Book Plunge: The Orthodox Way

What do I think of Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

My wife has been looking into the Eastern Orthodox Church. While at the church once, I asked the priest if he had any book in the church library he would recommend to help me understand Eastern Orthodoxy. He recommended I get The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware.

So I went and got it. I came home and went through it over the next few days. I have to say in many ways I was….disappointed. I was expecting to find a lot that set apart the Orthodox as unique in comparison to Protestants and Catholics. I really didn’t. I found a whole lot of theology, but it was theology I could say for the most part I agreed with.

Something that I think honestly happens with many people, not all but many, is they move from a Protestantism that is shallow and find an Orthodoxy that is deeper, without realizing that much of the theology is still a theology that is common to all traditions. It is rooted in Scripture and in natural theology. For me, at a book study with men of the Orthodox Church Wednesday night, I found myself talking about how with most people, I will keep my talk simple about God, but when I’m with my theological friends, I will talk about simplicity, impassibility, and the hypostatic union. I don’t think many there knew what I was talking about either. One said so explicitly and no one disagreed. Could it be the problem is more how deep someone is willing to go and this is a problem in all traditions? If we acknowledge it’s the same God in all traditions, no one can really lay claim to a deeper theology.

I had hoped to find more on history and how the Orthodox came to be, but that was lacking. Like I said, most of the theology I found no problem with. Some things I would have phrased differently. Ware does rely on the Fathers a lot more than I would as well.

I would have also liked to have seen more on some of my bigger contentions. I have a problem with the way that I see Mary and the saints treated in most non-Protestant traditions. I’m convinced the best way to honor the saints is not to pray to them, but to learn from their lives and seek to live like them as they live like Christ. I honestly think Mary would be aghast at the way she’s treated today. She would say that she’s just a servant and doesn’t deserve this kind of attention.

I also would like if we talk about the traditions to see the historical basis for them. When did they first show up? On what Scripture are they based? If I refuse to accept hadiths about Muhammad that come from 200 years later and even have names behind them, am I not inconsistent if I treat Christian traditions different?

Yet there were some points I did disagree with. On p. 46, Ware says that we as Christians affirm panentheism. He says God is in all things yet above and beyond all things. I understand what Ware is trying to say, but I would not say panentheism because that’s a different animal where often the world is seen as God’s body and God needs the world in some sense. God is in all things in the sense that He’s the sustaining cause of all things and all things are held together by His power (See passages like Hebrews 1:3 for example.), but He is not dependent on the world in any sense. I realize Ware would likely not disagree with that, but I think his phrasing here is quite bad.

On p. 110 he speaks about the Bible. He says that the Orthodox appreciate all the research and study into the Bible, such as redaction criticism and things of that sort, but we cannot accept it wholesale. Who does? Especially since scholars of all persuasions disagree.

Ware here deals with the idea of just a private reading of the Bible. To an extent, we would all discourage this. Even the Reformers wanted Scriptural interpretation to stay within the rule of faith. Sola Scriptura is often confused with Solo Scriptura. The Reformers did not oppose tradition as tradition. Tradition is not a bad thing, but tradition needs to be checked by Scripture.

An example can be the authorship of the Gospels. Some Catholics I have seen say that the names aren’t on the Gospels so you have to get that from tradition which means Sola Scriptura isn’t true. Let’s grant the premise for the sake of argument that the originals didn’t have names on them, although some scholars have questioned this. The difference is we do have these Gospels and we know someone or some people wrote them. We can freely accept the opinions of the church fathers and compare it with internal evidence for authorship. In other words, we have something that already needs to be explained. We didn’t make up the Gospels out of thin air.

Ware then goes on to say that the final criterion for Biblical interpretation is the mind of the church. Here, we run into a problem. I could just ask “By what criteria is the mind of the church the authority?” After all, Catholics would say you need the magisterium. Both groups claim you need someone or something outside of the Bible like that to help you understand the Bible, but upon what grounds is that someone or something chosen that is not question-begging? Both of them claim apostolic succession after all.

As a Protestant, I respond that the Bible is written in a way that much of it can be readily understood. Some is difficult and requires work, but to say that you can’t interpret it strikes me as incredibly postmodern, as if the words themselves don’t contain meaning that we can understand. Much of what I know about Biblical interpretation did not originate with these groups either, such as ideas about Genesis from John Walton or the honor-shame perspective of the Context Group of scholarship.

This is not to say I have a problem with going to the Fathers to understand the Bible. I don’t. Their words are important, but they are not infallible. For instance, I have at my house A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Recently, I had a discussion with someone asking if abortion was known in the ancient world. I said it was pointing to the Hippocratic Oath. I then decided to see what the church fathers said about sexuality and in the book looked up the section. The church fathers seemed to speak consistently that sex was seen as practically a necessary evil and to be used only for the purpose of procreation.

