Q & A: Bishop Kallistos Ware on the Fullness and the Center
In 1960, Penguin Books asked the 26-year-old Timothy Ware to write a book on his newfound Eastern Orthodox faith. His first reaction was to say no; he had been Orthodox for only two years. But a friend urged him to try and so he set his pen to paper. Now nearly 50 years old, The Orthodox Church remains the go-to book for people who want an introduction to Orthodoxy. Since that first book, Ware became a monk, took the name Kallistos, became a lecturer at Oxford University, and was made Metropolitan Bishop of Diokleia for Greek Orthodoxy in Britain.
Earlier this year, Ware lectured at North Park University and Wheaton College about what evangelicals could learn from the Orthodox and what the Orthodox could learn from evangelicals. Christianity Today editor in chief David Neff interviewed him during that visit.
Some friends who have joined the Orthodox Church talk as if the Orthodox tradition was fixed very early and handed down without change. You treat tradition in a much more dynamic way.
You're quite right that I think tradition is dynamic. I recall the definition given by the great Russian Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky: "Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the church." Clearly, tradition is life; it's not a fixed formula. Still less is it writings in leather-bound volumes. Tradition is life, and it is the life of Christ present in the church through the Holy Spirit. It is not simply fixed doctrines, but the continuing self-understanding and self-criticism of the Christian community.
What keeps that dynamic self-understanding from going off the rails?
Holy Scripture as it has been understood in the church and by the church through the centuries. With that understanding of Holy Scripture, we would appeal particularly to the fathers and the saints.
Tradition is not a second source alongside Scripture; clearly normative for us Orthodox is Scripture as interpreted by the seven ecumenical councils. But tradition lives on. The age of the fathers didn't stop in the fifth century or the seventh century. We could have holy fathers now in the 21st century equal to the ancient fathers.
The implosion of Communism left a spiritual vacuum, and my fellow evangelical Protestants rushed into Russia. There have been tensions as they have tried to help people get to know the Bible better and to make their faith personal. Why has it been so difficult for Orthodox and evangelicals to work together in post-Communist countries?
The Orthodox felt and still feel deep resentment at the way—as they see it—evangelicals have moved in on their territory. They feel we suffered persecution in Russia for 70 years, often very severe, and we struggled to keep the faith going under immense difficulties. Now that the persecution has stopped, people move in from the West who have not suffered in the same way for their faith, and they are stealing our people from us. We feel as if our Christian brethren are stabbing us in the back. I'm putting it in extreme form, but there is this deep feeling.
Bound up with this is the sense in Russia and other Orthodox countries of what is called canonical territory. Orthodoxy is the church of the land. Therefore, they feel if other Christians come in, they are stealing their sheep.
I know evangelicals look at it differently. They would say, "Here is a country with enormous numbers of people who are totally unchurched, who for 70 years have had no chance to have a living link with Jesus Christ, and we must help them." But that's not the way the Orthodox look at it. They would welcome cooperation, but they resent anything that involves stealing their sheep.