by Fr. John Whiteford
Around the time I began digging into Oden’s “Systematic Theology,” I received 2 books that Fr. Anthony Nelson had suggested I read if I wanted to understand more about the Orthodox Church: “Orthodox Dogmatic Theology”, by Fr. Michael Pomazansky, and “Becoming Orthodox”, by Fr. Peter Gillquist. I was struck by many of the parallels between “Orthodox Dogmatic Theology “and what I was reading in Oden’s books, but I was also struck by some of the differences. I often wrote notes in the margin, and in that book I wrote comments like “No way!” out to the side, that after becoming Orthodox I had to go back and scratch those comments out. “Way!”
“Becoming Orthodox” was also an eye opener. I had heard about the “Evangelical Orthodox” and their journey from Campus Crusade for Christ to the Orthodox Church. A guest lecturer mentioned it… and I don’t remember why he mentioned it, but I remember the puzzled look on the faces of those who heard it… which no doubt mirrored my own expression. I think there was even some audible responses to it, like “Huh?” or “What?” My own reaction was to wonder what they could possibly be thinking. Reading the book answered my question. It did not convert me, but I think the main thing that was accomplished by reading that book was I saw that converting to Orthodoxy was a real option, though at that time I still didn’t consider it a very serious option.
I also began reading the Fathers themselves, not just reading about them, with the occasional quotation one might encounter. Coming from Protestant assumptions, the earlier the Father was, the more trustworthy he was likely to be. One of the earliest Fathers to be found outside of the New Testament is St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was a disciple of the Apostle John, was consecrated Bishop of Antioch by St. John himself, and martyred in the arena of Rome in 112 A.D. So I read his seven epistles with great interest, and was again and again struck by the fact that he was not a protestant:
“Similarly, let everyone respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, just as they should respect the bishop, who is a model of the Father, and the presbyters as God’s council and as the band of the Apostles. Without these no group can be called a church” (Trallians 3:13).
“Make no mistake brethren, no one who follows another into a schism will inherit the Kingdom of God, no one who follows heretical doctrines is on the side of the passion” (Philadelphians 3:3).
“Be zealous, then, in the observance of one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one chalice that brings union in His blood. There is one altar, as there is one bishop, with the priest and the deacons, who are my fellow workers” (Philadelphians 4:1).
“But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how they oppose the will of God…. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against the gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again” (Smyrneaens 6:2-7:1).
“Flee from divisions, as the beginning of evils. You must all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbytery as you would the apostles, respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. Wherever the bishop appeared, there let the congregation be; just wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church. It is not permissible either to baptized or to hold a love feast without the bishop. But whatever he approves is also pleasing to God, in order that everything you do may be trustworthy and valid” (Smyrneans 8:1-8).
“Assemble yourselves together in common, every one of you severally, man by man, in grace, in one faith and one Jesus Christ, who after the flesh was of David’s race, who is Son of Man and Son of God, to the end that ye may obey the bishop and presbytery without distraction of mind; breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live for ever in Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 20:2).
Here we had a disciple of the Apostle John, teaching that the Eucharist was truly the body and blood of Christ, that it was the medicine of immortality, that it could be valid or invalid, depending on the authority of the bishop, that no group that did not have bishops, priests and deacons could be called a church, and that no one who went into schism or heresy would inherit the Kingdom of God. When I read these epistles for the first time, I was not sure where I would end up, but I knew I could no longer remain a Protestant. For about 10 seconds, the thought of Anglicanism occurred to me, and had I been born a hundred years earlier, I might have settled for the option, but the doctrinal decay of the Anglican Church had reached such a point by that time, that I could not consider them a serious option.
Not the Hagia Sophia… but nevertheless, heaven on earth.
In one of my practical theology courses (I think it was entitled “Theology of Christian Worship”) one of our assignments was to visit a certain number of worship services that were not the typical Evangelical Protestant services that we were used to. I used this as an opportunity to go to a service at Fr. Anthony Nelson’s parish. It was a Saturday evening Vespers, and though St. Benedict has a very beautiful Church building today, it didn’t in January of 1990. They were in a storefront that was small. The ceiling tiles had visible rust stains from past leaks. The carpet looked like it had seen better days. The congregation was not large. However, the singing was well done, and I had a sense that this was the real thing when it came to worship. In fact, I noticed elements that reminded me of things I had read about Synagogue worship, and so could see that this kind of worship had to have very ancient roots. And the Saturday evening Prokimenon, sung in Znamenny Chant,
“The Lord is King, He is clothed with majesty” (Psalm 92:1 lxx)
struck me particularly. I later read about how the envoys of St. Vladimir reported back about a service they attended in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople,
“We didn’t know whether we were in heaven or on earth.”
I was not in the Hagia Sophia by any stretch, but I had a similar experience.
My interest in Orthodoxy began as academic curiosity, but gradually it developed into something else. At first I just thought it would be beneficial to know more about it. Then I thought that there are a lot of cool things about it, but I still couldn’t see myself accepting it. Then, over time, I began to think that I could become Orthodox, if only I could answer about five questions (the veneration of Icons; the ever-virginity of the Virgin Mary; the veneration of the saints; praying to the saints; and prayers for the dead), but I didn’t think it likely.
Then I began to study each of those five questions, and gradually they were answered, one by one. I would research the question of the moment, look through the earliest writings of the Fathers on that subject, and in each case was eventually satisfied that each of these Orthodox beliefs were consistent with the earliest Traditions of the Church. And light bulbs would go off in unexpected ways. For example, one day I was talking to a neighbor who was talking about the wife of a retired professor at SNU. He said that this woman was such a woman of prayer that if you ever needed an answer to prayer, she would be the one to go to, because she “had a hotline to God.” Having known some very pious Nazarenes over the years, I didn’t find his account hard to believe. But then it dawned on me, if any woman ever had a hotline to God, that would be first and foremost, the Virgin Mary, wouldn’t it? And didn’t Christ say that God was the
God of the living and not the dead (Matthew 22:23-33),
and so if I could ask this pious old Nazarene woman from Bethany, Oklahoma to pray for me, couldn’t I also ask the Virgin Mary from Nazareth of Galilee to pray for me?
Furthermore, when you come to understand what the Church is, you reach a point at which you trust the Church without needing further proof. From reading the writings of St. Cyprian of Carthage (who reposed in 258 A.D.), I learned that it was not possible that the whole Church could teach as true that which is erroneous (see especially his Treatise on the Unity of the Church).
So after all my research and study, I was fairly certain that I wanted to become Orthodox, and so I decided that it was time to fill my wife in on it – according to a journal that I was keeping at the time, I reached this point about on April 28, 1990 (which was just about a month before I graduated from SNU). This came as quite a shock to her. I had not talked to her, or anyone else except Fr. Anthony Nelson and Anna Voellmecke (his choir director). The reason was simple. I figured that if anyone thought that I was contemplating such a radical shift, that they would question my stability (maybe even my sanity)… and if I became convinced that this was the right way to go, I was prepared to suffer whatever consequences that decision might bring.
However, until I was sure that I wanted to do that, I didn’t let even my wife and closest friends know how serious my interest in Orthodoxy really was. Unfortunately, this had the effect of leaving many of my classmates and acquaintances thinking that one day I was a conservative Nazarene, and then on a whim I one day became Orthodox, but in reality it was the conclusion of a very long process and a great deal of intense study.