I find it unlikely that most devout Orthodox and Catholics would agree with this. Even Catholics have Natural Family Planning for families that want to avoid contraception, but want to avoid having children for whatever reason and still enjoy the gift of sex. I have also been told that the Fathers are premillennial as well, yet I am not that at all with an Orthodox Preterist interpretation.

I have no problem with saying that our reading should seek to get us to Christ and this is a danger of historical study at times that one can get to that position of proving something happened without showing why it happened. C.S. Lewis said years ago that some theologians work so hard to show that God exists that it would seem like He has nothing better to do than to exist.

In the end, I was wondering what about this was so much the Orthodox Way. Much of it could have just been called the Christian Way since much of the theology as I said I have no problem with. I have a problem with shallow thinking no matter what the tradition is. I think a lot of people can find a new tradition and think they’ve found something totally new lacking in their original tradition, without pausing to see if such a thing exists in their tradition. I have no problem with things like liturgy and such. I do have a problem when I see doctrines that I can’t find in Scripture and I have no way of verifying a tradition.

My research continues hoping to find more historical. I encourage people in whatever tradition they are in to go deeper. We met with a Catholic priest once on this journey who told my wife she will find what she is seeking if she just goes deeper in Jesus. With that, I think all three traditions of Christianity would agree. All of us need to go deeper in Jesus.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Deeper Theology

Are we staying in the shallow end? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

My wife has been looking into Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy lately. This was really an area I never wanted to get involved in, but now I am. I want to know what claims she’s hearing and if I think they’re accurate or not. As it stands, I still remain a convinced Protestant, but I am noticing something.

While I think we Protestants have excelled at Bible Study, we’ve often neglected theology. We don’t really know much about what to do with our doctrine of God. We seem to treat the Trinity as this nice little doctrine that we keep around and we get out when we need to address Jehovah’s Witnesses.

My blog has been called Deeper Waters from the beginning because I think we have too often gone shallow. This has largely been due to a lack of discipleship on our part. We place a big emphasis on conversions. I really don’t like that term at all.

Imagine if we said we wanted to see more marriages. We worked to get people to the altar and to say their “I do” statements and then did nothing with them. Hypothetically, those people went back to live with their parents and never interacted at all.

We often do the same kind of thing with conversion. The goal is to get someone to walk down the aisle and say a prayer and make Jesus their savior. There is no investing in them. There is no training in them. There is no discipleship.

This isn’t an across the board condemnation. Of course, there are some churches that do this. There are far too many who do not. This is especially needed in an age where Christianity is being questioned left and right and most people don’t know how to make a basic defense of what they believe let alone know the basics of what they believe.

We often go to churches and sing songs about how Jesus is so important to us. Apparently, He’s so important that we don’t study anything about Him, learn about Him, read the Scripture that tells about Him, or think about Him much at all, except, you know, those times when we need something. Our Christianity is all about what Jesus does in our lives instead of what we do in His.

This is so even with our salvation. Many times, the goal of Christianity has been to get people to go to Heaven. While there, you will live forever and get to see your loved ones again. Oh yeah. God is there too, if that interests you and all. There is nothing about building up the Kingdom of God here. There is nothing about the difference salvation makes in this life. Paul said that if it is only for this life we have hope, we are above all men to be pitied. Paul knew we have hope for this life. Today could it be that Paul would write “If it is only for the next life we have hope….”?

What’s the solution?

It’s a really easy one. Return to deeper theology and study. This isn’t the area of only other traditions. Protestants in the past have done this. I suspect most of it is that here in the West, we have grown more individualistic and all about us. We spend so much time “listening for the voice of God” that we don’t really consider who it is we’re “listening” to.

At the Orthodox church, the priest told me to borrow if I wanted to learn from the library a book called The Orthodox Way. I have been going through it and wondering “Aside from a few secondary details, what about this is specifically Orthodox? I have no problem believing this about God as a Protestant.” I wonder how many people see this and don’t realize that other traditions can have the same views of God as well.

Our Christianity is supposed to be the central defining feature of our lives. Let’s make it that way. Let’s not drop our intellectual weapons. We can better know the God we say we love and serve by studying Him. A good spouse seeks to understand the other spouse so they can better love them. Should we not treat God even better?

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: In Search Of Ancient Roots

What do I think of Kenneth Stewart’s book published by IVP Academic? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Historically, many times different denominations have not gotten along. Today, there is much more communication and with the internet here, many people are coming across other belief systems they would have no access to before. Many an orthodox Protestant can be wondering about their belief system. Where did it come from?

