Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism
Edited by James Stamoolis
2004, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 285 pages
Reviewed by Brad Boydston 19 April 2005
One of the latest additions to Zondervan’s Counterpoints series is Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism. The “three” views refer to the positions taken by the five contributors – “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” evangelicalism and Orthodoxy are compatible.
Bradley Nassif is an Eastern Orthodox theologian who teaches at North Park University, a school of the Evangelical Covenant Church, is the most irenic and optimistic of the five. It is his contention that the Orthodox Church is at its core an evangelical church and that it should do more to embrace this aspect of the church’s life. For Nassif many of the differences, at least in the center of the faith, are a matter of differing emphases. “...the core doctrines of Orthodoxy and evangelicalism can be seen as two concentric circles, with the smaller circle (evangelicalism) being inside and embraced by the other larger one (Orthodoxy). The inner circle includes doctrines that both groups hold as essential; the larger outer circle includes doctrines the Orthodox hold to be essential but evangelicals generally do not.” (83-84)
The cost of the book is worth it even if just for Nassif’s encouraging perspective.
Michael Horton is a theologian and seminary professor at Westminster Seminary in California. Many will recognize him as host of the White Horse Inn, a theological radio talk-show. Horton is caught in the middle – trying to argue that mainstream evangelicalism is out of sync with the magisterial Reformation and at the same time trying to point out how Orthodoxy is out of sync with the Reformation. Of course, the Reformation occurred in a Western theological context – which is at times at odds with the Eastern Orthodox paradigm. In other words the labels and the categories are different enough to lead to confusion and bantering over what each tradition is really saying. Horton contends that once everything is sorted and defined Orthodoxy and evangelicalism are incompatible.
Another “no” vote comes from Vladimir Berzonsky, pastor of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Parma, Ohio. Fr Berzonsky does a great job dissecting evangelical culture – although he has to do so in general terms since evangelicalism is such a broad movement. Fr Berzonsky sees evangelicals’ main problem as being the same as that which plagues all Protestants – individualism. In contrast, the Orthodox offer the concept of sobornost– the notion that individuals must see themselves as living in light of the entire church’s wholeness.
George Hancok-Stefan, the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, checks in with a very qualified “maybe” on the compatibility issue. Hancock-Stefan grew up Orthodox in Romania but his family converted to the Baptist church when he was a child. The harassment he received as a result of that conversion has colored his perspective of Orthodoxy. And at times he comes across sounding harsh (although Nassif suggests that Hancok-Stefan is much gentler in person). His contributions are more anecdotal than theologically reflective.
Another “maybe” comes from Edward Rommen, formerly an evangelical missionary in Europe but now the priest at Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rommen is helpful in that he creates three categories of beliefs – those which are actually compatible, those of limited compatibility, and those where there is absence of compatibility. Interestingly he sees the Eucharist as an area where there is absence of compatibility and where evangelicals will have to submit to the teaching of Orthodoxy -- final word. This makes his “maybe” a very qualified maybe, too.
Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism is a helpful book for evangelicals who are interested in Orthodoxy or ecumenics (I’m not quite sure how helpful it will be to Orthodox readers as I don’t come from that perspective). The format was occasionally frustrating. At times it seemed like the writers were each responding to a different set of questions and they often talked past each other. Also, the mix of writers seemed weak. I wouldn’t describe either of the evangelical writers as being truly representative of the centrist evangelicalism that shows up in Christianity Today or even in Zondervan’s other publications. Also, there wasn’t any Lutheran representation; and they are the ones who have done the most dialog with Orthodoxy in other contexts. There is some fresh insight by Finnish Luther scholars who are moving Luther closer to an Orthodox soteriology than the traditional understanding of a narrowly forensic view of justification. That contribution is barely noted, and only then by Nassif (!). In response Horton blows the Finns off as “revisionists.”
It would have been helpful, too, to have a representative of the Wesleyan (or Pietistic) tradition. For that stream has developed an anthropology which is more similar to Orthodoxy than to the ultra-Reformed thinking of scholars such as Horton.
There are other evangelical scholars who have built significant bridges to Orthodoxy. For example, a solid introduction would be Eastern Orthodoxy through Western Eyes by Donald Fairbairn and that might be followed up with Daniel Clendenin’s set, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective, and Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader. The Evangelical Alliance in the UK has published a small introductory book called Evangelicalism and the Orthodox Church, based on a report from their Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals (ACUTE).
Of course, for any evangelical truly interested in dialogue the primary sources by Orthodox writers are must reads. The chief among them is The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia). On a little deeper level is the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky.
Read in the context of a few of these other books Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism could provide some stimulating ecumenical discussion.