Why Are Lutherans Converting to Eastern Orthodoxy?

by Gabe Martini

Lutheran Rose colorIn a recent podcast titled “Introducing Eastern Orthodoxy” at the Just & Sinner blog, Lutheran author Jordan Cooper laid some groundwork to help not only explain why many conservative Lutherans are ‘heading East,’ but also provide an introduction to Orthodox belief and practice for his largely Lutheran audience.

Since I have a lot of respect for both Lutherans and their theology—especially that of Martin Luther as compared to other, later Reformers—I thought it might be helpful to take some notes and provide a brief response.

Given that I am responding to my own notes on his talk, it’s possible I have misunderstood Jordan on points, and so I apologize ahead of time if that’s the case. I’d also like to say that the purpose of this article is not to engage in any hostile battle, but to provide balance for what I consider to be a largely accurate representation of Orthodox Christianity.

Why Are People Converting?

From the onset, Jordan discusses the conversion phenomenon of the past few decades, where a number of high-profile evangelicals and even whole church movements—such as the Evangelical Orthodox Church, led by Peter E. Gillquist (of blessed memory)—are being received into the Orthodox Church. For him, and other conservatives in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, this begs the question:

‘Why?’

Unfortunately, I feel that Jordan makes a mistake that many of us make when faced with this sort of thing, especially if it involves either friends or loved ones. I have been guilty myself.

While the temptation to explain individual or even mass conversions of people from one religious persuasion to another is strong, it should be resisted. People are individuals and everyone is on their own path. Attempting to categorize and ultimately explain away these conversions (and individuals) is neither honest nor helpful. Jordan wants to categorize these conversions as being mostly done by under-educated evangelicals or those attracted to the external beauty of eastern Christianity, but neither is really the primary, motivating factor (even if they are a supplementary factor for some). I have written before on the wrong reasons for converting.

Instead, it is far more helpful to ask these people directly what led to their conversion, and to dialogue with them (if at all) on the grounds of doctrinal convictions. Better yet, simply pray for them, love them, and seek to understand how this step is but one of many on their own salvation journey. Discerning motives is always best left to God alone.

A Love for Church History and the Early Church Fathers

Jordan believes that for the under-educated—those not exposed to either Church history or the early Church fathers—their conversion is done perhaps in ignorance. Had they realized that a love for both early Church history and the fathers was also present in confessional Lutheranism (as with Martin Chemnitz, for example, in his Examination of the Council of Trent), then a conversion to Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism would not be necessary. Jordan also feels that one finds in Orthodoxy a romanticized version of early Church history, with a mythical ‘consensus of the fathers’ for most beliefs, as well as a naïve understanding of both Christian history and the struggle for doctrinal orthodoxy.

No doubt, for many converts to Orthodoxy from other forms of Christianity, a robust exposure to the early Church and her beliefs is a key motivation behind conversion. There is a profound, existential experience to be had when one can read descriptions of the liturgy for catechumens in the third century writings of a Saint, and then experience that same service—word-for-word and action-for-action—in the here and now. I was struck by this experience myself, even as a semi-educated, well-read Protestant of over twenty-six years (at the time of our conversion).

But rather than this being a problem of skipping ‘patristic Lutheranism’ (or Anglicanism, or Presbyterianism) altogether, many take a direct route from historical study to incarnate reality. In other words, rather than reading about the Church of the past, in Orthodoxy one finds that same Church in the present. This is an ontological conversion, not an exercise in academic curiosity. Rather than attempting to recreate the best elements of our Christian past in the present, converts to Orthodoxy are deeply convicted—more often than not—that the Church into which they are being grafted is truly one-and-the-same with that Church of the third century (or indeed, of any century). Jordan and others are certainly free to disagree on this point, but this is where we are.

When it comes to a romanticized view of history or the Church fathers, I feel this critique is almost an inescapable one for those not involved with the life and ministry of the Orthodox Church—in other words, for those on the outside-looking-in. This is partly due to a lack of resources in the English language that are both accessible and relevant for those interested in learning more about the Orthodox Church (but this is slowly changing). Instead, speculation and oft-repeated half-truths reign supreme (especially on the Internet).

In reality, Orthodox Christians and scholars are acutely aware of the struggles for orthodoxy, beginning as early as Irenaeus’ writings against the Gnostics and continuing all the way down until the present, where any number of struggles can be easily numbered (Lord, have mercy). There was no ‘golden age’ of the Church, nor will there ever be one this side of the resurrection. Some of our greatest heroes of faith died either in exile (St. John Chrysostom, St. Athanasius of Alexandria) or with their limbs or tongues having been severed (St. Maximos the Confessor). Even ‘jolly’ Saint Nicholas died with a broken nose and having slapped Arius in the face. Christian history is indeed a complicated, messy thing. The theanthropic Body of Christ is never without the ‘anthropos’ and a struggle for both doctrinal and moral purity.

