Wednesday, March 18, 2015

My Journey, Part 13.4: The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel

This is part 13.4 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

The material in this post is less important than in the two or three previous ones. It is more peripheral than central to the gospel, and exists more in the form of tendencies on the popular, applied level of evangelicalism than of doctrinal teaching in its theological core. I am not trying to completely describe evangelicalism here (if such a feat is even possible), but to call out several gospel-related habits which I think are significant within it and which are part of the reason why the gospel according to Orthodoxy is more attractive to me. I will hopefully keep this much briefer than the previous posts.

The duration of salvation

What happens at the point of salvation?
What is salvation?

As I mentioned last time, evangelicalism tends to draw on the Lutheran dichotomy between justification and sanctification; the former is something instantaneous that happens at the moment when unbelief turns to faith and, along with the rest of the steps in the "order or salvation" that simultaneously accompany it, is roughly equivalent to "getting saved" or being "born again", the latter is the confirmation or manifestation of salvation in a new believer's life as he/she is transformed into Christ's likeness through the power of the Holy Spirit. In Orthodox soteriology, on the other hand, no clear distinction is drawn between justification and sanctification, or between the initiatory and continuing dimensions of salvation. I think it would be accurate to say that for the Orthodox, salvation is an eschatological (or in common parlance, "already, not-yet") reality, something that mysteriously is fully present in all who are in Christ, yet needs to be "worked out" (Phil 2:12) throughout the believer's life. Though this dynamic is far from alien to evangelicalism, the crucial distinction is that it is applied consistently, to every dimension of salvation; it is not as though some are completed instantaneously and others are ongoing projects.

This was attractive to me because I was previously having trouble following the evangelical focus on the initial "point of salvation" over what comes after it. This was one of the causes of the episodes of doubt described in post 2. I saw conversion as totally central to and determinative of everything that came afterward; on Summer Project, for example, I viewed doubts and lack of fruit as potential indications that my supposed conversion experience hadn't really "taken" and that I had better try again. (I am far from the only evangelical to have had this concern) For all its emphasis on faith alone, I think evangelicalism is ironically at risk of turning conversion into a work by placing so much weight on it. Focusing on the initial point of salvation over its continuing dimension is one of the gospel distortions that I was happy to see corrected by Orthodox teaching.

The size of the gospel

How can we see through the human additions and distortions to glimpse 
the essence of the gospel?
How do we believe, pray, worship, and live the gospel in all its richness?

Evangelicalism tends to be minimalistic in its description of the "gospel", at least of the form to be shared with non-Christians. It is basically treated as a message of personal salvation, on who God is (the omnipotent, loving creator of all things who desires to be in relationship with us), who you are (a sinner separated from God), who Jesus is (the son of God) and what he did (died on the cross to make a way for our sins to be forgiven so we can be reconciled with God), and what you should do (pray top accept Jesus into your heart). Even if there is plenty more evangelical teaching filling in the details, the implication is that the "raw" or "essential" gospel, all that is really required for salvation, is something that can be shared in under five minutes and summarized by a string of brief quotations from Paul's epistle to the Romans. I began to notice this on my own as I was rethinking my evangelical beliefs:
Protestants take a very minimalist view of salvation, like a student asking, 'what's the least I need to do to pass?' There are no right answers to wrong questions. (2014-1-24)
Granted, this minimalism was well-intentioned—it was for the sake of removing unnecessary obstacles and making the message of salvation as freely available and easily graspable as possible. But I couldn't shake the feeling that something essential was lost in this drive to boil the gospel down to its essentials, to distill it to a five-minute message. For one thing, it made it hard for me to see how I fit into the mission of the church, bad at evangelism as I was.
If we reduce the gospel from a new reality to a message to be proclaimed, the range of acceptable parts of the body of Christ shrinks distinctly. (2013-4-7)
And it led to me seeing the gospel as somewhat circular, as also described in post 2: it seemed like the point (or a major point) of responding to the gospel was to share it with others—but this bypasses the question of what the gospel really is; I was growing restless with the minimal version of the gospel I was being taught.

