Timothy G. Patitsas is the Assistant Professor of Ethics at Holy Cross. He taught at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Seminary in Seoul, Korea, and at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, before joining the faculty in 2005. His dissertation, The King Returns to His City: An Interpretation of the Great Week and Bright Week Cycle of the Orthodox Church, combined interests in organic order, liturgy, and the economic and political writings of Jane Jacobs.
Our spiritual father, Fr. Demetri, has asked me to say something short today, a few helpful thoughts in the light of these criticisms of our Holy Orthodox Christian Church recently made online by an overzealous columnist for a small website known as “Pulpit and Pen.” I promise to be brief in my remarks. Listen Now
These comments that were made against our faith were made in haste, by someone who was reacting to an emotional event. I always say that the most efficient form of miscommunication is email, but the second most efficient form of miscommunication is social media.
You see, it turns out that there is a radio personality who for many decades has been known as the Bible Answer Man. His actual name is Hank Hannegraaf, and he has a very popular radio show where he talks about the Bible and difficult passages, and he also has more than 20 published books, and together – he himself, his show, his books – have been a trustworthy source of theological authority for many many Evangelical Christians.
Well, it turns out that Mr. Hannegraaf himself recently converted to Orthodoxy, way down in Charlotte, North Carolina at the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nektarios.
The equivalent for us would be if someone Timothy Ware – Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who wrote The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way – were suddenly to leave Orthodoxy and join a religion that none of us really knew much about, perhaps the Baha’i faith. So, we should be compassionate to what some Evangelicals might be feeling. They have lost a leader and a guide, and they are looking for answers.
In particular, some Evangelical Christians are asking, “What is Orthodox Christianity? Is it even Christian, in the way that Evangelicals understand Christianity?” And, in particular, “Does Orthodoxy preach a path to salvation through something other than simple faith? In fact, what are all those rituals they are doing?”
Let me just insert here that difficult memories die hard. After all, don’t we still talk about sometimes what happened to Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade? We may forget this, but in fact within much of the Protestant world there is a deep mistrust and even anger toward the Roman Catholic Church. This goes back to the Religious Wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, but it also goes back long before that to the Dark Ages, when many Europeans were steadily forming the opinion that the Latin Church was a source of political oppression, social control, and was an obstacle to intellectual progress.
You know, I used to teach religious studies at a Roman Catholic college in Northern Virginia. At the end of every semester, several Protestant students in my class would always say, “Dr. Patitsas, what I most enjoyed learning in this class, was that Roman Catholicism is a Christian faith. I had no idea.”
No idea? I would always answer. After 2, 3, or 4 years on a Catholic campus with a crucifix in every classroom, you didn’t know Catholicism was a Christian faith? But for many Evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholicism is little more than a man-made superstition, perhaps even a kind of paganism. Whatever else it may be, it is not – in their eyes – Christian.
And in fact, many Evangelicals just call themselves “Christians,” and the rest of us are thought to be something else.
Some of us may even be old enough to dimly remember an event from our childhoods, that the nomination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy for the presidency in 1960 raised many fears, that because he was a Roman Catholic, the Pope would somehow be making decisions for American policy.
So, for a certain kind of Protestant, a more sort of Bible-believing Protestant for whom every trace of ceremony, of sacrament, and of ascetic effort is a sign of “works righteousness” or even of paganism, you can understand that Orthodoxy, if they’ve ever heard of it, may not be quite their cup of tea. Again, bad memories linger, and their working is not exactly precise. Even things that remind us off what once hurt us, are likely to come in for a bad reaction. So, we should expect that for many Bible-believing Christians, Orthodoxy might appear a little strange.
So that raises the bigger question: What was it that drew Hank Hannegraaf himself, the Bible Answer Man, to Orthodoxy? Well, he knew his Bible so well, that he would’ve realized three things.
First, in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew Scriptures, when the prophets had visions of worship in heaven, that worship was always full of liturgy, full of incense, movements, and hymns. So he knew that was the case in the Old Testament, that when the prophets saw heaven, that’s what was going on.
Second, when God explained to Moses how to have Israel worship, He directed Moses to have the community pray also in a way that was liturgical, ritualistic, and involved sacred objects.
Third, Hank Hannegraaf read the Book of Revelation, and he knew that St. John the Theologian, in Patmos, in the cave, he saw a vision of what heaven looked like. He knew that in heaven worship would also be full of incense, prayers, repetitious prayers, and ritual.
