Monday, April 10, 2017

Why One Convert Left Eastern Orthodoxy

For those following the Hank Hanegraaff situation with Eastern Orthodoxy, here’s a first-hand account of a Reformed believer who migrated to Eastern Orthodoxy, before coming back to a more Reformed Anglican posture (he is now a Deacon in one of the more conservative branches of Anglicanism):

It’s an account of why he left. Couple of highlights that I had pulled out of this in an earlier blog post:
A sizable number of Evangelicals … have opted to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy rather than to Roman Catholicism or Traditional Anglicanism. One can read the convert literature of (the increasingly unhinged) Frank Schaeffer and the ex-Campus Crusade folks (Peter Gillquist, et al.) for the standard panegyric about how these Evangelicals ”came home” to “the ancient Christian church”. Your blogger The Embryo Parson was one of them. I spent approximately 13 years in the Orthodox Church, and I can assure you that Schaeffer and Gillquist were smitten with romantic notions about the Orthodox Church church that bear little relation to reality. I could go into great detail about why I left, but I will confine myself here to four principal reasons.

1. Creeping liberalism. Here is an account from a Lutheran blog that refers to an article written by Orthodox academic and priest Gregory Jensen, who frankly admits the problem … the Orthodox Church is slowly but surely beginning to look like its increasingly “Episcopalianized” sister, the Roman Catholic Church. Both, to one degree or another, are aping the liberal Protestant “mainline.” Though officially “orthodox” in their respective theologies, there is much turmoil beneath the surface that is associated with the activity of liberals, and the Evangelical convert can’t miss it. I certainly didn’t.

2. Virulent anti-Western mentality. The Orthodox are openly hostile to just about everything Western. Any Evangelical who hopes to retain something of the Western theological framework in which he learned about his faith will be quickly disappointed in that hope if he enters the Orthodox Church. David B. Hart, an Orthodox theologian and brother of our own Anglican Catholic priest Fr. Robert Hart, says this about it:

The most damaging consequence . . . of Orthodoxy’s twentieth-century pilgrimage ad fontes—and this is no small irony, given the ecumenical possibilities that opened up all along the way—has been an increase in the intensity of Eastern theology’s anti-Western polemic. Or, rather, an increase in the confidence with which such polemic is uttered. Nor is this only a problem for ecumenism: the anti-Western passion (or, frankly, paranoia) of Lossky and his followers has on occasion led to rather severe distortions of Eastern theology. More to the point here, though, it has made intelligent interpretations of Western Christian theology (which are so very necessary) apparently almost impossible for Orthodox thinkers. Neo-patristic Orthodox scholarship has usually gone hand in hand with some of the most excruciatingly inaccurate treatments of Western theologians that one could imagine—which, quite apart form the harm they do to the collective acuity of Orthodox Christians, can become a source of considerable embarrassment when they fall into the hands of Western scholars who actually know something of the figures that Orthodox scholars choose to caluminiate. When one repairs to modern Orthodox texts, one is almost certain to encounter some wild mischaracterization of one or another Western author; and four figures enjoy a special eminence in Orthodox polemics: Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and John of the Cross.

3. Essentially Eastern European. The Orthodox Churches tend to be Eastern European or Middle Eastern cultural outposts. While they welcome converts from Western countries, the latter never really quite fit in. One person commenting over at the Stumble Inn writes:

Eastern Orthodoxy is a gigantic Eastern culture club. They have a saying for a sort of mania new converts (of the generic Anglo/Celtic/German-American variety) get - Convertitis. Basically it’s marked by a) aggressive appropriation of your parish’s ethnic culture, b) rabid defense of your theology. The second one is just the excitement of finding something you believe to be true - it’s an altruistic sort of joy with unintended negative consequences that go away over time.

The first one is a survival/assimilation technique that is pretty much necessary when one finds himself surrounded by Russians, or Greeks, or Arabs... Bulgarians, Romanians, Ukrainians, Serbians, Georgians, Albanians and 20 different varieties of each. There’s nothing else. If you walk into an Orthodox church as an old stock American, you simply don’t belong there. You’re out of your league. You have to make yourself belong - and it’s difficult.

If not impossible.

4. Compromised soteriology. While we should certainly be grateful to the Greek Church Fathers for the triadology and christology that became the basis of the Creed, they were not so orthodox when it came to an issue that would come to bear upon the question of soteriology, or salvation:

Part of the fascination of the patristic era to the scholar lies in the efforts of its theologians to express an essentially Hebraic gospel in a Hellenistic milieu: the delights of patristic scholarship must not, however, be permitted to divert our attention from the suspicion voiced by the Liberal school in the last century - that Christ’s teaching was seriously compromised by the Hellenism of its earlier adherents. The history of the development of the Christian doctrine of justification lends support to such a suspicion. In particular, it can be shown that two major distortions were introduced into the corpus of traditional belief within the eastern church at a very early stage, and were subsequently transferred to the emerging western theological tradition. These are:

a. The introduction of the non-biblical, secular Stoic concept of autoexousia or liberum arbitrium in the articulation of the human response to the divine initiative in justification.

b. The implicit equation of tsedaqa, dikaiosune and iustitia, linked with the particular association of the Latin meritum noted earlier (p.15), inevitably suggested a correlation between human moral effort and justification within the western church. The subsequent development of the western theological tradition, particularly since the time of Augustine, has shown a reaction against both these earlier distortions, and may be regarded as an attempt to recover a more biblically orientated approach to the question of justification. . . .

The emerging patristic understanding of such matters as predestination, grace and free will is somewhat confused, and would remain so until controversy forced full discussion of the issue upon the church. Indeed, by the end of the fourth century, the Greek fathers had formulated a teaching on human free will based upon philosophical rather than biblical foundations. Standing in the great Platonic tradition, heavily influenced by Philo, and reacting against the fatalisms of their day, they taught that man was utterly free in his choice of good or evil. . . . (Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, Vol. I, pp.18-19)

This sub-biblical notion of free will would later inform the heresies of Pelagianism and Semipelagianism, and would also result in a soteriology in the East that would put a greater stress on theosis - sanctification - than on the atonement. Accordingly, Orthodox theology is deficient in its understanding of just how the atonement relates to sanctification. One need only listen to the narrative of this video to see an example of the man-centered nature of theosis. Note the repeated use of “I”, “me” and “my”. I call this the “Little-Christian-Who-Could” model. There is nothing in this video about what God did to effect man’s salvation, aside from a brief and vague reference to the destruction of sin and death at the beginning of the narrative.

Because the Orthodox reject the Augustinian view of original sin, and by implication the Pauline teaching on the inability of man to save himself, and because the Orthodox still labor under pagan notions about “free will”, their soteriology suffers. Frs. Hart and Wells discuss this deficiency at the [Anglican] Continuum, here and here.


  1. I read this article a couple of years ago & remembered that there was something not quite right with his approach. The theological objections were all well and good, but the sociological objections can be - and indeed have been - turned back on Protestants.

    As one who has strongly felt the call of the East that theology is king and feelings can and do deceive. When gazing upon the pulchritude of the Lady in Red on the Dragon of Green it is best to fix one's gaze upon her rap sheet rather than her cleavage.

    1. Kirk -- I have followed this individual's path, and I consider him to be a friend (though that was not always the case). At the time, I especially thought that his emphasis on the "cultural liberalism" of the contemporary EO was perhaps not the strongest reason for leaving, but I was glad to see it anyway.

    2. true enough, provided one leaves his baggage at the door.