From First Baptist to the First Century
By Clark Carlton
In June of 1986, I attended the annual meeting
of the Southern Baptist Convention as a messenger from my home church. The
temperature in Atlanta was hot, but not nearly as hot as the temperature inside
the World Congress Center as Baptist moderates tried in vain to prevent a
fundamentalist takeover of the Convention. As I sat in the convention center, I
became convinced of one thing: the Southern Baptist Convention was in dire need
of a reformation. I longed for the advent of a new Martin Luther, who would nail
his ninety-five theses to the front door of the First Baptist Church of Dallas
and mark the return of Baptists to their spiritual roots in the Radical
The following August I moved to Wake Forest, North Carolina
and began my studies as a Raymond Brian Brown Memorial Scholar at the
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Within two years of my first and only
trip to the Southern Baptist Convention, however, I would be officially received
into the historic, Orthodox Christian Church and would be preparing to transfer
to St. Vladimirs Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York. What happened?
How could a fire-breathing, radical free-church, dont tread on me,
Southern Baptist end up in a liturgical and hierarchical church, especially one
so foreign to my Southern/American ethos?
I recount the story of my pilgrimage, not because my story is
particularly important, but because of the importance of the issues associated
with that move. These are not matters of obscure, theological debate. In the
final analysis they have to do with what it means to be a faithful follower of
Jesus Christ. Not everyone that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter
into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father Who is in
Heaven (Matt. 7:21).
My pilgrimage was influenced by many people, both evangelical
and Orthodox, whose spiritual honesty and integrity were a beacon of light. To
all of those who, knowingly or unknowingly, helped me on my journey, I owe a
debt of gratitude. I can only hope that this article might help someone else
find that Pearl of Great Price.
One final word of introduction to the reader: Whatever is
true, whatever is good, whatever is beautiful in evangelical Protestantism has
its source in the historic Orthodox Faith. One thousand years before the birth
of Martin Luther; fourteen hundred years before the creation of the Southern
Baptist Convention, the Fathers of the Orthodox Church had already wrestled
with and decided the most important doctrinal issues facing the Christian Faith.
Whenever an evangelical Protestant professes faith in the Trinity and in the
Divine Manhood of Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of God, he is unknowingly
confessing the Orthodox Faith! This is an invitation for evangelical
Protestants to return to their historic roots.
While attending a college speech tournament at Tennessee
Temple University in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I was approached by an earnest
young student and asked if I had been saved. Although reared in a Southern
Baptist church from infancy, I was nonetheless put off by both the abruptness of
the question and the fact that it was coming from someone I had never met
before. Though evangelical to the core, I was uncomfortable with this kind of
in your face evangelism. I answered that I had been baptized, and that
seemed to satisfy him. It was a good thing too, because if he had pressed me for
an exact date and detailed account of my conversion experience, I would
not have been able to satisfy him.
I can never remember a time when I did not believe in Christ
or want to live as a Christian. For me, then, the obligatory walk down the aisle
did not mark a conversion from the darkness of unbelief to the light of Christ,
but was more of a rite of passage-a public affirmation of what I had always
believed, a public commitment to follow Christ.
A part of me always resented the fact that such a public
affirmation for one reared in the church was treated as such a momentous event,
as if saying a prayer in my pastors study was all that stood between me and
the gaping jaws of hell. I was always uncomfortable with what I termed the cult
of instant conversion. It is a blatant betrayal of the witness of Scripture
to suggest that salvation could be reduced to a once-and-for-all decision to
make Jesus ones personal Lord and Savior. Yet, the need for a single,
momentous, life-changing decision was drummed into my head from Vacation Bible
School to annual revival meetings to state-wide youth evangelism conferences.
One must also remember that according to Baptist theology,
baptism is not a sacrament; it is not death and resurrection with Christ; it is
not ones entrance into Life in Christ. On the contrary, baptism is nothing
more than a ritualized, public profession of faith. Nothing is effected in
baptism. The only thing that matters is ones own, personal faith. It should
not be surprising then that I do not remember my baptism as a life-changing
event. After all, I held the same faith after my baptism as I had held before
In high school, I began to take an active role in church
youth activities, including assuming the role of pastor during Youth Week.
Although I had never made a public statement about going into the ministry, by
this time I was a marked man. Everyone just assumed I was headed for great
things and so did I.
The staff at my church recommended me as a supply preacher to
the smaller, local churches. During the latter part of high school and
throughout my years in college, I was asked to preach at small, country churches
that were friendly and encouraging to a young preacher boy-a term I
detested. I was an especially big hit with the little old ladies. I will always
be grateful to the fine people of those churches who gave me encouragement and
much valuable experience.
Interestingly enough, however, my disillusionment with
evangelical Protestantism was actually heightened by my stints as a supply
preacher. Initially I was disturbed by the pressure to perform. I was
conscious of the fact that as the preacher, the success of the service was
on my shoulders. In fact, in many rural churches, the Sunday service is referred
to as the preaching service.
I was also conscious of the grave responsibility entailed in
preaching the Word of God. Baptists say they do not believe in sacraments, but
they understand the sacramentality of the Word. And yet, I never knew what to
preach. I had no lectionary or church calendar to guide me. The congregation was
completely at the mercy of my whims and tastes. How often I prayed for God to
lay a message on my heart, and how often I ended up throwing something
together at the last minute! Furthermore, I had no doctrinal plumb line against
which to measure the content of my sermons. All I had was a pretty good notion
of what would and would not fly in a Baptist church and the good sense not to
say anything I knew would be controversial. I became acutely aware that the
congregation was not simply hearing the Word of God, it was hearing the Word of
God according to me!
While a seminarian I preached a sermon one Sunday in a church
in rural North Carolina. As I sat on the platform, facing the congregation,
waiting to go on, I remember asking myself if I wanted to spend the rest
of my life preaching in Baptist churches. The answer was an immediate and
definite, No! It was not that I no longer felt called to the ministry or
that I had grown tired of preaching; it was the whole context of Protestant
church services that I could no longer stand.
A.W. Tozer once called worship the missing jewel of
evangelicalism. I longed to worship a God who was bigger than I was-a God who
could not be contained by the chatty informality of an evangelical service or by
Bill Gaither choruses. I longed to worship Him Who sits upon the throne of the
cherubim. I did not want to be the star of the show!
My last years in high school also brought me into contact
with a group of charismatic-leaning high school and college students who
frequented a Christian coffee house. Here I was exposed to a kind of spontaneous
informality in worship that made us Baptists look liturgical. Although somewhat
wary of their Pentecostal leanings, I joined in gladly, thrilled to find young
people like myself who wanted to truly follow Christ. The whole setting,
however, was hap-hazard. Every guest speaker/singer had his own agenda. I do not
think any of them would have known historic Christian doctrine if it had slapped
them in the face; they were primarily interested in just praising the Lord.
With very few exceptions the spirituality of the coffee
houses and the music they inspired was trite, superficial, and emotionally
manipulative. To be sure, everyone was sincere, and there was enough youthful
energy involved to create a lot of smoke, but very little real heat was
generated. After all, Jesus never said, Sincerity will set you free. By
the time I graduated from college the thrill was gone, and I had all but quit
buying contemporary Christian music, the staple of Christian coffee house
It is only natural, I suppose, that young people should
desire to express their faith in the popular idiom of their culture. Nor is it
surprising that such an expression should take place on such a superficial
level. It is disturbing, however, when people are never prompted to move beyond
such shallow, sentimental, and emotionally manipulative expressions of faith.
There has been a trend in many evangelical churches over the last few years to
move toward more praise choruses and away from traditional Protestant
hymnography. Thus, the slim doctrinal content of Protestant hymnography is being
phased out altogether in favor of catchy choruses. Yet, where is it written that
the praise of God must be bereft of solid doctrine or be aimed at manipulating
emotions rather than uplifting the heart?
