In Defense of Repetition

1631 Book of Psalms
1631 Book of Psalms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I’ve had a few conversations with people who found a distaste for Orthodoxy with a common theme, that of repetition.  You almost have to say it with a captial R, dripping with disdain.  After all, isn’t repetitious worship a major cause of the ills of Catholicism and high church protestantism.  What more do you need than Jesus’ words against “vain repetition” to tell you how destructive it is.  In the charismatic tradition I was raised in we wouldn’t be caught dead engaging in repetitious services.  We would hold only disdain for those poor Christians who actually read through a service book on a Sunday morning.  That’s dead religion.

Well, not so fast.  Allow me to rise in defense of repetition.  The disdain found in most of evangelical protestantism for repetition is as puzzling as it is knee-jerk, and yet this is such a common complaint that almost any convert has probably raised it, and any Orthodox responder has encountered it.  How many protestants of the free worship variety are willing to take an honest look at their own practices and recognize the repetition in them?  How many will take a fresh look at the effects and uses of repetition and see the positive benefits?  Not many, I believe, but this is a mistake.  Protestants who think that repetition is inherently spiritually dangerous and that their own practices are far from repetitious are wrong on both counts.  Rather, repetition is both beneficial and in fact necessary in the Church.

Repetition: By Any Other Name

First, let’s consider the common thought among evangelicals that they are anything but repetitious.  Feeling that extemporaneous actions equal true worship or true relationship, they strive to pray extemporaneously and do unplanned actions during worship.  However anyone who has been an evangelical or been around them for long will quickly realize that the extemporaneous prayer is anything but.  Themes and phrases are repeated.  Tones and patterns are very common.  In fact it’s a common complaint among evangelicals (I know this from first and second hand experience) that their prayer life has become something substandard because they feel it is too repetitious.  Extemporaneousness becomes a burden that’s impossible to bear.  Even when you strive to remove a set structure, or reject structures of the past, new structures blossom in their place.

The same is true with the corporate worship of an evangelical church.  If you are honest, how much actually varies from week to week, or even from year to year?  Sit down any evangelical of some duration and ask them how the order of service at their church will go.  They will be able to give you with some exactness what will happen on Sunday.  I always found it somewhat humorous that even the “unplanned” elements of a charismatic service will fall into a schedule and begin to happen at very consistent times.  I don’t need to belabor this point.  Merely recognizing and accepting that in fact repetition is just as common in evangelical prayer and worship as it is in Orthodox (or Catholic or any highly liturgic church) can help to dispel the automatic negative reaction.

Repetition: A Necessity

Repetition appears to actually be a necessary component in human relationships.  This can be positive or negative.  For someone who has emotional or relational disfunction this might be evident in serial abusive relationship.  In a healthier light a relationship that is functioning properly gains stability through repeated actions and experiences.  In any case you find that repetition is innate to human nature in our interactions with others.  Good or bad, repetition is everywhere.

Even when people intentionally try to remove repetitious elements in their Christian activities they are unsuccessful.  The Reformation saw a beginning of intentional disconnecting with the immediate past, and a process of reinvention that has only sped up over time.  While Luther and Calvin didn’t see themselves as re-imagining Christianity, that is exactly what is attempted by many modern Christians.  In some grander irony, though, intentionally shunning the historical actions of the church and coming up with something “fresh” does not remove repetition.  New traditions arise in their place.  Remove the creed, and a new creed will come up.  Remove old music, and a new standard line up emerges.  Fight the old prayer patterns and lo and behold, there’s a new pattern.  The result of removing a tradition isn’t the removal of tradition, it’s just the loss of the richness of what had been there before.  Orthodoxy has an old, rich soil of worship that has been well cared for.

Repetition is a very hardy breed.  It’s impossible to kill.  It’s something that has been with us as far back as we can see in Scripture.  Old Testament worship was strongly repetitive.  The hymnography of the Hebrews (Psalms) was highly repetitive.  Human nature shows itself to be consistent over long periods of time.  There’s nothing new about those patterns under the sun.  One must come to the conclusion that repetition is inherent in our nature due to its omnipresence.

Repetition: Foundation for Healthy Relationship

While much maligned, repeating activities and actions with a loved one is a great tool for building a relationship.  Any married couple can tell you after some years of marriage how their spouse will act in given situations, and while that is not always seen as a benefit it’s really is the foundation to a relationship, because it provides stability.  While variety provides nice interest, it’s the repetitious elements of a relationship that build connection.  Every time I leave the house I make sure and tell my wife that I love her.  I’ve repeated these words and this actions countless times, and yet my wife has never told me to stop being so repetitive.  “I love you” never ceases to be helpful in maintaining our relationship.  It would be ludicrous, in fact, to insist that terms of endearment must be new every time.  How many widows and widowers take great comfort in remembering the repetitive aspects of their dead spouse’s life.  They remember the way they drank coffee, or read the newspaper, or sang that one song over and over.  Those actions repeated over and over are the connectable ones.

The same is true for God.  If you think that God is impressed by your unique expressiveness then you misunderstand his changeless nature, and the worship structure that he set in place.  If you think that he is turned off by your repetitive actions then you malign the image you were made in the likeness of, that gave you the need for repetition.  The Old Testament shows repetition in worship.  Jesus participated in this repetitive worship structure, and so did the apostles.  Apparently repetition is a hallmark of relationship to God, just the same as it is with humans.  An ever changing worship only results in instability.

One possibility to consider is that while all this attention to finding new expressions of worship and life that is so prevalent in evangelical circles may go a long way to promoting interest, but completely fail at promoting growth.  Growth in the Christian life is not served by a continuous stream of unique experiences, any more than learning is served by this.  As a homeschooling parent I get to see this first hand, and I’m sure teachers would happily concur.  You introduce new concepts to children, but it’s the repetition that let’s them master the concept.  If every school day you just focus on the new, and never look back at older concepts, you will never help that child progress.  Our relationship with God cannot be dumbed down to just education about God, but certainly you can see how frequent, shared, common experiences are a healthy building block for relationships.

Repetition: Aid to Worship

Orthodox worship is repetitious in many ways.  Not in all, to be certain.  You could definitely make the case that Orthodoxy has less repetition than many protestant churches, though that might stagger the imagination.  When you dig into the mechanics of Orthodox worship you’ll be surprised by the amount of variation from day to day to week to week.  However, there is no doubt that many elements of the divine liturgy are repeated.  This pattern is quite Scriptural however.  The worship of Israel was extremely liturgical and repetitious.  Just like Orthodox worship, it has patterns and seasons that occur over time.  Just like Orthodox worship (and protestant too) it has elements repeated every day or week.  Even entire services are repeated every week.  Just like Israelite worship we have feasts, and just like Israelite worship we have fasts.  The similarities between the two are striking.

