and we find in this an emphasis on two vectors of thought along a single dimension of perspective when examining the work of salvation and Christ.
At the risk of oversimplifying, let's call the two ends of this soteriological dimension minimalism and maximalism. They capture remarkably well the essence of the thought of salvation in Protestant churches as a whole. There is the occasional outlier, but nothing too much that really pushes the Protestant church along another axis far beyond this one. And let's take a few illustrative examples along this spectrum: pentecostal, baptist, and Calvinist (reformed). By and large, the way in which each of these theologies treats salvation covers almost all of the protestant church. My claim is that these are all flawed in similar ways, in that they are asking the wrong questions, in the wrong way, and getting the wrong answers. This results in a church that has the wrong purpose and whose members must continually struggle — to use a protestant term — in their walk in no way because of what their theologies do to them. (We must always keep in our minds the power of God to overcome whatever weakness and frailty may exist in human nature, and that many great things have been accomplished for God by people who have believed one way or another; it is in spite of a wrong theology that the grace of God may work many miracles in a people. Thus, I beg the reader to recall that I am talking about systems and organizations here, in terms of the greater whole, rather than in the individual.)
These three choices are interesting. At first, one would nearly say that they are on two dimensions, rather than one. We might label these dimensions experiential manifestation and free will. There could be other labelings, but I think many protestants would analyze them this way. After all, the normal approach is to consider Calvinists as on one end of the spectrum regarding free will, and the pentecostals on another. But it is because all of these views fall along a single dimension that we start to examine these other dimensions. If we instead add an Orthodox view to the mix, suddenly, we see a tightly clustered triple of views on the one end, and Orthodoxy on the other. The talk about free will is very important, but more important is the bigger picture of why we care, and the nature and purpose of man as it relates to salvation, and in particular, the work of salvation as a whole.
What is this dimension? I hinted at it in my other chapters, but the critical point of difference between the Soteriology of the Orthodox church and that of the Protestant churches is focus. Where is the focus, on man, or on God? The overwhelming tendency of Protestant churches is to focus on man, and not on God. Yes, there is a great deal of lip-service paid to Christ, and often to the Holy Spirit as well in certain circles, but even when speaking about Christ, the focus is on man. The exact opposite should be true. Even when we speak of man, the focus should remain fixed heaven-ward, toward the Trinity. And I say the Trinity intentionally here, because even when the Protestant church deigns to mention heavenly things, they often neglect the Trinity, and emphasize one member of the Trinity outside the others. The pentecostals emphasize the Holy Ghost; the Baptists, Christ; and, the Calvinists tend to spend a great deal of time attempting to divine the mood and Nature of God's intellect and intention.
Much of this man-focus exists in the form of a pre-occupation on the state of salvation of individuals, both generally and particularly. Put another way, Protestants are always asking themselves who is saved, how they are saved, when they are saved, or by whom they are saved. Protestants are obsessed with being saved, and that particular
point at which a person is saved. This is just wrong. It's a prideful, faulty question, and the answers inevitably focus on man and not on God. Not only is it the wrong question with wrong answers, but how they arrive at those answers is wrong. Being stripped of a wider, more holistic view of tradition, the only universal tradition that the Protestants have left is the one thing they couldn't possibly throw away from tradition: the Scriptures. But stripped of a wider tradition, they latch onto a scholastic approach to interpretation first made famous in the Western world through the Roman Catholic church, arguing with syllogisms and elevating one verse to literal according to this or that translation, and submitting another to allegorical or figurative interpretation  to ensure a self-consistent argument. While, admittedly, this is great fun, the result is narrowly aimed jabs at the opposition, rather than a holistic view of the church and of Christ and the Trinity as a whole, throughout history and by all God's works.
Let's take a look at our archetypes of the protestant way. The Pentecostals on a whole focus on the experiential filling of a person by the power of the Holy Spirit. A great deal of emphasis is laid on the relation between that power and salvation. Salvation is an experience, one that ought to be tangible and visible, and so we have a focus on the point of salvation. The question then arises of the nature of that salvation, whether it can be lost and regained, and what occurs when this happens, if it can happen. Of course, we also have the obvious objection by other protestants that the pentecostals are either too focused on works, or not focused on them enough, since you can go either way with that.
