A Change in Perspective: One woman’s journey into Eastern Orthodoxy
When I was in 3rd grade, my parents discovered I needed glasses. We went to the eye doctors and I happily chose a pair with whimsical polka dots and a plastic lady bug glued to one side. Sadly, those glasses did not last long because every year I returned to the eye doctor for a stronger prescription (this probably had to do with the many hours I dedicated to reading text and musical notation). I wore a pair of glasses with purple swirls in 5th grade and a pearly pink pair in 7th grade. My sight did plateau at a certain point, however, and today I am thankful for contacts so I can avoid the heavy, thick glasses my poor eyesight would require. In a sense, my journey through various pairs of glasses can be compared to a different—and far more important—journey I have gone through in my life. Leading New Testament scholar N. T. Wright compares having a worldview to wearing a pair of glasses: “We all live in our own context; we all see the world through our own spectacles . . . But sooner or later, it’s possible to take your spectacles off, clean them, maybe even adjust the lenses so that you can then see things more clearly.”1 A worldview is not what you look at but what you look through. Wright says that stepping away from the web of implicit narratives and cultural symbols called a worldview will at first be disorientating and uncomfortable because we have removed the lens through which we view the world. But with a bit of help, we can adjust them or get a new pair all together so that our vision can be put into even sharper focus.
SEEING THE GLASSES THAT WERE ALWAYS THERE
What Wright describes resonates with me because my life has been a long process of adjusting and readjusting my own worldview glasses, cleaning them at times, and sometimes completely taking them off and trading them in for ones that give me better vision. Today I stand as a catechumen in the Eastern Orthodox Church, ready to be chrismated in the near future. But my story really begins at a small Baptist church in rural Michigan. Growing up in this sincere and loving body of believers, I was taught that truth exclusively comes from the Bible and that an individual can discover right belief through a careful study of the Scriptures. I took this to heart and as a young person who was eager to love God and live my life right, I dove into studying the Bible as best I could. I was under the impression that whatever made the most sense to me when reading a Biblical passage is what that passage meant and I could tuck that belief into my heart and hold fast to it as absolute truth. However, I soon discovered that other people (even those within my same denomination) would read the very same passage and come to a different conclusion than myself. How did I know I was correct in my reading of Scripture? Maybe I was wrong. I realized I needed the experts on this and began consulting books, commentaries, and outside opinions to help me pin down the correct meaning behind each verse or passage. But to my dismay, scholars and teachers were just as varied in their opinions of what Scripture was teaching as lay people.
My searching intensified as I attended Bible College, worked in different Evangelical ministries, and attended other Protestant churches. I questioned and discussed with others the topics of baptism, speaking in tongues, covenant theology, dispensationalism, gender roles, the trinity, the filling of the holy spirit, communion, life after death, sanctification, homosexuality, evangelism, calvinism, and much more. I was looking for clarity on what the Bible taught but what I continued to encounter was confusion. There was not a consensus among Protestants on how we should “do church,” how we should worship, how we should live a moral life, or even how we become saved, even though we were all going earnestly to the Bible for our answers. The more I searched, the more adrift I felt. The problem I was facing was a problem of authority. I had been taught that all I needed to do was trust in the authority of the Bible and not put my trust in human authority. But the Bible is a book that must be read by man and interpreted by man. Sitting closed on a shelf without any human interaction, the Scriptures offer no authority. One must open it and read. I would argue that one must do even more than that. Judgment calls must be made about what words mean, what verses mean, how verses connect to form doctrines, how to reconcile seemingly-contradictory passages to fit those doctrines, and if a passage should be read literally or allegorical. I was given the advice that the Holy Spirit inside me would guide me to the answers but that still didn’t explain the immense amount of theological differences between Christians who all professed to have the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
I took a step back and noticed that everyone I knew was reading the Bible through their own unique worldview glasses, including myself. Our individual perspectives were influenced by books, sermons, conversations, experiences, and countless other aspects of our own personal journeys that had created our own unique perspective through which we viewed the world and interpreted the Scriptures. All of us had been drinking the water and breathing the air of at least one, but probably several, faith traditions and if we looked we would find the roots of our beliefs in the Magisterial Reformation, the Radical Reformation, the Holiness Movement, or the Anabaptist Movement. We said we received our beliefs from the Bible alone and our interpretation was the right one because it “made the most sense” but we were unaware of the pair of glasses that was contributing to our perspective and subsequent interpretation. I eventually decided that in real life there is no such thing as “Scripture Alone.” In the end it always comes down to an authority outside of the Bible that determines what, indeed, the Bible is teaching.