Let us be clear, however.  This is a good thing!  God instituted this form of worship for good reason.  It promotes healthy worship.  Having a clear pattern to our worship allows us to engage the changeless God in a way that is appropriate to Him, and not focusing on the new and innovative, which promotes us.  The aim of the modern evangelical church is to use modern marketing ideas to attract people.  The aim of ancient Christian worship is to rightly praise God.  Let’s not forget the model par excellence of praise found in Scripture, in Isaiah 6:

6:1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the sovereign master seated on a high, elevated throne. The hem of his robe filled the temple. 6:2 Seraphs stood over him; each one had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and they used the remaining two to fly. 6:3 They called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord who commands armies! His majestic splendor fills the entire earth!” 6:4 The sound of their voices shook the door frames, and the temple was filled with smoke.

You can see a mirror image in Revelation 4:

4:8 Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around andinside. They never rest day or night, saying: Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful, Who was and who is, and who is still to come!”

4:9 And whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the one who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 4:10 the twenty-four elders throw themselves to the ground before the one who sits on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever, and they offer their crowns before his throne, saying:

4:11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, since you created all things, and because of your will they existed and were created!”

Three huzzahs for repetition.  Better yet, three “Holy”s.  One of the most foundational prayers in Orthodoxy, that you’ll find repeated in most any service and in the private prayers of the faithful, is known as the Trisagion (which is a greek word meanly “thrice holy”) prayer.  In part it says:

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Glory to thee, our God, glory to thee.

O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

All-holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God, visit and heal our infirmities for thy Name’s sake.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

That is a profoundly beautiful and repetitious prayer.  Notice the obvious patterning of the worship of heaven in it.  It rings with the Holy, Holy, Holy of heavenly worship!  You might also be interested to find out more about the Jesus Prayer.

Repetition: The Ancient Paths

An obvious benefit to repetition is that it aids in memorization.  This seems obvious, but I don’t think many people are also connecting the role of repetition in creating habits, good or bad.  Probably most people have heard that it takes 21 days of repetition to form a habit.  The reality of habit formation is much more complicated.  The duration of repetition to form a habit actually varies highly depending on the task.   The amount of time it requires to form a good habit can be as short as 18 days or as high as 254!  On average, it takes 66 days to reach a good habit plateau for our behaviors.  But for the diligent habit creator, what an amazing benefit a habit provides.  After the habit becomes ingrained it becomes somewhat automatic.  No more thought is required to enact the habit, and it becomes part of your makeup and hard to break.

The Orthodox Church establishes a daily, a weekly, a seasonal, and a yearly pattern to it worship, and given time this habit or worship becomes part of who you are.  The Church is famously conservative in maintaining the pattern of worship and prayer that has been handed down to it.  The liturgy is ancient.  The prayers are ancient.  When you go through the divine liturgy or pray the trisagion, you are echoing the lives of the saints from all ages.  Your worship is their worship.  Your prayer is their prayer.

In Jeremiah 6:16 it says:

The Lord said to his people: “You are standing at the crossroads. So consider your path. Ask where the old, reliable paths are.  Ask where the path is that leads to blessing and follow it.  If you do, you will find rest for your souls.”

Those who rail against the repetitious, the traditional, rail against connecting with those who have done this Christian life before, who know where the reliable paths are.  The modern protestant historical amnesia is one of the great tragedies of Christianity.  If you want to know how to pass along the faith, consider Orthodoxy, which has successfully passed on the faith unbroken for 2,000 years.  It is the envy of all when it comes to teaching the Christian life.  Protestants should take note.

Repetition: Essential to Community

One critique of Protestantism that you’ll hear from Orthodoxy is that it promotes individualism, not community.  I won’t spend time defending that critique, but rather I’d like to point out that repetition is an absolutely critical part of building community.  If you want a group of people to build relationship they must spend time together in shared action.  How can a group of people possibly come together to worship without actions that they all know by heart, and how can they know an action by heart if it is not repetitious.  The more unique an experience or activity is, the less it promotes community among a group.  The word community refers to “those who share things in common.  I’ll assert it again, you cannot have community with repetition.

I find it interesting that inside evangelical communities you can find this desire for communal action bubbling to the surface time and again, and resulting in the re-creation of the very elements of ancient Christianity that are often explicitly denied.  One such element is a creed.  Commonly evangelicals will decry the use of a creed (which is bizarre), and yet they consistently re-create their own creeds over and over (and over and over).  They decry liturgical worship, but they promote it within their own denominations by promoting certain patterns and actions.  They reject written prayers and end up with just as strongly pattern prayers that remain unwritten.  The need for pattern in creed, liturgy, and prayer is unspoken but cannot be suppressed.

Shane Claiborne
Shane Claiborne

And you know, it may not even be so unspoken any more.  Witness the efforts of Shane Claiborne and others to recreate a common experience suitable for western/protestant Christians in their Common Prayer book.  You can even get a pocket edition to take to church with you.  :o)  By the way, I mean no disrespect to Shane.  I own and have read most of his books, and I really appreciate his desire to live rightly with God.  We could all strive to be more like him in that.  I only wish that he would stop trying to recreate monasticism and common experience, and join the continuing life of the Apostolic Church that he obviously longs for.  Shane, come home!

Psalm 136

I’ll leave the matter of repetition now with one of the works of musical beauty inspired by God, in a sense a conversation of God with Himself, which is also a monument to repetition.

136:1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,

for his loyal love endures.

136:2 Give thanks to the God of gods,

for his loyal love endures.

136:3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords,

for his loyal love endures,

136:4 to the one who performs magnificent, amazing deeds all by himself,

for his loyal love endures,

136:5 to the one who used wisdom to make the heavens,

for his loyal love endures,

136:6 to the one who spread out the earth over the water,

for his loyal love endures,

136:7 to the one who made the great lights,

for his loyal love endures,

136:8 the sun to rule by day,

for his loyal love endures,

136:9 the moon and stars to rule by night,

for his loyal love endures,

136:10 to the one who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,

for his loyal love endures,

136:11 and led Israel out from their midst,

for his loyal love endures,

136:12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,

for his loyal love endures,

136:13 to the one who divided the Red Sea in two,

for his loyal love endures,

136:14 and led Israel through its midst,

for his loyal love endures,

136:15 and tossed Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea,

for his loyal love endures,

136:16 to the one who led his people through the wilderness,

for his loyal love endures,

136:17 to the one who struck down great kings,

for his loyal love endures,

136:18 and killed powerful kings,

for his loyal love endures,

136:19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,

for his loyal love endures,

136:20 Og, king of Bashan,

for his loyal love endures,

136:21 and gave their land as an inheritance,

for his loyal love endures,

136:22 as an inheritance to Israel his servant,

for his loyal love endures,

136:23 to the one who remembered us when we were down,

for his loyal love endures,

136:24 and snatched us away from our enemies,

for his loyal love endures,

136:25 to the one who gives food to all living things,

for his loyal love endures.

