I recently heard a very nice gentleman give his testimony about his pilgrimage from various forms of evangelical Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy. He was obviously sincere, intelligent, well-read, and spiritually hungry for God, but I was really concerned about the central hinge in his argument.
Before getting to that, I am listing this post under Roman or Catholic? even though I know that Eastern Orthodoxy considers Rome and Geneva simply two sides of the same western coin. In many ways this is true, but in other ways (this one included) RC and EO are two sides of the same coin. The hinge I spoke of is the one created by varying interpretations from multitudes of people, and the apparent safe haven that EO presents for those who are tired of the storms caused by all these private interpretations.
After his talk, I presented my question to him in several different ways, and he did not seem to understand my question at first. But as we talked, he appeared to get what I was pursuing, but was still not able to answer the question. This was unfortunate because it is a question that everyone has to answer, and not just evangelical Protestants.
It goes like this. The problem he faced as an evangelical was caused by the various and contradictory doctrinal “grids” he had adopted over the course of his life, and at the end of the day he realized that all he had was a “just me and my Bible” approach. He didn’t have “just the Bible” (what he thought was the doctrine of sola Scriptura), which sounded reliable, but rather he had the Bible and his own private understanding of it. So in his hunger for something outside himself, he began to read the early church fathers, and was bowled over by what he read. From this fascination with the church of the first millennium (which he did not think existed anymore), he finally came across Eastern Orthodoxy and identified it with what he had been reading.
But notice what happened. He moved from recognizing that private interpretation of the epistle of Romans was “inadequate,” but then fully trusted himself to his private interpreation of Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, et al. He read these men and thought he had a reasonable idea of what the early church was like, and it was all done with “just me and Ignatius.”
He had been in a world where all the evangelicals he knew read Romans differently, and this unsettled him. But how does this hermeneutical dilemma disappear just because we moved from interpretation of Scripture to interpretation of church history, or the early fathers? Yes, there are many voices claiming to understand Scripture, and yes, they contradict. But to throw up my hands and step to the right three paces, take down another book, and undertake the interpretation of something else (far more inchoate and difficult) does not solve the problem at all. If I can’t read and understand Romans, then I can’t understand Irenaeus either. And if I can’t understand Irenaeus, then I can’t understand the ecumenical councils, which are ostensibly there to guide me through Irenaeus (and the other fathers, and Scripture). How can I read the councils? How can I tell if Eastern Orthodoxy has fallen away from the determinations laid down in the Definition of Chalcedon unless I can read and understand what Chalcedon says, and read and understand what Eastern Orthodoxy is saying?Suppose someone says that I just have to trust the Church, and I should listen to my priest, letting him handle it. Okay. How am I supposed to understand him?
Suppose I am standing here as a good Protestant with my Bible, having just read Romans, and someone approaches me and says that I can’t trust what I come up with there because I was looking at it with my own eyes. He then hands me a book that contains what he would like me to believe. But instead of reading it, I should be a little more wary and rather ask, “Do I have to read this without using my own eyes?” If I get to use my eyes with his book, then could he please go over what the problem was supposed to be with my reading Romans? But if I don’t get to use my eyes with his book, the objection is being consistently applied across the board, but now I have no way of knowing what he is trying to tell me. In other words, private interpretation is inescapable. And to point to its existence (and its problems) among evangelical Protestants is completely beside the point.
When this gentleman had read the early fathers, he had taken them in a particular way. But just about every church father he mentioned I had also read and had come away with a different interpretation that he had. And the Roman Catholics have scholars who are no slouches when it comes to patristics, but they have a different take, a third one. This can be multiplied many times over. During the Reformation, the most notable patristic scholars in Europe were the Reformers, not the Roman Catholics. That emphasis is part of what the Reformers meant by ad fontes, back to the sources.
Now if we are not to trust the Bible because of “all the interpretations,” it seems that it would follow that we are not to trust the church fathers either — because there are so many interpretations. We are not to trust church history because there are so many interpretations. We have RC church historians, Mennonite church historians, Reformed church historians, and Baptist church historians. If the argument is sound, then we ought not to trust church history.
Okay, so we need an interpretive community. Fine. Which one? And who decides which one? At the end of the day, the searcher has to trust his own judgment when he is determining which interpretive community to trust. We have RCs, EOs, confessional Presbyterians, Copts, Armenian Orthodox, Byzantine Rite, Lutherans, and on and on, over the horizon. In other words, despite the effots to make it appear otherwise, no one of these communions is privileged when it comes to the basic hermenuetuical issues. These communions are not outside the interpretive clamor. They are not “above the fray.” And the individual, in the presence of the God who will judge the hearts of men, is the one who has to decide.
One last comment, which I will seek to develop later in a subsequent post. For many evangelicals who are attracted to these communions, it is not so much a powerful attraction to an embodied culture as it is dissatisfaction with their own inadequate embodied culture. As evangelicals, they have been trained to (always) yearn for “something more.” Something deeper, richer, more profound. And in our context, it is easy to be attracted to a particular form of worship that promises much. But we really should be more careful. To take a basic example, a preacher may be fluid, and eloquent, and persuasive, but those listening to him should really want to know how he lives at home with the wife and kids. In other words, it what he is saying persuasive to him? In the same way, as we are considering these issues, we should want to take note of how these ancient communions have embodied themselves incarnationally over time. What does this kind of faith do when it has had the run of a place for ten centuries? Those who are considering conversion should exercise due diligence and move to a small island off Greece (for Orthodoxy) or a mountain village in Mexico (for Roman Catholicism) and see what life is actually like there. What happens when there are no outside influences messing about with this form of worship, over the course of centuries? To do anything else is really too much like converting to Hinduism in Beverly Hills.