Toward a Theology of Tradition

I recently finished a segment from Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism. Of the many comments that I would love to quote here the following interested me in particular for this blog. It is from the concluding comments by Bradley Nassif and his critiques of both Orthodox and evangelicals. He is suggesting that evangelicals listen to those from within their own ranks who are calling for their own to live out a vision of corporate communion in Christ:

Moreover, the evangelical emphasis on personal salvation needs to be balanced by the Orthodox vision of corporate communion in Christ. The individualistic, experience-centered worship of many evangelicals needs to be augmented by a more focused emphasis on the Trinitarian God Himself. Even in the area of Christian spirituality, the monastic tradition of the Orthodox Church has much to say to modern evangelicals about the primacy of love, with humility and prayer as its servants. In short, evangelicals are in need of developing a theology of tradition, and this theology must be more reflective of the fullness of biblical and Christian history.

I’m thankful for the Orthodox emphasis on Trinitarian theology and its focus on the corporate aspect of Christian experience. I think that their Trinitarian vision of life makes them the most evangelical church in the world. What are your thoughts on the matter?

13 thoughts on “Toward a Theology of Tradition

  1. Sean, you write:
    “I think that their Trinitarian vision of life makes them the most evangelical church in the world. What are your thoughts on the matter?”

    I agree whole-heartedly with Nassif’s critique of the Evangelical Protestant church. But I’m a little unclear as to your meaning of the term “evangelical” in your last sentence (as quoted)–if you’ll clarify that I’ll be better able to reply. I don’t want to presume to know your meaning. Thanks!

  2. I think that a theology that is relational is evangelical by nature. I know we all could use a nice concise definition of evangelical (if one exists). But I guess the point I was trying to make stems from the fundamental differences in the differing approaches to theology from the East and West and their logical implications for Christian experience. The Western “contract” God seems to lead to a contract Christian experience rather than one that is incarnational. But then again, I am just a simple Bible College graduate — maybe we could use some “professional” input.

    Nassif qualifies his comments concerning what he perceives to be the Orthodox’s theological advantages. He makes the observation of his own church:

    “If we Orthodox wish to truly manifest our incarnationl Trinitarian faith, we will need to constantly recover the personal and relational aspects of God in every life-giving action of the church. Failure to do so will constitute an experiential denial of our own Orthodox faith. Even if we Orthodox find evangelicals theologically deficient in a number of areas, evangelicals can rightly find us existentially deficient in the practical outworking of our faith. Perhaps if we humble ourselves before our evangelical brethren, we will learn the true meaning of our own faith and, in the process, bring them with us into the fullness of the life of the church.”

    Now, evangelicals may or may not agree with all of that, but the point is that Nassif correctly makes the point that the Orthodox have not lived out the evangelical aspects of their own faith. But the potential is there, hence my comment, “I think that their Trinitarian vision of life makes them the most evangelical church in the world.” Maybe I should have said, “I think that their Trinitarian vision of life gives them the potential to be the most evangelical church in the world.”

    Does that help?

  3. Yes, it does; and I agree with you when you write, “a theology that is relational is evangelical by nature.” Your critique of the “contract God” is good too–I understand what you mean now when you say the Eastern Orthodox are more evangelical than anyone, though I think “the potential of being” is an important clause you’ve added. My thoughts are in agreement with yours. Thanks for the clarification.

  4. You’re more than welcome. It is my hope and desire that we in the West can rearticulate our theology in relational terms. That is the true value and beauty I see in Wesley Biblical Seminary, and, by the way, why I will attending there this Fall 😉

  5. I contacted Bradley Nassif last fall concerning his chapter in this book, “Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism”. I first told him that I agreed with his position, but that I being a Wesleyan in my doctrine felt that we align even more closely to Eastern Orthodoxy that the rest of the “Evangelical Movement”. He expressed to me a passionate “yes”. He agreed with the idea that Wesleyans line up more closely, because Wesley himself studied the Eastern Fathers (i.e. St. Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrystostom, etc.). He then led me to a book entitled, “Orthodox and Wesleyan Spirituality”, edited by St. Kimbrough, Jr. (St. Vladimir’s Press).

  6. When we talk about the potential of being the most evangelical church I wonder if too often we sell our own tradition short. As was mentioned, due to Wesley’s study of Eastern Orthodox, the Wesleyan doctinal position puts us much closer to the Orthodox church than most others in the “Evangelical” world. Yet, in our tradition not only do we have the doctrine, but we also have the tie between doctrine and day to day living that the Eastern Church is missing. Not only that, but it is a tie that is relational at the heart of it. It seems to me that nobody has been as good as the Wesleys were at using classmeetings, band meetings, preaching, teaching, songwritting, etc., to not only express their theology but to do so in a manner that people were able to see how it applied to their everyday lives. In fact, the Wesley’s were a major force in the turning around of the nation of England.
    When it comes to relationality, it seems to me it is hard to beat the classmeetings, band meeting, etc. If you read the questions that were asked in those sessions I think it would be near impossible to not be relational.
    So for me, it is not a matter of looking to someone else for being the most evangelical church (though there is much to still be learned from their theology), it is a matter of us looking back to our heritage because it seems to me that our heritage has the best of both worlds.
    The only problem is that we are not as Wesleyan as we claim to be.


  7. Tex,
    Good insight. I was thinking about this as I was reading your comment and I suddenly realized how I have sold my own tradition short. I have consistently defended my Wesleyan heritage and still believe that no one else since the apostles and early fathers have done more for the church than Wesley. I guess in my comment I was comparing the Orthodox with evangelicalism as a whole — a dangerous error on my part. I think you are exactly right on your comments.

