Thursday, November 3, 2011

Protestants and Eastern Orthodoxy, part 3

The Plumb Line
Straight Answers to Honest Questions
by Arden C. Autry, Ph.D.

Question: Could you explain the difference between Protestantism and Orthodoxy?

Answer (part 3): While sharing the same faith in Christ, we have differences in emphasis and expression. Some differences are like those between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Differences in "style" of worship are obvious, but heirs of John Wesley can find substantial agreement with the Orthodox concerning salvation, especially regarding the goal of what we call "sanctification."

In contrast to some Protestants who focused on intellectual adherence to right beliefs, Wesley preached the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and God's will for the Christian's "entire sanctification" or holiness. Using different terminology, the Orthodox Church emphasizes the same goal, the total transformation of the Christian.  Their term for this process and its goal is "deification" or "theosis."

The Orthodox do not mean that humans become independent "gods" of their own worlds.  Rather, theosis describes the process and result of God's transforming presence in our lives.  We do not cease being human; nor do we take on God's essence as our own.  But when God's energies pervade our lives, we live differently--we think, feel, and act differently.  The ultimate goal of this process is for God to touch everything we touch, because he is so present in us.  For example, a piece of steel does not cease being steel when it is heated white-hot, but the heat is so present in the steel that whatever it touches, the heat touches. Supporting their teaching on "deification," the Orthodox point to such texts as 2 Peter 1:4 ("partakers of the divine nature") and Jesus' prayer in John 17:21 ("As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us").  And the Apostle Paul constantly emphasized that our life is now "in Christ" (e.g., Rom. 8:1; 1 Cor. 1:30; Gal. 2:20; Phil. 3:9-11; Col. 3:3).

Orthodox and Wesleyans agree that salvation is more than acquittal for past sins and permission to enter heaven in the future.  Salvation means forgiveness but also transformation.  The sanctifying effect of the Holy Spirit even changes our desires (instantaneously or over time), until God's purpose for creating us is finally realized.  Power for this transformation is what Wesleyans call "sanctifying grace"; the Orthodox call it "deification."  Both groups emphasize the progressive nature of these changes as the Christian is shaped by God's Word and Holy Spirit in prayer and worship. 

Compared with typical Methodists, the Orthodox put more emphasis on the shaping influence of the "Divine Liturgy" and more emphasis on the effect of Holy Communion (although Wesley himself stressed frequent communion far more than typical Methodists). An observer of Orthodox worship and Methodist worship would see, on the surface, rather different ways of going about it. But if the Object of worship is the same (God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and the "objective" is the same (transformation according to God's will), then what unites us is greater than what divides us.

Submit your question to Dr. Arden Autry,

Monday, October 24, 2011

Protestants and Eastern Orthodoxy, part 2

The Plumb LineStraight Answers to Honest Questions

by Arden C. Autry, Ph.D.

Question: A family member has joined the Orthodox Church.  Could you explain the difference between Protestantism and Orthodoxy?

Answer (part 2): We share with the Orthodox the heart of Christian faith in Jesus Christ, but differences in emphasis and approach can be seen.  Some differences in worship are like those between Protestants and Roman Catholics, although (as noted in part 1) their rift with the Eastern Orthodox is almost 1000 years old.  On the other hand, heirs of John Wesley can find substantial agreement with Orthodox thinking about salvation.

Orthodox worship looks very "Catholic" to Protestant observers.  That is because key elements of the liturgy (in both churches) pre-date the Great Schism of 1054 A.D.  Orthodox liturgy was never in Latin (as it was in Roman Catholicism until Vatican II) but in the language of the worshipers.  But the Orthodox have always stressed preservation of the traditional form of "Divine Liturgy" (i.e., the Eucharist or Mass).  Like Roman Catholics, the Orthodox place great emphasis on participation in liturgy--the words, gestures, and sacraments.  Protestants do not totally lack the concept of corporate participation, but we are clearly more individualistic in faith and more innovative in worship expression.

Catholics and Orthodox emphasize correct liturgy and the vital connection to historic expressions of the faith (safeguarded by "apostolic succession," their bishops' historical link to the first apostles).  In contrast, Protestants have emphasized correct doctrine and the necessity of personal experience with God (especially in the Pietist, Wesleyan, and Pentecostal streams).  To oversimplify a bit, we can characterize the difference this way: Protestants stress believing; Catholics and Orthodox stress belonging.  Protestants might say that if you believe you belong (to the invisible church).  Catholics and Orthodox claim that you find the fullness of faith only by belonging and participating in the "true church."

