Monday, May 07, 2007

Spiritual Orphans

The inspired writer of the book of Hebrews was a man who held a deep appreciation for his ancestors in the faith. In chapter 11, he wrote of the many men (and women) in Israel’s history whose lives and great deeds demonstrated a true and living faith in God. We could even say that his appreciation for these people included a profound sense of indebtedness to them. Had it not been for these faithful witnesses who had gone before him, the writer of Hebrews would have clearly had no context for his own faith and would have been greatly impoverished in his knowledge of God. He valued his “spiritual fathers” because they transmitted to him the rich inheritance of faith, without which he would have been very little more than a spiritual orphan.

Clearly today’s Christians also have an appreciation for these same saints, as witnessed to by the fact that their stories are read over and over again in Sunday Schools across the land, and many of the children who attend those schools have been named after these saints by their parents. Names like Joshua, David, Ruth, and Sara are common in evangelical families.

While this is by no means an objectionable practice, there remains something rather odd about it. Like some fictionalized tale of a “post-rapture” world in which all the Christians are missing and no one “left behind” seems to notice, what’s astonishingly absent from the evangelical experience is any obvious awareness of the nearly 2000-year history of our own Christian saints and fathers in the faith, as well as the gratitude we should owe them for their cumulative contributions to our present-day spiritual inheritance. Their stories are never taught in evangelical Sunday Schools and their names go largely unknown and ignored. It’s as if they never existed, and the Christian faith and doctrines we take for granted today are entirely the product of our own wise and discerning reading of the bible (a document which also, apparently, owes its compilation, preservation, and continued existence to no man or human council in the past two millennia but must have floated down from heaven to us in its present form!)

In truth, evangelicals have done more than ignore their fathers in the faith; they have insulated themselves from them by accepting wholeheartedly a fabricated “treatment” of church history which asserts that the early church fell away almost instantly in the post-apostolic period, and any struggling remnant of Christianity was soon corrupted with paganism under the influence of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, to eventually mutate into the “Roman Catholic Church”. This false scenario is taught from pulpits and in print to evangelicals across our nation and is accepted by them as unquestioningly as if it were to be found in the pages of the bible itself.

So deeply has this invented history been ingrained on the evangelical mindset, that rarely does anyone bother to research the truth or falsehood of it for themselves. There is, I suppose, a psychology behind that. We all enjoy stories in which the shining knights prevail against evil and overcome it. So much the better if the knights are “our people” and thus directly validate our beliefs. The early Reformers are often portrayed as such knights, even though most evangelicals today hold very little in common with the beliefs of Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin. It’s the story that matters however, not the details, and in this case the story is that evangelicals are the only remaining people on the face of the earth who still hold to a pure and biblical faith, void of any “traditions of men”. That’s quite a story indeed!

The actual history of Christianity reveals a much brighter and more truthful story, even though this revelation will often come as a shock to any evangelical who dares to research it for himself.

Imagine that for your entire Christian life you were taught that nothing but bad happened in the Church from the first century until the fifteenth, for this was a time of great spiritual darkness upon the face of the earth in which men were ignorant of the bible and only followed evil, power-mad church leaders wearing funny vestments. If you’re a Mormon, simply substitute the nineteenth century for the fifteenth, but otherwise it’s the same thing. Now let us imagine that one fateful day you happen to be in a public library and come across a book containing, let’s say, some selected sermons of St. John Chrysostom, the noted 4th century bishop, monastic, and saint. Skeptically you begin skimming one of his sermons, expecting perhaps to find instructions on how to reverently kiss his toes or properly worship idols or whatnot. Soon however, you are drawn into what you are reading as you begin to sense St. John’s deep love for Jesus Christ and his utter, no compromise devotion to Him. His words seem to enflame your heart like Luke and Cleopas on the road to Emmaus, and you suddenly exclaim “Wow! I never heard a sermon like this at my church!”

