Beware the message of the Golgafrinchams, errrr, ahem, the people who would like to de-capitalize the first letter of Orthodoxy. They want only five centuries, a deconstructed text, and the lowest common denominator.
With all this talk of “small o orthodoxy” clogging up cyberspace and the printed text, now even conservative Protestants are singing “Hail, hail the gang’s all here.” I like the rest of the song, because it’s so very apropos.
A gang of good fellows are we, (are we,)
Are we, (are we,) are we, (are we,)
With never a worry you see, (you see,)
You see, (you see,) you see, (you see,)
We laugh and joke, we sing and smoke,
And live life merrily;
No matter the weather
When we get together
We have a jubilee.
Hail, hail, the gang's all here,
We're a bunch of live ones, not a single dead one;
Hail, hail, the gang's all here,
Sure I'm glad that I'm here, too!
We love one another we do, (we do,)
We do, (we do,) we do, (we do,)
With brotherly love and it's true, (it's true,)
It's true, (it's true,) it's true, (it's true,)
It's one for all, the big and small,
It's always me for you;
No matter the weather
When we get together
We drink a toast for two.
Mind you, if that last line is still a bit problematic, use Welch’s instead.
Professor Bradley Nassif, writing over at Christianity Today of all places (my how times have changed), has done us all an inestimable service. He is pretty sanguine about his association with the evangelicals (so am I, but I have blood ties). He thinks that their dormant orthodoxy will bloom into affiliation with the Orthodoxy of the capital O.
What is the small “o”?
Professor Nassif sums up Thomas Oden (who must feel really lonely at Drew), who offers “six layers of evidence” that reveal a “rekindling” of the orthodoxy of the Great Tradition – that is, of those first palatable 500 years. Here are the strata:
(1) “Personal transformation stories” of surprising people who became Orthodox or Latin.
(2) “Faithful scriptural interpretation,” as opposed to the Wellhausen and Bultmann dreck the rest of us unfortunates had to put up with in twentieth century American seminaries.
(3) “The multicultural nature of orthodoxy.” I’m not sure whether this is a nod to the Orthodox anthropology of the single restored human nature (e.g., “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek”), or, what I suspect, a Plain of Dura reverence to egalitarianism.
(4) “Well-established doctrinal boundaries.” For many of the evangelicals and Arminians, this is really the case, and for this I am truly glad. But for Calvinists to “fortify their doctrinal boundaries” means that they are amplifying their essential raison d'être of protestation, and reinforcing their rootedness in calvinology, as opposed to theology. That cannot make anyone glad: but (sigh), Insha'Allah, it’s meant to be.
(5) “Ecumenical roots reclaimed. Confessing and renewing movements in Protestantism are changing local congregations and even entire denominations.” I think Oden here is referring to the heroic work of the IRD, who are struggling like Leonidas against the Immortals. We all know how that turned out. He may be referring, as well, to that latest of Chicago smorgasbord symposia: “A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future.” Touchstone, as expected, did a nice job of setting down Mssrs. Webber, Kenyon, Boersma, Snyder, Vanhoozer and Williams in the principal’s office.
(6) “Rise of a new ecumenism. Actually, what we're seeing is a revival of the ancient ecumenical method of theological decision-making set forth by Vincent Lerins: ‘We hold to that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.’ Laypeople can easily grasp this, and they are doing so.”
Wow. I mean, wow. Do Oden and Nassif really think so? I’m all for laypeople grasping things, as I try to do this myself on occasion. Even here it seems that “grasping” verges on malapropism: who, or what, should be doing the grasping?
But more to the point: the canon of St. Vincent of Lerins is really not all that helpful in the task of outlining “orthodoxy.” The “by all” condition has never been achieved, and certainly not in the first five centuries of which Oden and Nassif are so fond. These centuries, let us remember, housed the Gnostics, the Arians, the Nestorians and the Monophysites. In particular, and especially contrary to Oden’s privileged notion of consensus, there was a time when the Arians significantly outnumbered the Orthodox. We Trinitarians were abjectly languishing in minority status – a status we would do well to understand better.
Surely, Nassif, at least, appreciates the profound insufficiency of the Vincentian canon. The real “Canon” of inclusion has to do with the acceptance of the whole “catholic consciousness” of the Apostolic Tradition. This includes Scripture and the first five centuries, to be sure. But even during those five centuries, especially in the first three, there was the unwritten apostolic (and secret!) teaching of the Liturgy, the Eucharist, the Baptismal rite, the cult of the Theotokos and the Saints.
This unwritten Apostolic Tradition, so offensive to the sensibility of sola scriptura, is the very content that Protestants, especially Evangelicals, would like to avoid. But they really cannot. Even the most minimalistic of them must accept that the doctrines of the Trinity and the Holy Spirit are not supported by evidence drawn from a sola scriptura regimen. These doctrines were clarified and established as dogma by the very unwritten part of Tradition that these “Golgafrinchams” do not want to accept.
And yet, they end up accepting, by necessity, the authority of the whole tradition, not just the “Great” Tradition, or the “first five centuries” Tradition, or the “whichever and whatever of the Councils are palatable to our current thinking” Tradition. The whole tradition of the Eucharistic, Sacramental, Hierarchical, Liturgical, Cultic and Mysterious Single Apostolic Church and Mystical Body of Christ is accepted every time a fundamentalist opens his King James Version (a version, btw, which I am coming to favor all the more, as I approach my dotage).
Bob Jones Jr. (or is it III, or IV?), Jack Hiles (the busing king), Jerry Falwell (what did he do with Heritage USA?) and Pat Robertson (who called for a contract on Chavez) can only do their schtick out of an unacknowledged debt to the Orthodox Fathers.
