by Wesley Giesbrecht
Ever since I was baptized into the Eastern Orthodox Church on September 7th, 2014, I’ve thought of possibly writing an article about the reasons for my leap out of Evangelical Anabaptism and into Eastern Orthodoxy. I’m sure that many people have wondered about why I made the jump and the reasons that I have usually given people when they ask me in person have always been partial and incomplete.
There’s been times when I’ve told people about the theological journey I made where I suddenly realized one day that I was no longer a Protestant. Sometimes I’ve told people about an incident where I was a part of a discussion one night where some influential members declared how they don’t care to read commentary on Scripture but would much rather read it and interpret it for themselves. Other times I’ve brought up the doctrinal relativism and hermeneutical chaos that I realized was rampant within Protestantism. All of these reasons that I have mentioned just barely are only a partial picture of why I joined the Orthodox Church.
I’ve never attempted to try to give a fuller picture before because I myself wasn’t able to see the big picture myself. I thought of explaining myself shortly after my baptism in the manner of an Orthodox apologetic lathered with anti-Protestant polemics but I knew that I would be writing it as an attempt to smear my former communion; and that’s never productive nor beneficial for anyone. I’ve also never been able to write something up because my memory was still too hazy to remember everything.
The move into Orthodoxy was an emotional upheaval and the swelling feelings proved to work as a mental block in trying to remember everything that I wanted to say. Now that it’s been over a year since my reception into the Church and my emotions have stabilized I’ve been able to recall the major points of my journey and feel that it may be beneficial and helpful to finally write it down.
Before I get into it though I want to say as clearly as I can that this is not a work of Orthodox apologetics, nor is it an attempt to bash Protestantism. Obviously since I have left my Protestant background there will be critiques of certain points of Protestant Christianity. This is not to say that all Protestant Christians are therefore automatically headed towards condemnation. God is the one Who judges man, not me. Nor will I attempt to write up treatises for every point of Orthodox doctrine that my Protestant family and friends may find questionable (and believe you me, there’s a lot in Orthodoxy that makes a good Protestant cringe). This is simply my story about how I ended up in the Orthodox Church and what it was that happened that brought me there.
My Conversion to Christianity
To begin my story about my journey into Orthodoxy I must first begin with my conversion to Christianity. I grew up in an Evangelical Mennonite home and would go to church on a regular basis. My upbringing wasn’t predominantly religious but I knew that we were Christians and that this identified us to some degree. I can recall that at a young age that I accepted Jesus into my heart as my Lord and Savior. The funny thing is that I can remember doing this almost every day, even multiple times a day. I was taught that as long as I accept Jesus into my heart then I will be saved forever. Nothing else in required for my salvation; to believe in Jesus is all that is needed.
I can recall that once I reached a certain age I didn’t feel like I had much use for church anymore, though I still had to go due to the insistence of my parents. I felt like I knew everything there was to know about Christianity. I knew all the Bible stories that I taught year after year in Sunday School; plus I’m saved already so why is any of this necessary? I continued to go to church and to the youth group until I graduated highschool at the age of 17. After I graduated I immediately moved out of my parent’s home and was therefore free to do whatever I wanted; which involved not going to church anymore. For the next two years my life was defined mostly by getting high as much as I could and going to as many heavy metal concerts as I possibly could.
Since the age of 14, I had been a devout metalhead and I had began to smoke pot at the age of 17. After I graduated I slowly began to experiment with other drugs; such as ecstasy, mushrooms, salvia, and cocaine, but I never became a junkie when it came to the hard drugs. My drug of choice was pot, which I would smoke (if it was possible) from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to bed. I lived this way for two years until I began to have some revelations in my life that the way I was living wasn’t making anything better. I still had the same problems as I always had, living the way that I was simply numbed me to my pain, it didn’t get rid of it. A certain string of events happened which lead me back to the Evangelical Mennonite church of my youth determined to give the Christian faith all that I could give it.
The Early Evangelical Days
After my conversion I quit doing drugs, I stopped hanging out with my friends that I had been getting high with, and I got rid of thousands of dollars of heavy metal paraphernalia (everything from cds, to t-shirts, magazines, posters, etc..); I got rid of everything because I saw that heavy metal was my idol and to truly love God with all my heart I must be willing to sacrifice my idols for Him. Since I was no longer spending all my time getting high and listening to music I had a lot of free time. I began to spend most of my time reading the Bible. I also got connected with the youth group that I had attended when I was in highschool as a means of integrating out of my former way of life and into my new found Christian faith. Along with the Bible I began to devour Christian apologetics and the writings of C. S. Lewis, both of which would end up playing significant roles in my move towards Orthodoxy.
