In recent months, I have been receiving more and more inquiries from friends expressing interest in joining the Orthodox Church. One factor drawing them is increased exposure to the way Orthodox theology represents God as more compassionate and restorative than they had previously understood. So too, they find the Orthodox account of the Cross to be very healing, especially seeing how the God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself through self-giving love. Further, they've grown interested in the openness of some of the early church fathers to alternative interpretations of divine judgment such that eternal conscious torment is not a required dogma. Some find the combination of mysterious and tactile worship aesthetically alluring. The cool beards also contribute. And of course, when a credible witness seems to be flourishing in that context, post-evangelicals think of Orthodoxy as a potential option. Hence the interest among those who've watched my journey. I'm glad for this.
So if you're thinking of joining the Orthodox Church, here are some suggestions that others gave me which may help you avoid wasted time, frustration or disappointment. These are gleaned from hierarchs, priests, teachers and lay people who've guided others along. There's a healthy order that benefited me greatly.
That's right. We're not in a rush to sign up members (especially from other churches) or join the church growth movement. There is no rush. There is no pressure. If you're meant to become part of the Orthodox Church, God will draw you along. It's better to let God ripen you for the move until you feel you'll 'go to seed' if you wait any longer. But many stages precede that decision.
If you've visited an Orthodox service, that's excellent. But it's more important initially to befriend an Orthodox priest who is willing to walk you through the endless 'what about this?' questions that you certainly should have. This relationship will be vital because by the time you're chrismated, you'll want to love and trust this person as your spiritual father and shepherd. If your priest is hospitable to you, patient with you and can provide answers to your questions that satisfy, then you're on your way. From his point of view, this may be the beginning of your catechism ... not in some stiff kind of discipleship course, but over coffee chats and prayer retreats and through whatever reading he recommends.
This period of investigation is not the time to set aside your struggles with elements of Orthodoxy you resist.
Definition: MASHUP (n.) -- a musical track comprising the vocals of one recording placed over the instrumental backing of another.
I love mashups. The definition above tells you what they are, but doesn't tell you what they do, which is to say, how they function. And how they function is often the funnest and most clever part. When a melody is very familiar, we will come to associate a message with the melody itself. If, then, someone does a mashup with lyrics from a song that carries a very different message, the incongruity can be very striking. The combination then acts ironically or satirically to provoke thought, to drive home an inspiring message or even provide prophetic-social commentary. When you add video to the mix, the effect is amplified even further.
Allow me to give you two examples that are not only ingenious but also quite moving. After these examples, I want to introduce you to the oldest known mashup in history (thanks to Dr. Matt Lynch for directing me to it). But please walk with me through the two modern samples first, because each carries its own forceful point.
Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun
Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I'm one.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost but now I'm found
Was blind but now I see.
Tears came as I saw that prodigal, stooped in shame, returning home to a father -- God -- to receive grace rather than condemnation, hospitality rather than punishment. Where there was ruin, there was restoration. I knew the song and thought I knew about grace, but amplified by the original melody, the gospel truly felt ... AMAZING! This is the power of great mashup. And that particular arrangement has been a powerful combination in venues that increase the effect even more. For example, I read about the tragic death of a disreputable biker whose friends played this version at his funeral. Imagine a congregation of gnarly hog-riders in leather blubbering along without shame? Actually, I've seen it ... and it was a rare beauty!
If you'd like to pause here and listen to that arrangement, let me introduce you to 'The Blind Boys of Alabama,' who really nail it.
Back in the day, when the early Church first came to faith in Jesus as Messiah but still relied entirely on the Hebrew Scriptures as their only ‘Bible,’ gospel preaching focused on the myriad of texts fulfilled in Christ. They saw Jesus everywhere in what would become the Christian ‘Old Testament.’ Indeed, we read how Jesus himself perceived His life as woven across the whole fabric of Jewish narrative, hymnology, and prophecy (Luke 24:13-35). For decades, the continuity between the Jewish narrative and the Christian revelation was a continuous wonder of discoveries.
But by the end of the first century, believers were also noticing some disturbing discontinuities as well. They noted the disparity between the image of the Father revealed in Christ with the violent images, actions, laws and judgments associated with Yahweh on display throughout the Law, the Writings and the Prophets. It seemed impossible that the God whom Jesus called Father could be responsible for the pattern of hatred and atrocity often described in the text and ascribed to His name.