John Wesley would start with believing; the Orthodox would start with belonging. Their paths converge, however, with regard to becoming. [Yes, Dr. James Buskirk's headings are quite useful here!]  In contrast to doctrinaire Protestantism (seemingly content with confessing right beliefs), Wesley preached the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and God's will for the "entire sanctification" of Christians.  "Salvation," for Wesleyans, is more than forgiveness of sins. God is changing us; salvation has holiness as its necessary goal. Transformation of character and behavior through the pervasive presence of Christ is an emphasis Wesley found in the New Testament and in the writings of early church fathers, which he read extensively.  This same emphasis on the transformed life is found in the Orthodox Church's language of "deification."  The term sounds strange to Protestant ears, but it refers to the goal for every Christian's life, just as when we speak of "Christlikeness" or "holiness."  (More on this topic in the next column.)

Submit your question to Dr. Arden Autry,

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Protestants and Eastern Orthodoxy, part 1

The Plumb Line

Straight Answers to Honest Questions

by Arden C. Autry, Ph.D.

Question: A family member has joined the Orthodox Church.  Could you explain the difference between Protestantism and Orthodoxy?

Answer (part 1): First let's emphasize what we have in common.  We embrace the same essence of Christian faith: Jesus Christ, his person and work. Together we affirm the Trinitarian understanding of God, although Orthodox theologians give this doctrine more centrality than most Protestants.  To compare Orthodox with Protestants, however, we must include a third reference point--the Roman Catholic Church.  And we need to know a little history about the authority of the Pope and the wording of the Nicene Creed.

Before 1054 A.D. there was essentially only one Church.  Then tensions and debates which had been building for centuries caused the "Great Schism" between the churches of the eastern Mediterranean and the churches looking to Rome for leadership.  Among other complaints, Eastern Christians said the Roman bishop (the Pope) was claiming too much authority.  The Roman Catholic view is that the Eastern Church (the "Orthodox") broke communion by rejecting the Pope.  The Eastern Churches (e.g., Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.) feel that Rome broke communion with their historic churches and bishops, who trace their lineage back to the earliest apostles. Each side claims the other caused the split, which has lasted for nearly 1000 years.

The quarrel in 1054 focused on a change in the Nicene Creed--an addition the West adopted but the East refused. In the Nicene Creed (dating from the fourth century and the undivided church) we confess our belief "in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father."  Over the centuries, however, the western churches had added the words "and the Son" (filioque in Latin) to this line. Thus Roman Catholics and Protestants alike say "and the Son" when reciting the Nicene Creed.  The Orthodox refuse to say these words because they regard the addition as illegitimate tampering with Tradition, since the whole Church never agreed to this wording in ecumenical council.  They also argue that the western version relegates the Holy Spirit to a subordinate role, leading to a flawed understanding of the Church.  The theological argument is subtle and complex, but the dispute over who can change the Creed is at the heart of the schism.

Protestants have not cared much about the East-West split.  We have focused more on a split within the West--the Protestant Reformation, 500 years after the Great Schism.  From the 1500s Protestants defined ourselves in significant ways by our differences from the Roman Church, with little or no reference to Eastern Orthodoxy.  As the "world has gotten smaller," however, our contacts with Orthodox Christians have increased.  We have discovered points of commonality but also of difference. In the next column we will identify other distinctives but also surprising affinities with John Wesley's understanding of salvation.

Submit your question to Dr. Arden Autry,

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reality of faith, reality of love

1 John 4:20 (ESV)
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.

The pastor invited his new neighbor to church. The neighbor responded quite negatively: “Sorry, pastor, but I think the church is full of hypocrites.”  The pastor replied, “There’s always room for one more!”

Sometimes people outside the fellowship think church is just a game, where we pretend to talk to God and pretend he talks to us through the Bible.  Or perhaps they think we’re honest and well-meaning, but we’re out of touch with reality.  Reality, to such skeptics, is limited to what we can know through our senses and human reason.  To their minds, religion is just superstitious leftovers from the pre-scientific age.

Such skeptics might be surprised to learn that the Apostle John was equally concerned for reality.  He wanted nothing to do with pretense, hypocrisy, or “religious” evasions of reality and truth.  John’s concern for faith was not separated from his concern for what is real.  His letter begins by invoking the evidence of human senses in the experience of the apostles:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—
(1 John 1:1-2, English Standard Version)

Christianity is not “out of touch”!  Real Christian faith is profoundly in touch with reality—everyday reality and the deepest foundation of all reality: God himself.  John reports his personal experience of hearing, seeing, and touching with his hands the very Author of life.  John does not believe in fairy tales; he believes in the reality experienced in knowing Jesus, the life-giving Word of God who became a human and lived among us (John 1:14).