Suppose that this experience piques your interest and you begin delving into Christian history from the first century onward, reading the pastoral letters of early bishops, sermons, apologetics, stories of the lives of the saints, arguments against heresies, and eyewitness accounts of the early Church councils. Perhaps your intention at the beginning of this was to discover for yourself exactly when this Church “fell away” and was corrupted, but you soon discover that there is no evidence of any such wide-scale apostasy to be found. Oh sure, there were many groups which either broke away from the main Church or which claimed to be Christian but were not, such as the Gnostics, the followers of Sabellius, Arius, Apollinaris, and Nestorius to name but a few of the many. But from your steadily-increasing knowledge of the early Church it soon becomes obvious to you that these splinter groups, far from being proof of a “wide-scale fragmentation of the Church” as you were once taught, were in fact obvious departures from the vibrant mainstream of Christian Orthodoxy that clearly can be seen flowing from the very time of the apostles themselves.

As you continue your reading, you see that the early Christian fathers--whom you are just beginning to see as your fathers in the faith--defended and preserved such key Christian doctrines as belief in the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and the Incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus Christ. You see them coming together in councils to commit these essential beliefs to writing in official creedal form which before had existed in the pastoral writings of even earlier fathers and which they in turn had received from the oral tradition of the apostles themselves. You know and become certain therefore that these doctrines were not “the later inventions of corrupt councils” as heretics today would have you believe, but are valid beliefs that can be traced back to the very origin of Christianity.

While some elements of your faith are thus confirmed, others are challenged. The teachings of your modern evangelical church have led you to reject the idea of infant baptism in favor of “believer’s baptism” only. Yet in your reading you find that Christians baptized their babies from the very day of Pentecost onward, with virtually zero objection to this policy until the Anabaptist heresy of the 16th century rejected this Orthodox practice with a collection of “proof-texts“ lifted from the bible to support their claims. In fact, you find that there are many practices of the historic Orthodox Church which can be traced all the way back to the apostles and upheld by their successors, which are rejected today by many of your fellow evangelicals with a similar sparse handful of “proof-texts” representing modernistic views.

For example, your church taught you that “The Lord’s Table” is a merely symbolic remembrance of the Lord’s death, but the Orthodox Church has believed it to be a sharing in the actual Body and Blood of Christ from the very beginning. The historical evidence of this is absolutely overwhelming and as you begin to reread the scriptures in light of this older view, you see that the writers of the New Testament clearly believed that the Eucharist is much more than symbol alone. You begin to wonder how it is you didn’t see this fact much earlier.

You also find that the Church was liturgical from beginning, having inherited Jewish forms of worship which were soon “Christianized” in content and given their fuller, God-intended meaning. Reading through the early centuries of the Church you see that the liturgical worship of the Church became very much a life-giving fountain of faith and spirituality that saw our fathers through many dark periods of persecution and martyrdom for Christ in a world hostile to the faith. In those days, Christians were often captured in their underground churches, or reported to the authorities by neighbors who saw them coming and going on Sunday morning. Many could have saved their lives by simply staying home, but their love for the worship of God and their deep desire to partake of His Body and Blood compelled them to take the risk. You wonder if the steady diet of “praise bands” and ongoing altar calls at your church would be enough to lure your evangelical friends out of hiding if Christians were so severely persecuted today.

Soon you come to an astonishing personal revelation. Almost without your being aware of it, your reading of the faith of your Christian fathers and your gradual acceptance of their beliefs has moved you to a point rather beyond your evangelical comfort-zone. “My dear Lord!,” you exclaim, “Am I becoming Orthodox?”

This was clearly something you never intended, but now you cannot imagine turning your back on what you have learned, or on the Faith of your Fathers that you found and have come to accept. This becomes even more pressing due to the fact that your new knowledge of Christian Patristics has deepened your understanding of the bible immensely, as passages you were trained to explain away now seem to leap out at you with entirely new meaning. You had come into this study perhaps to prove the evangelical premise that the traditions of the early Church only nullify the word of God and deny its power, but what you found was the exact opposite. Not only are the Orthodox traditions not in opposition to the bible, they actually open up the bible and help you to understand it as never before. In addition, you find that many of your evangelical traditions are not from the bible at all but are the products of men who, many centuries after the time of the apostles and largely ignorant of their teachings as you once were, interpreted the bible in new ways to suit their own doctrinal preferences. It was these spurious interpretations that you had accepted, thinking that they came right from the pages of the bible, unable to say otherwise since you had not known what your Christian Fathers had believed previously.