136:26 Give thanks to the God of heaven,

for his loyal love endures!

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In Defense of Repetition

Final phases

English: The inside of an Orthodox church. Gre...
English: The inside of an Orthodox church. Greek Orthodox Church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My wife and I have decided to move forward into Orthodoxy.  This has been a process of years for us both.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  Taking your time let’s you really think about what you are doing, and allows you to make your commitment based on solid reasoning, rather than emotions.  I’m happy that we’re entering this new phase though.  I very much look forward to being past the constant searching and researching.  :o)

Now we’re working through the logistics of actually becoming Orthodox.  My wife and I have been baptized, but we need to come up with documentation to that effect.  At some point we will be chrismated (an annointing with oil) and have our marriage blessed.  At a separate time our children will be baptized and chrismated.  Along the way we will pick up a new set of names (to be determined), and some new family relations (also to be determined).  There’s lots of things on our to do list.

Questions from family and friends have largely stopped, and so this blog has quieted down.  The content will remain and I may periodically post new information.  Of course I still welcome questions, but more and more I come to realize that I am hardly the best person to answer.  I am so new, still, I can’t imagine that I really add much to the conversation.  Hopefully I have done more good than harm, and for the rest, Lord have mercy!

Final phases

Odds and Ends

orthodox cathedral
orthodox cathedral (Photo credit: slideshow bob)

I wanted to make some notes here before they escaped me.  This is all minor stuff, but perhaps note worthy.

1) I was recently in another discussion with a different Protestant professor of patristics.  When asked about Protestant distinctives and his thoughts on Orthodoxy he made a curious defense of Sola Scriptura (I won’t bother to post it here) and then pointed me at Karl Barth’s discussion of the Reformed view of Scripture in chapter two of The Theology of the Reformed Confessions (http://books.google.com/books?id=KGup6Xl_lzAC&lpg=PP1&dq=barth%20reformed%20theology&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false), which thankfully I could read entirely online thanks to the preview shown on Google Books.  I’ve considered doing some “conversation” with Barth on his views, but why bother.  I didn’t find them particularly enlightening or convincing, but I can check it off my list.  Yes, I’ve read Barth’s discussion on the topic.  Moving on.

2)  I recently read another book on the issue of the primacy of the Pope, and how Orthodox and Roman Catholic might reconnect.  I thought the book was very good, and unlike my previous recommendation in this area you don’t have to read with a large grain of salt.  The book is called You Are Peter (http://www.amazon.com/You-Are-Peter-Orthodox-Reflection/dp/1565481895/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1341188415&sr=1-1&keywords=you+are+peter).  I still haven’t read Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity (http://www.amazon.com/Orthodoxy-Roman-Papacy-Prospects-East-West/dp/0268026076/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1341188445&sr=1-2&keywords=ut+unum+sint) due to the cost and other interests, but I’m sure it’s got good things to say to the subject of reunification.

3) My wife and I have been meeting with our parish priest to discuss any remaining issues we have prior to Chrismation.  We still haven’t made any commitments of scheduled anything, but this is one of the last steps.

Odds and Ends

On early christian art: a response to a protestant professor pt. 1

[To understand what this blog is, read this first.  If you would rather just listen to discussion on icons, look for links down at the end.

Today I just received a copy of Early Christian Attitudes toward Images by Fr. Dr. Steven Bigham, and man do I wish I would have had that in hand before writing.  I’m glad I did the research I did, but just from what I’ve read so far I can see that Dr. Bigham does a great job of taking this information and really going deep with it.  He does a very well rounded take on icons from all sides, archaeological, literary and theological.  So, if you are interested in trying to understand icons as a non-Orthodox, or to defend them, you definitely need to get that book.  I have also had Imago Dei, by Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan recommended to me, but I haven’t read it personally.  I have many books by Dr. Pelikan and can recommend all the ones I have read, so I don’t doubt that he did a wonderful job on that as well, so you might check it out.]

This letter (again, long long long) is in response to some correspondence from a protestant professor of patristics.  I asked him about his thoughts on Orthodoxy, and he actually responded in some detail, which was a bit of a surprise.  After reading his response, which focused on the use of icons as an example of deviations from historic Christian doctrine, and on apostolic succession as the foundation of Orthodoxy’s claim to fame I went back to the drawing board and rethought my understanding on these issues.  As I re-examined early Christian art I found the book The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art to be very helpful.  The book Ante Pacem has really good material as well.  I also discussed the issues with some Orthodox Ph.D.s.  I received some excellent thoughts from them.  The response below is my own writing and thoughts.  Any mistakes are mine, not the excellent people who shared their thoughts with me.

Dr. [Patristics Ph.D.],

I’m back.  🙂  It’s been a few weeks since you last wrote back to me, and I’ve been reading and considering your emails, doing additional research and such, and now I’d like to share some thoughts.  You said it would be ok to email back, so you brought this on yourself.  🙂

I thought it was funny that you started working through these issues after reading through the Ante-Nicene Fathers.  That’s how I got started down the rabbit hole as well.  Since beginning to experience the early church writings and digging more into history I’ve found myself less and less happy with what I see in Protestant doctrine and practice, and that has led me to consider Orthodoxy.  I really appreciate your help in thinking this through, and maybe in some way this response will help with your book idea.  Certainly it helps me, and I need it.  Since you let me impose a bit already, I’m going to take additional liberty and impose again.  I’d like to lay out my thinking on what you’ve said so far and ask you to use your expertise to point out any problems you see.  I understand that your time is valuable, and I wouldn’t ask except that this is a crucial juncture for my family and I’m driven to seek out the best advice I can get, and to make the absolute best choice in serving God.  So, forgive me for asking for your attention again, and I’ll understand if you can’t respond in any depth.

How We’ve Viewed the Early Church (and Iconography)
Let me lay out my case for the icons for you first, and then segue into my thoughts on apostolic succession.  I have examined these issue in the past, but your comments made me want to start over and dig deeper and make sure that I had given ear to all sides, considering latest scholarship as best I was able.

As I was reading over the questions you brought up in your last email I was struck with how appropriate they were on the subject of the standard interpretative matrix that has dominated historic views of early Christianity and images.  The “orthodox” view of early Christianity has been a very schizophrenic one, dominated in recent memory by the views of Adolf von Harnack, as reinterpreted by Theodore Klauser.  The basic story told has been that:

  1. Christianity was the natural continuation of Judaism, and so was opposed to imagery both in doctrine as well as in practice.
  2. This opposition was maintained by clergy into the fourth century, but this opposition was quickly eroded in the laity and they disdained the correct views of their leaders, demanded images and got them.
  3. The introduction of images was a contradiction of the views and practices of the early Christians.