The foundation of Christianity is the reality of Jesus, who he is and what he does to give us eternal life.  Likewise the fruit of faith is located in reality.  First John exhorts us to be real as believers in Jesus.  Real faith shows itself by confession of the truth about Jesus, but also by obedience to God’s directions, and by genuine love for other people. The test of love is perhaps the greatest challenge John puts before us.  But because God’s love for us is real, he can make our love for others real—real enough to be examined even by the skeptics: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, ESV).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Big Ideas of the Bible

The following is a revised form of an outline I've been using for the last few years to help us see the key ideas that are taught in Scripture (and assumed everywhere in Scripture, even where not explicitly taught).  Notice that under the seven main headings I have listed some of the most important implications for each heading. The impetus for this outline was a 2005 conversation with Dr. James Buskirk, my former pastor.

The “Big Ideas” of the Bible (Arden C. Autry, PhD, June 2011)

   --monotheism (one will as Source of all)
   --spiritual significance of material world; God's will to bless creation
   --humanity in God's image,
           with capacity for relationships of love and will
   --orderly, “lawful” world (e.g., sowing & reaping)
                       [purposeful narrative]
   --The Fall; brokenness, corruption
   --created wills choosing against the Creator's will [narrative of loss]
   --redemption, atonement, reclaiming, healing of broken relationships
   --remnant saved to reach the rest (evangelistic imperative)
   --promise of Creator's purpose being realized [narrative of promise]
(God's promise elicits faith, hope, and love.)
   --ordered relationship between sovereign God and
           responsible humanity
   --God's initiative in election; human response of faith and obedience
   --redeeming relationships, provided by grace, dependent on
   --revealed and lived out in history of Israel and the church
   --life of purpose; Creator/Redeemer's intention revealed (revelation)
   --context of promise/fulfillment
   --context of love/grace and commitment/faithfulness
           [journey narrative]
   --God's Word made flesh, ultimate, definitive revelation,
                  covenant embodied
   --fully God, fully human (Emmanuel, God and humanity reconciled)
   --He makes our story his story,
          so that he can make his story our story.
   --fulfillment of creation/redemption narrative assured
                   What Adam was created to be,
                   What Abraham/Israel was called to be,
                   That's what Christ incarnate is.
                   That's what we are in Christ (the body of Christ). 
                            [credit N.T. Wright]
Communion Community
   --It takes the whole covenant people of God to inherit and
          exhibit the promises and fulfillment of God focused in Christ.
          [His narrative becomes ours.]
   --love within the church
   --love for the world (from God)
   --belonging to God and one another in the Holy Spirit,
         who makes Jesus known
(The one, true Holy Spirit is known
             [1] by whom he makes known
       and [2] by the connections he creates.)
   --Kingdom of God (God's purposes by his power), already and not yet
   --hope energizing the present faith/fulness (future shaping the present)
   --resurrection life now and future
   --judgment, ultimate resolution of justice
   --glory of God manifested
   --creation healed
   --One will realized and glorified by all
           [creation/redemption narrative complete]

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Post your questions or general comments as a response to this posting.  Thanks, Arden

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Holy Spirit and the New Covenant

I developed the following outline a number of years ago. The aim is to show how our experience of the Holy Spirit fits into God's will as revealed in Scripture.  I have used the biblical concept of "covenant" to provide a frame of reference.

The Holy Spirit and the New Covenant

Old Testament background:
Exodus 19:5-8:  Israel agrees to live as God’s covenant people.
Leviticus 26:9-13:  God’s purpose for the covenant with Israel:  He will be their God, and they will be his people.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (Heb. 8:8-12); Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:25-27: Because Israel has repeatedly broken the covenant, God promises a new covenant, a new people of God, with new hearts cleansed from sin, with God’s Spirit living within them to enable and motivate them to please and obey God.

Isaiah 11:1-9: 42:1-6; 49:5-8; 61:1-3 (Lk. 4:18-19): Prophecies about the Spirit-anointed Servant of God, who will bring deliverance and justice not only to Israel but to all the Gentile nations as well. (Note that the Servant is the covenant in Isa. 42:6; 49:8.)

New Testament fulfillment:
John 1:29-34:  John the Baptist prophetically announces that Jesus fulfills the OT prophecies:
1)  Jesus will take away sin (bring deliverance and forgiveness by his sacrificial death as God’s “Lamb”).
2)  The Spirit descends and remains upon Jesus: He is the Spirit-anointed one of whom Isaiah spoke; cf. Luke 4:18-19.
3)  Jesus will give the Holy Spirit (the power to make life in the new covenant possible).