On the issue of a ‘consensus of the Fathers,’ it is somewhat inaccurate to attribute this perspective to the Orthodox Church as the sole or even primary litmus test of orthodoxy. In fact, this perspective has more heritage with the Reformers than with the Orthodox Church. For Orthodoxy, ‘dogma’ is defined by conciliar consensus as laid out in the Ecumenical Councils. Orthodox dogma, then, is actually restricted to a rather limited number of doctrinal ‘boundaries’ (Greek ‘Horos’), within which all dialogue, debate, and pious opinion takes place. Even doctrines such as deification have not been ‘dogmatized’ in the eastern tradition, but represent instead a prevailing consensus of theological expression. The same could be said for any number of Orthodox doctrines that are often wrongly characterized by the non-Orthodox as ‘the Orthodox position’ on a topic (more on this later).

As an aside, the so-called canon of St. Vincent of Lérins (often cited as an example of requiring patristic consensus) does not describe the manner in which dogma is determined, but rather how discerning Christians throughout history are to engage in a proper discussion of matters that are not dogmatic—that is, that are not a matter of Ecumenical dogma—and only one of these three options (they are not to be simultaneously applied, but rather successively) involves a ‘consensus’ of the fathers.

From the Orthodox perspective, Church fathers are alive today just as they were in the fourth century. There was no charismatic cessation of fathers at the close of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and our services often conclude by invoking the prayers of “our holy fathers” who are among us. Christian writers in the Church today are themselves a part of our living, breathing, holy tradition. While some popular-level works might be misleading in characterizing Orthodoxy as a faith always looking backwards, we are very much a living, present, and dynamic faith. What we hold to be true is not true because it is old, but rather because it is orthodox.

Greek East and Latin West

Jordan rightly notes a growing distinction between the theological development of the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East, as early as even the third century. For example, the third century teacher Tertullian of Carthage (A.D. 160–225)—later in his life a member of the heretical Montanist sect—is often termed the ‘Father of Latin Theology.’ He mentions key figures among the Greeks, including both Ss. Maximos the Confessor and Gregory Palamas, whose theology was no doubt influential on late-medieval and even present-day, Orthodox theology.

One of the specific distinctions he notes is the addition of the Filioque (Latin “and the Son”) to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381—an addition first made by Spanish Christians in the sixth century, and later officially sanctioned by Rome in the early-eleventh century. I appreciated most of what Jordan had to say on this issue, admitting that the Latin Christians were not exactly charitable in their unilateral decision to amend the creed. However, like many Orthodox Christians, I do not necessarily think that an amendment to the creed is impossible (I would say it is unnecessary). Instead, the issue is the orthodoxy (or non-orthodoxy) behind this statement and its implications.

While I likely disagree with him on the underlying theology, I respect Jordan’s confessional convictions that—as a faithful Lutheran abiding by the Book of Concord—he cannot rightly advocate a removal of the Filioque from their usage of the creed.

Jordan also mentions the notion of doctrinal development in the Roman church today, in distinction from the East. For example, he mentions the number of additional ‘Ecumenical Councils’ assembled by the Roman church since the Seventh Ecumenical Council (A.D. 787), all of which are less-than-grand in both scale and emphasis when compared with the first seven.

But here I think Jordan commits another common error when it comes to understanding the Orthodox Church, saying we believe ‘all heresy’ was stopped at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, with no need for a similar ‘development of doctrine.’  (He also attributes the celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy with the seventh council, a celebration that actually first commemorated the Synod of Constantinople in 843 under the Empress Theodora—but this is a common confusion.)

For example, it should be noted that there are a number of Orthodox Christians and theologians today who would term the fourth ecumenical synod in Constantinople (A.D. 879–880) as the Eighth Ecumenical Council. This synod is referred to as such in both the fifteenth century writings of St. Mark of Ephesus and the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs (1848), written in response to Pope Pius IX’s Epistle to the Easterns. In the Greek church today, there are synodal discussions for affirming this synod as well as the synods dealing with the Palamite controversy of 1341–1351 as the Eighth and Ninth Ecumenical Councils, respectively. A pan-Orthodox council could someday rule this to be official Church teaching.

