Will the 21st Be the Orthodox Century?
Jaroslav Pelikan, the late professor of history at Yale University, wrote of the Christian tradition on a scale that no one else attempted in the 20th century. Then after nearly a lifetime of studying the history of doctrine, Pelikan, a lifelong Lutheran, was received into the Orthodox Church, just a few years before he died last May at age 82.
Pelikan is just one of a growing number of people who are joining the Eastern Orthodox Church. It makes me wonder if the 21st century will be the century of the Orthodox. Will there be a rebirth of the church's theological vision, if not its numerical growth? I'm not a prophet, nor do I want to evangelize evangelicals or reinvent Orthodox identity. But I would like to (a) offer a theological explanation for why I believe more and more Christians, especially evangelicals, may well be attracted to Orthodoxy in the 21st century, and (b) explain why more and more Orthodox need to become more evangelical.
I haven't merely thought about Orthodox and evangelical compatibility; for most of my life, I have lived it. I'm a Lebanese American who grew up in the Orthodox Church of Antioch and was transformed by Christ during my high school days in Wichita, Kansas, through the leading of evangelical friends. I did my doctoral studies under the late Orthodox theologian Fr. John Meyendorff. A portion of my scholarship over the past two decades has been devoted to introducing the Orthodox tradition to evangelical students and faculty in North America. I've also pioneered dialogues between Orthodox believers and evangelicals, and I have spoken on the subject at World Council of Churches meetings in Egypt and Germany.
Thus, I bring an intellectual and experiential knowledge of both communities, which is probably why I have a love/hate relationship with them. I'm not fully at peace with either one. Although I'm absolutely committed to the theological truth of the Orthodox church, I'm equally persuaded that we have not made that truth meaningful or accessible to our own parishioners or to those who peer inside our windows. And because of my Orthodoxy, I'm also committed to the evangelical faith.
The Rebirth of Orthodoxy
Scholars define the Great Tradition as the theological consensus of the first 500 to 1,000 years of Christian history (there is some disagreement on exact dates). This consensus encompasses the church's universally agreed upon creeds, councils, fathers, worship, and spirituality. Some key teachings and figures include the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Definition, the works of Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa), the spiritual writings of monks like Anthony of Egypt, and certain biblical commentaries and pastoral works.
During the past two decades, mainline and evangelical scholars have rediscovered the creative relevance of the Christian East, with its insistence on the authority of the first 500 years of Christian teaching and practice. One recent sign of evangelical interest is Thomas Oden's The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), in which Oden uses the lowercase o in order to embrace all Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians who adhere to the first 500 years of the Great Tradition. Oden sets forth six layers of evidence to show that there is, indeed, a widespread rekindling of "the orthodox spirit" at the dawn of the 21st century. These layers include:
(1) Personal transformation stories. The lives of ordinary Christians and leading academics who have been dramatically changed by the testimony of the classic tradition, including Jaroslav Pelikan and Richard Swinburne, who became Eastern Orthodox, and Robert Wilken and Richard John Neuhaus, who joined the Catholic church.