Stewart’s book is written to help those searching Protestants. While not for any one particular denomination, he does work to show that many of the beliefs and such that we have today go back to our ancestors. Not only that, there was great theological development even on core doctrines. One quick example is the Trinity. It’s not that Jesus rose from the dead and immediately the apostles got together and wrote the Nicene Creed. The outworking of that event took at least three centuries to get to Nicea and today we can look back and see the development of the doctrine.

One great theme of this book is that the Fathers matter. I remember asking someone well over a decade ago in talking about apologetics if they could name an early church father. The only name that came to mind was John Wesley. That’s why we have to do a better job educating. So many people know so little about these great people that many times gave their lives for the Christian faith. We not only don’t know our doctrines, but we don’t know the history behind those doctrines.

Stewart definitely wants us to return to the Fathers. He tells us that early Protestants were known for doing this. Today we think of other traditions scouring the Fathers, but he says in the past the Protestants were the ones doing this the most. There’s no reason Protestants today can’t be doing in-depth research on the Fathers.

He also speaks about examples of debates that we have today. The two he chooses are the frequency of the Lord’s Supper and if we should participate in infant baptism. Both of these chapters bring up points that will be of interest to anyone in these debates.

There’s also a chapter on the history of Newman with the look at the claim that to study church history is to cease to be Protestant. Stewart contends that there are two different Newmans. One is the one presented in many popular writings. The other is one the Catholic Church itself was unsure about.

Towards the end, he starts looking at the harder issues. Many of these chapters I thought would actually work better at the beginning of the book. These include the claim that the Roman Church does have the highest authority due to the seat of Peter being occupied. Stewart argues that the data for this is not as strong as would be like and the claim is not helped by the fact that many times there were rival popes and each pope was busy excommunicating the other.

There’s also a chapter on the history of justification by faith. I find the fact that so many have written on this to show that the early Fathers taught this as fascinating, but there was one blind spot here. I did not see any quotations from the Fathers. I would have liked to have seen some of those at least. One could not get an encyclopedic look of course, but something would be nice.

Finally, it ends with why people abandon Protestantism and go the other way. Again, the message is that we need to really study our history and our doctrine. We have had a sort of anti-intellectualism come over the church and too many have the idea that everything just fell down from heaven and the history is irrelevant. We need to know not only where we are and where we are going, but how we got here.

Those interested in church history will benefit from reading this. It would be good for those on all sides of any such debate. I hope we can return to some serious look at our history. In an age of greater skepticism, we need it more and more not just because of the constant changing of churches, but because of outside attacks on all churches.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

What Is Not The Gospel

Do we make secondary issues the Gospel? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Recently, I wrote about the topic of “What is the Gospel?” At this point, I think it’s important to answer what it is not. Now when I say the Gospel is not X, that does not mean that X is unimportant. X could be an issue worth studying on its own. It could even be something that is true. What I am saying is that we don’t want to marry it to the Gospel where that if X is not true, then we have no Christianity. So what are some things that the Gospel is not?

First, the Gospel is not inerrancy. Again, this does not mean that that is false, but it does mean that an error in the Bible does not mean we pack it all up and go home because Jesus did not rise from the dead. As I have said before, imagine going up to a skeptic. Their argument that Jesus didn’t rise? The Bible has errors in it. (This does happen. Someone like David McAfee in his book Disproving Christianity, which I have dealt with, argues against Christianity not by even touching the resurrection but by listing Bible contradictions.)

Suppose you respond to this person who has given you a web site of 101 Bible errors by going off and researching all of those errors and proving to your opponent’s satisfaction even that they are not errors. Will he convert? No. He’ll just go get another list of 101 errors. You will in turn be playing “Stump the Bible Scholar” over and over. In fact, you will STILL have to prove the resurrection lest he say that treating the resurrection as a fact is an error.

There are also plenty of devout Christians who do not believe in inerrancy. I disagree with them, but I don’t doubt their sincere love for Jesus. Of course, I am not opposed to Biblical reliability or anything like that, but the Bible is not an all-or-nothing game.

Creation is also not the Gospel. This is a big one in that we often think that unless the world was created in six literal days a few thousand years ago, then Christianity is false. Not for a moment. Someone still has to answer the question “What do you do with Jesus?” We all still have to explain the historical data surrounding Jesus.

Creation is a big one because so many ministries make their focus on creation. It’s as if if evolution were proven to be true, we would all be doomed. How would evolution show Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? The historical evidence is still right there. It still has to be explained somehow.