I admire Thomas Oden, and I am indebted to him for his really cool commentaries and his tragically out-of-print patristic catena on pastoral counseling. But he seems to want a “small o” orthodoxy without the “big O” that includes sacrament, hierarchy, and apostolic succession. He is quick to insist that the patristic legacy belongs to one and all, as if he were anticipating some cranky Orthodox or Latin blogger waggling a wizened finger and muttering, “The Fathers belong to us: you’re not allowed to quote them!”
Well, no, that’s just cranky and weird (a condition that comes from reading too many Elders, and too few Fathers). Everyone is permitted to quote the Fathers. Even Calvin can quote St. Cyprian, which he does more than once, with that great bon mot, “One cannot have God as his Father without having the Church as his Mother.”
Calvin and everyone in the Protestant continuum can quote Cyprian and the Fathers till kingdom comes and the cow comes home. But they cannot escape the moral obligation that comes due from the truth that these quotations, and these doctrines which are selected out of convenience, are all derived from a single phenomenon, an unbreakable mosaic that was articulated out of the noetic experience of ecclesial deification.
Thomas Oden’s “orthodoxy” (smaller case) is made possible by the whole (i.e., the "catholicity") of Orthodoxy – Scripture and Sacrament, Dogma and Authority, Charisma and Asceticism -- and nothing less.
Oden’s theory, here, implies that Orthodoxy is only one of a number of possible patristic legatees: the unavoidable implication to be drawn then is that Orthodoxy is only a denomination. (That particular appellation has already been stuck, like a sticky conventioneer name tag, upon the Orthodox Church as a result of some jurisdictions’ membership in the NCC -- I believe "member denomination" is the wondrous fair heading we find ourselves schlocked under ... the poor Syrians and Serbs find themselves cootie-stuck next to the Swedenborgians.)
To denominationalize the Orthodox Church is to engage in some serious anachronistic distortion. Orthodoxy is not a product of the current hyper-schismatic post-Christendom culture: it is the locus of the ongoing presence of Holy Tradition in its fullness. Excepting the Latins, every other Christian movement is derivative at best.
I think Bradley Nassif might agree. He seems to do so in his commendation of Scripture and “Continuity” to the Evangelicals as “Things that Might Attract Them to Orthodoxy in the 21st Century.”
But then Nassif, in a rhetorical attempt at courteous symmetry, lapses into the old saw of pointing out to the neo-revivalists that we Orthodox have much to learn from them. In this context, Nassif rightly draws attention to the shortcomings of how we Orthodox succeed at “letting our light so shine before men.”
Well, he’s right. We are just as guilty of damnable nonchalance with our stupid syllogism (i.e., “I was baptized, ergo I got a ticket to ride”) as are the Eternal Securitists with their own insane syllogistic mantra (i.e., “I prayed the sinner’s prayer, ergo I will get beamed up in the Rapture”). We attend Liturgy, but we quickly assure our friends that we are not so fanatic as “those fundamentalists” by our indistinct lifestyle.
Yes, yes, yes. All this is true. There are many of us who either do not know the Faith well enough, or do not practice it well enough (and I am one of both parties).
Nassif underscores this "immaturity," to wit:
More and more Orthodox, as they study the Great Tradition, are admitting that our leaders and laity don't have a mature grasp of their own faith. They recognize that the church isn't free from ethnocentrism or religious bigotry, that it hasn't contextualized its faith and liturgy in the modern world, and that it hasn't figured out how to relate to unchurched people in North America (its converts consist mostly of disillusioned believers from other Christian traditions). More and more Orthodox, as they explore the early church afresh, see that there are parts of its ancient liturgies that seem to have no biblical justification and that we cannot simply regard the Reformation and the last millennium in the West as nothing more than a sideshow.
I agree with the line about our befuddlement over relating to the unchurched. And in this, perhaps the Evangelicals can help us.
I’m not sure what Nassif means by “parts of its ancient liturgies that seem to have no biblical justification.” Hmmmm. Which parts are non-biblical? Despite the richness of Scripture quotations in the Liturgies and Services, the Holy Writ is not the only source of liturgical substance. There is also the unwritten teaching of the Apostles. This source, I bet, accounts for those troubling parts of the Liturgy that offend “small o” sensibilities, like the dismissal of catechumens … like the prayers to the Theotokos and the Saints … like the Epiclesis itself: try as you like, you will not find “Thine Own of Thine Own, in Behalf of All and for All” anywhere in the Bible. Neither will you find crucial words like “Trinity” or “consubstantial.”
Nassif is right. We could do a lot to make ourselves in Orthodoxy more amenable to the Great Traditionalists. We could pare down our legacy from the Apostles to the tolerance levels of Oden and the “Ancient Future” project. More people will attend and inflate our numbers: as the voice in the cornfield once said, “If you deconstruct it, they will come.” We might even be able to call this whole century “Orthodox.”
I consider the Reformation a tragedy, not a sideshow. And the last millennium contains St. Gregory Palamas, so I wouldn’t discount that era either. No one would.
But I don’t think that is what Nassif meant. He is suggesting, I’m sure, that there are some innovations in the Western experience that Orthodoxy ought to assimilate. Would these innovations include a less patriarchal governance? Public (and therefore secret) confession of sins? Shorter services? Pedestrian language? Better lighting? Less smoke?
Those of you familiar with this site know fully well that I am more than friendly to the conservative ecumenical movement exemplified by Touchstone and First Things. You also know that I am no fan of other ecumenical movements on the dark side, like the NCC and the WCC and most civic ministeriums.
In other words, I reserve the greatest sympathy, and profound respect, for “small o” people like Oden and Webber. I truly love all Golgafrinchams.
But I am not content to let them remain Golgafrincham, and not fully what they ought to be.