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My Response to Dan Clendenin's Article "Why I'm Not Orthodox"

I was very interested to read Dan Clendenin's recent article "Why I'm Not Orthodox" (Christianity Today, January 6, 1997) because my strong hunch is that I am that "insightful reader" who asked him why he had not converted to Orthodoxy. (Dan, do you remember that inquisitive former FA-18 pilot?) I have his four page response dated February 7, 1995 sitting in front of me. I thought he would be interested to discover why I have since been received into the Holy Orthodox Church.

The bottom line is that I discovered what the Church has always believed about Herself from the very beginning, and which was authoritatively formulated in the ninth article of Her baptismal Symbol, the Nicene Creed: "... and I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." I became convinced that Protestant ecclesiology was in direct contradiction to the meaning of the Creed as it was understood by the ancient Church, and is still upheld by the Orthodox today. This is even affirmed by many Protestant scholars, as I have noted in my internet essay "The Church is Visible and One". The evidence was overwhelming. I could not, with any intellectual honesty, say that I upheld the Nicene Creed and remain Protestant. Dan said that "it is no small thing for us to hold in common all the early, Christian creeds." I submit that Orthodox and Protestants do not hold these creeds in common. The words (uh, except for the filioque clause), yes. The meaning, no.

I am convinced that the question "What is the Church?" is the most important question one can ask after "Who is Jesus Christ?" For the Church is His Body (Ephesians 1:22-23) and "the pillar and ground of the Truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). This means that to find the Church is to find the fullness of Life and Truth. All other doctrinal issues are downstream of this main issue of the Church, which is holy and cannot err in Her teachings and rites, being preserved by the Holy Spirit in all truth.

Dan, I ask you, by what authority do you remain "committed to key distinctives of the Protestant evangelical tradition"? If you answer "by the authority of Scripture" then I hope you are open to rethinking this. Because it is rarely Scripture that is one's authority, but their personal interpretation of it. I chose to stand with St. Augustine who said, "For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church."

In the interest of preserving "what is basic to Christianity," please reconsider your commitment to a tradition that is in opposition to the historic and authoritative Christian consensus in many critical areas.

Patrick Barnes, Seattle, WA

At one point in his article, Dan said: "But whether a non-Orthodox person can even be saved is an open question in Orthodox ecclesiology. Over coffee one day I asked an Orthodox priest whether I, as a Protestant theologian, might be considered a true Christian. His response: 'I don't know.'" Dan showed obvious disapproval of this in his article. However, I think he misunderstands this priest's response. Remember, the priest did not say, "no," but "I don't know." I offer an explanation of all this within the context of my essay "On the Status of Heterodox Christians".

Deacon [now Father] John Whiteford's Response to Mr. Clendenin's Article

Having read some of Daniel Clendenin's reasonable and fair commentary on the Orthodox Church in the past, I was somewhat disappointed by his editorial "Why I'm Not Orthodox". I can only make sense of the disparity in comments by wondering if perhaps this is not an attempt to undo some of the "damage" that his more balanced work in the past may have done him in Evangelical circles.

Prof. Clendenin makes a number of statements that are either grossly oversimplified or simply erroneous. For example in recounting divergences between eastern and western practices, he states that the west mixed water and wine when celebrating the Eucharist, while the east did not—this is simply not the case. The Orthodox have always mixed water and wine together. And while the other differences mentioned were/are real, on many of them, the Orthodox would allow for differences in practice.

It is a gross over-simplification to say "Photius then branded the entire Western church as heretical for inserting the phrase "and the Son" (filioque) into the Nicene Creed."

Clendenin was simply in error when he asserted that the Russian Orthodox Church uses "ninth-century Slavonic". Ninth-century Slavonic is technically known as "old Church-Slavonic", and is significantly different from Church-Slavonic as we have it today. It was most recently revised in the 17th Century, around the same time as the King James Bible was translated.

It is true that many unchurched Russians have great difficulty understanding Church-Slavonic (which is not really a different language than Russian, but rather liturgical Russian), but it is also true that these same Russians have difficulty reading Russian literature written prior to Bolshevik Revolution. Older Russians I know, who were not educated by the Communists, have no problem understanding Church-Slavonic. The Communists have greatly dumbed-down Russian, and so this does pose a problem for the Church now. No doubt the Church will have to address this problem, but given the current state of affairs in Russia and the many problems that confront the Church there, it should not be a surprise that it has not yet dealt with all the problems the communists have created.