By the time I graduated from high school the battle for the
soul of the Southern Baptist Convention had already begun. Little did I know at
the time that the battle was really a holy war and that the fundamentalists had
already erected their siege-works and were preparing for nothing less than total
victory. The fundamentalists had been upset since the 1960s over the rampant
liberalism in Southern Baptist colleges and seminaries.
On a strictly theological basis, I probably had more in
common with the fundamentalists than with many of their opponents. Ive never
had any patience with liberal theology. Nevertheless, my inbred sense of Baptist
independence felt threatened by what I saw as an attempt to make everyone think
and act in the same way. Furthermore, some of the leaders of the fundamentalist
group seemed to have adopted an ends justifies the means mentality with
regard to political tactics.
Everything that I as a Southern Baptist stood for-the
sovereignty of the individual believer, the absolute autonomy of
each local congregation, and the separation of church and state-seemed
threatened. Several prominent conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention
opposed the fundamentalist takeover for these very reasons.
In a way, this struggle reflected a tension that has existed
in Protestantism since the beginning of the Reformation. On the one hand, there
is the commitment to what is perceived to be historic, biblical Christianity,
and on the other hand there is an individualistic theological method. The
Southern Baptist Holy War was simply the latest chapter in the age old
struggle between doctrinal conservatism and free church polity.
Not being one to sit quietly on the sidelines, I used the
Youth Speakers Tournament, sponsored by the Tennessee Baptist Convention, as
a platform to denounce the fundamentalist take-over attempt and urge Baptists to
defend their birthright of religious liberty. I won the state-wide tournament
and later delivered the speech before a large crowd at the Ridgecrest Baptist
Assembly in Black Mountain, North Carolina.
As I look back on My Heritage as a Southern Baptist,1
I can only smile at my youthful exuberance and my
unquestioning acceptance of the Baptist version of the priesthood of the
believer and soul competency. Being a Southern Baptist was all I had
ever known. It would be several years before I would critically examine my
Baptist heritage-before I would weigh it in the balance and find it wanting. In
the summer of 1982, questioning was simply not on the agenda.
In my rhetorical tribute to all things truly Baptist I
insisted, The lifeblood of denominational existence is our absolute
commitment to the freedom of the believer ... Our response to the Bible should
be simply to approach it and obey it as we feel led; it is an individual matter
... Obviously, I did not quote 2 Peter 1:20: no prophecy of Scripture is
of any private interpretation. In my defense, however, I must say that at
that time I knew very little about how the Scriptures were written or how the
canon came into existence. All I knew was what I heard from the pulpit or read
in Protestant books.
I did not realize at the time that the Bible I held had
become in fact an idol, an idol that I myself controlled. An infallible book is
only useful if you have an infallible interpreter, which is where the Baptist
doctrine of soul-competency came in. As an individual, I was that
interpreter, the sole arbiter of what the Bible did and did not mean. The
Reformation did not do away with the medieval Papacy and all of its pretensions,
it merely democratized it and made everyone Pope! So there I was, an
eighteen-year-old, pontificating on the correct interpretation of Scripture.
I was not content, however, with merely warning of the
dangers of a fundamentalist take-over. I also made a passing shot at the
historical Church when I decried the tyranny of dogmatic formulae: Our
heritage upholds the concept that each believer is free to explore for himself
the mysteries contained in God's Word, and not to be bound by meaningless
creeds and denominational directives.
I did not know anything about church history, about why the
creeds were drafted, or even about what they affirmed. All I knew was that the
very idea of a creed was un-Baptist, and therefore wrong. Of course, the
slogan No creed but Christ is a creed, but that did not occur to me at the
time; I was too busy being a real Baptist.
Today, I realize that a creed is only meaningless when the
faith of the one who confesses it becomes so privatized and disjointed from the
Body of Christ that the words can be recited with no inner conviction. In such a
case it is not the creed that is meaningless, but the faith of the one reciting
it. Yet, the ultimate question is not the sincerity of my belief or even the
intensity with which I hold it, but rather whether or not my faith is the
faith of Christ and His Church.
Fides Quaerens Intellectum
In August of 1982 I enrolled at Carson-Newman College in
Jefferson City, Tennessee, one of three colleges owned by the Tennessee Baptist
Convention. I came out of college with the same commitment to Christ with which
I had entered and an even intensified zeal for upholding my Baptist heritage. My
thought processes were much more sober, however. I took fewer things at face
value and had acquired the analytical skills that I would eventually use in
examining those Protestant principles I held so dear. I was still a staunch
Southern Baptist, but I had enough education to make me dangerous.
Two professors were particularly influential in my
intellectual development at Carson-Newman. Don Olive and Paul Brewer were the
philosophy department, and they acquired a devoted following among the many
religion majors-turned-philosophy majors. Dr. Olive, a logician with a keen
interest in linguistic analysis, brought his analytical faculties to bare on
every topic under consideration. With his razor-sharp mind he was able to
dissect every argument, and he taught us to do the same. Olive wanted to teach
us how to think rather than what to think. I was trained to take
nothing at face value. My motto became fides quaerens intellectum.2
The one thing I did take for granted, however, was my
acceptance of those basic Protestant principles that I had defended so
vehemently in high school. I had no trouble slicing the fundamentalists to
shreds, but it did not occur to me to turn my analytical skills on my own faith.
I simply assumed the absolute autonomy of the individual and his
inalienable right to interpret the Bible for himself. It was not until I entered
seminary that I turned my critical faculties on my own religious
presuppositions and discovered that I had built my faith on a foundation of
sand. Such critical, self-examination, however, would not have been possible had
it not been for the influence of professors such as Don Olive.
I only had a couple of classes with Paul Brewer, but one of
them, Introduction to Systematic Theology, was the single most enjoyable
and edifying class of my college career. Brewer forced the class to take the
historical development of Christianity seriously. He even split us up into small
groups and assigned each an Ecumenical Council to study.
What really thrilled me, however, was his description of the
place of Baptists in Christian history. In an effort to get it through the thick
skulls of his more right-wing students that Baptists have their roots in the Radical
Reformation, Dr. Brewer drew a diagram on the board illustrating the spectrum of
Christian belief. On the far right was the Roman Catholic Church; in the middle
were the mainline Protestant denominations; and on left-wing were the Baptists.
I was right all along; the fundies were not really Baptists at all!
Baptists stood for freedom of conscience, soul-competency, and in general
all things good and wholesome. I was excited; I was motivated; I was a radical
A couple of years later, in the midst of the Southern Baptist
holy war, I considered my position on the ecclesiastical spectrum and reflected
upon Dr. Brewers diagram. This time I saw myself not as a radical Christian,
but as one out on a limb. Suddenly it occurred to me to ask, How did I get
out here? I no longer wanted Christianity according to me. I was tired
of an individualistic Christianity that needed to be reinvented every
generation. I wanted the faith which was once delivered unto the saints (Jude
1:3). I wanted the faith of the apostles, prophets, martyrs, confessors,
ascetics, and of every righteous spirit made perfect in faith. In short, I
wanted the faith of the Church that Christ founded, the pillar and ground of
the truth (1 Tim. 3:15).
I will always be grateful to those teachers who were honest
enough to admit the basic presuppositions of their faith. At the time I shared
those presuppositions, and I left college with the determination to defend
traditional Baptist principles against all attackers.