The issue was so acute that potential solutions triggered schism. Believers attempted three major contrary approaches. The Gnostics preserved the perfection of the Creator God by assigning OT destruction and retribution to lesser gods and demiurges—distortions of God’s will. They included Yahweh among this secondary, violent company. Others, like the Marcionites, could not bear the discontinuity and ultimately abandoned the OT altogether as sub-Christian and unfit for continued use as authoritative Scripture in the Church.
The Church fathers and mothers who represent orthodox Christian belief rigorously rejected these answers … but they did not ignore the question. They only came to peace with the Hebrew text by nodding to its literal origins but interpreting its meaning spiritually or allegorically. Origen systematized this hermeneutic, but he really represents the standard approach of the early scholars en masse. Spiritualizing the Bible was deemed necessary in light of the obvious (to them) discrepancy between God as “the man of war” (Exodus 15:3) and Jesus as “the Prince of Peace.” Up until the Imperial reign of the Holy Roman Empire, the great conquests texts of the Bible stood as real contradictions to the Cross of Christ unless interpreted figuratively as our spiritual battle with a spiritual enemy, a la Ephesians 6.
I recently glimpsed a Facebook post that said only, 'I hate foodies.' I had no idea what a 'foodie' is so, fancying myself a researcher, I googled it. I discovered a whole new world of grand obsessions (especially with longevity) and frightful intrigues ... most of all, the conspiracies (fictional or not) around GMO food.
If I told you, "You should never question your president or prime minister," what would you say?
If I told you, "You should never question authority or the use of violence by authority," would you buy it?
I hope you would balk.
It's troubling then, when those in spiritual or political authority react when someone questions the actions of the state of Israel with the charge of anti-semitism ... and especially so when those raising objections include Israeli Jews and former IDF veterans. So often, the immediate response is that they are self-hating Jews. And why? For questioning their own government's domestic policy?
But what's especially strange is that Christians (not Jews) in another nation (not Israel), would hold an ideology that says, 'How dare you question Israel!' To fail to question anyone about anything creates the very conditions to which our Jewish sages have warned, 'Never again!'
Yet our own Canadian party leaders have rushed to assert unquestioning support of Israel's policies, politicizing their support, seemingly to position themselves for the sake of their political careers, as if this amounted to 'support.' To be clear, 'questioning' is not 'anti-' anything ... it's actually the most important part of processing Israel's long-term peace and security.
Fear not -- Ron Dart's collection of essays does not question Israel. It faithfully examines and questions the phenomenon of Canada Christian Zionism.
This article was inspired by and in response to Andrew Klager's piece on The Contradictory, Convenient, and Self-Serving Impulses in Selective Biblical Literalism. He addressed the buzz to and fro regarding Michael Gungor's supposed departure from 'biblical orthodoxy.' Nothing new under the sun. But I've noticed some oddities about this phrase 'biblical orthodoxy' in its popular usage.
First, I like 'biblical.' I like 'orthodoxy.' I work very hard to be both, especially seeking to attend to the Scriptures and the Church Fathers. I seek to align with them rather than bringing something novel.
But something happens around that phrase, 'biblical orthodoxy,' when the two words are brought together and particularly in the kind of contexts where they're then used.
1. When the tagline 'biblical orthodoxy' comes up, also too frequently it's used in the context of condemning someone according to one's own standards of what that means -- or at best, according to some modern confession of faith from one's particular religious club. By nature, 'biblical orthodoxy' is a measurement, which is to say a judgment, which is to say, the grounds for condemnation -- based less often on whether something is biblical or orthodox, but sadly, on whether the target in question falls within the critic's personal range of acceptable belief. In other words, 'biblical orthodoxy' tends to mean 'me' or 'what I know to be [un]true because I [don't] believe it.'
2. 'Biblical orthodoxy' is generally used as a synonym for 'biblical literalism,' which as Andrew points out, isn't terribly biblical. To be truly 'biblical,' one must take the Bible far more seriously than literalism allows for. 'Biblical' should imply a careful examination of authorial intent, ancient contexts and especially the profound nuances of various genres. Typically, literal-ism does violence to the Scriptures with its so-called 'plain reading' of the text ... too often a trendy cipher for a surface examination of the words for how I want to apply them. My caution is that we double-check how 'biblical' our 'biblical orthodoxy' is when hauled out to crucify someone.
