Update: My latest post regarding Father Stephen Freeman’s approach towards the Reformation is Questions some Eastern Orthodox Christians can not abide Further, the full paper that contains the graphic below about the prevalence of patristic literature in the 16th century is here.
I would venture that the Eastern Orthodox blogger Father Stephen Freeman is one of the foremost evangelists for Eastern Orthodoxy in America today. This is why, in my opinion, he should be effectively answered – so that those Protestants seeking for alternatives would know that there is much truth they will be deprived of if they embrace his views as Gospel.
Father Freeman has put up yet another rhetorically powerful post arguing against the typical Protestant view of the Bible. In the past, I have responded to him about issues like this here, here, and here (and Father Kimel at Eclectic Orthodoxy here). Unfortunately, he lumps all of Protestantism with the Reformation, calling our case “the tired rhetoric of the Reformation”. Actually, as a child of the Lutheran Reformation – which I submit was in fact a revival of patristic theology (a sneak peek at this below with more later this week) – I of course agree with some of Father Freeman’s key points (UPDATE: I would like to emphasize that I often have tried to find common ground with the E.O. – see my series “If all theology is Christology how wide the divide? A reflection on Lutheranism and Eastern Orthodoxy“).
Writing against one of his Reformed critics Professor Michael J. Kruger, Father Freeman raises some strong points that would seem to counter-act most views of the Bible as “book”:
Kruger’s first points are to take me to task for arguing that “books” themselves are late inventions and contending that the Bible was not therefore thought of as a “book.” He indeed cites some early codices from the late 2nd or early 3rd centuries – but gives examples that actually reinforce my central point. He notes examples of bound gospels and an example of bound epistles. What he cites are precisely what we would expect: liturgical items. The Orthodox still use the Scriptures in this form – the Gospels as a book (it rests on the altar), and the Epistles as a book (known as the Apostol). They are bound in such a manner for their use in the services of the Church, not as private “Bibles.” These are outstanding examples of the Scriptures organized in their liturgical format for their proper use: reading in the Church.
(this said, we would also note reasons given not only in the N.T. books themselves but in church history as to occasion for their composition, i.e., things like safeguarding [see Luke1] the truth, to provide a statement and summary of the faith in writing [memory is frail], and it was necessary to counter heretics)
With this valid point, Father Freeman is off to the races in making other points that most Confessional Lutherans would be quick to agree with:
All of the “lists” that are cited in the notion of the evolution of the Canon are lists of what the Church reads. And the Church reads them in her services as the Divine Word of God, just as the Church herself is the Divine Body of Christ, just as the Liturgy is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, etc. The “Canon” of Scripture is as much a statement about the Church as it is about the Scriptures.
But all of this is lost, because for those who have reformed themselves out of communion with the historical faith and practice of Christianity, the context has been forgotten. They do not understand statements about the Church because they have forgotten the Church.
Yes – for example, as I heard recently from a commenter on one of my posts: “whenever you talk to a Calvinist about the early church fathers when it comes to the sacraments, they always seem to balk a little bit.”
We serious Lutherans can even see the point of the following statement, with a word of caution about the kind of veneration (this can simply mean “to regard with reverential respect or with admiring deference“) he has in mind:
Those who canonized the Scriptures venerated the Mother of God, honored the saints, prayed for the departed, believed the Eucharist to be the true Body and Blood of Christ. They were the same Orthodox Church that lives and believes today. You cannot honor their “Canon of Scripture” while despising the lives and Church of those who canonized them.
Speaking of “the very American reform community from which Kruger criticizes my Orthodox teaching”, Freeman gets in a really powerful zinger here (yes, please see the post for original context):
The Bread and the Wine of the Eucharist was universally believed to be the very Body and Blood of Christ. These men ate God (using the language of St. Ignatius of Antioch). Yes, the Scriptures are theopneustos (“God breathed”), but so is every human soul….
The Orthodox have never said that blacks do not have souls.
(nor have Confessional Lutherans for that matter).
That said, on the other hand, Father Freeman says things like this:
….we acknowledge that the Scriptures cannot be rightly read outside of and apart from the life of the Church.
While this is no doubt true insofar as it comes to understanding the Scriptures for all they are worth, we would want to emphasize, along with that great theologian Mark Twain, a key point (see pic)
Further, eager to distinguish His Church from all the children of the Reformation Father Freeman says:
The Scriptures are not “above” the Church nor the Church “above” the Scriptures. The Scriptures are “of” the Church and do not stand apart from the Church.
…and later adds that
The championing of the Bible as the Word of God “over the Church” is a ruse. It is and has been a means of exalting culture and private fiefdoms over the proper life of the believing community, disrupting the continuity of faith.
An informed confessional Lutheran response is that all of this is all terribly simplistic. First of all, Father Freeman has heard me make the case that the Lutheran fight to preach as they saw fit – particularly at Magedburg in 1550 – simply cannot be seen in this way (see my comment to him about this here).