Beyond this, there have been a number of formative, ecumenical statements or doctrinal formulations on the part of the eastern churches since the eighth century. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, in fact, outlines these events and statements in The Orthodox Church, which Jordan references several times in his discussion. But we have to keep in mind what I stated already: our dogmatic boundaries are set, with a great deal of freedom allowed within. The necessity for continual dogmatic development is not granted on the part of Orthodox Christians, especially given our predilection towards apophaticism.

And finally, on this point, one cannot neglect the historical circumstances surrounding the Orthodox Church since the fall of Constantinople (1453). For centuries, the Church was—at best—operating in a state of persecuted ‘survival mode,’ praying only that she would survive for another generation. This has continued all the way until the fall of the Iron Curtain, and persists even today. Thankfully, in many places where Orthodoxy is represented, this is no longer the case. But one cannot ignore even the present sufferings of our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and now Ukraine—where the prospect of ‘dogmatic development’ is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

I would contend that the presence of dogmatic development is a symptom of stagnancy, not the solution against it.

The Legacy of Saint Augustine of Hippo

His talk then shifts to both the theology and influence of St. Augustine on both Western Christianity as a whole, and Martin Luther in particular.

Mentioning Augustine’s perspectives on human depravity, original sin, and double predestination, Jordan states that Augustine has not been nearly as influential in the East, and that we don’t consider him to be ‘fully’ a Saint, preferring to refer to him only as ‘Blessed.’

Throughout his podcast, Jordan mentions a few different source books for his exposure to Orthodox doctrine. It has to be noted here that some of the works he’s relying upon—especially that of Lossky, great as it is—represent a particular perspective of Orthodox theological expression, motivated by various historical circumstances. Again, not everything written by an Orthodox Christian—clergy or otherwise—is representative of the dogmatic beliefs of the Church (of which there are precious few). He is taking the opinions of a few as normative for the entire Church. There are certainly some Orthodox people over the past century or so who have over-reacted to a Western ‘captivity’ of their generation in Orthodox thought, focusing this divergence on the figure and writings of St. Augustine—but this does not represent any official Church teaching.

In fact, the Fifth Ecumenical Council (A.D. 553, held in the East) numbers Augustine among a select group of fathers to be highly revered for both their piety and theological writings. This does not mean they are infallible—and some of their writings are more important than others—but it certainly, and with conciliar, dogmatic authority, leaves no room whatsoever to deny that Augustine is a Saint. On this point we must state that those who would deem him otherwise are simply wrong. (Also, Orthodox Christians do not have ‘levels’ of distinction for venerated figures, so ‘Blessed’ is not a designation ‘less than’ that of ‘Saint,’ for example–any more than calling the Theotokos ‘Blessed’ makes her less than a Saint.)

While Orthodox Christians might disagree with much of Augustine-via-Aquinas or the later Reformers, we venerate and appreciate Augustine for the areas in which he was most influential on the continuing life of the Church: e.g. his anti-Donatist writings, his position on the canon and text of scripture, his work on baptism and the other Christian mysteries, and so on. Augustine-via-Maximos the Confessor and other work being done in our own day is far more interesting to eastern scholars, of course, but we revere him nonetheless. Many Orthodox Christians take Augustine as their baptismal name and even more venerate his holy icon—we love St. Augustine.

Monergism, Original Sin, and Semi-Pelagianism

The figure of Augustine and his influence on the West (and supposed disdain in the East) leads Jordan to a brief discussion of the differences between monergism and synergism.

Essentially, monergism is the belief that all of a person’s salvation—from beginning to end—is a work entirely of God and his Grace, while synergism teaches that God begins the work of salvation by Grace, but a person must then cooperate with God’s Grace for the remainder of their life. Jordan mentions the figure of John Cassian as a champion of the doctrine of synergism, revered by the East and rejected by the West (or at least, not venerated as a Saint). He also briefly mentions the doctrinal position of Semi-Pelagianism, supposedly held by both John Cassian and even present-day Orthodox Christians. Jordan notes that the Orthodox are not full-blown Pelagians, but that we don’t see original sin as a total or complete ‘corruption’ of human nature. For the East, says Jordan, the emphasis is not on the sin or guilt of Adam, but on the consequence of death.

There is almost a limitless amount that could be written on these few points, so I will do my best to be brief.

First, it must be stated emphatically that St. Augustine did not hold to monergism (a Reformation doctrine), but is in fact a synergist along with practically every other father and early Christian authority. As just one example, Augustine shares a concise analogy of a tree, illustrating the cooperation between both God and man in salvation (On the Grace of Christ 1.19.20). The grace of God first makes an evil tree good (at baptism), and then

“God co-operates in the production of fruit in good trees.”

This is the position taken by the Second Synod of Orange (A.D. 529), a council curiously appealed to by Calvinists as ‘patristic evidence’ of both monergism and the Doctrines of Grace:

According to the catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul.

