A group of American theologians and pastors, hoping to warm relations between evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox leaders, is seeking to open in Moscow a chapter of the U.S.-based Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism.
Bradley Nassif, president of the society and a lay theologian in the Orthodox church, said at the group’s annual meeting in September that he has personally initiated contact with leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church in an attempt to spark talks between evangelicals and Orthodox clergy in Russia.
Recently, religious tensions have risen after Orthodox leaders pressed the Russian Parliament to enact restrictions on Western religious organizations.
Although President Yeltsin has resisted the proposed laws and has called for new elections this year, there continues to be profound uneasiness among many Russians regarding the rapid influx of Western mission groups. There are now about 700 Christian groups active in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in addition to many other religious groups.
At Wheaton College in Illinois, the fledgling society held its third annual meeting and focused discussion on “Salvation by Grace.” Leonid Kishkovsky, a priest in the Orthodox Church of America and an official in the World Council of Churches, described for the 50 people in attendance the theological concepts that shape the Orthodox understanding of salvation by grace, including the idea that “the best and truest icon of God is man” and that “salvation is personal and always involves community.”
Despite Kishkovsky’s careful presentation, the conference attendees quickly discovered that even though both evangelical and orthodox theologians use the same terms, such as sanctification and justification, they do not always define those terms in the same way.
Grant Osborne, a professor from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, highlighted one of these difficulties by spelling out how Orthodox and evangelical theologians approach the Bible from different perspectives. He said the Orthodox approach Scripture from a “transhistorical” and worship-oriented point of view, while evangelicals approach Scripture from a historical and meaning-oriented perspective.
Thomas Finger of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Virginia, pointed out in another paper several “unexpected similarities” between Anabaptism and Eastern Orthodoxy. He said the two traditions share a resistance to personal autonomy and secularization and favor commitments to a communal identity and the life-transforming power of the gospel.
At the end of the daylong session, Nassif said he was encouraged by a Russian Orthodox bishop’s response to his inquiry about opening a society office in Moscow, yet cautioned that “making progress is very slow.”
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