The Baptists on the other hand, while they still tend to share their salvation experiences, they are not called that. They are called testimonies, because the emphasis is much more on the choice that one makes. This is a choice, specific and real in time that establishes you forever as a member of the kingdom of God. It's a choice that must be made in full knowledge and understanding, and so naturally the age of accountability comes up and believer's baptism also raises its head. Membership in the church is predicated on such a profession. But importantly, the choice is not a difficult one in process. You simply say you believe, and that's basically all there is to it. Yes, they would say that you need to have a true belief, and all that, but really, the fundamental message is that you make a choice, whether in your home alone or better yet, at the altar during an altar call, and you are in the good guys camp. It's a very binary system. The end result is that you see a great deal of people sincerely going out to save people by following a five step system of sharing the Gospel and eventually leading to the believer's prayer (or equivalent), at which point they are (sometimes literally) checked off on the list as saved, and encouraged to attend church on a regular basis.
The Calvinists take a stance rather different. There is still a focus on the point of salvation and the like, but they pretty much say that point exists for all people before all worlds, destined from the beginning of time. There are nuances here, as to whether you believe in double-pre-destination or the single variety, but by and large, the key point here in these theologies is that free will is, for all intents and purposes, here on earth, a temporal mirage, and a human limitation. Man therefore, should do what he is told, and God has already determined where he is going and what's going to happen. We live to stand in awe at what God will do to us for his own Glory. It's no accident that many Calvinists tend to favor a very scholastic approach to things, or that rules, memorization, or rote are so very popular. In a world so neatly laid out from the beginning of time, man's main purpose is to glorify the architect. While this might seem quite different than the first two, notice that it's still focused on man's free will, or lack thereof, on the predestination of man concerning his salvation. Sovereign grace, total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints, all of these critical doctrines that basically form the sum total of Calvinism all focus on man: man cannot resist, man cannot do good, man cannot choose, only some men are atoned, and man cannot frustrate God's work.
While I have said all of this, I do have to give the Calvinists some due. By moving the point of salvation beyond human control, one can bring in things like faith and other virtues more easily in a better place, without becoming moralistic. Unfortunately, the supposed niceties of these doctrines in providing a measure of security to man, while laudable at some level, doesn't address the fundamental flaw that the emphasis still rests far too heavily on man, even if in the negative sense.
In the above examples we can also see the tendencies of minimalism or maximalism throughout. In the Baptists, there is the implicit question, what is the minimal, core element that will save a person? In the Calvinist, there is the obsessive detail over every little aspect of the work of salvation; for every question there must be an answer in full. These are both scholastic in nature, and reveal the Western influence of the theologies, despite the apparent dichotomy. There is the cry among Protestants,
We need only the scriptures; the scriptures are sufficient! From there, let the arguing and bickering begin.
As a great point of illustration, I recount an experience I had recently, reading the History of Christian Doctrines by Louis Berkhoff. In the prologue, Berkhoff clearly states his Reformed perspective and apologizes in advance for any bias that may exist. Fair enough, and an important point. However, when I actually saw one of these biases, I had a great deal of difficulty letting it go, because it was not just a difference of opinion, but apparently a willful suppression of the importance of early Christian history.
I spoke before of the councils, but there are also a number of church Fathers that wrote on various matters at one time or another. Some of these are considered to be more credible than others, but regardless, they all represent fairly early works relating to the development of the church. Writing about these Fathers, Berkhoff states that it is
generally accepted that they contributed little to the development of Christian Doctrine. — Wait, what? It got worse; reading further he spoke about various theologians of one time or another lacking the fullness of theological development or the like. It was clear that he viewed doctrine as a thing that was continually developed over time, but worse still, the earlier works of respected fathers in the church were discounted if they disagreed with the maximalism of the reformed perspective. I take no regret in suggesting that perhaps Berkhoff should consider that the writings of those early fathers may have more to say about doctrine than one might be willing to admit. Indeed, the most interesting part of all of this is the absence of reformed theology anywhere in the church for so long a time. The servants of Christ at that time were diligently addressing the same issues with which the reformers were struggling, and yet they did not ever espouse the doctrines of the reformation. Only after the East-West Schism do we really see any sort of cohesive reformed theology gain any sort of foothold.