This idea of how images were introduced into the church (“the standard interpretation”) has held sway for quite a while, but is now being quickly challenged with new views that owe less to the heritage of John Calvin’s interpretative matrix and bad archaeological knowledge, and more to a contextual understanding of the evidence we have now.  Back in 1977 Sister Charles Murray published an article that began to challenge the standard interpretation, and she has since been followed by other historians, such as Margaret Miles, Justo Gonzalez, Graydon Snyder, Robin Jensen, and Paul Finney (that I know of) in rejecting the earlier held view.  The viewpoints of these historians intentionally tries to see past the post-reformation interpretations and review the data itself again in light of current knowledge of the ancient context.  Doing so has caused them to arrive at very different conclusions than Harnack/Klauser and followers.

“In the early church, there seems to have been no objection to the use of images, for the catacombs and other early places of worship were decorated with paintings depicting communion, baptism, and various biblical episodes.  Later, when the Empire embraced Christianity, several leading bishops expressed concern that the masses now flocking to the church would be led to idolatry, and therefore they preached, not against the images themselves, but against their misuse as objects of worship.” (pg 259, The Story of Christianity, Dr. Justo Gonzalez)

“Having supposed the [patristic] literature was fairly accurate in its perception, church historians have for centuries described an early church that first was pure and then, by a gradual erosion of faith and practice, fell into heretical schisms.  Walter Bauer, in his classic study of orthodoxy and heresy in the pre-Constantinian church, shattered this naive presupposition.” (pg 15, Ante Pacem, Dr. Graydon Snyder)

“This picture of an essentially aniconic early Christianity, strongly advanced by such eminent art historians as Theodore Klauser in the 1950s and 1960s, came to be widely accepted.  Klauser and others portrayed the earliest Christians as proto-Protestants — puritanical, anti-wordly, and opposed to visual art, particularly in worship settings, and cited the writings of the early Christian theologians who were critical of Roman idol worship as evidence of this original iconophobia.  Many historians of Christianity accepted this explanation rather uncritically, and readily incorporated it into their studies of early Christianity and Roman society.  Such a position accords well with a view that Christianity became increasingly decadent or Hellenized in the third and fourth centuries as the church became assimilated to culture.  This view, however, relies on far too literalistic a reading of the ancient literature, rather than presenting a picture of early Christianity that accords with the actual archaeological or textual evidence.” (pg 14, Understanding Early Christian Art, Dr. Robin Jensen)

“…Klauser introduces archaeological materials into the discussion of attitudes toward art, and on principle this is a real step forward, but due to his interpretative framework, much of what he has to say about these materials is either problematic or demonstrably false.” (pg 10, The Invisible God, Dr. Paul Finney)

I particularly found Dr. Finney’s (professor of Ancient History at University of Missouri) book The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art to be instructive (as well as Dr. Jensen’s Understanding Early Christian Art).  He presents the issues of the standard interpretation with clarity and demonstrates how a synthesis of the literary and archaeological evidence can be found that respects the early Christian context.

You cautioned in your email that it is easy to mis-read early literature.  Without paying attention to the social context and literary genre one can easily devolve into seeing what one wants to see, or proof-texting the fathers.  Dr. Finney points out that the bulk of early literary evidence on the subject of images is found in apologies on Roman idolatry, and not on treatises dealing with art.  Art was secondary to their purpose of dealing with Roman idolatry.  This must be considered in understanding the aims of the literature, and what it applies to.  Too often the literature is anachronistically dragged into an iconographic debate that wouldn’t occur for many centuries, when in reality it was dealing with a different topic altogether, pagan idolatry.

In my survey of the passages from the Fathers this became strongly confirmed.  Over and over the later apologetic writings against icons misused and abused earlier writings that were not intended to speak to the subject.  I read over passages from Polycarp, Marcianus Aristides, Melito, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Minucius, Hippolytus, Arnobius, and others that were referenced as iconoclastic.  In all cases the quotations were dealing with idolatry, and not the Christian practice of iconography, and of course most of those were not even from the early Christian time period and so don’t speak to early Christian attitudes on art in any case.  Much hay was made from some quotations by Origen from his Contra Celsus, but again when read in context it was clear that the subject matter was not iconography.  I appreciated the concerns you raised about anachronism, and it seems that apologetics against iconography are clearly suffering from that malady in spades.

Many arguments against icons drew strongly from texts by Epiphanius, but I think the argumentation against the authenticity of those texts is reasonable, and so I place no trust in them.  Anyways, Epiphanius seems to oppose the use of icons on curtains and walls, but it is clear from his writings that he was opposing the common practice, and so his work shouldn’t be used as a proof that the early church uniformly opposed icons. Also it is interesting that his descriptions of the pictures of the different Apostles seem to confirm the existence of an iconographic tradition.

There is a Gnostic work ascribed to the early called the Acts of John that criticizes icons. This is interesting because this would seem to imply that Christians used icons at this time, and its criticism of icons probably comes from the gnostic rejection of the importance of matter, which Christianity rejected.

I probably don’t have to mention Eusebius of Caesarea to you, but just so that you know I’ve dealt with it I’ll note that quotations are taken from a letter of his to Constantia, sister to Emperor Constantine, to demonstrate his iconoclastic doctrine, but the quotes are in doubt by many historians as to their authenticity, and the quotes don’t even truly demonstrate iconoclasm.  I don’t find them very illuminating.

Finney says that the reading of the apologies as “faithfully reproducing the real-life conditions that obtained both for themselves and their enemies in the second and third centuries” is “naive and misleading” (pg 16).  Certainly this is the case for almost all apologetic writings, ancient and modern, and should be accounted for.  There is a huge gap, a definitive difference, in the quality of what can be gleaned from apologies against non-Christian practices verses doctrinal instruction from theologians to their flock.  We have much of the former, but not much of the latter, in the literature regarding images.  In the end it is crucial to remember that the early Christian apologists created an attack against Greek religious art, which is not consonant in subject matter or use with Christian religious art.

So, the first problem with the standard interpretation is a misleading reading of the apologetic literature. The second is due to misleading assumptions about the character of early Christians that would lead them to be anti-art, stemming from the archaeological evidence of the first two centuries.  Or rather, the lack of such.  Finney points out this issue of interpreting the lack of evidence, quite correctly, I think.

“To repeat, the point of departure is the fundamental claim (No Christian art before 200), and we can extend the scope of this generalization indefinitely to include the entire universe of material culture in the first and second centuries: nothing in any material category (papyri excepted) that is distinctively Christian and predates the third century.  The inference that flows from this absence of evidence is compelling: before 200 Christians produced nothing that was materially distinct, no art and no separate material culture in any form [meaning things like houses, tools, weapons, money, etc. that are distinctively Christian].