John 3:5: Entrance into the new covenant is by the work of the Holy Spirit.
John 7:38-39: Jesus was here, but the new covenant was still to come, since Jesus had not yet died, nor had the Holy Spirit been given.
John 14:16-26; 16:7-16: Jesus promises the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Luke Basis of the new covenant is Jesus’ blood (his sacrificial death for our sins; see also Isaiah 53, 1 Cor. 11:25).
Acts 1:4, 5, 8: Jesus promises the power of the Holy Spirit to enable the disciples to perform the tasks given to them.
Acts 2: The disciples receive the power promised by Jesus (and promised earlier in OT).
Romans 8:9-17: The Spirit’s presence is evidence of participation in the new covenant, as seen by the personal awareness of relationship with God (Rom. ; also Gal. 4:6; 1 John 3:24: 4:13).
1 Corinthians 12:3: Only the Holy Spirit enables one truly to confess Jesus as Lord (the most fundamental confession of the Christian faith, Rom. 10:9-10).
2 Corinthians 3:6: The power of the new covenant is the Holy Spirit within us.
Hebrews 9:11-15: The new covenant is established through Jesus’ sacrifice.
Hebrews 10:19-22: This opens the way for our direct fellowship with God—we can enter the holy place, into the presence of God.

To summarize the most important points:
The Basis of the new covenant is forgiveness of sins through the sacrificial death of the “Lamb of God” (John ; Isaiah 53; Exodus 12).

The Power of the new covenant is the presence and work of the Holy Spirit within the believer, the one who has confessed Jesus as Savior and Lord.

John the Baptist announces that Jesus will provide both the basis and the power of the new covenant (John 1:29, 33).

Further definitions, explanations, and comparisons:
The new covenant = the new relationship between God and humans in which the believer has direct, personal fellowship with God the Father and Jesus the Son through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.  If the Holy Spirit is present, the believer participates in the new covenant.  To the extent that we allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us, we enjoy the privileges and fulfill the responsibilities of the new covenant.

Presence of the Holy Spirit—participation in the covenant

Work of the Holy Spirit—providing power to
1)      enjoy the privileges of the covenant:
a.       access to God (Heb. 10:19-22; Eph. 2:18)
b.      awareness of relationship (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6)
c.       glorifying God through productive, victorious living (John 15; Rom. 8:2)

2)      fulfill the responsibilities of the covenant:
a.       witnessing about Jesus (Acts 1:8)
b.      fruit of the Spirit (Gal. -23—becoming like Jesus; holiness)
c.       building up the Body of Christ by mutual ministry
through the Spirit’s gifts (Rom. 12:4ff; 1 Cor. 12:4ff; Eph. 4:1-16)

The presence of the Holy Spirit begins through the new birth, when we become Christians.
Understood sacramentally, the Holy Spirit makes baptism effective.
Understood experientially, the Holy Spirit enables us to repent of our sins and have personal faith in Christ.

The work of the Holy Spirit never ends;
            should always be increasing in our lives;
            depends on our yielded wills;
            will be complete only when the whole church, every Christian,
                       reflects Jesus' character (Eph. );
            may or may not be dramatically promoted by a memorable
                       experience, which some people refer to as “baptism in/with
                       the Holy Spirit,” but others refer to as “being filled with the
                            Spirit” (Acts 8:14-17; 19:1-6: Eph. );
            may be promoted by less dramatic, unnamed experiences
                       of Jesus being real to you. 

Not everyone’s experience will be the same, but all can grow in openness and usefulness to the Spirit. Everyone should seek to be filled with the Spirit continually (Eph. ).

John 1:29-34 refers to this entire reality.
“Baptism in the Holy Spirit” (as referred to in John 1) includes the total reality of the new covenant: the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian—a reality prophesied in the OT and actualized in the NT through Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and spiritual presence in the life of believers through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Arden C. Autry, PhD
Scholar in Residence
First United Methodist Church
Tulsa, OK

Monday, January 17, 2011

Christian Use of Scripture

The following notes are from the class I taught last week at First United Methodist Church in Tulsa, OK.  (Actually it was a bit of a review from last autumn's class.)

Keys to the Christian use of Holy Scripture:

1. Know what the Bible is about:

God—the hero of the whole story
and the hero of my story.

2. Know who Jesus is:

eternal Son of God incarnate,
fully God and fully human.

3. Acknowledge the comprehensive power of Jesus’ death.

4. Acknowledge the comprehensive power and presence of Jesus’ life.

5. Allow the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture
 to guide and apply your use of the Bible
according to the first four points.

A Crucified Creator
            rules over a cross-marked creation,
                        where resurrection resonates.

Jesus bears in his scarred body
            the marks of every evil ever done,
                        every evil ever suffered.

Jesus shows in his risen body
            the victory over every evil ever done,
                        every evil ever suffered.

Events of the past
(cross & rising of the Creator/Redeemer)
defining the present,
determining the future.

His defining presence is available to all,
            and all may let his presence define them.

Who/what defines you?
Who/what tells you who you are
                        and what you’re worth?