Similarly for the pentecostals and baptists, we see very little in the historical record to support either position in either the early church or the later church. It's not as if the early church was not dealing with the same sorts of things, but their response to them differ completely from what the Protestants have done today. This in itself suggests that a change of focus and a change of priority is in order. In short, for 1000 years, give or take, the church remained largely unified, and in particular, remained unified around issues that today mark such sharp distinctions in the Protestant church. Something is very wrong there.
At this point, many of my protestant friends are going to huff exasperatingly at me. They will exclaim,
Alright smarty pants, you've taken your club to the protestants, but I mean, really, what could you possibly believe then, if you don't agree with the reformed, pentecostals, or baptists? Some of them might actually suggest that the non-denominationals have something to offer. I would agree, but I would also say that they basically fall into the same camps. As I said, the entire dimension and perspective is wrong.
What then? Well, put simply, don't concern yourself with who is and who is not saved. It's none of your concern or business whether your neighbor is saved. I think one of the main applications of Christ's admonition on passing judgment pertains to membership in the body of Christ. It's not even our place to worry about or discuss the relative points of salvation. It's not about that. It's not about when or how or if we are saved. Even asking that question is putting the focus on man, not on God. I don't think I'm alone in this, either.
If you are familiar with the modern works on salvation in any of the usual American book circles, you'll usually be able to read through them very quickly and easily. They follow a template, a pattern, and you can usually identify their position quickly. From there in, it is a matter of discerning the order and method of their arguments. But, there is an author that I had never heard of until I went to the Orthodox church. I asked about their views on Salvation, and I was promptly handed a book entitled,
On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. To my surprise, the foreword was by C.S. Lewis. I imagine that other protestants have read this book as well, but I have never heard this book come up in theological discussions over salvation. Lot's of other books have, and lots of scriptures have been presented, but when I started reading through this book, I was really quite amazed.
St. Athanasius presents the clearest and most holistic, coherent treatise on God's saving work that I have ever read. It is telling that, being written before Protestants existed, every single modern issue that we today concern ourselves with, simply vanishes. They don't matter. When Athanasius presents his work, the focus is clearly on God. Even when speaking of man, it is in the sense of man as a thing that reveals God. Moreover, it avoids and skips the standard fare that all modern Protestants usually rely on when discussing salvation.
St. Athanasius' exposition sets itself apart by its holistic approach. Most protestant emphasis in salvation is on the cross, to the near exclusion of all else. Usually, Christ's life is a moral lesson to us, and a statement to his sinlessness, in preparation for the cross, and the resurrection is mostly just the confirmation of the work, while the incarnation itself is simply the best mode of getting Christ down here and making him Human. This, I think, comes in part from the strong emphasis on a Juridical interpretation of atonement. Take the famous
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, or any other number of views. The judicial interpretation is the only interpretation that I have ever read or heard about in Protestantism. While St. Athanasius does use some judicial language in his work, just as do the Scriptures, the treatise as a whole is distinctly non-juridical in its message. The life of Christ and indeed the whole of history is less about a single appeasement to an angry God for a sin committed long ago, and instead is a single cohesive work of the unification of God and man together into a perfect communion. Here, the Incarnation is not just a means to an end, but an end unto itself, vitally important to the work of salvation as much as the cross or any other thing. So also the life of Christ, his resurrection, ascension, and death. These all have equally important places and Athanasius systematically and carefully details the importance and value of each one and all together. He does this all without ever using the material so common and almost dogmatically necessary to the protestant view of salvation. The entirety of Protestant Soteriology is just swept away and replaced with a simple, clear, holistic, relevant, and powerful view of God and his love for us. It bears neither the minimalism of Baptist believer's conversion, nor the maximalism of reformed theology. In my mind, it's one of the greatest testaments to what's wrong in modern American Protestantism.