In contrast, Orthodoxy embodies the "maximalist" understanding of the gospel I mentioned vaguely desiring in post 8. Though the liturgy contains plenty of brief, sweeping statements about the gospel, it is never supposed that they exhaust or fully define it. There is no impetus to boil the faith down to a set of essentials, first principles, or "fundamentals". In the Orthodox Church, salvation is ultimately a mystery, not at all meaning a contradiction or paradox that you just have to accept, but something divine, too vast and glorious for anyone to fully master or comprehend. This is because it leads us to the deeper and greater mystery of union with the divine. The gospel is something that can change your life in an instant, but which you can spend a lifetime learning and growing in. It encompasses the incarnation, life, teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus (and by the way, the Orthodox view on the gospel is centered, logically enough, around the four gospels rather than Paul's epistles), the teachings of Paul, the types and echoes woven throughout the Old Testament. Even after the Bible, the Church has spent its two-thousand-year life continuing to uncover and treasure new facets of the gospel; this is one way of thinking about what Holy Tradition is. I am truly thankful that it has preserved the gospel in such indescribable, maximalistic richness.


How can we get as many gospel presentations and decisions for Christ as possible?
How can we faithfully treasure and preserve the apostolic faith?

Behind both of these things is a tendency (especially in popular-level evangelicalism) toward what I call "conversionism". Presupposing a focus on the initial point of salvation as especially significant for the Christian and a working definition of the "gospel" as a simple message of salvation, conversionism is characterized by at least three other habits: 1) treating "salvation" as something atomic, that you simply have or don't, 2) an individualistic outlook on salvation, and 3) a strong concern for finding "assurance" of your salvation.

What I am addressing here is largely evangelicals' pietist heritage. Initially a response to Reformation dogmatists' prizing of doctrine over heartfelt faith, pietism was spread by pastors like Phillip Jakob Spener, who valued personal Bible devotions and called Christians to higher Christian standard than doctrinal correctness and decent living, and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. As Pietism spread through emotive preaching and religious revivals, it was characterized by a renewed focus on authentic, personal faith back by Bible study and devotion, a simple gospel to be spread everywhere (even by lay preachers) in fulfillment of the Great Commission (Mat 28:20), emotional conversion experiences, and subsequent assurance of salvation.

Clearly there was much about the rigid orthodoxies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the pietists were right to protest; the Thirty Years' War stood in everyone's mind as an example of the atrocities confessional battles could lead to. But as is so often the case, pietism led not to restored equilibrium but a Christianity that is similarly imbalanced, just in different ways. (Modern evangelicalism, especially of the Reformed variety, tends to incorporate a concern for Protestant orthodoxy and pietism; they are clearly not incompatible). The two habits I described above (salvation as something punctiliar and the gospel as a simple message of forgiveness of sins) made it possible to think in terms of an absolute, binary dichotomy between "saved" and "unsaved", and to make this distinction central to Christian ministry. The job of the evangelist, it is though, is to share the gospel with the "unsaved"/"lost" so that some might accept it with faith and become "saved".

