Orthodoxy as Fulfillment II

[Previous post: Part I]

  • The Orthodox Church is the fulfillment of the doctrine in which I’d been raised and educated.

There is an oversimplification of Orthodox doctrine which runs something like this: Orthodox hold to the ancient, unchanged doctrine of the apostles without addition (Roman Catholicism) or subtraction (Protestantism). Orthodox claim that with purgatory, the immaculate conception (based on the dogma of original sin as original guilt), and, preeminently, the filioque, among others, the Roman see has added unauthorized dogma to the Faith. Orthodox also claim that Protestant rejection of the sacraments, icons, apostolic succession, among others, the Protestants have committed unauthorized subtractions from the whole of the apostolic faith. These additions and subtractions, according to Orthodox, result in a distortion of the faith and in schism from the Church who holds to that faith in its entirety.

As I said, this is an oversimplification. But like such generalizations it does hold germs of truth. And, in point of fact, when I first came to Orthodoxy and began to investigate what it is and its claims and arguments for those claims, I began to realize that far from radically altering what it was I believed, I would have to flesh it out.

I had a faith contained more or less in a body of propositions and codes of conduct. I’m not sure when I began to believe that I should go back to the historic Church to really determine what the Bible meant, but it was a couple years prior to coming into contact with Orthodoxy in the summer of 2000. It began with a book of daily readings from the Church Fathers, which I used in my daily devotionals beginning in autumn 1996. But it didn’t reach conscious fruition until late 1999 when I began conscientiously to seek the mind of the Fathers.

At first my method was to try to understand what the Fathers said, and then to justify that within the framework of (what I interpreted from) Scripture. Infant baptism? Sure, since Scripture could plausibly be said to have instances of it. Sacramental Lord’s Supper? Sure, since I already had such an understanding of baptism, and I’d long been bothered by the hermeneutical inconsistencies of affirming what I did about baptism, but rejecting the same hermeneutical base for what I believed about the Lord’s Supper. Bishops? Sure, since the word itself is all over the New Testament and the historical data made sense in light of the New Testament. And so it went.

While I should note that this approach—conforming the Tradition to my own biblical interpretations—is dangerously wrongheaded, for Protestant converts like myself, it is, perhaps, almost inevitable. We Restoration Movement Protestants are, or used to be, raised with a propositional faith, and our transition to the Faith of the Ancient Church will be by propositional stages. One ought normally to be suspicious of those Protestant converts who are ready to accept the dogmae of Orthodoxy wholesale without investigation. I say normally, because God saves us where we’re at. But he can also bring us, in his grace, to where we need to be. It’s a matter of the heart more than it is of the mind, and once one’s heart is ready, the intellect can follow. Some of us have hearts that are much more stony than others.

So, for a time, my movement toward Orthodoxy was a matter of adding propositional content to my faith. I quite literally did not believe enough, I had to fill up what was lacking in my faith. In this sense, Orthodoxy was a direct fulfillment of my already deeply held beliefs. I did not need to come to a more serious conviction about the place and authority of the Scriptures. But I did have to understand that place and authority as one manifestation of the singular Tradition. I did not have to come to an understanding of the person and role of Jesus as the fully human and fully divine Mediator. But I did have to come to understand why that was important in my salvation. It was not merely that Jesus’ death as the God-man was God taking his own medicine, turning away the wrath of God from sinful humanity. It was precisely the means by which we would be united to God, body and soul.

But not merely a filling up of a lack, Orthodoxy is the fulfillment of my Protestant doctrinal beliefs in that they require a move from proposition to disposition. My Protestant faith had a most difficult time moving from propositional truths to living application. These most often could not get past being simply new codes of conduct. Belief A resulted in an obligation to Conduct B. But I was quite literally without any knowledge or recourse as to how to move from A to B. I knew that I was saved by grace through faith, and not through my own works. I knew that God worked in me both to will and to do his good pleasure. But day after day I could not find a way to move from head belief to a heart that willed the code of conduct that my belief demanded. Ironically, for one who would have argued wholeheartedly against works-based salvation, the only thing I knew was to place yet another burden of laws upon my “grace-filled” faith. I could not go the way of antinomianism, for I had read St. Paul’s condemnation of such in Romans 6. But the alternative was just as impossible.

In Orthodoxy, however, I have seen the fulfillment of my Protestant doctrine. I am, in part, called to certain propositional beliefs. I also am, in part, called to specific acts and behaviors. And I know, as I did in my Protestant doctrine, that God works the transformation within me. But now I know that he does so through his life as manifested in his Son through his Church and, in part, in and through the Mysteries of his energetic grace, especially the Eucharist.

As a history-less Protestant, I needed the historical Life of the Church. As a biblical reductionist Protestant, I needed the Tradition of the Church. And as a Protestant seeking the fulfillment of his faith and conduct, I need the holy and life-giving askesis that the Church offers via her union with the holy and life-giving Spirit proceeding from the Father and sent by the Son, one holy and ineffably perfect Trinity in whose energies is my only salvation.

[Next: the fulfillment of a living askesis.]