January 10, 2005

God and the Denominations

In my ten years online I've probably subscribed to a hundred daily "inspirational" email lists, but the only one that's stood the test of time is Robert McAnally Adams' Christian Quotation of the Day. Today's quote is a perfect example of why (and it just happens to fall in the center of mass of my deep passion for church unity). Check it out:
The 'outsider' who knows nothing of the mixture of tradition, conviction, honest difference, and hidden resentment, that lies behind the divisions of the Christian Church sees clearly the advantage of a united Christian front and cannot see why the Churches cannot 'get together'. The problem is doubtless complicated, for there are many honest differences held with equal sincerity, but it is only made insoluble because the different denominations are (possibly unconsciously) imagining God to be Roman or Anglican or Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian or what have you. If they could see beyond their little inadequate god, and glimpse the reality of God, they might even laugh a little and perhaps weep a little. The result would be a unity that actually does transcend differences, instead of ignoring them with public politeness and private contempt.
...J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small
Maybe I should design a bumper sticker along the lines of the Sojourners "God is not a Republican or a Democrat" ones I've seen all over the Baylor parking garage. "God is not a Baptist...or a Presbyterian...or a Roman Catholic..." Would you buy one?

21 Comments:

At 8:42 PM, Blogger rod said...

I'd buy one.

 
At 11:30 AM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

You know my answer to this question! :)

Due to the very nature of the Gospel itself, ecumenical work among Christians is bound to fail.

Not because the Lord wishes division, nor because God is not powerful enough to save, but because the ecclesial principles of the various Christian bodies are diametrically and contradictorily opposed to each other, and to the biblical and patristic dogma of the Church.

Modern ecumenism seeks to take foundational doctrinal positions and boil them down to a common level of accommodation. What is it, in the final analysis, that everyone can say “Yes” to?

But not only do we do not have the right to so alter Gospel teaching, the basis of Church unity is not doctrinal and canonical agreement. Church unity is predicated upon the reality of what the Church is: Christ's Body. If we are members of that Body, we are one with another. If we are members of that Body, we gather with Christ. Christ did not come to bring accommodation. Unity within Christ's Body is already a reality. The question is: Are we part of that reality?

Modern ecumenism must fail by definition because it misunderstands both the Gospel and the Church. It misunderstands the Gospel because it thinks both that we humans have the capacity to say what are the boundaries of that Gospel and that we humans have the capacity to assign various weights to certain Gospel doctrines, emphasizing one over the other. It misunderstands the Church because it thinks that Church unity is predicated upon human effort, both to preserve it and to reinstitute it when it fails.

 
At 11:33 AM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

By the way: God isn’t "Orthodox" either.

God is God.

It is *we* who are called to be "Orthodox"

 
At 3:33 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, Karl, but I think what you mean is that we are called to be *o*rthodox. Your belief that orthodoxy and Eastern Orthodoxy happen to coincide at this particular moment in history notwithstanding...

 
At 4:23 PM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

"Correct me if I'm wrong, Karl, but I think what you mean is that we are called to be *o*rthodox."

Sadly, no. This is precisely the fundamental error of modern ecumenism and a great example of what I just noted: Modern Christians seek an *o*rthodoxy predicated on doctrinal, intellectual, and experiential commonality rather than the physical and visible Church which has actually imparts and transmits the fullness of *o*rthodoxy.

"Your belief that orthodoxy and Eastern Orthodoxy happen to coincide at this particular moment in history notwithstanding..."

At *this* moment in history as opposed to others? :)

 
At 4:27 PM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

In other words, when you get right down to it, the concept of "little o orthodoxy" is a useful, but totally abstract and (in the end) hopelessly subjective concept.

It begs the question: By what authority is a church, doctrine, practice, etc "orthodox" or not?

To answer those questions we can’t start with a predermined "little o orthodoxy" and work our way toward a unified Church. We have to find the Church that always had and continues to have the authority to answer the questions in the first place.