While there is a profound difference between those who are "in Christ" and those who aren't, to absolutize and centralize this difference to the degree I have seen in evangelical preaching is reductionistic, like filtering a famous painting down to two colors. The original is still recognizable, but almost everything of it has been lost. I think this way of viewing and speaking of salvation as something indivisible that you simply have or don't is responsible for a good deal of crises of faith, some of my own included (as on summer project). As I commented:
If the only two categories we have are 'saved' and 'unsaved', the only alternative to everything being great between you and God is admitting that you're unsaved. (2013-5-8)
I realize that this is not consistently taught in most evangelical circles, but it seems to be at least an unspoken assumption behind talk of "the lost", being "saved", and other such language. It was what I took away, at least. The following year, I contrasted this "spiritual object" approach to salvation with an undefined "relational" approach.
I've been thinking about salvation as a spiritual object again, as something that God ties up with a proverbial bow and hands to us in exchange for either faith or good works. But again, this is a disconnected, non-relational way of thinking of it. (2014-1-30)
I also noticed that this tendency (along with the theology of atonement and justification I've discussed in the last two posts), when systematized, has some unfortunate implications for children too young to receive the gospel (to say nothing of the mentally handicapped or the unevangelized). Of course if you make receiving salvation the most important thing in Christianity and justification by personal faith alone in Jesus Christ alone as your savior, you will raise questions about those who, by no fault of their own, are unable to exercise such faith.
Our model of sin and salvation doesn't apply to children—so you get wonky debates on paedobaptism and infant salvation. (2013-6-17)
Scot McKnight (himself an evangelical) has used the term "threshold evangelism" in much the same way that I use "conversionism" to describe how evangelicals can boil salvation down to moving from the "unsaved" to "saved" category, how this tends to lead to results-focused ministry, reducing the "gospel" down to a short presentation, and how it is problematic for "full conversions". He argues (and I agree) that evangelism should be based on centered-set thinking (which thinks more in terms of continued movement towards or away from the center, Jesus) than on bounded-set thinking (which focuses on a minimal set of criteria for being "in" vs. "out" and getting as many people as possible past that threshold. He also mentions a bridge illustration for salvation similar to the one I journaled on (admittedly overgeneralizing in the second part):
I get this image of a celestial bridge across a great divide. The bridge is the gospel, and it spans from Death to Life. Other bridges go from nearer outcroppings to Death, and people thing the outcroppings are life. The point of crossing the gospel bridge is to get to the other side and lie there, never forgetting where you came from and how you got there. ... The whole focus of evangelicalism is the bridge—how wonderful it is that it's there, and getting other people to cross it. (2012-10-13,14)
Threshold evangelism also naturally places a lot of weight on the "decision for Christ" (as the punctiliar crossing of the threshold), which I have been questioning at least since my series on God's providence for the attention it tends to draw to trying to "figure out" the mystery of divine sovereignty and human freedom in this one crucial decision. But what if one decision was never supposed to be the condition for the whole work of salvation? As well, the drive to secure these decisions began to feel manipulative to me, like trying to sell something to people who felt more like customers than recipients of Christ's love.
Though telling someone the gospel of Jesus is supposed to be one of the most loving things we can do for them, often we don't do so as if it were an act of love—more as if we're trying to sell something, or be the ones to save them from ignorance. (2013-10-7)
Conversionism is also naturally individualistic due to its focus on personal salvation, which has been around at least since the Wesleys. While I have a lot of respect for John Wesley's compassion and spirituality (especially after reading this book), his description of his own conversion experience is trend-setting in ways both good and bad (emphasis added).
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
This article, while technically about the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage, also describes quite frankly how the evangelical focus on the conversion narrative leads to a more individual, subjective take on the gospel, which I have definitely seen in my own experience. I also can't help but wonder if the western focus on the juridical aspect of salvation (which is inapplicable anywhere beyond the redemption of humans) has something to do with this inward turn. Overgeneralizing again:
How is the gospel usually stated in evangelicalism? 'God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, so He sent Jesus so that your sin could be forgiven and you can have a personal relationship with Him.' With such a personal understanding of the gospel—as being all about you and God—is it any wonder that so many American Christians have a self-centered faith? (2013-1-10)
In parallel with this is the drive for assurance of possessing this personal salvation (which, again, only makes sense if salvation is instantaneous and simple). This last journal entry is rather bitter and unfair, but I think there was some truth to the feelings I was expressing.
I'm so accustomed to hearing that salvation is conditioned on faith—but what faith! Evangelical culture fetishizes the spiritual object of 'salvation'—what it is, how to obtain it, how to know you have it—and to prevent hysteria from breaking out it is made very easy to obtain. But 'salvation' is not the point—living and sharing Christ is. But then, we turn the gospel into the message of how to obtain salvation. (2013-9-6)
I have already described many of the ways in which Orthodox teaching, worship, and practice differ from conversionism. In Orthodoxy "salvation" is continuous and eschatological in nature, a past, present, and future process, so that one can talk about a point when he/she was "saved" but still pray for the realization of that salvation every day. Though it is still possible to make the distinction of "saved" vs. "unsaved" (and it is not coextensive with the visible Church), it is equally possible to speak of degrees of salvation, since justification and sanctification are not sharply divided, and of greater and lesser sources of "salvation", which are ultimately all instruments of God. Though Orthodox are of course interested in the salvation of the world, faithfully preserving the knowledge and richness of what we are saved to is at least as important. Quality arguably takes precedence over quantity.

