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Christian History Home > 1997 > Issue 54 > Eastern Orthodoxy: Christian History Interview - An Evangelical Appraisal

Eastern Orthodoxy: Christian History Interview - An Evangelical Appraisal
The strength of Orthodoxy, it turns out, is also its greatest temptation.
interview with Harold O.J. Brown | posted 4/01/1997 12:00AM

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For many Protestants, Orthodoxy is an unsettling mix—a culturally foreign faith that at times feels very Protestant.

Harold O. J. Brown, professor of theology Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, has been fascinated with Orthodoxy since his graduate school days, when he studied Irenaeus and other early church fathers. He is a member of Evangelical Free Church and a leading commentator on theology and society. He has written a number of books, including, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Baker, 1988). He talked with Christian History about his views on Orthodoxy.

What about Orthodoxy do you appreciate most?

The Orthodox have a tremendous sense of the continuity of the people of God, that is, tradition. Also, they have a deep respect for Scripture; their services are primarily Scripture verses added one to another. And, of course, there is the beauty and majesty of Orthodox services.

Not as well-known is the freedom allowed in Orthodoxy. Though it retains a great many traditions, it doesn't make non-scriptural matters mandatory. For example, in 1951 the Roman Catholic Church decreed the Assumption of the Virgin Mary to be a doctrine necessary to believe for salvation. The Orthodox have for centuries celebrated this belief (that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her life) in their Feast of the Dormition ("falling asleep") of Mary. But they have never made it mandatory to believe.

What does strong tradition and liturgy give the Orthodox?

Stability. I have an Orthodox friend who teaches at a well-known seminary. While studying at Harvard Divinity School, he became intellectually skeptical about the truth of the gospel. But because he was an Orthodox priest at the time, every Sunday he had to lead the liturgy, which is saturated with Scripture and sound theology. On Sundays, he had to act as though he believed it.

Eventually, he worked through his intellectual doubts, and he partly credits the weekly liturgy. It kept pulling him back into the Christian world until his faith was made whole again. Most Protestant students who begin doubting their faith do not have such a tradition to steady them.

One Orthodox historian has said that the Orthodox have more in common with evangelicals than with Catholics. Do you agree?

In many ways, yes. First, the Orthodox place Scripture at the forefront of their faith. Tradition for them is a handing down of things entrusted to the church, and Scripture is the primary thing entrusted to the church. They regard tradition as an interpretation of Scripture, not as an independent source of religious truth.

Furthermore, great emphasis is placed on the person of Christ, on his work and on the mystery of his Incarnation and Resurrection.

Also, the Orthodox do not accept the universal supremacy of the pope. They acknowledge the pope as the head of the church of his jurisdiction but not of the whole church.

A small but significant group of evangelicals have recently converted to Orthodoxy, including Franky Schaeffer. What is the attraction for them?

Besides the things already mentioned, they have been troubled by the chaos of Protestantism. They see mainline denominations playing fast and loose with doctrine, questioning everything from the Virgin Birth to the Trinity.

They're troubled also by the disorderly behavior of evangelicals who run from one fad to another. Protestantism to them feels rootless, without a connection to the people of God through the centuries.

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