I was conscious, however, of one fact that would eventually
play a major role in my conversion to Orthodoxy: I was still theologically more
conservative than many of my professors.3
Although I shared their basic presuppositions, I did not always draw the same
conclusions. At the time this did not pose a problem, but later I became aware
of the dichotomy between my adherence to conservative doctrine and my
individualist theological method. I believed in the Trinity and Incarnation and
held a high (although certainly not fundamentalist) view of Scripture, but I did
not know why; there was no ground for my faith other than my individual
convictions. Only when I discovered the Holy Tradition of the Church did my
faith find fertile soil in which to take root. Now I confess not merely my own,
private convictions, but the Faith of the Orthodox; the Faith which
established the universe.4
The One-Legged Evangelist Learns to Read
In August of 1986, still breathing fire from the Southern
Baptist Convention held that June, I enrolled in the Southeastern Baptist
Theological Seminary. Of the six Southern Baptist seminaries, Southeastern had
the reputation for being most firmly committed to those traditional Baptist
principles I had come to hold so dear. I knew that the fundamentalists had
targeted the school, but I did not realize how close they actually were to
taking it over.
Moving to Wake Forest was like moving home because both sides
of my family are from North Carolina, and I have relatives in the area.
Everything was perfect except for one thing: I hated the seminary! I was bored
beyond description. I was convinced, however, that God had led me to
Southeastern and that my misery would ultimately not be in vain. Patiently I
endured the tedium, telling myself that God had a purpose in all of this.
Meanwhile I became acquainted with Orthodoxy through the schools amazingly
well-supplied library. I became particularly interested in liturgics, wanting to
expand my horizons in a subject about which Baptists know very little.
Things crept along at a snails pace until one day in late
fall when I felt a lump in the back of my right leg. X-rays revealed it to be
about the size of my fist, and I was sent to an orthopedic surgeon in Raleigh
for an examination. At a family gathering I jokingly told my relatives that if
things turned out for the worse, I would become the worlds first one-legged
I had the tumor removed in Nashville, which was fortunate
because further tests revealed that removing the tumor would be an extremely
difficult task and that the recovery time would be longer than previously
expected. By the grace of God the tumor turned out not to be malignant, and I
healed quickly. After a few days in the hospital I went home to recuperate with
both legs intact.
While my leg healed my mind wandered incessantly. By this
time I had become thoroughly disillusioned with evangelical Protestantism-at
least with its outward manifestations. I knew just enough about Orthodox worship
and spirituality to be dissatisfied with the usual Sunday morning Baptist fare.
How can you keep a boy down on the farm when he has been to Paris? On the other
hand, my theology had not changed substantively. I was attracted to liturgical
worship but I was still working with the same basic theological presuppositions
I had always held.
While recuperating, I imagined starting my own church that
would be basically baptist in theology and evangelical in outlook (except for
the once saved, always saved part) and at the same time liturgical. Mine
would be a kinder, gentler evangelicalism. I realized, of course, that such a
church would not satisfy everyone. Those who did not like liturgical worship or
spirituality would be graciously referred to another church, where their
particular interests could be served. In my theological universe, there was room
for everyone whose theology was not too left-wing. My plan, however, had one
fatal flaw: I had no theological reason for any of this; I was basically
reacting to my own, personal tastes. Despite my growing appreciation for smells
and bells, my whole theological outlook was quintessentially Protestant. I was
completely immersed in the smorgasbord approach to Christianity.
At some point (I cannot remember whether it was before or
after my operation) I bought a copy of Robert Webbers Evangelicals on the
Canterbury Trail.5 As the
subtitle indicates, Webber wrote the book to explain why evangelicals are
attracted to the liturgical church. The book perfectly described my own
situation at the time. Here was the story of an evangelical college (Wheaton)
professor and six others who joined the Episcopal church in search of mystery,
worship, sacramentality, and historical connectedness. The book was very
encouraging because the testimonies it contained told me that I was not alone,
that others were also searching for that something more.
On the whole, however, the book was rather superficial. The
writers discussed their understanding of the aesthetics of worship but never
addressed the question of the nature and substance of worship. They wrote at
length about historical connectedness and reclaiming their spiritual ancestors
such as the early Church Fathers, yet they never dealt with the fact that
Protestant theology is wholly incompatible with the theology of the Fathers.
Everything in the book was left on the level of personal opinion; the question
of Truth never surfaced. Indeed, the book would perhaps have been more
accurately subtitled: What some evangelicals like about the liturgical
church. Webber made it clear in the introduction that he was not trying to
convert anyone; he was simply explaining a phenomenon-one that could help
Several weeks after my operation I returned to Wake Forest,
too late to register for the spring semester. I used my extensive free time to
read just about everything I could get my hands on having to do with church
history, worship, and spirituality. In fact, in that semester and the following
summer, I probably read more books than I had read in three years of high school
and four years of college combined. That operation was truly a God-send!
Among the books I read was The Vindication of Tradition
by Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan.6 In
it Pelikan drew a distinction between the intellectual rediscovery of tradition
and the existential recovery of tradition. In other words, there is a great
difference between simply recognizing what has gone before and genuinely
claiming it for oneself. I had discovered the Church of history, the wisdom of
the Fathers, and the liturgy, but I had yet to come to grips with all that such
a discovery entails.
Actually, I would amend Pelikans formula slightly at this
point, for a further distinction needs to be made. There is also a great
difference between claiming tradition for oneself and being claimed by
tradition. I, along with Webber and the contributors to his book, was perfectly
willing to claim the historic Church and the liturgy for my own understanding of
Christianity. Yet, I was still in control! I, in true Protestant fashion,
was judge and jury of what would and would not fit into my kind of Christianity.
I was willing to claim the historic Church, but I had yet to recognize Her claim
It would take a great deal more reading and an even greater
amount of prayer before I would be able to accept the historical Church on Her
own terms and be judged by Her. Of all my readings in this area, the writings of
Fr. John Meyendorff, dean of St. Vladimirs Seminary, were particularly
helpful. Books such as Living Tradition7
and Catholicity and the Church8
helped me to understand that the Holy Tradition of the Church is not merely
historical continuity or rootedness. It is the context in which the Church
lives out Her divine life and carries out Her divine mission. Tradition is, to
use Vladimir Losskys phrase, the Life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.9
Gradually I came to recognize the fact that Holy Tradition
has the same claim upon my life as the Gospel itself, for Tradition is nothing
other than the Gospel lived throughout history. It is not my place to judge the
Apostolic Tradition and decide how or if to incorporate it into my own religious
tradition; rather Holy Tradition judges me and calls me to account for how I
have handled that Good Deposit that has been committed to Christians. I
finally began to understand Pauls admonition to the Thessalonians-a passage I
had never heard preached on in a Baptist church-Therefore, brethren, stand
fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our
epistle (2 Thess. 2:15).
That same spring a group of almost 2000 evangelical
Christians from across the country were received into the Orthodox Church under
the jurisdiction of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. I had read a brief
story about this group of Evangelical Orthodox a year or so before in Christianity
Today, but I did not know much about them. It was not until early 1987 that
I had any real contact with them.
One evening, when I was still in Tennessee recuperating, I
asked God to show me what to do. The next morning there was an article on the
front page of the Nashville Tennessean about a former Baptist minister
becoming an Orthodox Priest. There was a picture of Gordon Walker-a well
pedigreed Southern Baptist/former Campus Crusade for Christ director-being
ordained by Metropolitan PHILIP of the Antiochian Archdiocese. He and his
community in Franklin had been officially received into the Orthodox Church. The
article put me in contact with other evangelicals who were searching for
something more in their Christian life and had turned toward historic Orthodoxy.