What's more funny is that I don't think most protestants would read that book and suddenly say,
Wait, I don't agree with that at all! Instead, I think they would readily agree with all that Athanasius says. At least, I hope they would. But they wouldn't be able to stop there. They wouldn't rest with it at that. They would feel compelled to continue their exposition and obsess over their pet issues. But those pet issues don't matter, and importantly, detract from the important message of Christ and the Gospel. In their emphasis on Salvation, the Protestants overshadow the very work of salvation itself. Taking a wider view of this not only escapes the narrow-minded restrictions of a juridical interpretation, but also frees us from the endless bickering on issues that shouldn't matter.
So, what's the point? What is this different view? Firstly, the focus must always be God. In all that we do, our eyes should remain fixed ever presently on Him. To that end, the first change is that church and our calling is not about saving people. It is God who saves, not man. Our work is to reveal God through us; put another way, to be the image and likeness of our Creator. Our whole purpose is about communion with God, experiencing him, as Peters says, being partakers of his Divine Nature. The work of salvation must be understood in this context. As Athanasius puts it,
God became man, that man might become god. The Orthodox term for this is deification or theosis, and it must be understood as having begun at the beginning, at creation. At that time we were created in the image and likeness of God. We were intended always and forever to grow in our closeness and understanding of him, to be continuously partakers of his nature, and to be unified with him, in Glory. In our sin, we lose that likeness, being no longer like Him who created us. Nonetheless, God continues to reveal himself to us, at first through the law (Hebrews is great on this point), imperfectly, through a veil, that we might know our separation from him. And then, God himself, Jesus Christ, comes and unites God and Man Literally together in one flesh. Jesus, fully man and fully God, at once destroys the barrier of man from God in his incarnation. This is a work of love, to return us to communion with him. Furthermore, he establishes his church, his apostles, and teaches us, gives us gifts by which we might experience God. He then, as the Liturgy says, destroys death by death, in that God, who cannot die, experienced death for all mankind, dying as a man, and in so doing, destroyed death, as a light which enters darkness, for death cannot abide where God is present. Death, being the result of our sins, Christ destroyed by his death and suffering, as Hebrews says, being perfected through sufferings. And finally, in his resurrection he shows truly death's demise, and the promise of everlasting life, of a bodily resurrection and a life to come. His final ascension is spoken of in Hebrews in great detail, but his ascension shows the union of man to God in fullness, and we are promised to receive this reward (or condemnation, as the case may be) when he returns.
Throughout this whole work, we must understand the purpose: theosis. Christ comes to bring man back to God, to himself. The whole work of salvation is understood as a revelation of God, a breaking down of the barriers of sin that corrupt us and hide us from God, into a full union with Him, experiencing him, as he enters into us (the Holy Spirit), so that we become like Him. God became man, and we, in receiving Christ, become god, heirs in Christ, receiving the Holy Spirit, and being deified, according to God's love. This is the whole purpose of mankind, to Know God, and to be with Him; to Love him. The work of salvation is not some single focal point or choice, but God's work in us continually deifying us. We should not understand salvation as a single
get out of jail free card, but instead, as a constant working of God to bring us to him.
Thus, the church, in its approach, is fundamentally the caretaker of the Tradition, or truths, that were given to her by Christ, her bridegroom. They are not fundamentally focused on man, but instead, are fundamentally focused on revealing God through all means, physical, spiritual, and mental, to the body of Christ, the Church. We as a church then, being the image and likeness of Christ, reveal God to the world, as we are able and as we have been given grace to do so. God's actions are his own, and it is not the church or man that saves, for all we can do is to show God in truth, but God saves according to his will. In all things, then, the church and the Christian ought to focus on the revelation of God, not just in word, but in action; in the physical as well as the mental should we reveal Christ through us.