Second, let’s take this matter of the Scriptures – and I will begin by trying to emphasize common ground. I would guess that we can agree that the Church ultimately comes from the Word of God, period – this really cannot and will not be disputed. We ultimately arise in both creation and redemption from the Word. The Church and the Word are always meant to go hand in hand, but, when conflict arises, the Church must submit to the Word from which it finds its life.
Of course, some Protestants of the Neo-Orthodox variety might want to, strictly speaking, limit the idea of the “Word of God” to the Person of Jesus Christ. Other Protestants, like N.T. Wright, are seemingly content to make sure Jesus Christ is the main focus of the church when it comes to speaking about “words”:
“When John declares that ‘in the beginning was the word,’ he does not reach a climax with ‘and the word was written down’ but ‘and the word became flesh’… scripture itself points… away from itself” (Wright, Scripture, 24, quoted on 136 of Peter Nafzger’s These Are Written)
Here is where we confessional Lutherans are keen to point out that we are not just talking about the Church living from the living Word Jesus Christ – but also “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” – words of Spirit and life that proceed from that Word’s mouth. In this view – which we fiercely contend is true – the Word includes but is it not limited to the Scriptures – in fact the oral or preached word, as Father Freeman says, is always to be seen as primary. I think that Father Freeman would be with me up to this point. Nevertheless, more must be said.
Back to N.T. Wright for a moment: he is right because the good news is indeed not so much that God has given us His written word, but that He has given us the incarnate Word. Further when he says that the Holy Spirit does give us the incarnate Word through the written word (have Mark Twain and I lost Father Freeman at this point?). On the other hand, Wright goes wrong when he forgets to mention not only that the Scripture does in fact point to itself (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11), but that it also points to the incarnate Word who points us back to the written word – particularly as it regards His fulfillment of its Divine prophecies (see Luke 7:18-23 in particular but also all throughout the New Testament – also note my recent series on the significance of this matter)!
I would appreciate it if Father Freeman would speak specifically to these things just mentioned in that previous paragraph. Why is this so important? I have noted this before, so I will not belabor the point: for Lutherans, “Sola Scriptura” simply means that if a conflict arises between the wider Church and its Scriptures, the Scriptures, properly interpreted, must certainly correct the Church.* (see this post, which features a very practical question) Today’s Church cannot contradict yesterday’s Church, assuming that it was in harmony with, and did not contradict the Scriptures. Based on all the reading I have done in this area, this is what the Fathers of the Church always taught.
I must point out further realities that Father Freeman’s powerful rhetoric obscures:
“those who champion “God’s un-changing Word” and claim to be under the authority of the Bible cannot point to even two decades in which they have remained the same.”
I know Father Freeman knows that confessional Lutherans today all uphold the 1580 book of Concord, so I am puzzled as to why he thinks such blanket statements are responsible in any sense at all (see my own post where I emphasize this matter vs. Protestants myself).
Father Freeman is eager to have persons believe that Eastern Orthodoxy is the True Church of God on earth. Before any take that jump however, let me recommend listening to these videos from Pastor Will Weedon, a devout and beloved Lutheran pastor who got right to the edge of converting to Eastern Orthodoxy before turning away… Why could he not jump? Why, perhaps, should you not jump? Everyone who thinks that modern Eastern Orthodoxy is immune to good, sound criticism not just from the Scriptures but from their own spiritual fathers owes it to themselves and others to check out this video.
I highly recommend watching these highly engaging and informative videos (part 1 can stand alone if you can only watch one). They are, quite simply, amazing. If you currently feel like Orthodoxy might be the only option for you but still have misgivings for some reason (as someone who was attracted myself I can guess what these might be), I am quite sure you will not be disappointed.
For his part, Father Freeman largely operates as if the confessional Lutheran church does not exist – and in fact, from his point of view, we are indeed a “vanishing breed” (many of the young people here at this fine talk would no doubt contest that). He has said on numerous occasions that the struggles of Luther and the other Lutheran Reformers are of little interest to him. It makes me very sad to hear such a respected and prominent voice of Eastern Orthodoxy say this. For when you listen to Pastor Weedon – who, incidently, has great affection for the Eastern Orthodox – I submit you will see something beautiful – something beautiful that absolutely demands be paid attention to.
In fact, I think it’s just as Father Freeman ends his article:
You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. (2Co 3:2-3 NKJ)
And now…. what’s this about the Lutheran Reformation being a revival of patristic theology? You’d better believe it. If Pastor Weedon’s remarks are widely true about the 21st century Eastern Orthodox church (where they are more “about venerating the icons of the fathers vs. actually reading what they wrote”) this really cannot be said about the 16th century Lutheran reformers and many of the faithful who followed in their train. Stay tuned for more soon…
In the meantime, here is a hint of what we are talking about. It is jaw-dropping stuff:
*Again, we do agree that the Church is the pillar and ground of truth, as the Scriptures say, but also that staying with the divinely revealed faith once delivered to all the saints means perpetually fleeing back to the Scriptures to test all things, particularly those things that seem wrong or unfamiliar (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11)!
Picture of William Weedon from his blog ; Father Freeman pic from hesychastic.wordpress.com ; others: Wikipedia