Fr. Peter Gillquist, national leader of this group of Evangelical
Orthodox, recently commented on the journey of his group from free-wheeling
evangelical Protestantism to the fullness of the Apostolic Faith. When asked why
he and his group made such a long and at times heart-wrenching pilgrimage, he
Ultimately, the change came for us when we stopped trying
to judge and re-evaluate Church history, and for once invited Church history to
judge and evaluate us ... Instead of asking if Christian forbears like Anselm,
Augustine, Athanasius, and Chrysostom were in our Church, be began to ask if we
were in theirs!10
By the spring of 1987, I had not quite reached this point,
but by God's infinite Grace I was moving in that direction. My continued
reading and the religio-political situation at the seminary forced me to examine
the roots of my own faith and to take the claims of the Orthodox Church
One book that had a profound effect on my spiritual journey
was Fyodor Dostoyevskys The Brothers Karamazov. It is a novel about
people who are struggling with life, with doubt, with God, and with death.
Dostoyevskys own life was no picnic, and his suffering as well as his joy is
evident on virtually every page. In this book I discovered Orthodoxy not as a
system of beliefs or religious propositions, but as blood and sweat, life and
death. I was particularly impressed with the spirituality of one of the
characters, the saintly Father Zosima, who was patterned after real monks in
nineteenth-century Russia. Great joy welled up within me as I read the passages
where Fr. Zosima described his life. What love! What utter God-centeredness!
Here was a vision of life as God intended for it to be lived.
Without question, however, the single most important book
involved in my conversion to Holy Orthodoxy was John Zizioulas Being as
Communion.11 This is also
probably the most difficult book I have ever read. I had to read the first
chapter three times before I even began to understand it. And yet, as I began to
get a handle on what Zizioulas was saying, I realized that if he was even
partially correct, I could no longer remain a Protestant-much less a free-church
In short, Zizioulas introduced me, for the first time, to the
Holy Trinity, in Whose image I had been created. Although Baptists profess faith
in the Trinity; when you get right down to it, that belief is not much more than
lip-service. The Trinity is rarely mentioned in Baptist churches, except at
baptisms, and has absolutely nothing to do with how the church is organized or
how Baptists view themselves as persons created in the image of God. In the
final analysis, the Trinity is simply the solution to a theological problem: how
can Jesus be both God and different from the Father at the same time?. The
doctrine, as understood by Baptists and most other Protestants has no positive
content. If every reference to the Trinity were removed from Baptist hymnals and
books, few people would even notice.
What I learned from Zizioulas is that my own being as well as
the being of the Church is inextricably tied up with the being of God
Himself-but not simply with the fact that God exists and that I derive my
existence from Him. Rather it is tied up with the way God exists, His mode
of existence. For the first time I read that God is not an individual.
If God exists, it is not because He is Necessary Being, but because He eternally
begets His Son and breathes forth His Spirit in an unbroken communion of
absolute love and self-giving. To say that God is love (1 John 4:16) is
not to describe an attribute of God but to define His very being; it is to
affirm that He is the Father Who exists by the total gift of Himself to His Son
and His Spirit. In this manner the ancient world heard for the first time
that it is communion that makes things be: nothing exists without it, not
The necessary conclusion from such an understanding of God is
that the individual, that ultimate concern of Protestantism,
ontologically cannot exist. Individualism is the denial of being, the
content of which is love. For the first time in my life, the very foundations of
my evangelical faith were shaken to the core. Certainly, I had grown
dissatisfied with evangelical worship and had been searching for historical
Christianity, but this was different. Now it was my understanding of God and
myself that was tumbling down around me. In true Freudian fashion, I had taken
my own fragmented, individualistic nature, endowed it with a host of superlative
attributes, and called it God. Yet, when the real God-the God of Triune
Love-revealed Himself to me and destroyed my idol, I shed no tears. On the
contrary, my soul took wings because for the first time in my life Christianity
made sense-I do not mean intellectually, but existentially.
I knew that God had made man to share in His eternal life and
that man had blown the project by rebelling against God. God, in turn, sent His
Son to fix the mess that man had made and restore to man the possibility of
living a full and meaningful life. But why was the Cross so necessary? It
seemed like an awful lot of trouble to go to just so that we could romp around
on streets of gold for eternity. And was God really going to send billions of
people to hell just because they refused to accept His Son into their
lives as their personal Lord and Savior? Was the gamble of creation worth
all of those souls who would spend an eternity in torment, so that some could
find eternal bliss?
All my life I had been told that sin had left a crimson
stain and that nothing but the blood could make me clean again because
there is power in the blood. There was nothing I could add because Jesus
paid it all, and if I would only trust Him one glad morning I
would fly away. I knew all this and believed all this, yet there were
questions just under the surface irritating my tidy, little faith. When I got
right down to it, the sin of Adam really did not seem to merit the punishment of
eternal perdition and the bliss of heaven did not seem worth the price that had
to be paid. In other words, hell sounded unreasonable and heaven sounded boring.
The problem was that in my evangelical Protestant theology,
sin, righteousness, heaven, and hell were all essentially unrelated to my own
being. Sin was a stain on my record that the blood of Jesus washed away (if I
claimed it!); righteousness was a credit that God placed in my account because
of my faith; heaven was a place of bliss where the saved would
spend eternity; and hell was a place of torment where those who had
rejected Christ would roast forever. All of these things impended on my life, of
course, but only tangentially; they really had nothing to do with who I am.
I could not help but wonder why Adams sin should have such
eternal consequences. Could it be that God is so proud and egotistical that His
honor could really be offended by the sins of mortal men? What is sin, anyway?
Is it the breaking of a law, the transgression of a code of ethics? I was not
satisfied with the satisfaction theory of the atonement, and, not being a
Lutheran, I was not particularly keen on blaming everything on the insatiable
wrath of God. On the other hand, I did not have any real theories of my own. So,
I just kept repeating the party line and traveling down that Roman Road.
I discovered, however, that sin is not the mere
breaking of a rule, but is nothing less than the denial of love and, therefore,
of life itself. When I discovered the Trinity, I also discovered the true nature
of man, for man was created in the image of this God of Triune love. Man was
created precisely as a personal being, one who is truly human only when
he loves and is loved. Sin-missing the mark-is not a moral shortcoming or
a failure to live up to some external code of behavior, but rather the failure
to realize life as love and communion. As Christos Yannaras puts it, The fall
arises out of man's free decision to reject personal communion with God and
restrict himself to the autonomy and self-sufficiency of his own nature.13
In other words, sin is the free choice of individual
autonomy. Irony of ironies: that which I had been touting all of these years as
the basis of true religion-the absolute autonomy of the individual-turned out to
be the Original Sin!
An individual is not a person, but rather the
antithesis of personhood and the denial of life. From this perspective, sin is
repulsive to God not because it offends His honor, but because it is the
denial of life itself, which is His gift to man. It is, in the final analysis,
the denial of God's image in man and of God Himself. What makes sin so tragic
is that it is self-destructive. God hates sin not because of what it does to
Him, but because of what it does to man. Sin is not a blotch on my record, but
in the words of Fr. Thomas Hopko, an act of metaphysical suicide.
Human beings can be individuals if they choose, with
all kinds of relationships. But if they do so chose, to use the language
of the Bible, they choose death, and not life; the curse and not the blessing
(Deuteronomy 30:19). They destroy themselves in the act of metaphysical suicide
in their self-contained and self-interested isolation which is the very image of
To begin to understand the essence of sin is to begin to
understand hell as well. I had grown up listening to sermons describing the
literal fire and the unmistakably physical nature of the torment. Yet, in
Orthodoxy, I found a vision of hell far more terrifying than anything Jonathan
Edwards could have concocted. Hell is that state in which men have rendered
themselves incapable of receiving and responding to the love of God (or anyone
else). To use the words of Dostoyevsky, hell is the suffering of being no
longer able to love ... And yet it is impossible to take this spiritual
torment from them, for this torment is not external but is within them.15
Hell is, therefore, not so much an external condition of
punishment as the inward suffering of self-isolation. When Christ returns in
glory and God becomes all in all (1
Cor. 15:28), those who have sealed themselves off in the fortresses of their own
egos-those for whom hell is other people-will be faced with the torment of
His eternal presence. His very presence will be a judgment and a torment because
He is life and love Himself, the ontological antithesis of self-contained
individuality. In that Day, there will be no place to hide, no refuge from His
burning presence, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). In the
words of one of the desert Fathers, The fire of hell is the love of God.