 
At 5:12 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

One of the things I learned in sharing the Gospel with the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses who came to my door (amazing to me that they have the courage to come knocking at a parsonage, but that's another post) is that you need a common vocabulary before you can have any kind of discussion beyond, "Hi, come in." My Mormon friends, for example, used the word "salvation," but they didn't mean by it what I meant. For us to have a meaningful conversation about salvation, we first had to mutually decide what the word meant. In that case, in the spirit of graciousness, I decided to translate my thoughts into the Mormon frame. I didn't talk about Hell, for example, but rather "Outer Darkness."

It seems like we're having something of the same problem here, Karl--although we're not new to this, are we? =) But since I don't believe your eternity is on the line, I'll forego all that graciousness and ask that we continue using the Princeton WordNet definition of "orthodoxy," "a belief or orientation agreeing with conventional standards." The pertinent questions then become, "Who sets the standard of orthodoxy?" and "What is that standard?" As unsatisfactory and possibly distasteful as you may find it, I would argue that God Himself sets the standard, and it is contained in the 66 canonical books of Holy Scripture.

Incidentally, this is one thing that has made me distrustful of many (though certainly not all) of the Orthodox with whom I've interacted: their theolgia and apologia make them seem more interested in the continued existence of their church as an institution than they do with the advancement of the Kingdom of God. As J.B. Phillips says in the book quoted in the original post, "Your God is too small."

 
At 8:28 PM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

"although we're not new to this, are we?"

Nope! :)

"I would argue that God Himself sets the standard..."

So far so good...

"it is contained in the 66 canonical books of Holy Scripture."

Orthodoxy can’t be contained in words, but rather is a way of life. (And why the 66 books? On whose authority do you accept those and not others? Again, this standard doesn’t really tell us what "orthodoxy" is and simply puts us right back to square one because it doesn’t tell us whose *interpretation* we should listen to).

"makes them seem more interested in the continued existence of their church as an institution than they do with the advancement of the Kingdom of God."

No Orthodox person sees the church as an institution. This is a classic misunderstanding usually stemming from a tendency to read everything through a particular western based notion of what the Church is. In fact, the Orthodox Church isn't an institution at all (though she *uses* institutions to advance the kingdom).

In any case, you’ve asserted a mutually exclusivity that you won’t find in the Church Fathers or in history: the Church is in fact the first fruits of the Kingdom and it is in the Church that we experience the Kingdom through the sacraments, liturgy, scriptures, prayer, and discipleship (albeit through a glass darkly).

The better approach would be to ask: Why do you Orthodox think the Church as a sacramental reality is so intertwined with the advancement of the Kingdom? Unless you've totally written us off as equal to the Mormons, I have to believe you'd be interested in hearing the answer to that question.

"Your God is too small."

Ironically, it was in reading Philiips excellent (though slightly flawed) book 8-9 years ago that the holes in my Protestant framework became so obvious. A God who failed to preseve the integrity of his incarnate body and limited Himself to 66 books (oddly enough, chosen as "ortohdox" by the very church I didn’t believe in!) is a very small God indeed.

 
At 10:32 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

"If they could see beyond their little inadequate god, and glimpse the reality of God..."

This kind of theologizing bothers me - why are we to assume that JB Phillips' glimpse of God is any more real or closer to the reality of God than the Anglican, Presbyterian, etc? Are we really to believe that because he presents a non-denominational view of God, his understanding is somehow more complete or more accurate?

I think I am merely echoing Karl's question about determining orthodoxy. Using the Princeton WordNet definition moves us no closer to answering the question "What is orthodox?" It is clear to me that many of the divisions that Phillips laments are predicated on doctrinal differences based on divergent interpretations of scripture. So we cannot merely rely on the "conventional standard" of the biblical canon, since by itself it does not decide anything. Besides, we are forced to answer - why is that the standard and not something else? Again, we are on shifting sands.

 
At 10:56 AM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

(Intellectual honesty side bar: I forgot to mention that part of my first comment on this thread was lifted from an old essay by Clifton Healy. However, the rest of the comments are mine!)

 
At 5:08 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

Karl, I was trying to point out that the way some (although certainly not all) Orthodox present and defend their theology makes them seem to me to have an agenda other than the Kingdom of God as I understand it. I'm not saying this is actually the case, but rather that, FROM MY PERSPECTIVE, this is how things appear.