And regarding double-predestination (whether taught by Augustine or not), this council concludes:

We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.

Semi-Pelagianism itself is also an invention of the sixteenth century, and does not exist in any discussions of the fifth or sixth (the term is coined in 1577). While Saints such as John Cassian and Vincent of Lérins are often wrongly associated with this fabricated heterodoxy, they are actually in agreement with—contra-monergism—the Second Synod of Orange. This council was an orthodox compromise between the isolated speculations of St. Augustine and that of the heretical Pelagians. St. Vincent himself mentions this debate in his Commonitory around the time of Chalcedon (A.D. 451), where he decries the doctrine of double-predestination. For those like Cassian, salvation is of Grace from beginning to end, while not ignoring both the reality and necessity of man’s cooperation with that Grace from baptism to last breath.

It is sometimes claimed that John Cassian is not venerated as a Saint by Rome, but this is not really true. In the present Catechism of the Catholic Church, he is cited twice (as “St. John Cassian,” cf. CCC 1866, 2785). Denzinger refers to him a number of times in the Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma as “St. John Cassian.” His feast day—while admittedly out of prominence in the latest Vatican reforms of the Martyrologium Romanum—is July 23 (Feb. 29 for the Orthodox and Anglicans). Cassian was also incredibly influential on the foundations of Western, Benedictine monasticism, along with the likes of Pachomius and the Egyptian or ‘desert fathers’ of the east. He is not widely beloved as he once was in the Christian West, but he is certainly not rejected or seen as less than a Saint and father of the Church.

On the topic of original vs. ancestral sin, this is another example of taking certain, even popular, Orthodox writings on a doctrinal perspective, and assuming them as normative, exclusive, and dogmatic.

It is certainly the case that the majority of Greek and even Slavic theology on original sin over the past century has focused on the inheritance of death and corruption from Adam. This is also what often gets emphasized in introductory or popular-level discourse. In part, this has to do with the fact that this is a narrative elevated in the vast majority of our liturgical services (hymns and prayers) related to the subject. For example, the great Paschal (Easter) hymn refrains:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

While the overwhelming emphasis of eastern works on the topic of original sin focuses on the consequence of both death and corruption (and their reversal in Christ’s death and resurrection), this does not mean we reject a susceptibility and even strong inclination towards sin as a result of the Fall. As Jordan would likely agree, these viewpoints are not mutually exclusive—it is simply a matter of emphasis. And that emphasis has changed over time, with confessions or catechisms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries dealing more with the psychical or moral effects of original sin than simply death and corruption alone.

For more on the other angle of Orthodox belief on original sin, I would recommend two essays: Original Sin and Orthodoxy: Reflections on Carthage and Original Sin and Ephesus: Carthage’s Influence on the East. As one can discern, the focus is on conciliar, Ecumenical decrees, not a perceived ‘consensus of the fathers’ or the viewpoints of a few, even key, writers.

East vs. West?

Jordan feels that many Orthodox Christians are engaged in an over-reaction to what we term ‘Western’ theology. He sees this in Lossky, and finds that for such, bad theology is associated with being ‘Western,’ while orthodox theology is always ‘Eastern.’

On the one hand, I think a lot of this is our own fault. As mentioned earlier, there is definitely a part of Orthodoxy over the past century or so that has drawn sharp distinctions between the theology of the East and the theology of the West (and for good, historical reasons, at times). All of the world’s problems are neatly packaged as Western thinking, with Augustine chiefly to blame. However, I must stress that the extremes of this attitude do not express normative, dogmatic Orthodoxy.

I’ve already noted our affinity for St. Augustine, but when it comes to an East and West divide, the Orthodox Church is not only for ‘Eastern’ or oriental people, but is believed to be both a catholic and universal faith—encompassing perspectives both Greek and Latin, Jewish and Gentile. ‘Eastern’ is more of a description for the sake of clarity than it is anything deeply meaningful or theological—and far less is it to be taken as the inverse of an insult. If the Orthodox Church is termed ‘Eastern,’ this is almost always said today to distinguish between Rome and the remaining Patriarchates and autocephalous churches that are not in communion with the Pope of the city of Rome. So while there’s definitely some who would use these terms as a further cause of distinction or even division, we must remember that it is more a term of clarification than discrimination.

Jordan also feels that Orthodox Christians (such as Lossky) are led to false dichotomies when it comes to doctrinal discussion, as a result of this anti-Western bigotry. Eastern theology is delivered as the absolute antithesis to Western theology, with Eastern ideas completely overriding and eliminating Western ones. For example, Jordan believes that Orthodox Christians accept one—and only one—viewpoint when it comes to a number of doctrinal distinctives (such as the atonement), to the exclusion of other, equally valid positions.