If the locus of hell is the depth of ones own soul, then
the Kingdom of God must begin there as well. Did not Jesus Himself declare, the
Kingdom of God is within you16?
In my younger days that verse always bothered me; it certainly was not one that
generated a lot of sermons. It seemed too subjective. And yet, this came
from the lips of the Savior Himself. When, however, I embraced the Truth of
Orthodoxy and encountered the life-giving Trinity, this verse began to make
sense. Heaven is not a cosmic Disneyworld, but the state of perfect
God-likeness, for which man had originally been created.
This, however, is quite a different picture of heaven
than the one usually presented from Baptist pulpits. I have heard 45 minute
sermons on heaven, which dealt almost exclusively on the literal streets of
gold. God and Christ were mentioned only a couple of times. God built heaven,
of course, and Jesus died on the cross so that those who believe in Him could go
there. That was it! There was no mention of being changed into the same image
[of Christ] from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18) or of becoming partakers of the
divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). The typical evangelical vision of heaven is that of
a giant religious theme-park-Heritage U.S.A. with a thyroid condition!
All of my life, salvation had been presented to me in
negative terms: Jesus had saved me from hell and had enabled me to go to this
place called heaven. He was the ultimate fire insurance! What joy I found when I
discovered the positive side to Christianity. St. Athanasius said that
God became man so that man might become like God. God had originally created man
in His own image so that man might attain unto His perfect likeness. Christ, Who
is the perfect Image of the Father, came not only to repair that which had been
damaged by the fall, but to perfect humanity and fulfill the original intent of
creation. Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every
creature: For by Him were all things created ... All things were created by
Him and for Him: And He is before all things, and by Him all things consist (Col.
Christ said that He had come to give abundant life to the
world, but what kind of life? Biological existence? Life after death? I learned
that the life that Christ came to give is nothing less than the Life of the Holy
Trinity-or, more precisely, the Life of the Father, Who lives eternally as love
Himself with His Son and His Spirit. Verily, verily, I say unto you, the hour
is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and
they that hear shall live. For as the Father hath life in Himself; so hath He
given to the Son to have life in Himself (John 5:25-27). Because the One Who
died on the cross was the Son of the Father-Life Himself-and not merely an
innocent man, He crushed forever the tyranny of man's self-sufficiency and
loosed the bonds of death. Through Christ, man shares in this Life-in-Himself
of the Holy Trinity, life realized as an eternal relationship of love. And
this is life eternal, that they may know Thee the only true God, and Jesus
Christ, Whom Thou hast sent (John 17:3).
After reading Being as Communion, everything else I
had read about Orthodoxy fell into place. No matter what book I read, every
author came back to the central theme of Trinitarian love. I then realized that
Orthodoxy is not a set of propositions about God or even a well-planned
theological system; it is an organic whole-a seamless garment. Orthodoxy is in
the fullest sense Truth, that Truth which sets man free! Archimandrite Vasileios,
Abbot of the Iveron Monastery on Mt. Athos, sums up the wholeness of Orthodoxy
Theology does not have a philosophy of its own, nor
spirituality a mentality of its own, nor church administration a system of its
own, nor hagiography its own artistic school. All these things emerge from the
same font of liturgical experience. They all function together in a Trinitarian
way, singing the thrice-holy hymn in their own languages ... There is one
spiritual law, which has power over both heavenly and earthly things. All things
flow and proceed from the knowledge of the Holy Trinity. All things emerge from
the font which is the life of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit: from
baptism in the death of Jesus.17
My world was transformed! Or rather, I was learning to see
the world through new eyes. I began to realize that the freedom I had
defended so vehemently was not freedom at all, but slavery to my own individual
whims, to my context, to the necessities of my fragmented nature, and
ultimately to death. This fact became increasingly clear to me as I began my
second year at Southeastern and observed first-hand the death of a seminary and
the inherent failure of Baptist polity to address the Truth of man created in
the image of Triune Love.
Death of a Seminary
In the introduction to Being as Communion, Zizioulas
writes, for the Church to present this way of [Trinitarian] existence, she
must herself be an image of the way in which God exists. Her entire structure,
her ministries etc. must express this way of existence.18
Reading this, I realized that the way the Church is
organized is a matter of neither historical exigencies nor personal taste, but
must be nothing less than a reflection of her Trinitarian archetype: that
they may all be one; as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also
may be one in Us (John 17:21). Anything less than this is doomed to
failure-is manifestly not the Church.
This truth became crystal clear to me at the beginning of the
fall semester of 1987 as I watched the seminary die before my eyes. Now I knew
why God had led me to Southeastern. By being thrown into the middle of the
Baptist holy war, I was forced to examine the basic presuppositions of my
Baptist way of life. Southeastern was the laboratory in which I dissected every
aspect of my dearly-held, free church ecclesiology.
Things came to a head during the fall meeting of the board of
trustees. For the first time the fundamentalists had a majority on the board,
and they moved quickly to consolidate their control over the seminary.19
While the meeting took place, the campus was thrown into
chaos. The local news media descended in droves as students protested and
covered the campus with yellow ribbons in support of the faculty. Needless to
say, classwork was forgotten as the future of the seminary became the sole topic
of conversation everywhere on campus.
By this time, however, I had read too much and had come too
far to defend those traditional Baptist principles I had once held so dear. The
whole episode felt very strange to me, almost like an out-of-body experience.
Somewhere along the way my mind and heart had ceased to be Protestant, and so I
watched from above as the Seminary was dissected beneath me.
An image from that week is etched in my mind because it
illustrates why I could not remain a Baptist-or any other brand of Protestant. A
tee-shirt worn by one of the students during the trustee meeting had the word
CREED written in black letters surrounded by a red circle and a slash through
the middle. This creed-buster emblem sums up free church Protestantism
perfectly and illustrates why it cannot make any claim to being an heir of
apostolic Christianity. Of course, the eighteen-year-old who wrote My
Heritage as a Southern Baptist would have probably bought one of those
tee-shirts, but four years of college and a year of seminary had broadened my
perspective considerably. By the fall of 1987, I had come to the realization
that the slogan, No creed but Christ was not only historically untenable,
but was intellectually bankrupt.
Were there to be no parameters for belief, no immovable
standards? I soon realized that all of this Baptist credo-phobia pointed
to a much deeper problem than the historical disincarnation of Christianity. The
ultimate concern of Protestantism is neither God nor the Scriptures nor anything
that could reasonably be labeled Truth, but rather the absolute sovereignty of
the individual. The freedom of the individual was to be defended from any
attempt to impose a standard of orthodoxy, even if that standard happened to be
the Truth. One Baptist wrote, The very act of credal imposition itself, whether
the doctrine is correct or not [emphasis mine], violates long standing
religious convictions of Baptists ... .20
In the final analysis, Truth is what each individual says it is, and any attempt
to suggest otherwise is a violation of individual freedom.
I will now admit what I would have never admitted at the
time: there really are honest-to-goodness theological liberals in the Southern
Baptist Convention. I doubt if any of the faculty would have qualified for that
particular moniker, but quite a few of the students certainly did. I knew
students who openly questioned the Virgin Birth and the physicality of the
Resurrection. They had read all of the important theologians and were not
about to buy into that tired, old fundamentalist theology. Now the faculty
certainly did not teach such nonsense, but on the other hand they did not go out
of their way to correct these students either. After all, to correct someone
would imply that one person is right and another wrong, and that would not do.