“But this too is an archaeological argument from silence, and arguments in this genre are notoriously slippery.  This one is no exception.  The major pitfall is the tendency to confuse absence of evidence with negative evidence: as any undergraduate history major can tell you, they are not the same.  Not knowing if a thing exists is different from knowing it does not.  Before 1932, for example, the complete absence of figural art from pre-Byzantine Judaism was taken as a sign that the so-called normative form of (a la George Foote Moore) this ancient religion was strictly aniconic.  Then came Dura[-Europos].  The discovery of the synagogue with its rich complement of biblically inspired wall paintings forced a reevaluation–indeed, a dramatic and rather far-reaching one.  Sixty years later, the historical assessment of Judaism in later antiquity is still in progress, including an ongoing evaluation of the putative role that aniconism played in the life of this community.  A similar discovery in the Christian realm could have equally dramatic consequences.” (pg. 100, The Invisible God)

Certainly the study of Christian archaeology is a very old discipline, and the lack of early, found evidence must be taken into account, and yet in the last century we’ve had very striking discoveries that have changed the field and caused people to reevaluate their ideas.  Dura-Europos is certainly enough to give one pause.  There you have the oldest surviving, positively identified Christian church.  In it, surprisingly, we find iconography dating from the early third century.  So, the oldest church we know of had icons, and this at the time period where much apologetic material against images (pagan idols) was being produced.  Much more surprisingly the Jewish synagogue at Dura-Europos also had very detailed iconography.  This sheds enormous light on the oft-repeated contention that Jews were strongly anti-image.  Apparently, not so much.  Since this is used as common justification for why early Christians would’ve been anti-image I find this to be very important.

For a survey of the earliest Christian art I turned to Ante Pacem, by Dr. Graydon Snyder, one time dean and professor of New Testament at Bethany Theological Seminary and Chicago Theological Seminary.  In this excellent book Dr. Snyder discusses all of the types of art that we can definitively date to pre-Constantinian periods.  I found it very helpful.  His discussion of early veneration of the dead was extremely interesting, and while it bears on iconography and clearly points at veneration of saints at the beginning of Christianity, that is a side topic for another time.  Dr. Snyder notes 31 separate types of pictorial representations all to be found in sepulchral art, fresco, mosaics, etc.  Of those 31 at least 12 types would’ve included depictions of Jesus.  The earliest age of the surviving art work would date back to the late 2nd century. Within a century of the last living apostles we have evidence of imagery being used.  Based on that alone it would be reasonable to say that early Christianity was not opposed to images.

And yet, again, the study of early Christian archaeology, which dates back to the 1600s, has failed to find anything of Christian culture except for some writings, that can be dated back before 200.  Finney spends time filling in the big question that his reinterpretation leads to, which is where is the art in the first two centuries.  Here I will note a few points.

  1. The assumptions that early Christians were anti-art are just that, assumptions.  A reinterpretation needs to be logical and fill in the gaps, but in combating a (widely held) set of assumptions sans evidence the bar of proof is necessarily lower.
  2. Early Christians weren’t the only groups in the time period to leave no material cultural evidence.  For parallels you could also look to Roman neo-Pythagoreans from the first century, or the gnostics.  The gnostics had a similar strongly documented belief system in literature, but no material cultural remains to demonstrate their existence.  “Material culture” encompasses not just art, but buildings, goods, tools, weapons, domestic utensils, etc.  Christians left nothing in the first few centuries.  Contrast this with the Jewish people of this time period, who certainly left traces of themselves in many ways that are identifiable as a separate culture.  Absence of these things commonly denotes the absence of a distinct culture.
  3. The standard interpretation which posits a strongly anti-image early Christianity gives no convincing reason for an abrupt about-face in the 200s.  Klauser’s interpretation is very unsatisfying, and fails to adequately explain not only the attitude shift, but the complete disregard of this attitude shift from Christian leaders in the remaining literature.
  4. Given that a pre-supposition of the standard view is an anti-image Judaism, which is being re-evaluated by historians due to recent finds, we don’t have a convincing reason to presuppose that early Christianity was necessarily anti-image.  (I’d also posit that that view of Judaism on a theological level doesn’t match the Biblical injunctions against idols, but requiring imagery in worship, from the Old Testament)

Finney goes on to posit an explanation for the lack of art work from the early centuries.  I’ll leave it to his book to lay out the ideas in a more full and convincing argument, but you could sum it up by saying that Christians lacked a definitive culture.  They did not have their own land, or economy or ethnicity.  The surrounding culture was their culture.  This might be illustrated by the anonymous Christian writing in 200 to the procurator of Egypt:

“Christians distinguish themselves from other people not by nationality or by language or by dress.  They do not inhabit their own cities or use a special language or practice a life that makes them distinctive or conspicuous. …  They live in Greek and barbarian cities, following the lot that each has chosen, and they conform to the indigenous customs in matters of clothing and food and the rest of life” (Epistle to Diognetus)

“A.D. 180 was the date at which the Christian subculture was willing to say to the majority culture that it existed and had a right to exist.  Because of that courage, we now may see how the early Christians assimilated symbols and practices from the Roman world to create its own discreet cultural characteristics.” (pg 297, Ante Pacem)

Taking a step back I know that what I’ve argued for is an early Christianity that isn’t anti-image, but I haven’t demonstrated an early Christianity that uses images in worship and prayer.  Unfortunately at this stage of archaeological knowledge this seems un-provable.  I think we have a consistent and convincing interpretation of early Christianity’s views on art, but we can’t say that they used art in worship unless we start getting more data from before 200.  At that time we have evidence of the use of art in worship and Christian specific practices.  Prior to that we are just speculating.  That being said…

A benefit to this reinterpretation of early Christian attitudes about art is that it gets rid of a very discontinuous view of early Christianity, where clergy and laity are pitted against one another and you have some parts of the Church strongly anti-image, while others are merrily creating them, followed by a resounding silence in the 4th century and beyond from the church leadership about this widespread idolatrous practice.  This interpretation really makes no sense.

In his second book of five on the development of doctrine the historian Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan (a Lutheran who late in life became Orthodox) makes a very interesting point when he quotes another historian and then comments:

” ‘In view of the sharpness with which Christianity originally directed itself agains the idols, it always remains surprising that later, without being blocked and almost without being observed, the pagan practice was able to establish itself even within the church.‘ Such a comment begs many of the questions at stake in the controversy, above all the question of whether the Christian worship of images was indeed ‘the pagan practice’ that had originally been attacked by Christians and that had now crept back into the church, but also the question of how much ‘later’ this had happened.” (pg 97, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700))

There doesn’t seem to be a good explanation for this in the standard interpretation.  Apparently the church practice just spontaneously devolved.  Or did it?  Really there are two interpretations, two stories being told about what happened with iconography.  One story would have me believe that within 100-150 years after the death of Jesus the church became strongly divided with the laity largely falling into idolatry, eventually dragging the clergy with them, and staying in idolatry pretty much until the Protestant Reformation giving the lie to the promises of Jesus to maintain His Church.  The other story would have me believe that the early Christians developed their own culture around 200 where they began to incorporate their own particular use of art in their spiritual life, while protesting the idolatrous use of the culture around them, that the clergy and laity were united in their activities, and that they remained united in accord with the promises of Jesus.

