by Paul Sauer
My conversion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity began at a Protestant seminary.
While studying at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, a staunchly Calvinistic school, I was deeply troubled by the apparent contradiction between the Calvinist doctrine of the Absolute Sovereign control of God over all things, including human affairs, and the requirement for a human free will sufficiently robust to justify attribution of moral responsibility to mature, mentally competent people.
It was not that the professors at Westminster didn’t affirm both of these things, but rather that I couldn’t see how they could do so consistently.
The Calvinist view of divine sovereignty seemed to logically preclude the sort of free will (typically called libertarian freedom in philosophical circles) necessary for meaningful human moral agency.
While wrestling with this issue as a Westminster student, I became friends with another student who had some familiarity with and interest in Orthodoxy, which I knew nothing about at that time. With him I attended the Pascha midnight service at the Antiochean Orthodox Church in Ambler, PA. in 1983.
I found it both strange and fascinating. While the liturgy was beautiful, I was made somewhat uncomfortable by the veneration of the icons and the great attention paid to St. Mary, both of which were utterly foreign to my Evangelistic Protestant background. Nevertheless, I decided to investigate Orthodoxy further, given my theological discontent with Calvinism. (I didn’t jump into the Protestant Arminian camp for other reasons, which I need not detail here.)
I finished my MA in Religion from Westminister Seminary in May, 1983. By that time I had already decided to do graduate work in philosophy, motivated primarily by my absorption in the great question of divine sovereignty and human moral responsibility. I wanted to know and evaluate what the great minds in the long history of philosophy had said about this vital matter (upon which I would eventually do my doctoral dissertation at Syracuse University) and related questions.
Thus I moved to Rhode Island where I started an MA in philosophy at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. I choose this school because I knew that there were several strong Christians among the Philosophy Department faculty, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. While studying philosophy I also continued to investigate Orthodoxy, visiting a few churches in Rhode Island. I found myself most comfortable at the OCA (Orthodox Church in America) Dormition Parish in Cumberland, RI.
In the fall of 1983, I began attending the liturgies there, sometimes in the company of the daughter of one of my professors, a Roman Catholic, who provided me with some insights regarding the similarities and differences between Orthodox and Roman Catholic worship. (I was about as ignorant of the latter as I was of the former.)
I soon found that my developing philosophical views seemed to be more compatible with Orthodoxy than with Protestantism. Nevertheless, I was still uncomfortable with certain aspects of the Orthodox services. I literally cringed at the Vesperal prayer to St. Mary to “save us”. Given my Protestant Evangelical background I tended to automatically take this as a heretical appeal to St. Mary which ignored, replaced, or bypassed the saving work of the incarnate Word of God on the Cross. It took some time to understand that this was not the case, and to fit the whole concept of the intercession of the saints into my theological framework. I had the help of a marvelous priest, Fr. Stephan Meholick of the Dormition Parish, at this time, and we had some lengthy discussions about this and other issues and questions I had regarding Orthodoxy. In fact, I became his catechumen in late 1983, and continued as such into 1984.
I was also doing independent reading (of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox authors) in the areas of Orthodox theology and church history, including works by Ware, Schmemann, J.N.D. Kelly, Lightfoot, Pelikan, and others. My studies led me to an increasing attraction to Orthodoxy and, in 1984, I decided to convert, joining the Orthodox Church on the Feast of the Annunciation that year.
While I have depicted my journey toward Orthodoxy as an intellectual/philosophical one, it would not be accurate to characterize it entirely in these terms. As was St. Vladimir over a thousand years ago, I found myself deeply moved by the beauty and reverence of the Orthodox liturgy. The focus of the liturgy is quite clearly the worship of the awesome Creator before whom we stand in humble supplication, asking His mercy upon us.
This was often in sharp contrast with the mood (though, to be fair, not necessarily with the theological understanding) of most Protestant church services which I had attended over the years where the latest programs (or fads) or preferences of the local minister too often dictated the format and style of the service. God, particularly the Second Person of the Trinity, sometimes seemed too much like our “good buddy”, or favor-granting talisman, and too little like our, in essence, unfathomable and awesome Creator, at many Protestant worship services. Apophatic theology was utterly unheard of to Protestantism.
Where these criticisms don’t apply (e.g. the more “high church” Anglican and Lutheran communities) I noted doctrinal decay (or an indifference to doctrine that amounted to its equivalence) and a relaxation of moral standards which winked at or even openly condoned practices which were clearly proscribed by the Holy Scriptures (supposedly the bedrock of Protestantism).
One who has had the patience to bear with this personal story thus far might want to ask me why I didn’t choose Roman Catholicism, given my discontent with Protestantism. To keep this to a manageable length, I will only give the “short answer” to that question. Two factors predominate:
(1) my studies of church history convinced me that Orthodox ecclesiology was consistent with apostolic and patristic Christianity, whereas the modern Roman papacy was not, and
(2) post Vatican II Roman Catholic worship has been seriously infected by the faddish trendiness which also characterizes much of Protestant worship.
In summary then, looking at the matter from the standpoints of
(1) concomitance with my philosophical convictions regarding the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom and moral responsibility,
(2) doctrinal and ecclesiological faithfulness to the apostolic and patristic deposits,
(3) reverential solemnity of worship, and
(4) the upholding of Scriptural teachings regarding acceptable Christian conduct, I was led to embrace the Orthodox Church as that earthly body which has most faithfully and consistently contended for
“the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3).