In that theological democracy, one persons theological view point was just as
valid as anothers, even if by the standard of historical Christianity that
view point was utterly heretical.
It dawned on me that a Baptist church is, in the final
analysis, nothing but a religious version of a social contract. It is a group of
people with similar religious views who gather together for the purpose of
mutual support and mission. Individual autonomy and freedom of association
govern the life of the church. If someone is excluded from the fellowship of the
church it is not because his theology is incorrect, but because the other
members are free not to associate with those whom they do not wish to associate.
When someone comes forward at the altar call to join a
Baptist church, the pastor will usually ask the congregation to make some sign
of welcome or assent. What this new member probably does not realize is that he
is actually being voted into the membership of the church. This process
gained national attention when a black minister attempted to join Jimmy Carters
church in Plains, Georgia. Enough people from the church voted no to block his
membership. Carter and several others left the church in protest.
More recently, Paige Patterson, one of the architects of the
fundamentalist takeover of the SBC, was refused membership in the Wake Forest
(North Carolina) Baptist Church when he became the president of Southeastern
Seminary in 1992. The reason cited for this denial of membership was Pattersons
involvement in the denominational battle.
This is a perfect illustration of the religious social
contract. First of all, church membership is dependent upon neither orthodox
belief nor the objective character of the sacraments, but upon the mutual
consent of the group. If the County Seat Baptist Church does not want to admit
Mr. Smith into its fellowship for whatever reason; it does not have to.
Second, if a group within the church does not like the way things are being run,
they are free to move across town and set up shop on their own. Everyone is free,
but is this the Church that Christ promised would withstand the gates of hell?
Is this the fullness of Him Who fills all in all?
Furthermore, a local church can cooperate with other
churches, or it can be completely independent; it too is free to associate with
whatever group or groups it desires and under whatever conditions it desires.21
Everything is relative to the desires of the individual,
be it the individual believer or the individual congregation.
Even confessions of faith adopted by the Southern Baptist
Convention cannot be considered binding on either congregations or individuals.
The introduction to the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message Statement states plainly
that such confessions constitute a consensus of opinion [emphasis
mine] of some Baptist body and that they have no authority over the
conscience.22 In fact, the
drafters of both the 1925 and 1963 statements were explicit in stating the fact
that their statements reflected not only a consensus of opinion, but a consensus
of opinion at a particular time.
Baptists are perfectly free to change their confession
of faith whenever and however they see fit: That we do not regard them as
complete statements of our faith, having any quality of finality or
infallibility. As in the past so in the future Baptists should hold themselves
free to revise their statements of faith as may seem to them wise and expedient
at any time.
This is no mere rhetorical flourish, for Baptists have indeed
changed their confessions of faith through the years. Early Baptist confessions
were unmistakably Calvinist in their tone and explicitly affirmed double
predestination. This was true of Baptist confessions well into the middle of the
19th century. Somewhere along the line Southern Baptists adopted an Arminian
theology of conversion, though they managed to retain the perseverance of the
saints.23 By the time the 1923
Statement was published, double predestination had disappeared. Had God changed
His mind? Of course not! Baptists would be the first to admit that these
statements are nothing more than statements of their beliefs. In the early 19th
century the majority of Baptists believed in double predestination; in the late
20th century most do not. What will Baptists believe in the 21st century?
In free church Protestantism, anything that constrains the
individual-even the Truth-is viewed as a threat to his autonomy. It is no wonder
then that Baptists have such a phobic reaction to the historic creeds of the
Church. The fact that the Nicene Creed and other conciliar definitions of
the Church exist threatens the free church Protestant. Why? Because they bear
witness to a Faith that is not a matter of individual opinion and is not
subject to revision. The content of those symbols is a threat because it
is the negation of the very foundation of Protestantism itself: the individual.
The ontological possibility for the unity of the Church (and, therefore, of
mankind) is the very Life of the Trinity. This Trinitarian even as defines
the Church as persons-in-communion and not as individuals-in-association. The
difference between the two is literally the difference between heaven and hell.
Knowing this, it was impossible for me to remain a Southern
Baptist or any other brand of evangelical Protestant. How could I stay in a
church whose very existence and polity were a denial of the existential Truth of
my own being? Someone may ask, however, why I simply did not join forces with
the fundamentalists. After all, they certainly had no trouble with concepts such
as truth. The answer lies in the fact that despite all of their
differences and indeed their hatred for one another, the fundamentalists and
moderates (and liberals) are all basically the same under the skin. That is,
they all share the same basic presuppositions and theological method; the only
difference is that the moderates and liberals are honest about it while the
fundamentalists are not.
A discussion on ABCs Nightline between two of the
holy wars more colorful figures perfectly illustrates the point. Ted Koppel
invited W.A. Criswell, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas (also known
as the Baptist Vatican), and Cecil Sherman, one of the most fiery
defenders of traditional Baptist principles, to discuss the controversy within
the Southern Baptist Convention. Sherman read a text-note on the book of Exodus
from the Criswell Study Bible that offered a naturalistic explanation for
the plagues that befell Egypt. Then, with his characteristic Texas drawl,
Sherman said, Now I do the same thing Dr. Criswell does; only difference is,
I own up to it.
Although fundamentalists have no trouble saying, This is
the truth!, they have no more ground for making such assertions than do the
moderates when they timidly express their opinions. The pronouncements of
fundamentalists come not from the historic Church, but from the universal source
of Protestant dogma: the individual interpretation of Scripture. The big
difference between the fundamentalist and the moderate is that the
fundamentalist is more likely to call his interpretation the truth.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Criswell said that if the
moderates would just approach the Scriptures with honesty and trust in the Bibles
infallibility, they would interpret the Bible exactly the same way he does. To
paraphrase Protagoras: Criswell is the measure of all things!
The bottom line is that fundamentalists are every bit as
ahistorical and egocentric in their theology as their liberal adversaries. Cecil
Sherman was right. The only real difference between himself and Criswell is the
fact that he is willing to admit his basic presuppositions and methods. In the
end, it was precisely those Protestant presuppositions and methods, shared by
fundamentalists and moderates alike, which I came to unequivocally renounce.
To the extent that Baptists believe in the divinity of
Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection on the third day, and other doctrines
of the Church, I rejoice. But this facade of orthodoxy is just that, a
superficial framework built upon the shaky foundation of individualism and
subjectivism. Many of the mainline Protestant denominations have already
collapsed in on themselves and are hardly recognizable as being Christian. It is
inevitable that the same thing will happen to evangelicalism, regardless of how
conservative it may seem today.24 The
size and wealth of the Southern Baptist Convention belies the fact that it is a
house built on a foundation of sand.
By the end of the fall semester of 1987, the fundamentalist
victory was complete. The president, the dean of the faculty, and many other
administrators and faculty members had announced their resignations. The
accrediting agencies had received complaints about all the turmoil and were
planning investigations. Many students were preparing to leave after the spring
semester. The mood was somber. I, however, was less upset about the fate of the
school than about my own fate. After all, it is considerably easier to transfer
to another seminary than it is to leave the church in which one was reared to
join one on the other side of the theological spectrum.
No Turning Back, No Turning Back
Since the spring of 1987, I had been visiting the Greek
Orthodox parishes in Durham and Raleigh. On a couple of occasions I was deeply
moved by the sense of worship and devotion in these parishes, but more often
than not I was left cold by the fact that the services were mostly in Greek. On
the advice of the priest in Durham, I found a tiny mission parish of the
Orthodox Church in America. When I first attended St. Gregorys, sometime in
the summer of 1987, it did not have a priest and was conducting lay-led Reader
Services in a rented room of the Raleigh YWCA. Needless to say, the surroundings
evoked none of the splendor or gold-encrusted cult thick with the smoke of
incense so often associated with Byzantine worship.