    I recently have been doing some thinking about this and one idea came to me the other day. Is it possible that what we see with Orthodoxy and Wesleyanism are two sides of the same coin? Granted, this is an extreme generalization, one riddled with holes I’m sure. But is it possible that in Wesley we might see the practical implications, or outworkings, of an Orthodox theology? Food for thought.

  8. Well, guys, I would just offer the following. The EO have plenty of problems that stem from their understanding of the Church. One of the problems is that the idea of “personal” faith is submerged in the vat of the Orthodox “we” of community.

    The doctrine of the Trinity propels us toward a relational soteriology that must have a corporate manifestation in Church life and growth in grace. Yet, relationality (a very wooly-booger of a concept) cannot deny the necessity of the unique responsiveness of each one of us. The real challenge is to articulate a soteriology that sees individuality (uniqueness and specificity) and relationality (communal existence) as the two elements that are essential for true knowledge of God. The glory of the Reformation is the source of its bane — the rearticulation of faith as an address to the individual through the community, but an address that the individual must respond to by grace.

  9. While I’ll agree with Steve B., I would want to remind us that the recent surge in EO is due to the reaction of the Reformational soteriolgy taken to its logical conclusion. Many find the Western theology too much focused on the individual’s decision of salvation, next comes the individual defining salvation for him/herself (i.e. liberal theology, existentialism, neoorthodoxy, death of God movement, new age, etc.). The retain a middle ground that is founded on truth, don’t we have to reach way out to the other side to counter balance narrow philosophy and theology? Tradition is always one of the key elements in the search for truth, and the EO currently is providing that element.

    P.S. I also have to look back to Wesley’s eclectic theology as an example of a person in search of Biblical truth.

  10. Steve B,

    I agree with you that a balance must be found between our focus on the person and our focus on the community. Maybe the EO have focused on community to the detriment of the individual and we have focused on the individual to the detriment of the community (once again, another sweeping generalization).

    You said, “The real challenge is to articulate a soteriology that sees individuality (uniqueness and specificity) and relationality (communal existence) as the two elements that are essential for true knowledge of God.” Maybe this is a stupid question, but which are you saying here:

    A.) We as the church can only have true knowledge of God once we image Him (IE. hypostatic persons in interpenetrating community without a loss of identity)?


    B.) Once we as a church have true knowledge of God it produces a community that images Him?

  11. If the EO church is growing (as I assume it is from your comments above) I’d agree with Jake on the causes of that growth (if it is among young people). A major emphasis of post-modern ministry is the “down-playing of doctrine”. They want “community” but they want is on a global, “plural” scale. They would say, “Hold to your doctrinal distinctives, your personal beliefs–but don’t impose them upon the full arena of “the” church.” According to the emergent leaders–all denominations are right (in some sense), all doctrines are acceptable, just don’t argue over them–learn from them instead. Debate, discussion, dialoge is okay… dogmatism is not. I agree with Jake, the emergent teaching is simply a commentary on our society as a whole, especially among young adults. If you’re suggesting that they are reacting to the “outworkings” of reformation theology (not the theology itself) I might be in more agreement with you, Ron.

    I appreciated, Rednecks, comments too. I don’t want to sell our tradition short and I believe you’re right, Wesley did have a healthy balance.

    Of course, Blakemore’s comment was a strong valid point, one that could sum the discussion. I agree with you Ron, that we need to reach out to the other side to maintain a middle ground, but as Redneck and Sean have pointed out Wesley leads the way in this… and the emergent church is doing it in the practical realm… dog their theology and view of scripture all you want (I’ll join you) but they ARE fostering “community” through their methodology.

    Just as an example, the emergent church leaders (McClaren, Paggit, Jones) who spoke at their convention in Nashville don’t even teach and preach the way we do. Everything from beginning to end is a “dialogue”. They do share thoughts, ideas, concepts, but they spend an equal amount of time in Q&A. Several of the workshops ended with small groups sitting in circles with the speakers just working through their ideas in conversation. They also taught in groups or in pairs, seldom individually. One would share and open the floor for questions, then another would share and do the same. I think most of their methods are an expression of this “relational” context–not as much a result of theology, but of culture. Though theology can change the church as well, as I hope it does!

  12. Sean,

    Probably I meant something closer to the first of your definitions. But, the real issue is that the community of the Church to which the revelation is entrusted and which is the Temple in which God dwells (Ephesians 3)is the means by which an individuals identity as a believer is formed. That identity, however, must be personally real in the unique self that is each one of us.

    Jake is right that the experience of community drives many persons to seek the life of the Church. The problem with some who are enamored with relational soteriology, however, is that community can become a replacement for encounter with God. Jesus made a community of his disciples, but he called each of the and ALL of them together to take up the cross.

  13. Steve, I think what you said was true that, “community can become a replacement for encounter with God”. In fact, that may be one of the failings of “friendship evangelism”. I have done a fair job at attracting the unchurced to me (as a pastor), but bringing them to the next step of commitment to Christ is always difficult.

    On the other hand, “love for community” has never been a problem in any church I’ve pastored. Some may be attracted to the church because it offers community… but I’m afraid most churches only offer a shallow community, if any at all. Most of the Christians I know guard and protect their privacy, their secrecy, their detachment from the church. Hospitality, accountability, even church commitment is an intrusion in their lives. This is one reason why many post-moderns find the church deficient, they’re even reinventing (in their own minds perhaps) how the church should look and feel. I think they’re longing for real connection. So, yeah, maybe they’re initially attracted to the church; but I’d wager they leave disappointed.

    I’m not even sure what we mean when we say “community”. For some it’s a good time, others shared doctrine, others maybe something else. When I think of “community” I think of accountability, discipleship, group ministry–how many churches do you find that in? I’ve found that in college and seminary, but not in many churches–but then again I am a pastor not a lay-person.

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