FROM MY PERSPECTIVE as a sojourner trying to seek God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength, there is an arrogance to Eastern Orthodoxy that borders on that which I've experienced in churches that self-define as "Independent" and "Fundamental." While most Orthodox would never claim to "have God figured out," their rhetoric often implies as much, as does much of their theology (at least those portions with which I've come into contact). If I am ever swayed to Orthodoxy, it will be, qute frankly, in spite of some of these dialogues we've had and not because of them.

(All that being said--and I sincerely hope the following doesn't need to be said, but just in case it does--I sincerely appreciate you and the relationship we share, and sincerely love you as a brother in Christ, regardless of whether you consider me one or not.)

So, now that that's out of the way, here's a question based on what you wrote: Who says that "orthodoxy (my definition) can't be contained in words?" Can you defend that assertion?

Nathan, as I argued earlier, we cannot have a meaningful discussion about Christian orthodoxy until and unless we can agree on what the word "orthodoxy" means. If you want to discuss last weekend's football game with me, but I insist on holding the position that the word "football" means "a pink animal with a curly tail and snout that has a reputation for being dirty," we can talk all we want, but we probably won't be very successful at communicating, at least if the goal of communication is mutual understanding. Get the point?

 
At 9:25 PM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

"If I am ever swayed to Orthodoxy, it will be, qute frankly, in spite of some of these dialogues we've had and not because of them."

I'm sorry you feel these dialgues have been so negative. But I would hope you understand that "your perspective" in this case is incomplete and thus your conclusions about the motives of Orthodox people and the purposes of Orthodox theology are false and inflammatory. Is it too much to ask that you consider the possibility that you are superimposing your prior experiences and fears onto Orthodoxy rather than allowing her to speak on her own terms?

"Who says that "orthodoxy (my definition) can't be contained in words?"

Ironically, the Orthodox would simply note that the word "orthodoxy" literally means "right or full worship." In other words, "orthodoxy" is about relationships not language and intellect.

For all the talk I heard growing up about "having a personal relationship with God" it wasn't until Orthodoxy that I actually saw this lived out. In any case, thinking that words of a text can take the place of the physical, sacramental, and intimate communal relationship with God in Christ's Body is one of the important differences between EO and the non-EO.

Which is more important: the love letters written to you by your wife...Or your wife herself in the flesh?

"Get the point?"

He understands the problem pretty well, ISTM. Can you answer his question?

 
At 5:04 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

@Karl: "But I would hope you understand that 'your perspective' in this case is incomplete..." Of course. "...and thus your conclusions about the motives of Orthodox people and the purposes of Orthodox theology are false and inflammatory." I'm no logician, but I don't think that the one necessarily follows the other. In fact, your statement kind of makes my point. I would argue that it is YOUR perspective on theology that is incomplete...as is mine. The difference between us is that I admit my incomplete perspective and recognize the limitations it places on my theology. You seem not to. While you would never claim to have God "figured out," you seem not to have grasped the implications of your lack of understanding.

I'm not sure you understood my question about orthodoxy being contained in words. I was asking you to defend your assertion that it cannot be. Remember, since we're at my house, we'll use my definition and rephrase like this: Defend your assertion that the historic standards of Christian belief cannot be expressed in words.

"Can you answer his question?" Since Nathan is "merely echoing Karl's question about determining orthodoxy," I thought we were doing that. But in the interest of being a gracious host...

@Nathah: "It is clear to me that many of the divisions that Phillips laments are predicated on doctrinal differences based on divergent interpretations of scripture. So we cannot merely rely on the...of the biblical canon, since by itself it does not decide anything."

It doesn't? Then how does any one Christian tradition decide anything, since tradition is as open to interpretation as Scripture?

 
At 8:15 AM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

"Defend your assertion that the historic standards of Christian belief cannot be expressed in words."

I thought I tried already. In any case, sure, orthodoxy can be expressed, in part, in the Scriptures, Creeds, Liturgy etc. But orthodoxy doesn’t derive from words because orthodoxy isn’t about words at all but about relationships. Orthodoxy uses standards, words, and logic...but it isn’t any of these thing ontologically.