Notice that in the above I do not make mention of predestination, salvation by works, believer's baptism, or any of the other protestantisms that we have so readily in America. It's all wrong. Rather, in so far as we grow in our knowledge and communion with God, and that communion is revealed through us to the world, so that the world too, will know God by us, we have done well. We are saved continually, not at some instantaneous point, though it is right to say that Christ died once to destroy sin, and does not die continually (again, Hebrews). We must broaden and expand our understanding of salvation, while at the same time putting aside the red herrings and false doctrines that distract us from God.
I encourage the reader to read through the Scriptures, through Athanasius, the early Church Fathers, and the works of the Saints and other writers, and see that the whole point is God, and communion with Him, not this false obsession with being saved. Others have done a far better and undoubtedly more faithful job of showing these things in writing.
So much for the theology. What does this do then? I mean, I have said that such things have a great impact on our practical lives, but what does this mean? Well, for starters, this has a huge impact on the way a modern church is run. The purpose of Church changes. Protestants in America have a tendency to view church as fundamentally evangelical. When we talk about church here I mean the primary church service. That's wrong. In fact, I feel so strongly about that that I would even say that to view the purpose of a church service as evangelizing in any way, is to utterly fail in the church's calling. That isn't to say that God might not evangelize through a church service, but there is a big difference. The purpose and focus is on worship, on communion, on God, not on man. Any attempt to turn the service away from God and towards man is a wrong one. Fundamentally, the church service is the communal worship and thanksgiving of man towards God, and all things must turn towards Him. This pretty much eliminates the modern church service as Americans know it. Altar calls are especially heinous. Few things do more to reveal a man-centered world than an Altar Call. Put simply, the church service is *not* about a preacher or pastor trying to effect change in his flock! It's not about getting a response. It's about worshiping and knowing and communing with God.
Preaching, as a center point in the service, is also right out. Yes, homilies are valuable means by which we can reveal God, and yes, they have an important place. Insofar as they allow us to mentally come to a better understanding of God, they are good, and they should be used. When they start to fall away from that, into moral rule giving, or evangelism, they fail, and are error. Most American services are basically preaching with some entertainment around the edges. Thankfully there are some movements in the Protestants that are shifting away from this and trying to return the church to a more worshipful and liturgical focus, but fundamentally, they try to do it in isolation of the examples that exist elsewhere (part of the reactions against Catholicism). I claim that the church service is the natural manifestation of the fulfillment of the Old Testament liturgies of the temple. They ought to be, at least. And there you should note that the services are not about a bunch of sentimental, or emotional experiences. They're not a concert. They're not in their primary purpose, preaching. The liturgies of the Old Testament were fundamentally the reading of the scripture and the sacrifices.
So, the church service is no longer an evangelical outreach, the sacraments are real sacraments, altar calls, out, sentimental hymns, out, heretical theology, out. Moralistic, man-centered preaching, out. You begin to see why I claim these issues are systemic. By a simple change in focus and re-evaluation of the work of salvation, the whole practical facade of the church in America sees a vast change. Many of the customary dividing lines of the church disappear. And far from a divisive theology, this theology, which I think most churches would agree on, in principle, by carrying it to its full practical conclusions, suddenly shatters many of the things which have separated the churches for so long.
The situation, of course, is not so simple in reality. While a lot of people would agree with the above in principle, they couldn't accept the idea that that's all there is to it, or that they should reject the various customs that have so long held their identity. And therein lies the real problem. The identity of most of protestant churches is wrapped up in their customs and false theology. What makes a Baptist church what it is is often as much a part of their customs and practices, such as altar calls and preaching as it is their proposed theology. Strip that away, and you cannot really call them baptists any more. The situation gets really interesting with the Calvinists. I would claim that the reformed churches are the ones that have, at the same time, the most to lose and the least. In many ways, they are some of the churches that are most seeking to return the church service to its rightful place, and in some cases they do an admirable job. On the other hand, what I am suggesting is that they fundamentally stop being reformed. I am saying that they should reject Calvinist doctrine as both unfruitful and wrong, at the same time irrelevant and incorrect. That's a pretty tough pill for anyone to swallow. Of course, I am also saying the same thing of Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, and Pentecostals. While the reasons for each one are different, I really am strongly asserting that the fundamental identities that these churches have is what's wrong with them.