I have already seen this firsthand in the surprising (to me) lack of urgency in incorporating me into the Orthodox Church. In the early church, the catechizing of converts before their baptism could take years; though it will only be a few months for me,  Far from the senseless workings of a bureaucracy or the erection of "barriers to salvation", I see this deliberateness as genuine concern for the authenticity and fullness of my conversion, as the desire to make me more than a number or an evangelistic project but to walk with me every step of the way to provide guidance and encouragement as I enter into the life of the Church (and to make sure that my heart and mind are in the right place, which is a concern I don't often see in the evangelical quest for "decisions for Christ").

Without an instantaneous concept of salvation, Orthodox soteriology deemphasizes the singular salvific decision, largely sidestepping the seemingly intractable debates about sovereignty and free will of which the Arminian controversy and its reverberations are examples. Though salvation is incarnationally dependent on our will and God's, our role in salvation is not simply a single decision, but our continued synergistic, incarnational, grace-enabled willing and cooperation with God's energies, which (in terms of efficacy) simply means not resisting them.

Similarly, I think Orthodoxy preserves the value of the individual in salvation without reducing salvation to largely individualistic terms. This is not so much about content of teaching as it is about how that content is preached, prayed, sung, and generally understood, in a more or less balanced way. More often, and especially in corporate settings, the Church or even the entire cosmos is the locus of salvation, the beneficiary of redemption, though the individual dimension comes to the foreground more in private prayer and study. The cosmic drama of the gospel, frequently mentioned but too often forgotten by evangelicals, saturates the writings of the Church Fathers. N.T. Wright, unpacking his New Perspective understanding of the gospel, confirms this:
We are not saved from the world of creation, but for the world of creation (Rom 8:18-26). Humans were made to take care of God's wonderful world, and it is not too strong to say that the reason God saves humans is not simply that he loves them for themselves but that he loves them for what they truly are--his pro-creators, his stewards, his vice-regents over creation. To make this utterly Pauline move is not merely to adjust some nuts and bolts at the edge of his doctrine of salvation, but to shift the weight of the whole thing away from where it has been in the Western church since long before the Reformation and--without losing the necessary Western emphases on the cross--back towards the cosmic focus which Eastern Christians never lost. ... "'Salvation' is from death itself, and all that leads to it it and shares its destructive character (tribulation, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, weaponry) and all the powers that use these things to oppress humans and deface God's world. (Justification, 207)
And finally, there is far less of a tendency to focus on receiving "assurance" of salvation or holding onto it tightly amid doubts. Again, I think this is because Orthodox theology doesn't divide the gospel up between instantaneous justification and continuing sanctification or reduce peoples' "status before God" to a simple duality. Salvation is not something passive that we simply "have" or don't. We gain access to all the blessings of Christ at the "point of salvation", but continue to grow and live in them by grace within the Church. Our active participation in this new, incarnational, eschatological life, not simply the observation of "fruit", is such a firm basis for assurance of salvation that is it not a topic of major concern; the point is finally not to answer doubts, but to make them unnecessary. As I think Hebrews 3:14 ("For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end") teaches, assurance of salvation, like the other graces that are ours in Christ, is both a present and a future reality whose final confirmation is faithful perseverance.


There is still enough of an evangelical in me to realize that all of this may well be less than convincing to many of my readers. Partly because of the things I have been discussing in this post, the gospel according to Orthodoxy (and, arguably, to evangelical theology in its various forms) is not something that can be even remotely captured in a blog post. It is much more than a message that can be simply "shared" and decided upon in a matter of minutes. It is the life of the Trinity, incarnation, it is the crucifixion, it is the resurrection, it is the fulfillment of God's promises, it is eternal life, it is union with God in and through the Church.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Everything I have written is from my own preliminary glimpses of the richness of Orthodox theology, as one even less than a spiritual infant in the Church. If you are interested in hearing from someone who has a better idea of what he is talking about, I highly recommend St. Athanasius' timeless book, On the Incarnation (the translation used by CCEL and the Kindle Edition is particularly good), or perhaps St. Irenaeus' Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. Some more modern (but non-free) sources expressing the mind of the Church are The Orthodox Church (which also includes a helpful historical section) and The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware and For the Life of the World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

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