Eastern Orthodox priest Father Thomas Hopko has a featured podcast on Ancient Faith Radio that I have recently started listening to. Recently he triggered quite a bit of controversy for a commentary about a visit he made to Wheaton College in which he talked about why Eastern Orthodoxy cannot endorse evangelical Christianity as being orthodox. It was very interesting to process the very different criteria by which Hopko defines orthodoxy. I would like to review several of the points he made and then offer how I would chart out a possible ecumenical relationship between evangelicalism and Orthodoxy. I think that the apostolic succession and traditioned ground of Orthodoxy is what a true conservatism looks like; the problem with the sola scriptura priesthood of the believer in evangelicalism occurs when we farcically try to make a conservatism out of what is inherently progressive. A progressive evangelicalism can relate to the genuinely conservative Orthodoxy the way that a saxophone relates to the steady bass-line of a jazz improvisational piece.
I have written before that the Greek word doxa has two meanings which actually represent the different understandings of orthodoxy in evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy quite well. In classical Greek, doxa means “opinion.” Evangelicals tend to follow this version of doxa in defining orthodoxy to mean the “right opinion” about God. The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible introduced a new meaning of doxa by using it to translate the Hebrew word kabod, which means “glory.” This is the doxa of the Eastern church, which understands orthodoxy as “right glory,” or worshiping God in the right way. I think this distinction is corroborated in the points that Hopko made in his two podcasts “An Orthodox Assessment of Evangelicalism” and “Evangelical Dialogue.” Here are the ones I found most significant:
1) Worship is the original canon
According to Father Hopko, the most primal foundation of apostolic succession is the worship tradition itself. He notes that the Pauline epistles for example are built out of hymns from the original worship tradition and commentaries critiquing problematic worship practices like the Corinthian Eucharist. Hopko says that original ancient Christian worship is “derived in the law and the prophets illuminated by Christ.” He considers there to be a line of continuity back into Jewish tradition even to its origins in Abraham. Hopko says, “The traditioning of faith in its lived form was in worship… [and subsequently] the lived tradition was enshrined in the writings.” So for Hopko, it is not merely that a church infrastructure put together scripture, but that the even more primal means by which God breathed scripture is in the worship tradition itself.
2) Worship is ecclesiology
Not only is apostolically continuous worship the basis for scripture but it is the means by which the body of Christ is constituted. Hopko says, “The church is not identified with some synod of bishops… The church is actualized in the scriptures, the sacraments, the services of the church that are objectively given in history.” He uses the phrase “objective worship” a lot in his two podcasts which I interpreted to signify his belief that the most essential phenomenon of worship is the agency of the Holy Spirit “ecclesiating” people into a real objective body of Christ which is “concretized sacramentally not institutionally.” Hopko writes that “the church is a mystery that has institutions, not an institution that has mysteries… [It is] not an organization that has teachings, but a teaching that has organizations.” This is why the church itself is untainted by the corruption and sin of its leadership and institutions, because ekklesia is the “gathering” work of the Holy Spirit.
3) Heresy is discerned through worship
Father Hopko shares the Greek for 1 Corinthians 11:18-19: “I hear that there are divisions (schismata) among you… Indeed, there have to be factions (haereseis) among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” The word that cognates as heresy in our language, haeresis, means “faction” in Greek. It is a teaching which causes faction in the worship community. Hopko points out that Paul is actually explaining a benefit of the haereseis. They are part of the ongoing apostolic discernment process “to show which of you have God’s approval.” This is not simply a rational quest to represent Biblical truth most accurately, since the canon itself was weeded through as part of this apostolic process, but rather a Spirit-led journey mediated primarily through worship tradition in which disruptive teachings are flagged and thrown out. I find this understanding corroborated in Paul’s pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus where he evaluates false teachings not according to a standard of “accuracy” but according to their disruptive quality:
Titus 1:10-11: “There are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households.”
1 Timothy 1:3-4: “Stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longeror to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work.”
