Last night I read an article by a well-known Anglican theologian that pointed up the radical difference in world-view that separates him, and people who think as he does, from the Orthodoxy that I treasure.
Well crafted and articulate, the article lays out reasons why the author cannot accept traditional dogmatic statements that speak of God, including the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God. His point is that Christians in the post-apostolic period projected Jesus onto the metaphysical plane, making him virtually equal to God the Father. Whereas the New Testament, he argues, presents Jesus as the man in whom God’s love comes most fully to expression, later Christianity transmogrified Jesus’ very being into the “God-Man,” in response to the conviction that “only God can save us.”
Although he is a New Testament scholar, this Professor of Divinity completely overlooks or ignores the canonical witness to Christ’s pre-existence (Jn 1:1-14; 3:13; 17:5; 2 Cor 8:9; Eph 1:4; Phil 2:6; Col 1:15ff; 2 Tm 1:9-10; Heb 1:2-3; cf. Rev 22:13), his essential union with God the Father (Jn 10:30; 17:5, 21; Col 1:15-20; 2:9; 2; Tit 2:13; 1 Jn 5:20), his role as the agent of creation (Jn 1:3, Col 1:16, Heb 1:2), his literal “incarnation” (Mt 1-2, Lk 2; Jn 1:14; Phil 2:7), and his resurrection from the dead (passim). Nor does he give any consideration to the multitude of tripartite formulas throughout the New Testament that speak of the essential unity of being, purpose and act shared by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19; Lk 1:35; 9:28ff; 24:49; Jn 1:14; 5:23; 14:16f, 26; 15:26; 16:7-15; Rom 1:1-4; 5:1-5; 8:2-17; 15:15-21; 1 Cor 2:10; 6:11; 2 Cor 13:13; 2 Thess 2:13f; 1 Pet 3:18ff; etc., etc.).
There’s no need to belabor the point. It’s an old story, and a depressing one, because it is based on the assumption that we can always select our own “canon within the canon,” taking (and believing) those elements of the biblical witness that appeal to us, and discarding the rest as myth, misunderstanding or wishful thinking.
Orthodox Christianity is grounded in a single basic conviction that constitutes the core of “the faith of our Fathers.” It is borne out by the witness of countless martyrs and other saints, as well as by our personal and communal experience. This is the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is the eternal Son of God and one of the Holy Trinity, who appeared within human history to reveal the person and purpose of God the Father, and to work out that purpose through his teaching, death, resurrection and glorification.
In the language of the Church’s creeds, Jesus is one with and inseparable from the eternal Son of God, author of creation and of our salvation. Born of the Father through eternal filiation, the divine Son appeared on earth, having taken on human existence in the womb of the Virgin Mary, thereby restoring and perfecting fallen human nature. He taught and worked prophetic miracles, he suffered and was crucified. His dead body was buried, then raised from death by the power of God the Father, working in the Holy Spirit (1 Tm 3:16, the probable meaning of “vindicated in the Spirit”). He ascended into heaven and assumed Lordship over all creation (Ac 1:9; Phil 2:9-11). And we await his coming in glory, as the Father fulfills the divine “economy” or plan for the salvation and deification of those who—through baptism, eucharistic communion and prayer—unite themselves to Christ in faith and in love.
Orthodox Christians also share the conviction that these affirmations, given lapidary formulation in our creeds, faithfully reflect the witness of Holy Scripture. Although many of the creeds took shape in an atmosphere of controversy, to combat various heretical views of Christ and the human person, those creedal statements accurately reflect the reality of God and his purpose in and for the world. As such, they are faithful summaries of scriptural teaching, as are the anaphoras of our eucharistic liturgies. (The finest creedal formulation or expression of authentic Christian belief, apart from the Nicene Creed itself, may be the anaphora or eucharistic prayer of the Divine Liturgy of St Basil.)
Some years ago I would have urged our Orthodox faithful to look earnestly for the good and the true in other expressions of Christian belief. Over the last couple of decades, however, most of those expressions have drifted ever farther from anything that looks like the biblical faith each of them claims to represent. I’m still convinced that God calls us to pursue ecumenical dialogue, even with those whose perspective on reality and way of reading Scripture is radically different from our own.
Whenever I get involved with that dialogue, though, I keep coming back to words of the dismissal of many of our liturgical services, words we repeat so often that we easily forget how vital they are “for the life of the world and its salvation.” They are the words of a simple but urgent prayer:
“Preserve, O God, the holy Orthodox faith and Orthodox Christians, unto ages of ages!”