I think it would help when we hear the words 'biblical orthodoxy' to ask, 'What do we mean by biblical?' to ensure that we really are being biblical in the truest sense.
In these days where theological pendulums swing wildly, I’ve been giving special attention to errors – sometimes grave – that occur through over-corrections. As people of faith, I’m well aware of how Christian doctrine and practice has frequently steered wildly out of one ditch, only to veer across the road and plunge into another gulley on the opposite side. Sometimes we oppose something toxic, only to poison ourselves with a corresponding error from the opposite extreme. Or in retrieving something we had previously lost, we swallow the bathwater with the long lost baby.
With that in mind, I want to reconsider how my very necessary rediscovery of spiritual reality may have also opened the door to ill-advised ancient mythologies—errors that Judaism had already expunged thousands of years ago. Herein, I will lay out my concern in stages for the reader to weigh, test and fact-check. I’m claiming nothing definitive here … I am not teaching so much as raising the question for further examination.
In his classic work, The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, the Hebrew scholar Yechezkel Kaufmann lays out the superiority and genius of Judaism vis-à-vis the pagan worldviews of the day. He treats the Jewish conception of the universe as a radical departure and contesting revelation—rather than a mere evolution from—ancient polytheistic conceptions. Points 1-3 below are Kaufmann’s claims, which may be overstated, but should certainly be attended to by Christian scholars.
 I was introduced to Kaufmann’s work through Dr. Christine Hayes’ course, “Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible),” lecture 2, which is entitled “The Hebrew Bible in Its Ancient Near Eastern Setting: Biblical Religion in Context.” Cf. http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145/lecture-2.
OpenWTC (Westminster Theological Centre) is offering a free 10-week online course, TH49X1: Living the Christian Story.
This course is designed to be accessed anytime, anywhere online from 23rd June onwards. Brad Jersak will be teaching the NT section.
To register for the course, click here:
To download the course syllabus click here:
Free Will, the Nous and Divine Judgment
A Critical Analysis of Three Visions of Universalism
I’ll say it again at the outset. I’m not a universalist. But some of my friends are … some of my evangelical friends, some of my Orthodox friends. So I ask them questions about that. This is not flirting (as Lewis and Barth were accused of), but simply being fair. In the name of ‘discernment,’ I’ve encountered a LOT of name-calling, dismissiveness, intentional misrepresentation and caricaturing. “Earth to Matilda!” – that’s not discernment. We can and must do better than that. Surely we could at least build bridges (from both ends of the chasm!) long enough so that listening could displace lobbing.
In this article, I’m trying to address fairly and critique carefully three brands of universalism, which I’ll call popular universalism, Reformed universalism and apokatastasis. Although I personally self-identify as a ‘hopeful inclusivist’ (cf. Kallistos Ware and Hans Urs Von Baltasar), I think it’s important to fairly distinguish and assess these points on the universalist spectrum, for they represent quite a broad range and some extremely different convictions about Christ, redemption and human response.
It’s also an important exercise for me: can I fairly represent a view to which I don’t hold with both enough charity and accuracy such that the universalist (in this case), can say, “Yes, that was fair.” Or at least, “not exactly, let me explain.”
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David knew the weight of his own desperate failures and the public crucifixion of his reputation as a man supposedly "after God's own heart." His confession in Psalm 51 would become part of the national public hymnal, repeated regularly not only by the Levitical worshipers, but also later in the weekly chants of Chrysostom's Divine Liturgy. The original lyrical process would no doubt have sounded much more guttural, when David groans,
Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
I imagine Paul, too, preaching in his early years to congregations that included widows and orphans of his own persecution, would have found that his 'sin was ever before him,' staring him in the face through grieving eyes not yet ready to forgive or trust.
Eventually, though, he comes to this:
6 For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.
7 We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.
The first weekend showings of Noah (the movie) starring Russell Crowe and Emma Watson were accompanied by some surprises and an utter lack thereof. I'll start with the latter to get it out of the way.