There are many other things that could be discussed about iconography.  We could work through the practice after Constantine.  We could work through the theology.  We could consider my own personal experience with them as I’ve engaged with the Orthodox, but I’ll just confine myself to answering the objection you raised.  Now I’d like to shift the issue slightly and look at it from another angle.

[For the second part of the letter see the next post.]

For more reading on this subject see:
http://orthodoxbridge.com/?p=119
http://orthodoxbridge.com/?p=358
http://www.piousfabrications.com/2010/12/defense-of-holy-icons.html
http://onbehalfofall.org/2012/05/04/sanctioning-idolatry/

And if you just want to listen:
http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/ourlife/history_of_icons
http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/ourlife/icons_and_veneration
http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/allsaints/both_sides_of_the_icons
http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/rlminute/what_icons_do
http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/features/iconography_iconoclasm_and_the_theology_of_personhood
http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/bishops_part_24_8th_century_iconoclasm


On early christian art: a response to a protestant professor pt. 1

Can Orthodoxy Connect?

[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]

Christ is Risen!

[Oldest sister],

I’ve been whittling down my to-do list.  It seems to have grown up a bit, and that slowed me down in responding.  It seems like I’m saying that a lot.  Maybe my next New Years resolution will be not to keep apologizing for being a slow emailer. 🙂  This also got long, which slowed me down too.  I just can’t do small emails.

You brought up a lot of different points in a short space, so I’ll work down them and try to unpack my thoughts as I go…

When others are first experiencing worship with this denomination, it would not be easy to integrate without great effort…for a long while. I understand the Orthodox view of liturgy and the corporate gathering as service to God, but there’s a real need to people to feel a part quickly. I wonder how much of your (and my) church background allows us to make that jump more readily to the “what’s next?” in our worship experience. A deepening. But, if someone was coming from an irreligious background, I’m not sure they’d connect. Especially with the sound of the music and the feel of the worship facility and experience which are strongly nationalistic. Which makes me wonder why Orthodox churches in America don’t make some cultural adaptations to remove potential barriers to a Western audience. Thoughts on that?

I don’t really think that much in my background prepared me for the jump to high church, liturgical worship.  Low-church charismatic to high-church liturgy lover!  I had to work at it, but it has been worth it!  🙂

Here’s a couple thoughts…

The inside of an Orthodox church. Greek Orthod...

First, connection comes from receptivity not similarity.  I’ve read (and listened) to quite a bit on both sides of the conversion process, from those that made it to those who dropped it, or have no interest or are active opponents.  The pattern I’ve seen is that what makes a person connect or not connect to Orthodoxy seems to have little to do with how similar Orthodoxy is to the culture around it (assuming more similarity equals a lower barrier to entry).  The thing that makes a person persist in pursuing Orthodoxy is having a mental state of receptivity.  A receptive person will look past the obstacles, or even embrace the differences, and continue pursuing understanding, whereas a non-receptive person will walk away no matter how closely a church matches their culture and conventions.

It seems to me that it is actually an advantage to have the Church be quite obviously different than the surrounding culture (a perceived high barrier) while being very welcoming (actually a low barrier).  This puts a person immediately on notice that this is something different, perhaps even something not of this world, and yet open to outsiders.  While it does require more effort to assimilate a different culture it helps a person to see the church as something peculiar, and sacred.  Being a peculiar people may just be what this society needs.

So I’d say the key is that a receptive person needs to meet a receptive group of people who welcome outsiders.  The culture in that group may be very dissimilar from the seeker but connection is still very possible.  This has been our experience here.  The culture differences are formidable, but the people are so welcoming that it has made little difference.

Now certainly you are dead on right that there are adjustments that continue to need to be made to lower the barrier, removing artificial differences.  Orthodoxy has historically been a church of the people.  It has always been very good about bringing worship to the language of the people.  This may seem odd since what you see of Orthodoxy seems very ethnic, but historically it has been the norm that the Church takes on local characteristics aggressively (in a good way).  The Orthodox in America have been in a bit of a non-standard situation, but things are changing rapidly.  Sermons are almost universally in English.  The liturgy is about 70% in English in the average parish.  The music is about halfsies English/whatever.  That’s good, but there’s room for improvement.  I’d like to see the sermon and liturgy be all in English everywhere, and the music be mostly in English.  This would remove an artificial barrier that you sensed in your visit, and significantly aid in comprehension by the members of the church.

The OCA church we went to is a metro cathedral, which is at the end of the spectrum most likely to continue incorporating more ethnic elements.  Smaller parishes are the least likely to have strongly ethnic worship experiences (which might seem counter intuitive).  Most of the people in them are converts or descendants of immigrants, rather than immigrants themselves.  This is the case in my Greek parish, where the number of people who actually speak Greek natively is very low, and apparently most of those people strongly support moving even more of the service into English according to the priest.

The other thing that could be changed for sure is the music.  There are a variety of musical styles in use in Orthodox churches, but many people strongly identify with the byzantine chant.  These are the oldies but goodies, and in Orthodoxy old = good.  🙂  However, there is nothing stopping Americans from developing a liturgical musical style that is both informed by tradition and yet with a modern sensibility.  I know that certain American Orthodox composers are doing this sort of work already, to good effect.  I would enjoy seeing that music tradition develop, but I have found that I’ve come to very much enjoy byzantine chant done well too.  I’ll send you some good music that I think you will enjoy soon that demonstrates what Americans are already doing.

Second, attraction is much less important than maturity.  There is a group of people who, regarding how church worship should be properly formed, have come to the conclusion that assimilation of others is paramount and most easily accomplished by making for a painless entry into the life of the church.

I have come to view this thinking with some hesitation, and disagreement.  It seems to me that this seeker-sensitive model assumes that the most important function of the Sunday service is in how it attracts others to the church.  I can understand the drive to get people in and worry about the rest later.  I believe though that this merely attracts those who are marginally interested, presents them with a Christianity that looks like the culture around it and requires little to nothing from them, and removes the “heavy theology” from Sunday morning.  To me this seems like it misses the point of what Jesus asked us to do.  How do we produce disciples in this environment?   I believe this approach is counter-productive.