Again, I think this misunderstanding stems from three different factors:

1) An unfamiliarity with the life and liturgy of the Orthodox Church as one of her members,

2) An exposure to only certain types of Orthodox literature or perspectives, and

3) An assumption that particular perspectives among Orthodox authors—popular as they are—is both a normative and dogmatic expression of the ‘official teachings’ of the Orthodox Church.

And while this is not entirely Jordan’s fault (even as I term it a ‘misunderstanding’), from someone living as part of the Orthodox Church for several years now, I can’t think of anything said about Orthodoxy that is more obviously false. In truth, Orthodoxy is often called a church of both paradox and mystery. Our light-hearted response to deeper questions from our non-Orthodox friends is “It’s a mystery.” Whenever someone begins to ask me,

“What’s the official Orthodox position on—”,

I always stop them and say

“We don’t have one.” (Half-joking, of course.)

So while many Orthodox authors today will speak of Christus victor, ancestral sin, theosis, and non-juridicial concepts of salvation, this is not the final, Orthodox word on these issues. Within our ecumenical boundaries of dogma, anything is open for discussion, dialogue, and healthy debate. While one might find a dominant perspective in Orthodoxy on certain topics, this does not mean we reject all other perspectives on the same. An affinity for theosis is not a rejection of the forgiveness of sins in Christ’s death on the Cross, nor is it a rejection of concepts like justification or even ‘legal’ metaphors for salvation.

One must also keep in mind that the theological discussions and debates of the Orthodox Church are not necessarily going to neatly ‘line up’ with that of the West (using the term as a descriptor, not an insult). In fairness, Protestant theology is largely a reaction against Rome, with much of modern Roman theology a counter-reaction against Protestantism (and with a great deal of synthesis, in some cases). With Orthodoxy on the outside-looking-in, we do not always have a common ground. This contextualization and historical reality should not be mistaken as a lack of concern on the part of Orthodox Christians for ideas and concepts that are more central to Protestant or Roman Catholic belief.

To contend that Orthodox Christians misunderstand Sola fide or that we care more about theosis than justification is to beg the question that the Orthodox Church be Lutheran or Reformed in order to be correct. This is, at best, an abstraction—conflating epistemology with ontology—and only muddies the waters of meaningful dialogue.

Concluding Thoughts

While it might seem at this point that I have a number of substantial disagreements with Jordan on his introduction to Orthodoxy, I haven’t outlined all of the areas in which we agree (and where he gets things correct). As I listened, I was impressed by many of the clarifying statements he made, even seeking to understand Orthodox Christians on their own terms, and not force everything into categories or perspectives not necessarily shared between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy. On more than one occasion while listening to his presentation, I was about to write down another point for response, but he would then provide the correct and balancing statements in order to more accurately represent the Orthodox faith.

If there is any prevailing weakness to his presentation, it’s that he’s looking at things from the outside-in, and relying on only a few, select sources in order to do so. I feel that Orthodox Christians are at fault for much of the popular-level apologetics and other, inaccurate material one might find either in print or online, but things are always improving. English-language Orthodox resources on a large and quality scale are very much still in their infancy.

In the end, I would encourage those interested in learning more about Orthodoxy to not necessarily start with any one book, but with a simple visit to a nearby parish. Grab coffee with the priest or deacon, and pick his brain with your questions or concerns. More often than not, they will be happy to do so, and without any pressure or presumption that you’re interested in converting. Attending some services during the week, when it doesn’t conflict with your own religious attendance on Sunday, is another helpful option (especially during Great Lent). It’s one thing to read about Orthodoxy, and another thing altogether to experience it and be exposed to the incarnate reality of the Church on a regular basis.

I hope someone finds this ‘conversation’ helpful, and that it clears up any confusion Lutherans (or other Protestant Christians) might have regarding the Orthodox Church and faith. I’d also like to wish Jordan the best in his ministry and efforts, and ask his forgiveness for any areas where I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented what he had to say.

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Comments

  1. Caryl Traugott says:

    I was raised in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. Unfortunately, a split occurred and
    my home church became ELCA. The modern ELCA has fallen so far from orthodox teaching,
    that I was fortunate enough to find an OCA church and converted to Orthodoxy. Martin Luther would be very sad to see how his church has deviated from his teachings.

  2. As an ELCA person myself, I’ve seen some even come from Orthodoxy to Lutheranism. They were drawn by our love for tradition, similar teachings, but liberal lean. It seems like it flows both ways.

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