No surprise: Evangelical panic
I don't think anyone should be surprised at the usual course of Evangelical reactions decrying the movie for its 'biblical inaccuracies.' (Though I confess to wondering if the Westboro Baptists picketed anywhere). Of course, citing inaccuracies implies that the measure of faithfulness to Scripture is somehow photocopying Genesis 6-9 into the screenplay in a sort of word for word depiction. It's this paint by numbers mentality that keeps many an Evangelical trapped within the lines of their own assumptions -- as if taking the text literally was remotely akin to taking it seriously. Not so!
Confession(s) of Faith - Brad Jersak
As requested, what follows is a confession of faith that clarifies the doctrines to which I subscribe.
The difficulty of such confessions is four-fold.
1. The very idea of a personal doctrinal statement seems to me oxymoronic, in that the Christian faith was ‘once for all delivered’ (Jude 1:3) – a particular Gospel received by and passed on to the Church (1 Cor. 15:3). The best we can do is to identify the heart of that faith and consent to it, rather than composing our own private or even denominational belief systems.
2. The idea of a single confessional statement is also problematic in that both the Bible and the early Church orbit around several summary hymns and creeds, which comprise a constellation of affirmations that all orthodox believers agreed on for the first three centuries of Christianity.
3. The apostles and their successors did not always agree and were willing to speculate freely and broadly about theology. But to maintain unity, they kept dogma (what one must believe) to a bare minimum … just eight sentences after three centuries! To venture beyond the brief historic creeds led to the schisms that fractured unity.
4. Finally, various confessions answer different sets of questions, sort of like asking what suit is ‘trump’ in a game of blackjack or how many points a ‘free throw’ gets in a hockey game. So please forgive me if the following confession answers different sets of questions than the reader might be asking.
Published on 25 Feb 2014
Frank Schaeffer discusses growing up with his Father and Mother, Francis and Edith Schaeffer and the lasting impact they made on the Evangelical Right in America. He carefully traces Francis Schaeffer's engagement with Christianity arguing that, rather than turning away from his parent's legacy, he has instead carried it on through his journey to Orthodoxy.
Becoming Orthodox: From Foxhole to Harbor
By now, most of my social networks and some of my readership have heard of my move into the Eastern Orthodox Church. I was ‘chrismated’ at the end of June this year (2013) and ordained as a ‘reader’ for the All Saints Monastery in Dewdney in October. You might wonder why I—an evangelical / charismatic / Anabaptist—would don a cassock and take up incense and chanting. If you’re curious, here’s the short version.
Why did I become an Orthodox Christian?
First, because in my theology, I already was Orthodox for over ten years. When I say ‘theology,’ don’t think of stuffy, religious hair-splitting. I’m referring to the basic questions of who God is, what God is like, why Jesus came and died, what salvation is and how that happens. On these questions, I feel most at home in the Orthodox tradition, and I finally decided to make it official.
I experienced this as a move from my foxhole to a harbor. Allow me to summarize:
The ancient Orthodox vision as I know it proclaims the saving power of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and the ever-enduring mercies of the Father—the same Gospel I have always believed, but came to understand more clearly and preach more overtly a decade ago. To me, it’s the same Good News, but now even more so. I have experienced Orthodox theology as more evangelical—i.e. better news—than what I had known and taught in the context of popular Evangelical-ism.
Of course, there are growing enclaves and popular movements among Evangelicals where theologians of hope are hunkering down and discovering what other Christians have taught all along. But they also endure a barrage of hostilities from members of their own tribe, those who marginalize them with hateful labels and even believe God has called them to the attack. So on the one hand, Evangelicalism continues to morph and mature, while on the other, some of her popular streams still cling to a retributive image of God -- and its most zealous gatekeepers are quick to brand those who don’t as false teachers and heretics. Lord, have mercy.
2 Cor. 5:21 – Andrew Klager, Michael Hardin, and Brad Jersak
Andrew Klager is an Orthodox historian and theologian who teaches at a number of schools in British Columbia, including the University of the Fraser Valley and Trinity Western University. Among his many other contributions to current scholarship, he offered an article to Stricken by God? Non-violent Atonement and the Victory of Christ (Eerdmans, 2007) entitled “Retaining and Reclaiming the Divine: Identification and the Recapitulation of Peace in St. Irenaeus of Lyons’ Atonement Narrative.”
Michael Hardin and his wife Lorri—Anabaptist teachers par excellence—lead a ministry called Preaching Peace (www.preachingpeace.org). Hardin is a Girardian scholar who co-edited Stricken by God? and whose seminal work, The Jesus Driven Life, has just been released in an expanded 2nd edition.