This might seem like a happy ending to the story, but in fact it is only the beginning of an even greater struggle. You have taken your time in this study and have gradually developed an appreciation for your Christian Fathers. But in the process you have wandered innocently off the narrow “ideological plantation” of contemporary evangelicalism. What will your pastor say, or for that matter your family and friends? They will likely think that you have gone in the wrong direction, and will accuse you of “becoming catholic” or of following the traditions of men rather than the word of God. You know by now that such accusations are not only false, but represent the very height of irony, since your evangelical friends unknowingly follow a host of modern traditions that directly oppose the revelation of the bible. But they are as closed-minded as you once were, and so locked into their viewpoint that your beliefs now appear as a threat to them.

Finally it dawns on you why Christian Patristics are ignored by evangelicals, and why the Old Testament saints are celebrated, while their New Testament counterparts are treated as if they never existed. Now you see why a ridiculously remanufactured and self-serving “church history” is taught in evangelical churches, rather than the real thing. Real church history and the writings of the Fathers is indeed a threat to evangelicalism, exposing its many theological innovations and biblical errors. You long for your friends to see this, and perhaps will even share with them some of the books that helped you discover historic Christianity. But you find that they refuse to even look at such resources, considering them irrelevant to a people who “already know what the bible teaches” and who imagine that they can’t possibly learn anything useful from “church history”.

Perhaps in their efforts to save you from yourself, your friends point you to a Protestant “history” book, or to one of the growing number of “rebuttals” to Eastern Orthodoxy appearing as of late on the internet. As you read through these resources that you yourself might have once accepted without question, you now find them to be sadly ill-informed and crafted to serve an obvious agenda. Repeatedly you find that the principle objections to ancient Christian Orthodoxy are that it doesn’t embrace 16th century and later Protestant doctrinal innovations, which have been conveniently repackaged as “the clear teachings of the bible”. You find yourself marveling that such obviously modern doctrines, completely unsupported by the early Church Fathers, could be accepted by Christians today as if they were exactly what the apostles taught. If such things as bishops and priests and icons and sacraments and liturgy were so foreign to the apostolic faith, why is it that no one objected to them even as they began to appear in the latter half of the apostolic age? Is it so easy to believe that the Church fell away literally overnight with no one, not even the apostles, noticing? Or is it more likely that these things were indeed an integral part of the apostolic teaching, and that we evangelicals in our zeal to deny these truths today have simply trained ourselves to overlook all the evidence to the contrary? Could this also be why we were conditioned to mistrust Christian history and avoid its study at all costs?

It is not an easy thing to convince others that the Faith of our Fathers is living still, as is the very Church of which they were members. Evangelicalism is a carefully constructed “culture of denial” when it comes to such things. Their views essentially make them into spiritual orphans; without Fathers to guide them in their beliefs, and without the Mother Church to nurture them. To be sure, many orphans can become quite tough and self-reliant in a cruel world, but God has something so much better for them in historic Christian Orthodoxy.

You may feel a bit like a spiritual orphan yourself if you have engaged in such a study of history and no longer feel quite “at home” in your present church. This is understandable, and I sympathize deeply with you. I also know that you cannot give up now. I can only encourage you to continue bravely on your spiritual journey and to perhaps make contact with an Orthodox priest, preferably one who has followed a similar journey himself and can understand what you are facing. There are a surprising number of former evangelicals--both clergy and laity--who have found their way into the various Orthodox jurisdictions today, and who are more than willing to speak with you and share what they have experienced along the way. You may find their advice invaluable.

Yes, you can expect rebuke and anger from your evangelical friends who feel you are forsaking the bible. But fear not. You are in fact following an ancient prophesy of the bible from Jeremiah 6:16 which tells us, “Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the ways and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.” The Orthodox Church is that ancient path and good way, long abandoned by many, but providing blessing for those who still find it.