But what can I say that will prove this? Nothing. Which is my point: Christianity, or true orthodoxy, can’t be "proven" using words because it isn’t about words at all. It is about love. Try "proving" the love you have for your wife in words. You can express it (through a glass darkly in letters, poems, etc), but it isn't the words that form the foundation of that love.

Orthodoxy is the same. The words are the signposts, but the path itself and the telos of the journey is Orthodoxy itself. This is why the Scriptures can't be the founation of the Church, but are simply an expression of the Church's inner life.

"but I don't think that the one necessarily follows the other."

Daniel, who would know better whether your statements about my motives are accurate or whether your concept of what the Orthodox believe is actually true or not? I’m not saying I understand or love God better than you—I’m simply saying you don’t understand the Orthodox Church and what she teaches and thus your statemenst about Orthodoxy and Orthodox people are false.

"Then how does any one Christian tradition decide anything..."

The guidance of the Holy Spirt in the life of the Church and the apostolic and communal relationship with the Risen Christ, into which each new Christian is initiated through the Church’s way of life. At least that is the Orthodox way. And it has a pretty good track record!

 
At 11:30 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

"But what can I say that will prove this? Nothing."

That's my point. In the end, after all the debates, you're still asking people to accept that your view of orthodox Christianity is the only correct (i.e. God-endorsed) view ON FAITH. The way I read the Bible, that's a step of faith beyond that which God asks human beings to take.

And I think you're missing my point about the logic of your statement as well. Just because my perspective is limited and incomplete doesn't necessarily imply that my conclusions are either false or inflamatory. People draw correct conclusions from incomplete data all the time; the new book by Malcom Gladwell, the guy who wrote The Tipping Point, is all about that. I wasn't trying to acuse you of having ulterior motives; I was trying to help you see the debate from my perspective so that we could understand each other better. Is your skin thick enough to handle that?

I'm perfectly willing to admit (as I have more than once) that my understanding of EO doctrine is weak. But you can't really argue with my feelings or perceptions. If my perception that many Eastern Orthodox believers are more concerned with the maintanence of their church as an institution than they are with advancing the Kingdom of God doesn't correspond with reality, show me! Clarify the picture for me! Teach me, damn it! Fulfill the pedagogical mandate of the Great Commission! Lead me to pure water, Karl, so I can make an informed decision about whether or not to drink.

You're on the right track, I think, when you say, "That is the Orthodox way...and it has a pretty good track record." To paraphrase the film "Jerry McGuire," "Show me the fruit!" "By their fruits you will know them," Jesus says. Toss a few EO apples and bananas my way. Does the fruit of the Eastern Orthodox Church show it to be the one true church?

 
At 12:06 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Daniel -

(Welcome back, by the way. I'm glad you're back up and blogging and I hope unpacking and settling is going well for you.)

"It doesn't? Then how does any one Christian tradition decide anything, since tradition is as open to interpretation as Scripture?"

No, it doesn't. I just had lunch with a really great guy who is strongly Calvinist in his views. Personally, I have a strong aversion and dislike of all things theologically Calvin, and I believe that this anti-Calvinism is scripturally based. He just as strongly believes that Calvinism is scripturally based. So scripture itself ain't solving any problems, unfortunately. I agree, to a certain extent, that tradition is open to interpretation, but I don't think this is as true of the more ancient beliefs. They have been wrestled with, written about, explicated and taught so much that the varieties of interpretation occupy a very narrow range. This is obviously less true of newer ideas because they have not been put through the grinder as extensively as the old.

So what are we deciding? Are we making a decision about something that is true from the beginning - say the divinity of Christ? Or something relatively new, like sola scriptura? Or something much more recent, like the seeker-sensitive model? I hope you don't think this is a dodge, because I honestly think the decision process will be different depending on what we're talking about. Of course, from that point of view, there are many beliefs that pre-date the Bible and as such, are likely less open to interpretation.

But I digress...how do you determine orthodoxy? What is your standard and why?

 
At 1:50 PM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

"ON FAITH."