My Dissatisfaction with the Christian Culture Surrounding Me
The more and more I read my Bible and the more I became integrated into the Christian community around me the more I began to be dissatisfied with what I saw. When I read the Bible it seemed to me that the life of a Christian should look drastically different from that of those who are outside of the faith. What I saw and experienced around me was hardly different from the the life I formerly lived; the only difference really was that the people I was hanging out with now weren’t getting high and went to church. The Scriptures were telling me that our lives were no longer our own, that we were supposed to take up our crosses daily, to put to death the deeds of the flesh, and to offer ourselves as instruments of righteousness. What I was seeing and experiencing didn’t seem to match up. There was one time even that I had posted on Facebook something along the lines of,
“To the fellow members of the body of Christ: if our lives are supposed to look different than the worlds’s then why don’t they?”
My First Encounter With Orthodoxy
In response to my Facebook status I got a message from an old friend of mine, a guy by the name of Michael Bremner. He used to hang out with my older brother and they had even played in some bands together. I hadn’t seen him or had really talked to him in a number of years since he had moved to Saskatchewan for school. I don’t remember exactly what he wrote to me but he started to message me more frequently afterwards. Eventually he mentioned to me something about the Orthodox Church. I had never heard of the Orthodox Church before. All I knew about Christianity was that there was a million different Mennonite churches in Winkler, plus a Baptist church, and that there was such a thing as Roman Catholicism (but they worship Mary and practice confession so they’re obviously wrong). He sent me to the website of the Orthodox Church in America website and told me to read their articles on doctrine (taken from the book by the late Fr. Thomas Hopko; Memory Eternal).
As I read through all the different articles (which covered all the main points found within the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) I found that I agreed with everything that I read; some of it even made me look at certain doctrinal points differently that I found very helpful. I can remember thinking to myself,
“Huh, I think I’m Orthodox”.
I didn’t realize at this point that to be Orthodox meant more than simply signing on to their basic doctrinal statements (the article I read didn’t cover topics such as Mariology, Sacraments, of Ecclesiology; it was just a simply overview of topics like God, Creation, The Fall, Jesus, Eschatology, etc..). I may have even told Michael at this point that I thought that I might be Orthodox. I don’t recall the exact dialogue but I remember one point. He, not so delicately, informed me that I wasn’t Orthodox. To be Orthodox I needed to be a member of the Orthodox Church and that the Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church; and all other churches are not by extension. To become Orthodox I would have to leave the church that I was a part of.
When I was told that the Orthodox Church was the ‘one true Church’ what I heard was,
“You and everyone you know and love are therefore going to hell because we you aren’t a part of the true Church”.
I had never seen an Orthodox Church before, let alone been to one. How was I supposed to become Orthodox? How was I supposed to leave the church that I was apart of? Was I going to hell? Was everyone that I know and love going to hell? Questions like this haunted me for months afterwards. It was a pretty bleak time in my life. I can remember going to work and constantly having these sort of thoughts and questions running through my mind only to come home from work and lay on my bed doing nothing except running these questions through my mind again. Around this time I blocked Michael on Facebook because the very thought of Orthodoxy terrified me and at this point I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I remember that I had actually gone and sought the help of a few different people from the area with ‘prophetic’ gifts, hoping that they would tell me something to ease my anxiety. Sure enough, when they would pray over me and tell me what they saw it would be something along the lines of
“You’re in a good place in your life. God loves you and is going to use you”.
I started to calm down at this point and life began to take a more positive turn.
What strikes me as I look back at that point in my life is that from my first encounter with Orthodoxy my intuition told me, ‘This is right”. In fact, the more I looked at the claims of Orthodoxy the more legit it seemed to me; and this only served to frighten me more. One of the ways I came to deal with my intuitive recognize of the validity of Orthodoxy (even if I didn’t entirely accept this intuition) was coming to a secret belief in universal salvation. I had bought the book, “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut” by the Christian author Brad Jersak (who I first heard about in the documentary “Hellbound”) which is highly sympathetic to Universalism. What struck me in the book was some of the ancient Christian writers who were proponents of Universalism; most notably for myself were St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac of Syria. When I saw that there were people who are recognized saints in the Orthodox Church who were Universalists this opened up the doors to accepting Universalism (though it was mostly a secret belief; I only talked about it with select people that I trusted). I also found out that some contemporary Orthodox thinkers were Universalists (or at least sympathetic); such as the late Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (both Metropolitans are ‘hopeful universalists’: they do not say that God ‘will’ save everyone, but they ‘hope’ that He will).