I had wanted to save an entire chapter on the purpose of the Church, but I feel that it fits in too well here to leave out. I am not suggesting that evangelism is not an important part of the church, nor am I suggesting that churches must all look and feel the same. This isn't true in Orthodox churches today, either. What I am suggesting is that the important focus should be on revealing and communing with the Trinity in all forms. Evangelism must change from this formulaic checklist to heartfelt sharing of the truth, not an attempt to save. The churches must change the focus of their services, but that doesn't mean that they cannot hold and sanction all manner of other events, such as concerts or the like.
Why is this so important? Because it is important for Christians to be fed, and while that's a common term, the usual feeding meant by Protestant churches is moralistic preaching. What they call meat, I call deflection from the real food. Christ is our food, his body, his blood. In a very real sense, our salvation is effected through physical means, as God works through the physical world, and not just through some mystical other world. We must experience him through his word, which you get very little of in the normal Protestant service, his body, his blood, and by the assembly together of the body of Christ, the whole body of Christ, both living and dead. We are fed in soul, mind, and body through many means, and preaching alone is a paltry meal, especially when it does nothing to teach us of God, and instead only hopes to change our behavior. We go to church to meet and be with God, together with the assembly, in worship and thanksgiving, to experience Him, and know Him, and to grow in the likeness of Him. But this simply is not the focus of most Protestant services. You cannot minister properly to the believer while trying also to convince or advertise to the non-believer.
In a very real sense, then, I hope it is clear to see, that the differences and complaints that I have against the Protestant church stem partly from their fundamental view of salvation and of the nature of Man's relationship with God. Fundamentally, Protestants are asking the wrong questions, and seeking the wrong answers. They have turned the focus, both in theology and in practice, away from the Trinity and onto man. God's work of salvation should be understood in more than a judicial context (though, in so far as it goes, the judicial one is fine, but only in so far as it goes), lifting it into a perspective across time, in the context of man's purpose to be with and commune with God. We must stop fixating on salvation from man's perspective, from a single point of choice, and onto God's work of Love in a much wider and broader sense. When the change of focus moves to focus on God instead of man, Soteriology changes as well, and the entire issue of Protestant theological bickering largely disappears, especially when we scale back our perspective to encompass the entirety of church history and what the whole of church Tradition has to teach us. Far from being divisive, I believe that theology rightly understood unifies rather than divides, but an excess of minimalism or maximalism, or of scholasticism in general leads to divisions. When theology rightly brings all focus and care upon God, then people come together, but when the emphasis is man, then theology naturally divides.
There are so many more things to cover, and some which I have touched on here that deserve a more thorough treatment. This includes things like the liturgy, ritualism, icons, communion, sacraments, the church service, Mary, sin and moral teaching, as well as ecumenical movements, parachurches, physical nature, the final judgment, and any number of other miscellaneous topics. These are all things that concern people who are interested in Orthodoxy, and which I have examined to one degree or another. However, I hope that this first, more applied chapter will at least illustrate some of the major points I have against the Protestant church. I of course speak these things not out of a desire to offend or to divide the church yet more, but out of a heartfelt desire to bring the Protestant church out of its civil war and into union and truth. I believe that Orthodoxy has shown its unifying power, but I find in its doctrine and practice a more holistic, consistent approach that draws the focus where it should be, and is at the same time both simple and rich.
- There is a good deal to say about whether it is even possible for the body of Christ not to be united, but that is a topic for another day.
- We will get back to the idea of the continuum of value later, I hope.
- Whether literal interpretations deserve to the be elevated above figurative is yet another good question, and one that I don' t have space to consider here.