Despite the humble surroundings and the simplicity of the
services, there was something that kept me coming back. I was made to feel
welcome and encouraged to participate in the services, but there was more to it
than that. The simple melodies stayed with me throughout the week, and I began
to look forward to the week-end. The setting may have been humble, but there was
a subtle nobility about those services that the Wake Forest Baptist Church could
Toward the end of 1987 word came that St. Gregorys would
be getting a priest. Fr. Vladimir and his family were very devoted servants of
the Church and brought a great deal of enthusiasm with them. Unfortunately,
however, the marriage between Fr. Vladimir and St. Gregorys was not a happy
one; there was a definite personality clash that made his brief stay there
(about nine months) rather rocky. Nevertheless, those months were very important
for me as I became more active in the life of the mission. Fr. Vladimirs
presence offered me the opportunity to take the final plunge and do what my
heart told me I had to do. Fr. Vladimir was encouraging and helpful, but
the final decision was still a difficult one.
Joining the Orthodox Church is not like switching from one
Protestant denomination to another. I was acutely aware of the fact that I was
not becoming a Methodist or a Presbyterian; I was rejecting the very religion in
which I had been reared. I would embrace a Body that claims to be nothing less
than The Church. I knew if I took that final step, there could be no
turning back. During that time, I was greatly encouraged and consoled by John
Henry Newmans Apologia Pro Vita Sua. He had traveled down a road not
unlike the one I was traveling, and had experienced the turmoil involved in
leaving the church of his childhood for the Catholic Faith.
So it was that I wrestled with that momentous decision during
the first couple of months of 1988. In my heart I knew there was only one
real course of action, but an inner tendency to over-dramatize things made
taking the final step more agonizing than it should have been. Besides, I was
not looking forward to telling my family about this.
Yet, there was only one Door open for me. Having discovered
what I had discovered, I could find peace only in the motherly embrace of the
holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. On the Feast of Feasts, Great and Holy
Pascha (Easter) of 1988, my fate was sealed-literally. With the mystery of
Chrismation, I was sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit and united to all the
holy Fathers and Mothers who throughout the centuries have faithfully confessed
the Faith once delivered to the Saints.
The outward circumstances of my Chrismation hardly reflected
its eternal significance, however. The whole episode was a comedy of errors. The
mission was using an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting room in a Roman Catholic
Church at that time. For Holy Week, however, the church allowed us to use their
small chapel located in the balcony of the main sanctuary. The Liturgy scheduled
for Holy Saturday morning had to be postponed for several hours because of a
wedding going on down-stairs. The Easter services, scheduled to begin at 11:30
p.m. did not start until after 12:30 a.m. Everything was a mess-but a joyous
I relate all of this to make one point. I did not come to
Holy Orthodoxy because I was attracted to a rich, booming parish with beautiful
facilities and a dynamic outreach program. I was not shopping around for a
church that met my needs or was compatible with my lifestyle. I was
searching for The Church, and I found it in a YWCA meeting room!
The singing at St. Gregorys might sound pretty pitiful
compared to the choral singing at the Crystal Cathedral, but every time
Orthodox Christians gather to offer the Sacrifice of Praise, they join the
angelic chorus around the Throne of Glory. Orthodoxy does not mean smells
and bells; it means right belief and right worship. The claim of
the Orthodox Church to be The Church does not rest upon the splendor of
Her great cathedrals or the majesty of Her services, but upon the simple fact
that She faithfully confesses the true God and worships Him in Spirit and in
A quick glance at the churches section of the yellow
pages reveals an almost innumerable list of denominations-all of which claim to
represent true Christianity. Furthermore, every major brand-name is itself
split into several competing denominations. Baptists, for example, come in
almost as many flavors as Baskin-Robbins ice cream. There are Southern,
American, National, General, Particular, Regular, Primitive, Landmark,
Conservative, and Free-Will Baptists, not to mention the independent,
fundamentalist Baptists who will not have anything to do with the others because
they are not really Christian. In Washington, D.C., I even ran across some Seventh-Day
Some of these groups, such as the Particular Baptists, are
strict Calvinists. Some, such as the Free-Will Baptists, are strict Arminians.
And most, namely the Southern Baptists, cannot make up their minds. And yet,
every single one of these groups claims that the Bible is the sole source
of authority for faith and practice in their churches.
If there is such a wide difference of doctrine between those
who call themselves Baptists, imagine the differences between all of the other
major denominations and their off-shoots. Some denominations are congregational
and free church in their polity, others are presbyterian, and still others are
more hierarchical. Some denominations, such as the Pentecostal groups, maintain
that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is a separate event from baptism and is
marked by certain gifts such as speaking in tongues. Some groups, on the other
hand, such as the Campbellites, go so far as to say that the gifts of the Spirit
ceased when the last Apostle died. Yet if each of these denominations confesses
that Jesus is Lord and uses the Bible as their sole source of authority,
why can they not agree on something as simple as whether or not baptism is
necessary to salvation and whether or not it can be administered to infants? Is
Christ divided (1 Cor. 1:13)?
Every Protestant denomination has its roots in the Protestant
Reformation of the sixteenth-century. There are, of course, groups that maintain
that they did not come out of the Reformation, being direct descendants of the
New Testament Church, but such assertions are utterly absurd and historically
groundless.25 The fact of the matter
is that every Protestant on the planet, whether he wants to call himself a
Protestant or not, is the spiritual descendent of the Reformation and its
cardinal principle: Sola Scriptura.
Protestants all claim to interpret the Scripture by the light
of the Holy Spirit, and yet they manage to come up with a multitude of different
interpretations of the same passage. Now either the Spirit is playing games with
these people or there is something wrong with their theological method. After
all, Calvinists and Arminians cannot both be right; all the dialectic in
the world cannot reconcile two completely irreconcilable doctrines.
The problem is not that Protestants lack sincerity or piety,
but that they are cut off from the living context in which the Scriptures were
written and canonized and in which they are to be interpreted. In short, they
are cut off from the living, Apostolic Tradition of the Church.
When Jesus ascended to the Father, He left only one thing
behind. He did not leave a book or instruction manual-as far as we know the only
thing He ever wrote was some scribble in the sand. He did not leave a school.
Rather, He left His Body and sent His Spirit.26
Jesus promised His abiding presence to His Body, the Church, which is the
fullness of Him Who filleth all in all (Eph. 1:23). He promised to send the
Holy Spirit Who would guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13). The
fact is, the Church wrote the Bible; the Bible did not create the Church. The
Church decided which books were canonical and which were not, and the Church
alone rightly defines the Word of Truth.
The Churchs authority, however, is not a matter of
juridical governance or even divine right. It does not rest upon the
infallibility of Her leaders (There is no such thing!). Rather, the authority of
the Church derives from Her divine-human nature-from the fact that She is the
Body of Christ animated by the Holy Spirit. When the Apostles gathered in
council as recorded in Acts to decide what to do with the Gentile Christians,
they announced their decision with the words, it seemed good to the Holy
Spirit and to us (Acts 15:28). This is the authority of the Church:
the abiding presence of Her Lord in the action of the Spirit.
The Church, therefore, is a divine-human Mystery. But more
than that, She is the Mystery of Trinitarian Life: that they all may be one,
as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee ... that they may be one, even as We
are one (John 17:21-22). This Trinitarian even as is the Life
of the Church; it is the reason God became man. Authority in the Church,
therefore, is the Truth of being itself. It is not a tyranny or a threat to man
because it is the Truth of his own existence; it becomes a threat only to those
who prefer the autonomy of self-existence to the Truth of their Trinitarian
Why am I so confident that the Orthodox Church will preserve
the Apostolic Faith inviolate until the return of Her Lord? I am confident
because the Lord Himself promised that the gates of hell would not prevail
against the Church (cf. Matthew 16:18). If the Church moved Her foundations or
failed to guard the deposit of Faith, She would falsify the Truth of Her own
Trinitarian existence and cease to exist. To be sure, many have fallen away from
the Truth and been severed from the Apostolic flock, and no doubt many more will
fall away. But the Church qua Church cannot fall away.