My secret affair with Universalism was important for my journey towards Orthodoxy because through it I came into contact with certain Saints and Orthodox writers (who I would most likely have never read due to the fact that they were Orthodox) through whom I began to discover other Orthodox writers and Saints. *Note: I am no longer a Univeralist since I became Orthodox and I now recognize that the Church, while it did not condemn certain people for holding onto what She would say are heretical beliefs, does not affirm the Univeralist position at large; nonetheless one can find Orthodox writers who do affirm Universalism, such as the contemporary scholar and historian David Bentley Hart.
A Theological Journey
Once things started to brighten up in my life, and I was able to put that pesky Orthodoxy out of my mind (for the most part) I began my theological journey. It started one day when I was thinking to myself about whether or not people who had become Christians and walked away from their faith were able to repent. In response to my ruminating I turned to the internet to investigate what people said about the issue. Somehow through my searching I ended up on a Wikipedia article that contrasted the main points of theology of the Lutherans with the Reformed and Arminians. Lutheran, Reformed, and Arminian are three of the largest schools of Christian thought so I decided that it would be helpful to see whether or not I was Lutheran, Reformed, or Arminian in my theology.
I recall that I didn’t agree with the Lutherans but that I appreciated them more than the Reformed (the Scottish enigma George MacDonald is quoted as saying, “I turn with loathing from the God of Jonathon Edwards”; a sentiment which I share with no less intensity). When I looked at the Arminian theology I generally agreed: Free Will, a rejection of the Calvinistic understanding of ‘predestination’, the affirmation that the economy of Christ is open to salvation, and that someone can walk away from the faith. The only point that I didn’t agree with in Arminian theology was the doctrine of ‘Total Depravity’.
The reason that I rejected total depravity was because of Lewis. Lewis, in his book ‘The Problem of Pain’, notes something along the lines of,
“if we were totally depraved, our minds would also be totally depraved, so we could never conclude that we were depraved”.
The logic of Lewis stuck with me. I had also officially come to reject the doctrine of total depravity when I came across an article of an Orthodox response to the doctrine (I remember thinking to myself, “I wonder what the Orthodox say about total depravity”) which I found quite compelling. At this point in my life I would have described myself as an Arminian who rejects total depravity. Since I found myself more or less in the Arminian camp I did more reading into it. Through my investigation I came across the one and only John Wesley (and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that I initially looked into him due to his great name).
John Wesley had a major impact on my direction in numerous ways but the most noteworthy influence that he had on me was his doctrine of ‘Christian Perfection’. In it Wesley describes a state of perfection that Christians can attain to by the purification of sin and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This doctrine resonated with me since the scriptural passage of 2 Corinthians 3:18 (“But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord”) always had a profound impact on me when I read it. The Wikipedia article on John Wesley even mentioned the fact that John Wesley studied Eastern Orthodoxy (in other studies I discovered that he was quite fond of the Greek Fathers), particularly the doctrine of theosis. I clicked on the article that talked about theosis and was sold immediately. Theosis as the process by which we are transformed into the likeness of Christ by the Holy Spirit resulting in union with God was a perfect description of what I read in the Bible. Here I abandoned the position I was taught growing up that salvation is a one time thing; salvation became far more dynamic and an ongoing process (just as it is taught in the New Testament).
Along with the doctrine of Theosis, I accepted the doctrine of ‘synergy’. Synergy states that man must co-operate in his salvation by grace and I agreed with this wholeheartedly. I first explicitly accepted this position when I came across it in C. S. Lewis’ classic, ‘Mere Christianity’. Lewis said, regarding the relationship between faith and works,
“Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or faith in Christ … it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary.”
John Wesley also taught the doctrine of synergy (as well as Arminian theology in general) and since I constantly saw in the Scriptures that we were suppose to do good works I signed onto synergy as well. The next major theological advances that I made were when I was turned on to the Anglican scholar N. T. Wright. I can not emphasize enough how much of an impact he had on me. More than any other writer (even my beloved C. S. Lewis) he shaped my theological vision and understanding.
Some of the major positions that I gained from N. T. Wright include: rejection of the ‘rapture’, recognition of the fulfillment of salvation being the resurrection of the dead (rather than some sort of vague platonic disembodied afterlife that dominated the popular presentations on heaven) and cosmic transfiguration, a more ecclesiological dimension to salvation, a rejection of the traditional Protestant understanding of ‘justification’, the Church as the fulfillment of Israel (aka: supersessionism), an amillenial/partial-preterist eschatology, sin as being a falling short of what we were created for rather than the breaking of a rule, a Christus Victor model of the atonement, an understanding of original sin that isn’t Augustinian, a complete redefinition of ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’, along with other points which we shall look at in other sections of this story.
What was most important about the impact of N. T. Wright was his opening of my mind which ultimately lead me to reject most of the popular forms of Protestant doctrines that I had been raised to believe. I devoured as many of his books as I could and watched endless amounts of videos of his on YouTube. I also frequently visited theological blogs of a wide variety. One of the blogs that I visited, ‘the Pocket Scroll’, introduced me to many of the Church Fathers.