Aside from that, it should also be pointed out that the Russian Church worships in dozens of languages in Russia alone, and so to make it appear as if the Russian Church is not interested in reaching people in a language they can understand is simply not the case. The wide-spread use of English in Russian Orthodox Churches here in the west belies that criticism.

Clendenin also makes the point that the Orthodox do not believe in inherited guilt, and puts this position in contrast with Evangelicalism. This is a surprising error. Is Clendenin unaware that Wesleyans and Arminians hold this very same position? Is Dr. James Dobson (a Nazarene) now to be considered theologically suspect by "true" Evangelicals? Clendenin observed:

"Liturgically, the Orthodox ethos of a formal worship setting will attract some Christians, but to many other vibrant movements within evangelicalism it will have little if any appeal. One thinks, for example of those committed to full ministerial status for women, the centrality of lay ministry and spiritual gifts, charismatically inclined groups, seeker sensitive churches attempting to reach baby boomers or Generation X'ers with novel worship formats, and so on."

The problem with this observation is that it is precisely these groups that are producing the bulk of conversions to Orthodoxy. These people are tired of the "McChurch" approach to Christianity, in which almost everything is negotiable if it can be justified by a good marketing strategy.

Elsewhere Clendenin makes comments about the stultifying tendencies of liturgical worship, and yet it is simply a fact that the worship of the Old Testament was liturgical, as was worship in the early Church. If extemporaneous prayer is the ideal, what is the book of Psalms doing in the Bible?

Clendenin further remarks that "Evangelicals might be eager to argue there is no biblical warrant for iconography" but that "for the Orthodox, it is enough that icons have always been a part of Church tradition". Perhaps these Protestants have overlooked the Tabernacle and the Temple. No sooner had the Second commandment been uttered (which banned idols), God commanded the Israelites to make icons:

On the Ark—Ex. 25:18
On the Curtains of the Tabernacle (the "walls")—Ex. 26:1
On the Veil of the Holy of Holies—Ex. 26:31
Two huge Cherubim in the Sanctuary—1st Kings 6:23
On the Walls—1st Kings 6:29
On the Doors—1st Kings 6:32
And on the furnishings—1st Kings 7:29,36

In short everywhere you turned.

Clendenin also unfortunately draws general conclusions from specific encounters he has personally had. For example, he suggest that the Orthodox are not interested in doctrinal instruction because he heard a priest comment that "Icons teach us all that we need to know." But this is to totally ignore the entire tradition of Catechesis in the Orthodox Church. This priest might more appropriately have said that one need only pray with the Church, and they would be taught all they need to know, because the services do contain complete doctrinal instruction. But nevertheless, catechesis is an indispensable part of Orthodox Tradition, and to imply anything else is simply fallacious. In any case, I once attended a Southern Baptist Church (when I was a child) in which the Sunday school teacher taught that Blacks had skin like snakes, and that inter-racial marriage was a sin. I would not generalize this statement to paint a picture of the Southern Baptist Church. Why should Clendenin think that his anecdotal encounters can paint an accurate picture of the Orthodox Faith?

Clendenin also takes issue with the Orthodox claim that there is only one Church, and that the Orthodox Church is that one Church. He later states that Evangelicals affirm the Ecumenical creeds of the early Church. What about the Nicene Creed, which states "I believe... in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church...."? The Fathers that originally wrote this creed did not include heretics or schismatics in their understanding of the One Church—in fact, these same councils specifically anathematized heresies and schisms. Unless we are free to fill in whatever meaning we wish, if we affirm the Nicene Creed, we can only affirm one united Church—united in Faith and Sacraments.

Clendenin ends his editorial by given his answer to why he is not Orthodox: "Because I am committed to key distinctive of the Protestant Evangelical tradition". Credit should be given to Clendenin for not simplistically painting the issue as "the Bible versus Tradition," but the follow-up question to Clendenin's answer is simply why should the rather recent traditions of Evangelicalism be taken more seriously than the Apostolic Traditions of the Orthodox Church? Unless this question is dealt with, we are left in an "I'm O.K. You're OK" dead end.

Deacon John Whiteford, Houston, Texas