In fact, according to Christians, heaven is a city, the New Jerusalem, the Bride of the Lamb, and in that city the only thing that happens is the praise and worship of God through endless liturgy, day and night, forever.
Therefore, when the Bible Answer Man entered an Orthodox Church for the first time, he would’ve realized that he was in a community of people who were already experiencing their first tastes of heaven, even while in this world. And he would’ve remembered the first public words of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the very summation of the Gospel: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand!!
I want to say one other thing about the Old Testament worship. You know Ezekiel saw the wheel, that strange vision of the wheels and the different creatures. Well, if you were to be in Greece, Russia, Serbia, or anywhere where an Orthodox church is a perfect cross, with the dome, and the half domes, and the four evangelists, each one symbolized by a different animal. If you were to lie on your back in such a church and look up, you would see exactly what Ezekiel saw. So even the architectural program of the Church, the iconographic program fulfills that vision that no one else outside the Church can explain.
So therefore when the Bible Answer Man entered the Orthodox Church, he recognized it from the Bible. And he would’ve remembered the first public words of Jesus Christ, Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
Our Savior didn’t say, “Have faith, and when you die you will go to heaven.” No, that’s not the Gospel at all, although many people think that’s what the Gospel says. No, the Gospel simply says, “The Kingdom of Heaven has come to you right now, whether you like it or not! Now, rouse yourselves, turn from your doubt and from your sinful ways, stop judging others, too, and glorify God. Glorify God in praise and prayer, and glorify God by coming into communion and forgiving your fellow man. For the Kingdom of Heaven has come to you now.”
Orthodox Christianity is a very old and a very deep faith, and we have not forgotten this original Gospel. But sometimes outside the Church it’s a little bit forgotten, because all the emphasis is on what will happen after you die.
And there’s almost a feeling that heaven isn’t already present. But as I said that’s the first words of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, so if you lose that, then it’s time to come a little closer to it.
Orthodox Christianity is a very old, and a very deep, faith. It is 1,500 years older than Lutheranism, and it’s 1,200 years older than the major changes to Roman Catholic doctrine wrought in the Scholastic era.
Orthodoxy was born in an encounter long before all that, between three venerable civilizations: Rome, with its law, order, and engineering; Greece, with its philosophy, intellect, and letters; and the Jews and other Semitic peoples, and their personalist and prophetic way of the heart.
And yet despite the fact that these three cultures were often in conflict, somehow the Church unified them into one glorious civilization.
But these three cultures, even before they were unified in the Church, and even though they were so distinctive, they each already agreed that worship of God should be structured in the kinds of liturgy that we as Orthodox still practice today.
Liturgy helps us to guide our encounter with the divine life so that we are not crushed by the sheer awesomeness and holiness of God. It channels our reaction to the gift of God’s life, so that we do not run off in many directions when we are overcome by the grace.
That’s really all I wanted to say.
The fact is, that by now so many people know their faith so well, that the fellow who wrote that article criticizing the Church was corrected quite thoroughly on Facebook and elsewhere.
But I did take some repentance from it as well, because I think it’s easy to try to define your own faith, through criticism of other faiths. Maybe I even did a little bit of that today myself.
But that’s never been Fr. Demetri’s way, and that’s not really the Orthodox way. We’re here to glorify Christ, and to see the good in every other person, and as much as possible in every other faith.
And we’ll see what happens. I don’t think there’s going to be a major flood of evangelical Christians becoming Orthodox.
But I would just want to say one last thing. We talk about the New Jerusalem or the Bride of Christ – that’s the Church. Christ didn’t just come to save you individually, but He came to raise up a Bride for himself, an eternal Bride. That’s a very Scriptural idea; you can’t escape that. And that is the Church, and we believe it’s the Orthodox Church. And as much as possible the other churches, to the extent that they also receive that message.
Christ is Risen!
About the Author: Timothy G. Patitsas is the Assistant Professor of Ethics at Holy Cross. He taught at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Seminary in Seoul, Korea, and at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, before joining the faculty in 2005. His dissertation, The King Returns to His City: An Interpretation of the Great Week and Bright Week Cycle of the Orthodox Church, combined interests in organic order, liturgy, and the economic and political writings of Jane Jacobs. Click here for more about Timothy Patitsas.
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