May God bless you on your own journey.


At 5/09/2007 8:33 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Father, Bless!

What a concise and accurate analysis! I know that it is true, because that journey led me to leave the Lutheran Church and its pastorate -- having been Lutheran for all of my life and a pastor for 33 years!

In my schooling, we NEVER seriously read the Fathers .. indeed it was as though "truth" came with Luther!

Thanks for the post!


At 5/10/2007 7:14 PM , Blogger The last cause said...

A quick Question for you Fr. Reagen ( out of love), it is my understanding that in the Eastern Empire, the Emperor (or Emperess) was also considered to be the "Head of the Church" as well.

Is that how it was?

At 5/10/2007 8:02 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Mr. Cause,

That would likely depend on who you asked: the Emperor, or the Bishops of the Church.

In the Byzantine period, the Emperor was given various honorific titles such as "Protector" or "Benefactor" of the Church and so on. Thrones were set up in cathedrals should such a ruler visit, and he/she would be escorted in with much ceremony. Prayers were continually made for the rulers of the people, as St. Paul commanded, special services would be performed, and they were always treated with the dignity and respect befitting their office.

But despite these things, little more than an uneasy alliance always existed between the Church and any Emperor. Bishops simply didn't trust politicians of any stripe, whose power was often absolute but whose motives were not always pure. In the best cases, the Emperor would be a true Christian and would take council from his bishops. In the worst cases, the Emperor might be an apostate or even a heretic who persecuted Orthodox clergy. Many godly bishops were deposed or exiled if they found themselves on the wrong side of an Emperor that had sided with a particular faction.

There is a myth that Constantine "directed" the First Council of Nicea to adopt Trinitarian theology as well as certain pagan practices which led to the corruption of Christianity. Fortunately that is only a myth. Constantine convened the council, but only to put to rest the Arian controversy that threatened to divide his empire. His interests were political, not religious. He participated very little in the actual process itself, and even wrote that he understood very little of the theology that was being discussed. Essentially he turned the proceedings over to the bishops and got out of the way.

Now that is a good Emperor!

At 5/11/2007 4:33 PM , Blogger The last cause said...

Thanks, my question wasn't directed at the Constantinian debate, more towards the role of the emperor in the early Church, I was under the impression that some Emperors (maybe most) gave themselves sort of a "Son of Heaven" Despotism to their reins.

Most of the weirdness occured in the 10th through 12th century with several rulers depsoed a schism with the Latin Church in a balkan country etc

Men never change Ere.

At 5/11/2007 5:06 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

If you mean the Great Schism of 1054, we could only wish that this was caused by "Imperial weirdness". At least then it would have been much less significant and easier to repair.

In truth, that schism was caused by the centuries-long and glacial move of the Roman Patriarchate away from communion with the rest of the Church. Since that date, the divide has only grown greater.

That schism was not the result of a declaration by rulers offended over trifles, but came from an actual alienation of the Roman church from the life and eucharistic community of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church itself.

It is indeed the most tragic event in human history, short of Adam's fall, and its effects are still with us today.

At 5/11/2007 8:46 PM , Blogger The last cause said...

No, not the east west schism, rahter the deposing of Emperors and the banishment of clergy in the East during that time, when sons killed fathers and "other" Patriarches were established.

You know the usual stuff, this emperor kiled that person and the other person ran for their lives and then came back same old same old (I think the name is phyligia but I'm not certain).

At 5/11/2007 9:19 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Ah yes. The history of Roman/Byzantine secular politics and even of human political machinations within the Church itself is often far less than inspiring. Sometimes it's a wonder that the Church survived at all. Thank God it did, despite such things.

It would almost lead one to imagine that God looks over and protects His Church, lest the "gates of hell" should prevail over it...

At 5/12/2007 1:44 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The timing on this article is perfect, thanks for clearly writing out the journey that most of us new "converts" have experienced and continue to experience.
(busy mother of 2, Irene)


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