I’ve watched with some interest as Willow Creek has been coming to terms with the results of this in their church.  You probably heard about their Reveal study.  Finding that being seeker-sensitive has led to a lack of depth and maturity in their attenders has caused them no shortage of problems.  To fix the problem they are reversing course and moving back to providing weekend services that are geared to mature believers, or rather to maturing their believers.  I think this is a good thing.  Will their attraction rates diminish?  I don’t know.

Considering that the Church is a separate Kingdom, or the Body of Christ, or the Vine/Tree, or (fill in the blank with the appropriate metaphor) a necessary function of the Kingdom is to impart a culture.  The necessary function of the Body is to share DNA.  The necessary function of the Tree is to produce fruit.  So the Church imparts its culture, copies its DNA, and produces fruit.  I’d say that function of the Church is more important than its means of attraction.  To accomplish those functions the Church doesn’t need to adjust itself for the purpose of attraction, but rather call people to enter in to the life that is already present.  That requires a person to submit themselves to a different culture, true, but don’t think of that culture as Russian or Greek.  That is merely the external trappings.  The core of Orthodox culture is the 2,000 year old Church, that has some peripheral expression in a local ethnicity, and adjusting to that historic culture is the much more daunting task than adjusting to some Greek or Russian.  BUT, ultimately that is MUCH more intriguing. I’d still be attracted whether the local parish was Greek or Russian or Romanian or European or African or American, as long as the core culture was the historic faith.

Christ Pantocrator, detail of the Deesis mosaic

That being said, I do think it’s an important question to ask how people will be attracted to the Orthodox Church here in North America.  I don’t know those answers, but I’m interested in finding out how I can be a part of that attraction with the skills I have available.

I do know that the growth rate of Orthodoxy is very high.  And they are the second largest group of Christians on the planet.  It must be working for many.  🙂

The other question I had is how the Orthodox address the working gifts of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. I don’t just mean tongues, but rather the spiritual gifts which are to be in operation for the edification of the Body. These were corporate gifts given to the Body as outlined in the New Testament. With the high structure and lack of participation from the congregation, I see that this could potentially be overlooked.

I’m not sure there’s really a lack of participation, but I suppose it depends on what you mean.  If you mean people engaging with the worship of the Church then I’d say the Orthodox are highly participant in many ways.  The liturgy provides many different ways to engage in worship, more so than Protestant worship I’d say.  From discussion with you, and similar questions from mom, I believe that what you mean by participation is for individual members to use gifts from the Holy Spirit to edify the Body.  I think your issue here stems from a perception that the worship of the Church is “locked down and top down”.  Members don’t get input into it, and they are expected to just do what they are told by the leadership.  You see a lack of creativity and a consequent lack of engagement by the laity.  I hope to demonstrate why this is an incorrect perception of what’s going on, and that rather than being a non-creative and non-engaging worship that it is creative in the best ways and very beneficial for members.  I’ll also show how and where the gifts of the Holy Spirit are present in the Church and how they edify the Body.

What is Orthodox worship?
I’m really inadequate to even begin to lay out the theology and reality of Orthodox worship in the divine liturgy.  As you might imagine after 2,000 years of history the understanding of worship is very developed.  Any attempt on my part to explain it would be futile and misleading.  I’ll limit myself as much as I can in the hopes that I’ll stay on sure footing.

Instead of trying to write out an exhaustive explanation of what the liturgy is, let me just mention of few important characteristics.  The liturgy is a time of intense prayer and worship, but primarily it’s a vehicle for the Eucharist, if you will.  I think I’m ok in saying that.  The central aspect of the liturgy is the Eucharist, and all that prayer and worship is part of the process leading up to the Eucharist and preparing for it.  For a service that typically lasts around an hour and a half I’d say it has a very strong focus, and that focus is the corporate act of becoming the Body by ingesting the Body, if you get what I mean.

It would also be true to say that there’s a strong educational component.  Besides the sermon, the music, Scripture reading, and prayers are just dripping with theology.  He who has ears to hear, let him hear.  Surrounded by the icons you see the sweep of God’s plan through history and are in the presence of the great cloud of witnesses, praying with them.  He who has eyes to see, let him see.

It engages the senses and gives plenty of opportunity to act out your faith, and learn the faith you are acting out.  It’s very complex in many ways, but not in the sense that it is impenetrable.  I find it more complex in the sense that there’s always more to learn, and another level that you can engage it at.


I’ve grown to love the liturgy for what it is.  There are still difficulties in it, but it engages me in worship that doesn’t focus on my thoughts and feelings.  My kids connect with many parts of it too.  The more you do it, the better you like it and the more you get from it!

Where did it come from?
So, that’s a bit of what it is.  Now some history of it.  The liturgy done on a typical day is that of John Chrysostom, who was a bishop in the major Christian and Roman center of Constantinople in the 4th century.  He wrote it and it remains pretty much the same today, minor modifications not-withstanding.  It’s an awesome thought to recognize that when you go through the liturgy you are praying prayers that have been said for 1,600 years.

The Church of the Holy Wisdom, commonly known ...

Importantly though the liturgy of the Church didn’t start with Chrysostom.  It didn’t even start with the apostles.  A highly structured liturgy started with the Jews; a system given them by God.  Judaism was highly structured in its worship practices, and that didn’t stop when the temple was destroyed and Judaism shifted into the synagogue form in use at the time of Jesus and the apostles.

It’s common for Protestants to look back at the primitive church with the idea that it was started as a clean slate in terms of its worship practices.  I thought that way.  However, that’s not the case.  Jesus and the apostles were Jews whose worship was highly structured, and that didn’t change with the advent of Christianity.  Many of those practices bled across into Christianity and are still maintained in the Orthodox church.  The early Christians didn’t do the liturgy the same way the Orthodox do it today, for sure, but you can certainly say that it had structure.  In the writings of Paul and in early extra-Biblical writings like the Didache you can see that they had specific ways of handling the Eucharist and baptism, and you can find early creedal statements and prayers that were likely part of the earliest form of the liturgy, in common use.  By the mid 2nd century you can see in the writings of Justin the Martyr the same skeleton format of the liturgy in use at that time that Chrysostom used in his liturgy two centuries later.  The history of the liturgy has been a building of what was there previously into something more mature, something Paul would find very natural given his metaphors of the church being a temple built on a foundation.