Is there any other way to accept the Gospel? And by faith, of course, it is assumed that reason, experience, etc will confirm it. But when Phillip tells Nathaniel "Come and see!" he isn’t first providing logical proofs and defending negative assertions. He is simply saying, "Here is the fullness of truth. Come see for yourself. Immerse your whole life in this. Don't take my word for it: Experience it with me."

If there isn’t that sense of openness, then no amount of words will help. As you know from experience, you can’t convince your Mormon or atheist friends of the truth of Christianity by merely the words of the Bible! It ain’t enough! And it was never meant to be enough. That is why Scritpure, *without the Church*, can't be the sole depository of "orthodoxy" nor the vehicle by which "orthodoxy" is transmitted.

"But you can't really argue with my feelings or perceptions."

True. You are more than entitled to them, certainly. I won’t begrudge you that.

"Clarify the picture for me! Teach me, damn it!"

LOL! I’m certainly no teacher! (As I’m sure you know!) The problem here is that without a relationship that has concrete personal contact, I don’t think anyone can. Orthodoxy can’t be transmitted in long-distance relationships precisely because it isn’t a intellectual system but a way of life that must be shared. (I loved your recent post about the amazing chasm between internet vs incarnate time spent with people, btw. Totally true!).

Now, I could give you arguments, history, and words to consider that might be enlightening... but I don’t think that would be enough. In fact, it isn’t enough by itself.

"Toss a few EO apples and bananas my way. Does the fruit of the Eastern Orthodox Church show it to be the one true church?"

I have found that the Orthodox Church transmits the fullness of the apostolic faith. But judging other people’s fruits wouldn’t have been enough to convince me of this and making truth claims based on other people’s "fruit" is heavily discouraged in the Church. So what I found is that the Church offered me, not simply an abstract and word-based "orthodoxy" to believe in my mind, or a group of people who "had it together" (far from it!) but a way of life that made "orthodoxy" tangible and *healing*.

It made living the fullness of the Christian life possible and helped teach me *how* to be a Christian, not simply *why* I should be one.

 
At 5:18 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

Karl...I feel like maybe we're getting somewhere!

"I have found that the Orthodox Church transmits the fullness of the apostolic faith...what I found is...a way of life that made "orthodoxy" tangible and *healing*...It made living the fullness of the Christian life possible and helped teach me *how* to be a Christian, not simply *why* I should be one."

I have said all of those things--to the point of using many of the same words--to describe my own Christian experience. Now, what makes you right and me wrong?

Nathan, a sincere thanks for the words of blessing! Life may not be "returning to normal," but it is stabilizing and a new definition of "normal" is slowly emerging for me, my wife, and all the little Theologs.

"How do you determine orthodoxy? What is your standard and why?"

Good question. I think maybe I'll write a separate post about that...

 
At 8:51 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

I look forward to that post, then! Especially since this is something I've been working through for the last several months. I'll be interested to hear what you have to say.

 
At 9:21 AM, Blogger Karl Thienes said...

Daniel,

My friend Huw had something interesting to say that applies to our conversation:

"Post-modernism teaches us - rightly, I think - that to accept anything as true is an act of faith. In Po-Mo's more newagey aspects it goes so far as to question the reality of one's own memories. Anyone who has ever had a family argument over who said what to whom in the parking lot about feeding dinner to the kids will understand that even memories of past events are, at best, only subjective truths. Christianity posits the most subjective thing of all: a relationship with Truth, Himself. And from this subjectivity, because it is the most personal and the most True of all things, Orthodoxy promises us to be led into all Truth. The downside of this idea is that many people get led into subjective truths and confuse them with the Real Thing.

That's why Orthodoxy doesn't end with a "personal relationship with God" but rather requires the Church - the community of faith, in this world and the next - as the validation of Truth. You can't be in relationship with the Truth and be out of step with the rest of the Church (that's 2000 years of Church). Neither can you be out of step with the rest of the Church and still be in relationship with the Truth."

http://raphael.doxos.com/more.php?id=1738_0_1_0_M

 
At 6:04 PM, Blogger Rachel said...

I like your bumper sticker idea, Daniel! I'd definitely buy one. It might go on my guitar case instead of my car (I try to keep the car fairly pristine), but I'd buy one. :-)

 

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