A helpful illustration of this understanding of heresy is the 5th century Nestorian controversy. Constantinople Archbishop Nestorius was scandalized by the way that a popular Christian hymn gave the title theotokos (God-bearer) to Mary since it seemed to deify Mary and impugn the eternal nature of God by implying that God had been born in history. Nestorius didn’t have a problem with Jesus being both divine and human; he just wanted to say that the divine nature did not “develop” in Mary’s womb but was transfused instantaneously into the human infant Jesus upon birth. So he said that the church should call Mary christotokos instead of theotokos, which got a whole lot of people up in arms since he was changing the words to an important hymn.
From an evangelical perspective on heresy, Nestorius’ concerns would have been completely in bounds as a possible interpretation of how God’s Word became flesh (John 1:14). Though Biblical texts were used to argue for and against it, nothing within the Biblical canon condemns Nestorianism outright. Moreover, evangelicals would be sympathetic to his concerns about Mary. Ultimately Nestorius was condemned not because scripture refuted his teachings but because they clashed with long-standing liturgical tradition and “promoted controversial speculation rather than advancing God’s work.” I wonder how many Nestorianisms we have among the controversial speculations of Protestants, not only among those who are considered “liberal,” but also those who invent cage fighter Jesuses with Dionysian heavenly Fathers, thinking that disagreeable and conservative are the same thing.
4) Hopko’s evaluation of the evangelicals
To the Orthodox, scripture’s primary function is liturgical. They read more scripture in their weekly eucharistic service than a week’s worth of evangelical “quiet times.” Their daily prayers are scripture-soaked, rather than following the Western romantic valorization of “sincere” and spontaneous “Hey God” talk. Hopko shares that an Orthodox bishop cannot be ordained unless he can recite the entire book of Psalms from memory. (How do our memory verse drills compare to that?) The way that Orthodox learn Christian truth is by acting out the story of the canon through liturgy. Hopko says about our evangelical worship services: “That’s not worship; that’s a concert and a lecture.”
Hopko considers the ecclesiology of evangelicalism to be “a church without apostolic succession, without traditions, without objective worship, without sacramental life that is given to the person who enters, without a very particular moral and ascetical life given in the community by the tradition of the community.” Western Christianity is comfortable with a rationalistic packaging for truth, but what Hopko is saying is that right opinions aren’t good enough, since much of Christian truth is a experiential, meta-rational encounter with God through worship. The rational aspect of Christian truth is a secondary reflection upon the objective pneumatological reality of worship.
Regarding heresy, evangelicals are notoriously schismatic. Instead of doing the hard work of discerning our way to compromise through the Spirit’s guidance, our equation of orthodoxy with “accuracy” causes constant disruption and “controversial speculation” which leads to the rupturing of communion. We often fall victim to our spiritual pride which causes us to interpret our ideological opponents as cynically as possible in order to be able to say that we have finally figured out what’s right while everyone else has it wrong.
5) My response to Hopko and why I think evangelicalism must be progressive
I had expected that listening to Hopko’s take-down of evangelicalism would fill me with some kind of pleasure since I have a lot of criticism for my fellow evangelicals myself. But actually he made me want to stick up for the evangelicals and convinced me that I’m supposed to remain one. I think that people who read the Bible at face value with fresh eyes and a dissatisfaction with the interpretations of the past have a very important role to play in God’s ecclesial process. It’s just that they shouldn’t ever think of themselves as being conservative, because their role is inherently progressive.
True conservatives act in defense of a tradition and stick up for ancient wisdom against those who anachronistically call it patriarchal, racist, bigoted, and so forth. They battle against unfair caricatures and oversimplifications of historical processes. A true conservative will find kind things to say about Constantine and even the late medieval scholastic theologians who triggered the Reformation. A true conservative is willing to stay in communion with the church even amidst theological disagreement out of trust that the Holy Spirit has not abandoned the church’s apostolic discernment process.
A true conservative is the opposite of ideological because s/he knows that “there is nothing new under the sun.” True conservatism is above all cautious and patient; it hates hastily formed arguments that disrespect the intricacies of truth. A true conservative cannot be contemptuous of history and the authority of the interpretive tradition of a text, which is precisely what many self-imagined evangelical “conservatives” are.
