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
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 notthis 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
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
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 ArkEx. 25:18
On the Curtains of the Tabernacle (the "walls")Ex.
On the Veil of the Holy of HoliesEx. 26:31
Two huge Cherubim in the Sanctuary1st Kings 6:23
On the Walls1st Kings 6:29
On the Doors1st Kings 6:32
And on the furnishings1st 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 Churchin 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 Churchunited 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