It is the absolute height of blasphemy to suggest that the
Church could be restored or recovered as if in some point in history
She had ever been lost. If the Church has ever ceased to exist, even for a
millisecond, it would mean that Christ had failed to do what He said He came to
do: bring Life to the world. This is so because the Church is not simply
a human institution, however religious or good. She is the Body of Christ
inseparably united to Her Head. If the Church ceased to exist, Christ would
cease to exist!
Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world
(Matt. 28:20). This promise was made not specifically to the world, but
to the Church, the sacrament of His presence. And yet, it is precisely Christs
abiding presence in the Church that is His saving presence in the world. When
Christ comes in glory, He will come as a Bridegroom to receive not the kingdoms
of this world, but His spotless Bride, the Church (cf. Eph. 5:25-27).
The Good News for modern man is that the Church exists. This
apostolic flock, this Trinitarian leaven that enlivens the whole world is among
us, holding fast the word of life (Phil. 2:16) and baptizing men in
the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19).
The Church does not need to be reinvented, neither can she be created out of
whole-cloth using the New Testament as a blue-print. For other foundation can
no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11).
The Orthodox Church does not imitate the Church of the
New Testament, She is the Church of the New Testament. To a world torn by
strife and to a world of Christians divided among themselves in the myriad of
their denominations, the revelation of this apostolic community and Trinitarian
Unity is truly Good News. It is a threat and a condemnation, however, to those
who prefer the traditions of men to the Apostolic Tradition-to those who prefer
the autonomy of their individuality to the Truth of Trinitarian love.
When I encountered the Orthodox Church, I was confronted with
the Truth-the Truth about God, about the world, and about myself. Only two
choices lay before me. I could reject what I had learned and return to the
self-sufficiency and idiosyncrasy of evangelical Protestantism, or I could
submit to it and find that Freedom and Life that comes only from the
renunciation of self: For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but
whoever shall lose his life for My sake and the gospels, the same shall save
it (Mark 8:35). Jesus prayer for His disciples was that they be
one even as the Trinity is one. I realized that this is possible only within
that Trinitarian flock that Christ Himself founded, for that flock is His Body,
and Christ cannot be separated from Himself.
The Church is not an institution, though She has Her
institutional dimensions. She is not a society, though in Her Bosom people from
every race and walk of life live together in unity. Rather, She is a chosen
generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). She is the pillar
and ground of the Truth (1 Tim. 3:15). She is the grace of the Lord Jesus
Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor.
To all who would take up their cross and follow Her Lord, She
bids, Come. To all who earnestly desire to worship in Spirit and in Truth,
She bids, Come. To all who would taste of the fountain of immortality, She
bids, Come. The Spirit and the Bride say, Come (Rev. 22:17).
1. The full text of the speech was published in
the weekly newspaper of the Tennessee Baptist Convention: Baptist and
Reflector 148:28 (July 14, 1982), p. 7.
2. Faith seeking understanding
3. This is not to suggest that any of these
professors were classical theological liberals.
4. From the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, read
each year on the first Sunday of Great Lent.
5. (Waco: Jarrell, 1985).
6. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1984).
7. (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1978).
8. (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1983).
9. Quoted in Ware, The Orthodox Church,
10. Sealed! 5 Years Later, in Again
15:1 (March, 1992), pp. 4-7.
11. (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1985).
12. Zizioulas, p. 17.
13. The Freedom of Morality (Crestwood:
SVS Press, 1984), p. 30.
14. Imago Dei: The Basis of Our Worth in Again
10:2 (June, 1987), p. 18.
15. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers
Karamazov, Tr. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage
Classics, 1991), pp. 322-323.
16. Luke 17:21.
17. Hymn of Entry (Crestwood: SVS Press,
1984), p. 11.
18. Zizioulas, p. 15.
19. The boards of trustees of institutions
owned and operated by the Southern Baptist Convention are appointed by the
Convention. As soon as fundamentalists gained control of the national
Convention, they appointed only their people to fill vacant slots on the
boards. One of the trustees at Southeastern was a recent graduate of the school
whose appointment to the board was obviously a reward for his obedient service
to the fundamentalist faction.
20. Gordon James in SBC Today 5:1
(April, 1987), p. 7.
21. In 1992, two Southern Baptist churches in
North Carolina were declared to be not in friendly cooperation with the
Southern Baptist Convention. Pullen Memorial in Raleigh had voted to bless the
union of two men, and Binkley Memorial in Chapel Hill had licensed an
openly gay man to the ministry. This is yet another example of the church as
social contract. The members of the SBC simply exercised their freedom of
association by refusing to admit certain churches to their fellowship. The SBC
has no power to remove pastors from their churches-it is merely a national association
of absolutely independent congregations. See the Baptist and Reflector
155:25 (June, 17, 1992), p. 3.
22. Quoted in the introduction to the 1963
Baptist Faith and Message Statement, published by the Sunday School Board of the
Southern Baptist Convention.
23. Apparently the contradiction between an
Arminian theology of conversion and a Calvinist doctrine of perseverance either
does not occur to or does not bother Southern Baptists. Not only is the BF&M
a consensus of Baptist opinions; in this case it is a consensus of opinions that
are not internally consistent.
24. A startling example of the drift from
extreme Protestant conservativism to a non-Christian religion is described in
the September 15, 1996 edition of the Nashville morning paper, The Tennesseean
(pg. 1A). Entitled, Baptist No More, the article describes the
spiritual pilgrimage of J. David Davis and his flock at what was once the
Emmanuel Baptist Church in Athens, TN. Davis, a graduate of Tennessee Temple
University in Chattanooga, was a fundamentalist Baptist preacher until his
careful study of the Bible led him to reject the basic teachings of the historic
Christian Church as additions to the simple teachings of Jesus. Thus, he and
about 80 of his followers jettisoned the doctrines of the Trinity and the
Divinity of Christ in favor of a quasi-Jewish religion of his own invention
based on the seven laws of Noah. Historically, Baptists have been very
susceptible to such doctrinal drifts. Both Continental Anabaptists and
General Baptists in England were drawn to unitarianism in large numbers.
25. Aside from the fact that there is not one
scrap of historical evidence to support such claims, one only has to look at
these churches to see their ecclesiastical pedigree. These churches are
organized congregationally and conduct services just like other
congregationalist Protestants. They sit in the same, neat rows of pews and sing
many of the same hymns. All of the pews face a platform in the front of the
building, and the pulpit is placed in the middle to signify the centrality of
the Word of God. You cannot get any more Protestant than that. Now if a church
looks like a Protestant church, and worships like a Protestant church, and
believes in Sola Scriptura like a Protestant church, what does that make
26. Archimandrite Vasileios, p. 17.
Way was originally published in Volume 10 of The Christian
Activist (now defunct).
Clark Carlton earned a B.A. in philosophy from
Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee. While studying as a Raymond
Bryan Brown Memorial Scholar at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in
Wake Forest, North Carolina, he converted to the Orthodox Faith.
Mr. Carlton earned a Master of Divinity degree
from St. Vladimirs Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York in
In 1993, he earned an M.A. in Early Christian
Studies from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. At the time
of this writings he was working as an adjunct instructor of philosophy at
Tennessee Technological University in his home town while completing his Ph.D.
dissertation on the dogmatic and ascetical theology of St. Mark the Monk (5th