Another was by the scholar Ben Witherington (the third) where he discussed how the early Church would never have accepted to notion of ‘Sola Scriptura’ since there wasn’t a canon until the fourth century; a startling realization for myself which led to a new approach to the place of ‘tradition’. I would also read random theological articles that I could find regarding topics that interested me.
One such article I read somewhere, possibly on Christianity Today, had an interview of Met. Kallistos Ware in which he presented that redemption begins with the Incarnation since at the Incarnation man is reunited with God. Another blog that I would visit, ‘Euangelion’ on the Patheos website, once shared an article describing the Orthodox understanding of the infancy of the original man. According to the article (which was reviewing the book, ‘Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology’ by Fr. Andrew Louth) the Orthodox understanding was the man was meant to grow and mature even in his paradisal state, thus from the very beginning the purpose of man’s life was theosis. This was another position that I signed onto. One of the most odd blogs that I followed was the self-proclaimed liturgical anabaptist Kurt Willems and his Pangea blog. The importance of this blog is that it lead me to the, now Anglican, scholar Scot Mcknight. Scot McKnight had a big impact on me due to his teaching on man being the ‘eikon’ of God.
Obviously the Bible speaks about man being made in the image of God but it’s implications never struck me until I came across Scot Mcknight: man is made to be the icon of God, the fall darkens the image, the economy of Christ restores the image. This teaching perfectly fit in with my understanding of man being made in a state of perfection yet spiritual infancy who is meant to grow through the co-operation of his will with the Grace of God to attain the full likeness of Christ, and thus fulfill his ‘eikonic’ vocation. Also part of Mcknight’s vision is that man was made for communion; first with God, then with himself, then with other human beings, and finally with the whole of creation. This fit in perfectly with my understanding of the purpose of man’s life being theosis and the ultimate salvation being the resurrection of the dead and the transformation of the entire cosmos.
A short summary of the theological vision I came to acquire (which was over the time of about a year and a half) is: God creates man to be in communion with Him and all creation. Man is perfect but in a dynamic way in which he is meant to co-operate with the Grace of God to be transformed into the full likeness of God and become the perfect ‘eikon’ of God. Sin cuts him off from God which results in mankind being plunged into mortality which is what original sin (not that man inherits Adam’s guilt). The story of Israel is of the preparation for the Messiah who will restore mankind.
Christ is the fulfillment of the story of Israel and through his economy all mankind can now be members of the People of God (ie: The Church). Christ restores man to God in the Incarnation, deals with sin at the crucifixion, and destroys death through His resurrection, and brings mankind with Himself into the Kingdom through His ascension. In the Church mankind is once again in communion with God, himself, man, and creation and is able to co-operate with the Grace of God to attain to theosis which is fully accomplished at the resurrection of the dead and the transfiguration of the cosmos.
This was the theological vision that I had molded and it’s interesting that it mostly (not exclusively though) was shaped by taking what I felt was the best of the Protestant writers I was reading and molding my own theology. Along the way there were other writers too who helped shape my theology (such as Dallas Willard and Alister McGrath) but this is an accurate picture of what I have come to believe shortly before becoming Orthodox, but before we can get there we have to examine some other paths that I was on in my life; not only the theological one.
My Steps Towards, and then Running Away From, Canterbury
While I was making my theological journey I found myself largely identifying with the Anglican church. My two favorite Christian writers (C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright) were Anglicans as well as some others that I was familiar with (such as Alister McGrath, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, John Wesley, Henry Chadwick, etc..). I found the Church of England very attractive since in many ways it still resembled Classical Christianity by retaining an episcopal structure, a church calendar, lectionary, liturgy, etc.. I was even more attracted to the Anglican church because it was closer to Protestantism than Orthodoxy was (and in the Anglican church I wouldn’t be forced to swallow certain pills; Mariology and the Saints primarily) and if I became Anglican I would still be far closer to be Protestant friends and family.
I was so serious about the possibility of Anglicanism that I even went out and bought a copy of the ‘Book of Common Prayer’ (though when I opened it I was at a loss how to work it) and would even refer to myself as an ‘Anonymous Anglican’ (since I wasn’t formally a member of the Anglican communion). During this time I was following a blog by an American Episcopalian who was quite eclectic in his own theology. One day he began to sort ‘tell-all’ series of posts describing, in horrible detail, all the let downs, divisions, and interior problems of the Episcopal church. As I read the series I found myself cringing at the disunity, internal fracturing, and at times down right hostility found within the Episcopal church. Before I had read these posts the only real reservation I had about the Anglican church was about her dubious origins but now I found myself running away as fast as I could.