This continuity of practice from the earliest times has served the Church well in many ways, but to give just one example, the uniformity across all the world has served to guide us to true doctrine.  This is extremely important.  Keeping a right worship is key to keeping a right (ortho) belief (doxa).  You can see this in the history of the development of doctrine in the early church as the Fathers fought against heresy.  Often the differentiator between the right belief and the wrong was the common practice of the church that everyone could point to.  Your worship is your belief, and your belief is your worship.  The two are deeply connected.  Athanasius used that very effectively against the Arians by pointing at their worship when it was disconnected from their theology in regards to the divinity of Christ.  St Basil did the same later in regards to the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

All of that preceding to say that the structure of the liturgy is something that grew naturally in the early Church, and far from being constricting it is something that served to protect the faith from doctrinal error and maintained unity for a very long time.  That’s not insignificant.  I particularly contrast that with the current state of Christian worship, where there are so many different ideas of what worship is and how to do it, and the state of unity and doctrinal consistency that is poor at best.  The two seem to go hand in hand.


Do members have creative input?  
Certainly members have creative input.  In worship they have creative input in all the same ways you’ll find in the Protestant church.  They bring their talents to the table in the singing, chanting, preaching, and ministries of the church.  There are as many if not more ways to engage creatively in the Orthodox church as there is in any other group of Christians.


How does that work with “high structure?”
The structure provides a framework for everything else that goes on.  Structure is not the enemy of creativity, and doesn’t hinder the work of God.  Without structure how can anything be done decently and in order?  God insists on structure, and the church has been using this structure for 2,000 years.  It’s been working this long.  If it ain’t broke…


What about the gifts of the Holy Spirit for edification?
Well, you can find Paul discussing how the Holy Spirit provides for the edification of the Body in a few spots in his letters.  Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12, and 1 Corinthians 14 are all spots where he gives lists of various gifts, and of course there’s more discussion in 1 Corinthians on how best to use those gifts.  Allow me to cheat and combine the lists into a single one for easier discussion.

  1. Apostles
  2. Prophets
  3. Evangelists
  4. Pastors
  5. Teachers
  6. Gift of Wisdom
  7. Gift of Faith
  8. Gift of Healing
  9. Miracles
  10. Discernment of Spirits
  11. Tongues
  12. Interpretation of Tongues

I read through that list and I see every one of those gifts actively used in the Orthodox church (the exception being apostles, depending on your understanding of what that means)!  Gifts of healing, prophecy and miraculous powers are an integral part of the Orthodox life.  In that fashion I’d say the Orthodox church is very engaged and open (and expecting) the Holy Spirit to be active.  There are so many stories in the Orthodox church of God performing the miraculous that you wouldn’t believe it.  Well, maybe you would.  You remember Fr James the monk that we talked to in DC?  I can’t remember how many times in that single short conversation he talked about miraculous events happening.  That’s awesome!

Even though those gifts are active, what you won’t see is all of them in the context of the liturgy.  Certainly it’s not fair to expect that in a service that has a clearly defined purpose centered on partaking of the Eucharist that it should be required to accommodate every other edifying event in the Body.  Many of them do occur in the course of the liturgy, but many of them don’t, and that’s fine.  There’s 168 hours in the week.  Only 1.5 are used up on a Sunday morning liturgy.  That leaves plenty of room for edification during other times.  🙂

So, when it comes to the Holy Spirit providing gifts for the edification of the Body I can say that all of the ones that I listed above are in use in the Orthodox Church.  You won’t typically find tongues used in public worship, but I find this to be quite in line with Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians 14.  To my knowledge it’s not commonly emphasized in parish life like it would be as a distinctive of charismatic worship, but I don’t want to focus in on tongues as if that’s the only way the Spirit works.  The Orthodox church is highly engaged with the Holy Spirit.  They don’t equate that so strongly with tongues, though.  Those who have the gift are free to use it, in order and for edification.

Now, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 14.  The first part of the chapter Paul spends time demonstrating the proper way of using gifts to edify the Body of Christ.  That aside I want to look down at verses 26-40:

26 When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; 28 but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. 30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34 The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. 36 Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? 37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. 38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. 40 But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.

What strikes me repeatedly in this discussion of how people should be acting in worship is how often Paul repeats that things must be done in order.  There’s a way to do things, and that denotes a certain structure.  However, a very common and very BIG mistake that is made over and over again when reading this passage is to equate “when you assemble” with “Sunday morning service.”  We know clearly that the early church assembled a LOT, and for very long periods of time.  Some of that was given to the Eucharistic meal, and we know that there was a structure to that.  The rest of the time was given to other things, such as singing psalms and hymns, reading Scripture, sermons, and prayer (according to Justin Martyr).  This would be the natural place for people to bring their edifying gifts to bear on the Body.

It would not be proper to have people exercising those gifts during the Eucharistic observance, any more than you would expect tongues and interpretation during a sermon today.  A time and a place for everything.  Those who have something to bring for edification, again, are free to do so, but properly and in order.  That time is normally not during the Eucharistic gathering, but there’s plenty of other opportunities for that.

I don’t see that this is a misstep for you; I can readily see why you would be attracted to considering this faith. But, admittedly (and understandably) this might be harder for someone else to grab onto…whether [your wife], or your children someday, or your neighbor, or an unsaved friend.

Like I said up above, the important thing is being open to it.  The rest follows in due course.  One nice thing about Orthodoxy is that it has a patience to it.  No one is rushing and pressuring you to join up.  They encourage you to take your time and work through the issues.  I can appreciate that.

I’ve had my issues with it, my doubts, my struggles, and emotional burn out.  [My wife] certainly has as well.  I don’t know if my kids will someday struggle with it, but that’s certainly not unique to Orthodoxy.  You can’t miss noticing the sense of panic in Christian headlines now days when they see the stats on kids leaving the church when they leave home.  I’ve read studies on the phenomenon, and I think the key for that is in the home.  If your kids truly believe the fundamentals of the faith, and especially that salvation is found in Jesus alone, they will remain Christians.  If you make God real and important in your life, your kids will too I believe.  Orthodoxy affords me wonderful opportunities to engage with a very obvious Christianity, and that’s really helpful.  I feel that the best thing I can do for my kids is to engage with Christianity as openly and honestly as I’m able to.  Orthodoxy helps with that.

In the end I think that Orthodoxy being different helps people connect with it.  If a person is seeking then Orthodoxy, once you become aware of it, really sticks out and just begs to be explored.  That’s a great thing.  Now it just needs to be more visible…

Love you,
Mark

Can Orthodoxy Connect?

Conversion Stories

[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]

I love a good conversion story!  I regularly read Journey to Orthodoxy, and listen to converts talk about their journey.  It resonates with me, and gives me food for thought.  Recently I listened to this convert story and I wanted to feature it as an excellent specimen of the species!  Highly recommended.  This convert priest runs down almost the entire spectrum of issues that converts normally face.

Part 1: http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/illuminedheart/baptist_missionary_confronts_long-held_evangelical_tenets

Part 2: http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/illuminedheart/baptist_missionary_confronts_long-held_evangelical_tenets_-_part_2

I haven’t decided yet whether to mention these to my family yet, just FYI…

Conversion Stories