Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Way

The Way: What Every Protestant Needs to Know About Orthodoxy
© 2007 Clark Carlton
222 pages

  If Protestantism is a willful child of the Catholic church, what is it to the Orthodox?  What is the Orthodox faith for that matter, Catholicism with more beards and fewer popes?  The Way  begins with the  unexpected conversion story of its author from a Southern Baptist seminary to a faith thought to be the sole province of Greek and Russian immigrants  before articulating the core aspects of the ancient faith – the Trinity, the Church, and the Eucharist which brings them together – as they stand in relation to the doctrines of most American Christians. Although Protestants defined themselves against the authority of Rome, their doctrinal stands nonetheless render them separate from Orthodoxy – so separate, in fact, that Clarkson believes Protestantism constitutes a separate religion.  In The Way,  readers of all stripes will find an introduction the Orthodox  theology, and Protestants will find a particular challenge to their views on sola scripture and the role of tradition.

After easing readers into the book with his conversion story, which unfolded amid a fundamentalist takeover of a southern baptist college in the 1980s, Carlson shifts to theology.  The Trinity is a crucial concept to Orthodox theology, as it establishes God's nature as rooted in relationship.  "God is love" does not  simply mean that person called God happens to be loving; His very nature is bound up in the act of the Incarnation, just as the Church's nature is contained within the Eucharist. The Church, Clarkton writes, is not a body of people who believe the same thing, but a community which shares in the living body of Christ.   In less heady chapters, Carlton argues against sola scripture from various grounds, namely that no one interprets scripture without a tradition; Calvinists read the bible through Calvinism, Lutherans through Lutheranism, Arians Arianism, etc. The Catholic-Orthodox tradition at least has the merit of being the source of the scriptural compilation, as it took several hundred years for a definitive collection to be established by the Church.   The Eastern Orthodox church has no qualms regarding protestant rebellion of papal authority, for they too reject it;  but in Carlton's view the protestants have erred seriously in rejecting all authority. Scripture alone is insufficient; every heresy has come armed with its chosen scriptural arguments, and the massive variety of commentaries on the scriptures demonstrate how subjective readings can be.  The leadership of the Church resolves heresies not simply by finding scripture, but interpreting them in the light of the Church's nature. Arianism was a heresy not because it chose the "wrong verses", but because it effectively denies the Incarnation,  and with it the church's very life.  If the Bible were so important to Protestantism, why then did they modify it -- dropping books as desired?  Christ left a Church, not a book, writes Carlton, and  sola scriptura reduces the Bible to a rule book and Christianity an ideology, while the  Orthodox faith is a life lived in Jesus, through the Eucharist.

Carlton has a talent for making theology comprehensible, though he is an author who frequently bares his teeth, with a contempt borne of familiarity for aspects of modern Protestantism.  Sola scriptura no doubt dies hard, just as strict Constitutionalism dies hard: how easy it is to endue an object with objectivity, in the hopes of satisfying our need for something that is wholly True. But the Bible is not God; it is merely inspired by him, writes Carlton, and to worship it is to commit idolatry. In a finishing touch, Carlton scrutinizes the creeds of Protestant sects to point out what they truly worship, comparing the opening lines of the Nicene Creed ("I believe in One God") with articles of faith like the Westminister Confession, which open placing scripture at the forefront and then address God.  If nothing else, The Way does much to  demonstrate that the Eucharist was far more important to the early church than a once-a-year knocking back of grape juice does credit.

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