Journey to Orthodoxy:
Returning to the Church

by Thomas Katsampes

September 28, 2007

My return to the Orthodox Church seems all but assured. I am very happy with the answers which Fr. Rick has graciously provided me. In my December 2006 essay Why I'm neither Evangelical nor Orthodox I discussed at the time my problems with pure evangelicalism and Orthodoxy. I wanted to briefly touch on these points once more.

I wrote at the time,

Should I not belong to a church with the thousand-year history, with all the religious trappings and ceremonies, etc.? Sometimes I think so but then I think about the Orthodox churches I've been in. I can go to an Orthodox church and listen to them speak Greek for 45 minutes and I would leave knowing less about God than I did when I walked through the beautiful stained glass doors. After all, it would be Greek to me.
In the Antiochian Church the service is in English, so there is no language barrier. Furthermore, my research has indicated that these are not just "trappings and ceremonies." Every detail in the Orthodox Church is based on a Scriptural reference or precedent, or on Holy Tradition.
Being a part of a Church with a 1,000-year history is also awe-inspiring. You read the giants of the faith - St. Chrysostom, St. Cyril, St. Palamas - who walked before you and you realize you're a part of their church, of their history, of their struggles in Christ, of their tribulations. You become part of a community that not only spans your city but also spans the centuries. This notion is quite inviting to many people.
Actually, it's 2,000 years (but who's counting?). I have started reading the Fathers of the Church, and there are pieces in the earliest writings that actually provide context to New Testament figures such as St. John and the Virgin Mary (there is even a letter from Mary to Ignatius in his writings). Always bearing in mind of course that Scripture alone is inspired by God, nevertheless these extra-Biblical writings provide additional attestations to the historicity of New Testament people and places, even our Lord Jesus Himself.

Previously I did not care for the communion of the Saints. For whatever reason, today I think it valuable. I again emphasize that the writings of the Saints are subject to Scripture. But too many people make the mistake of dismissing the Saints altogether because of sola scriptura. But my argument is simple. If I want to understand the Christian faith, which makes more sense? To read books written in modern times, or to read the writings of Ignatius and Polycarp, who sat at the feet of St. John himself?

The book makes the point that far fewer evangelicals convert to Orthodoxy than Orthodox convert to evangelicalism. Why? For me, having been raised in the Greek Church, it's really a matter of what is closer to the Bible. What is truer Christianity? Bible + Tradition + Church Doctrine, or sola fides, sola scriptura, et sola gratia: By faith alone, by scipture alone, and by grace alone?
Scripture alone is given by inspiration of God. But Orthodoxy correctly points out that the only Scripture per se during the time of the Apostles was the Old Testament. For example when St. Paul says, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God," he is referring to the Old Testament, because the New Testament as we know it today did not exist. Holy Traditions date back to the time of the first bishops (circa AD 60), before the New Testament was canonized. Those who profess sola scriptura are relying on the Scripture which was canonized by the Church according to Holy Tradition!

Regarding church doctrine, let me just add that people are going to believe what they believe, and no amount of preaching can change that. For example, I'm not necessarily convinced that Mary remained a virgin after she gave birth to the Lord (the "ever-virginity" of Mary). However, let's be honest. Whether Mary remained a virgin doesn't impact my ability to live a Christian life. It's simply not an important issue in the overall scheme of things. What good would it do if I were to believe Mary remained a virgin but I denied the resurrection? So there are gradations of importance in church doctrine. It's important to be right on the major ones (the resurrection, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, etc.) but not as important on the relatively minor points.

Although I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and the Authority on matters of faith and doctrine, nevertheless I believe that the writings of those who have gone before, while not authoritative, certainly add value and depth to our understanding of Christ and Christianity.

I continue to agree with this.

So, at least for now, perhaps my tentative answer to my friend's question is that I'm not an Orthodox because I do not believe that church tradition and writings of the fathers are authoritative. But I do not consider myself an "evangelical" because I am not prepared to say that the great traditions and patriarchal writings should be discarded out of hand.
But my research indicates that Orthodoxy does not hold that church tradition or apostolic writings (except as part of Scripture) are to be held at the same level or above that of Scripture. But there are gradations of authority. The Holy Tradition and the writings of the Fathers are authorities, but they are not the final authority on matters of faith and doctrine.

So what are the problems I have with the Orthodox Church? At this point, I don't have a lot of issues with it. Fr. Rick has helped me to resolve many of the doubts I had, my having come from an evangelical perspective. I'm still a bit hesitant regarding prayer for souls of the dead, because St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews tells us, "it is appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgment;" but on the other hand regarding those Saints who are in heaven, as Revelation points out those in heaven spend all their time worshipping and praying. Therefore, the Saints in heaven are alive. I'm not fully convinced that they actually are interceding for us, but I see no reason they could not. If they don't, I pray to God directly anyway, and if they do that's an extra prayer on my behalf for the Lord to consider. So either way, no harm done. While more important than whether Mary remained a virgin, whether I'm being prayed for by the Saints is still a relatively a minor issue.

What about the issue of iconography? I remember many years ago I rejected Orthodoxy out of hand because of the icons - "that's creating an idol." But age inevitably brought wisdom (even to me!) and Orthodoxy makes an important point in that God revealed Himself in human form, and at that point we saw Him, and we made images of what we saw. Thus, icons are an aid to worship, not a distraction. They help to focus your mind on God. As long as we remember that icons are simply art - blessed art, perhaps - but still art. We do not worship the wood, the paint, the image itself, etc. but we worship the Lord Jesus who is represented in the icon. As far as icons of the saints and veneration, I'm not exactly clear on the difference between veneration and worship in a concrete sense (I understand the difference definitionally), but again it would seem that the same rules hold: we look at the icon and reflect on the life and the example of the Saint depicted thereon. That reflection is clearly not worship; rather it is a reverence for the example set before us.

So with most of my objections having been resolved, I see no reason why I cannot return to the Orthodox Church. I consider myself very much in the Bradley Nassif (read another article by Nassif here) camp in believing that there are far more agreements between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism than disagreements, and the additional depth of Church history, the Great Tradition, and the writings of the Fathers will certainly be something to explore for a lifetime to come. Finally, if the Orthodox Church helps me to grow into a more moral person and mature in my walk with the Lord, then isn't that what counts? For, as I have always argued, the primary earthly purpose of religion is to advance goodness - that is, make people better.

Journey to Orthodoxy
God Became Man and other thoughts
Thoughts on Mary
Visiting the Church
Returning to the Church
The Communion Question
Losing the Sense of the Sacred
Conversation with Fr. Tom
Icons and Worship
Differing Viewpoints
Can we truly know?
Faith and Works
Child Baptism