What we have today in evangelicalism is a farcical “conservatism” that is really populism. To stake your theological system upon the perspicuity (self-evidential clarity) of scripture is to adopt the 17th century liberalism of Descartes which seeks a “Cogito ergo sum” rationality that transcends tradition. Choosing “right opinion” over “right worship” is a choice to privilege my rationality over a tradition that I have to entrust to the Holy Spirit.
It makes sense when the grassroots radical Reformers like the Anabaptists promote a democratization of scripture interpretation as an openly populist, progressive stance against magisteria. What creates monstrosity is when I try to say that there is no interpretive process involved in reading scripture, because (my interpretation of) the Bible is simply truth.
If “accuracy” in reading scripture is your only criterion for orthodoxy, then there’s no reason to stop at a grammatical-historical account of Biblical “inerrancy” and not go all the way through to a historical-critical account in which you try to get to the bottom of why Matthew’s Jesus says “Pharisees” when John’s Jesus says “Jews,” so that Jesus’ words inevitably become Matthew’s words tailored to his polemical context, which ends up undermining the authority of the text.
Thus, a “conservatism” that does not submit to history or tradition as a rubric needs more than accuracy as an objective. That’s why it comes to measure the accuracy of its beliefs according to the “Kantian” terms of objectivity: if my interpretation is difficult for me (or people in the culture around me) to accept, then it’s more likely to be true, because if it’s pleasing to my sensibilities, then it’s probably infected with my bias.
A tradition-less “conservative” will inevitably become a reactionary curmudgeon, because whatever is popular (among those I am reacting against) must be wrong since the truth cannot be popular without compromising its purity. It is this tradition-less-ness that makes “conservative” ideology into a competition to see who can make the other side cringe the most. The more crass you are in your analysis, the more truthful you’re being, like that woman who wrote in the National Review that the reason the Sandy Hook shooting happened was because there weren’t any adult men on campus.
Why not just admit that it’s an inherently progressive act to read the Bible on your own and say, “Hey wait a minute!” when you come across passages that you have the audacity to think have been misinterpreted for centuries? Progressives are vital to the ecclesial conversation; without them, the Roman Catholics would still hold to Augustine’s belief in the damnation of unbaptized babies, a doctrine it took 1500 years to revise. I would say the difference in calling the evangelical sola scriptura hermeneutic “progressive” rather than “conservative” would involve two things: 1) an assumption that the Spirit-breathed discernment process in relation to the Biblical canon hasn’t stopped and 2) a recognition that my interpretation is one of many possibilities and not the only right answer that has always been correct through centuries of past “error.”
As a progressive epistemology, evangelicalism has something to offer the ecclesial symphony. We are the improvisers, the saxophone soloists in the jazz improvisation piece. The conservatives provide the crucial bass and rhythm section that we must measure ourselves against carefully to avoid creating cacophony. When we improvise, we must do so loosely in the same way that when you’re soloing, you’re always ready to resolve to a different note if you discover an unexpected sourness. In any case, this is what I try to do as an evangelical. I study the boundaries; I don’t push against them for the sake of rebelling but in order to figure out how far I’m allowed to stretch in my explanation of the gospel to people with lots of serious stumbling blocks.
The conservative traditions of Orthodoxy and Catholicism are very attractive to me; for the past year, I have been tiptoeing on the edge of converting to one or the other, and who knows, it may happen. But the reason I remain evangelical is because I want to have the flexibility to evangelize in the way that God has gifted me. There are people who will never go to a church that uses the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or one which starts worship with a litany of Hail Mary’s; I can’t shrug my shoulders and say the hell with them. Ultimately I have a lot of respect for true conservatism; I constantly draw from its wells even if I can’t submit to everything it teaches (we just read a passage from Matthew in church this morning that says Joseph waited to have relations with Mary until after she gave birth [Matthew 1:25] which seems like another strike against the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity and Jesus’ adelphoi being “cousins” instead of brothers and sisters). I think God has wired me to be a progressive for the sake of winning a particular mission field of people for His kingdom. That’s why I remain evangelical.