By the way, I mention young-earth creationism specifically because that’s usually the one this gets married to, but I would say the same if you married Christianity to old-earth creationism or to theistic evolution. Again, I am not saying don’t care about your view of creation or that it doesn’t matter. I’m just saying it’s not an essential.

Calvinism or Arminianism is not the Gospel. For the former, you can actually see a lot of Calvinists out there saying “Calvinism is the Gospel.” Well what does that mean for those of us who aren’t Calvinists? We don’t believe the Gospel then? Are we just second-rate Christians? What exactly?

Calvinism might explain how a person comes to believe, but how does that explain what happened to Jesus? It doesn’t. A Calvinist and an Arminian could use the exact same arguments for the resurrection of Jesus. Of course, I have many friends who are devout Calvinists and I have no wish to dissuade them from that, but I just caution them to please not marry it to the Gospel. Calvinists usually are the main ones doing this, but I’d say the same to Arminians and in fact to Molinists as well.

Eschatology is not the Gospel. Eschatology does have some tie-ins obviously with the resurrection, which is an eschatological event, but your view on eschatology is not the Gospel. This is probably the biggest one for me on the list because I am a staunch defender of orthodox Preterism. If I was shown to be wrong, I would have a hard time explaining a lot of passages, but my view of Jesus would still stand as far as the resurrection is concerned.

One exception I could make to this is the view that everything happened in 70 A.D. This position is problematic to me because I think in the end, it has to deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Our future resurrection is said to be like His bodily resurrection. If our resurrection is not bodily, then neither was His, and that’s a big problem. That means Jesus did not really conquer death. Note then the one exception I have is an exception because of what it says about the resurrection.

As far as I’m concerned, these are the biggest kinds of issues often concerned with what the Gospel is. When I meet someone and I want to know if they’re a follower of Jesus, I ask them about their view of Him. I look for what they think about Him. If they accept His deity, bodily resurrection, and His being the second person of the Trinity, I normally have no problem whatsoever. Now could some of them have a false view of how they are saved? Yes. Some Protestants for instance can have a works view of salvation. I don’t think that disqualifies them. They can be saved in their ignorance. It’s also why I’m not ready to cast out my Catholic or Orthodox brothers and sisters.

When it comes to defending Christianity and the Gospel then, the #1 thing to defend is Jesus rising from the dead. If that’s false, then let’s pack it up and go home. If it’s true, then we will find an answer for the secondary issues somewhere along the way and even if we don’t, we still have Christianity.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

Apostles Creed: The Holy Catholic Church

Can a Protestant say they believe in the Holy Catholic Church? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Sometimes, I discuss the question of Catholicism, but in the long run, it doesn’t really interest me that much. As it stands, I have numerous other things to study and I tend to focus on what Lewis referred to as “Mere Christianity.” I am Protestant and actually attend a Lutheran church at the moment. Am I ready to sign on the dotted line and say I’m a Lutheran? No. Still, I think our church right now is simply wonderful and I look forward to what we’re doing and I’m honored to get to serve.

My own position with regards to Catholics and at this point I could say members of the various churches called Orthodox (With a capital o as really, all churches should seek to be orthodox in their teaching) is that they are my brothers and sisters in Christ. I am certainly not one of those who thinks the Catholic Church is hellbound or that the Pope is the antichrist or such ideas as that. I am thankful that my Catholic brothers and sisters that I interact with also do not call my Christianity into question.

Some readers out there might be saying that there are several lost Catholics out there. You know what? I agree with them.

There are also several lost Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, etc.

Now the word Catholic really means universal. A good Christian can then say they believe in a universal church. Some might wonder about this with the supposed claim of x thousand denominations. (The number keeps changing.) The reality is that this claim is usually not looked into too much. You could have two churches in the same town that have the exact same belief and both of them could be counted as denominations. Why? Because these are self-governing bodies. There could be two in the same town because maybe it’s a really large area and two are set up due to the distances people are willing to travel to go to church.

For more on this, see this helpful and entertaining video by my ministry partner, J.P. Holding.

The main advice I’d give here is we all need to seek to avoid the extreme positions. I have learned much from my brothers and sisters of other denominations. Peter Kreeft comes to mind immediately and he is one who prays for the unification of the churches. I would hope that many of my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters would say that they too have learned from reading the writings of those of us who are Protestant.

Also, if I was asked to state what the church of Jesus Christ truly is, it is those who recognize Jesus as Lord and Messiah both. Wherever you have them gathered, you have the church to an extent. Christ is present in the midst of us. When we get to eternity, we will find people from the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox traditions there together worshiping before the throne of God. We might as well learn to get along together now. Of course we can discuss our differences, but let’s strive to do so realizing that we all still proclaim Jesus as Lord.

In Christ,

Nick Peters