Brad Jersak teaches New Testament and Patristics at Westminster Theological Centre (Cheltenham) and serves as Associate Editor of The Plain Truth and CWR Journal with PTM.org. Brad is also general editor of Clarion.
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Brad Jersak: I frequently field questions about the meaning of 2 Cor. 5:21, especially from those who, like me, initially inherited a particular penal substitutionary lens through which to read it. The text reads as follows:
21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (NASB).
In the popular Calvinist interpretation, on the Cross, God the Father imputes the sins of the world onto Christ, such that in bearing our guilt, Jesus literally ‘becomes sin,’ or ‘became a curse’ (Gal. 3:13) on our behalf. Since a holy God cannot look on sin, the Father must turn his face away, forsaking his Son and pouring out all the wrath of God against sin upon him. Sin is thus punished in Christ in our place. Thus the wrath and justice of God are satisfied and God can justly forgive all those for whom Jesus died (i.e., the elect, given Calvin’s limited atonement). I believe this is a fair summary of the traditional Reformed position. Indeed, I once held this precise position (as a careful five-point Calvinist) in my MA thesis, “The Nature of Christ’s Suffering and Substitution” (BBC, 1988).
Of course, penal substitution does not offer the only understanding of this passage. The dominant Eastern Orthodox view, for example, holds to a more restorative view of justice and therapeutic vision of the Cross. In that scenario, the Father is seen in Christ (Zech. 12:10)revealing his love and mercy through the Son (1 John 3:16). Rather than satisfying his wrath through punishment, we see God-in-Christ pouring out forgiveness on the world (the whole world) for our salvation.
Abridged excerpts from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way (with commentary questions on using images in prayer by Brad Jersak)
The following is an abridged excerpt from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s classic work, The Orthodox Way (1979). Kallistos (Timothy) Ware is an English bishop within the Eastern Orthodox Church and one of the best-known contemporary Orthodox theologians.
His book includes an outstanding and accessible summary of Orthodox theology and practice, including a clear presentation on Orthodox contemplation. This excerpt is abridged from portions of chapter six.
Following the excerpt, Brad Jersak responds with some commentary / questions regarding the use of the imagination in Orthodox contemplation.
Excerpt from chapter 6 “God as Prayer”
It is customary to divide the spiritual Way into three stages. For St Dionysius the Areopagite these are purification, illumination and union—a scheme adopted in the West. St Gregory of Nyssa, taking as his model the life of Moses, speaks of light, cloud and darkness. But in this chapter (The Orthodox Way, ch. 6) we shall follow the somewhat different threefold scheme devised by Origen, rendered more precise by Evagrius, and fully developed by St Maximus the Confessor. The first stage here is praktiki or the practice of the virtues; the second stage is physiki or the contemplation of nature; the third and final stage, our journey’s end, is theologia or “theology” in the strict sense of the word, that is, the contemplation of God himself.
The following interview took place over several days via email and in person. In it, Brad Jersak queries Archbishop Lazar Puhalo on the role of women and the Orthodox tradition. The conversation was triggered by a statement from blogger and theologian, Derek Flood (www.therebelgod.com), who observed, “So often, even where women are not acknowledged, they are the real spiritual backbone of the church.”
Interestingly, several women are classed as "Equal of the Apostles" in the Orthodox Church. All of them publicly preached the Gospel; most of them were martyred for preaching the Gospel. One of these Equals of the Apostles was St Nina, a slave girl who converted the Kingdom of Georgia (Iveron) to Christianity, and the nation remains to this day the oldest of the Orthodox Catholic Christian nations.
Among the others, Mary of Magdala and Photini (the Samaritan woman at the well) were martyred. St Helen the Empress (mother of Constantine) and Saint Olga of Russia are also "Equals of the Apostles." Both had a great deal of authority over men, and both taught the faith publicly. Both had much to do with their sons’ conversions.
 Church tradition also acknowledges the sisters Mary and Martha, along with Junia (Rom. 16:7) as apostles and fellow-prisoners with Paul. Junia and Andronicus were apparently a couple and are regarded as ‘of the seventy’ whom Jesus sent out as evangelists. Andronicus became bishop of Pannonia, but the two took the Gospel far beyond that diocese.