SEEING THE PRESERVATION OF CHRIST’S TEACHING
N. T. Wright said that with a bit of help we can have the courage to adjust our worldview glasses or get a new pair all together. He is correct that I needed a more reliable pair of glasses and through a long string of experiences, encounters, and conversations, I was led by the hand of God to the door of the Orthodox Church. Here I was offered a new pair of glasses through which to view my Scriptures, my life, and my God. The first thing I noticed when I put on these glasses is a uniform belief system in the Orthodox Church that has remained quite consistent since the time of Christ 2,000 years ago. Initially I disbelieved this was possible but as I inquired further, I discovered that the Orthodox Church sees their mission as one of, not interpretation, but preservation of God’s truth. In her book, The Illumined Heart, Frederica Mathewes-Green explains how the teachings of the Orthodox Church were preserved from the time of the apostles to today: “Church leaders didn’t develop or edit the faith, but were like museum guards, responsible only to protect the treasure and pass it on intact.”2 When Jesus taught his disciples, they in turn taught others and passed down Christ’s teachings to the churches they started. The disciples spread Christ’s authoritative teaching through both written and verbal communication, which Paul acknowledges in II Thessalonians 2:15: “Brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”3 As a Protestant I was leery of the word “tradition,” but I began to understand that this simply describes a teaching that had been handed down from generation to generation.
As I stepped further into Orthodoxy, I learned that the Christians of the early church were prolific writers and many of them wrote about the teaching that was verbally delivered to them from the apostles of Christ (or disciples of the apostles) in a time when the Biblical books had not yet been circulated and the Canon had not yet been formed. While it is true that none of these ancient writings can be considered “inspired” like the Scriptures, they give us a picture of what Christians believed close to the time Jesus walked the earth. These authors reveal to us a Church that has truly been “the pillar and foundation of the truth,”4 as Paul says in I Timothy 3:15. This Church decided which books were inspired and therefore Scripture, and that decision was based largely upon what books lined up with preserved tradition. This Church spoke out against heresies that denied the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ, two teachings that are the very core of Christianity but are difficult to piece together from just a surface reading of Scripture alone (I realize now that I had always relied on the perspective of the historical church to see the deep oceans of Trinitarian theology and Christology that lie buried in the Scriptures). This Church fought for, defended, and died martyr’s deaths for the preservation of Christianity in our world. It dawned on me that when I had previously been crying out, “Scripture Alone!”, I was completely unaware that I was standing on the shoulders of giants—I would have had no Scriptures if it had not been for the church that preserved them. Indeed, Scripture can not be separated from this Church, for she is the context in which the New Testament was written, protected, and canonized. Some may wonder what church I keep referring to. Until the year 1,054 AD, there was only one Christian church, largely unified in doctrine, and that is the church I speak of. Since then we know the Church split between East and West and then the West later fragmented into thousands of pieces with the various Protestant Reformations. If we want to know what church today has not departed from the teachings and practices of Christ’s apostles and the faithful churches that followed, a study of early Christian writings will reveal a lot to us.
SEEING THE DEPTH OF LIFE IN CHRIST
I was intrigued by what I was seeing with the Orthodox glasses so I stepped further into this ancient church. What I next noticed was Jesus Christ, shining brighter than I had ever seen Him before. It is true that it took time for me to become aware of this Jesus because I was initially distracted by so many unfamiliar rituals and traditions around me. I saw priests wearing robes and long heavy necklaces with crosses. I saw creepy old paintings (called “icons”) in front of whom Orthodox Christians made the sign of the cross, or even kissed! I read unfamiliar words like “theosis” and “theotokos.” This was a strange new world to me and I was equally fascinated and repulsed by it. As I dared to keep the glasses on a little longer and open my eyes a little wider, I started to see Jesus Christ—the Jesus I had loved since childhood but here so ever-present—dazzling behind each of these unfamiliar aspects of Orthodoxy. In this worldview, Jesus Christ was like a pure golden thread woven through the tapestry of Orthodox life. My heart leapt as I realized that this is what I had been longing for, what I had been searching for, for so many years. In the countless journal entries where I asked “how in the world do I obey the greatest commandment and love God with all my heart, soul, and mind?” In the daily struggle with my sin where I desperately needed tools to deny myself and choose God. In my broken places where I knew I needed a healer but didn’t know how to find the medicine. Yes, to all these questions and longings Jesus Christ was always the answer! But through Orthodoxy I began to see a path before me that was leading ever-deeper into life in Christ and the wholeness He offers. Here I saw the Son of God everywhere present and filling all things (Acts 17:28). Here I saw numerous practical tools to learn the path of self-denial so I might daily pick up my cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23). Here I saw I was not running alone on this path but with a community of both living and departed saints (Heb.12:1-2). Here I saw a singular goal in life: union with my Creator and King (John 17:21). I looked around me and realized that everything in Orthodoxy is like spokes of a wheel, connected to the center: Love. The love that our triune God displays within the Trinity and that we are called to participate in is the center of all Orthodox teaching.
Today, I have finally found the authority I was looking for. Even though I still love and value the Holy Scriptures, I no longer claim “Scripture Alone” as my authority as the canon of Scripture was not created alone but within a Church and the Bible is not interpreted alone but within a worldview. I claim as my authority the God-man, Jesus Christ. The Church is the body of this Christ, and throughout the centuries the Orthodox Church has acted as his hands, feet, and voice to the world, shouting out the good news: that He has offered us true life, true love, and true salvation. Today I humbly put on the same spectacles that have been handed down by faithful Christians since the time of Christ because I believe this is the worldview of God’s own making.View Sources
1. Wright, N. T. “How Our Worldview Impacts Our Understanding Of Scripture.” Online video clip. BioLogos. YouTube, January 12, 2010. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhOPcFcHW3M
2. Mathewes-Green, Frederica. The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path Of Transformation (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2001), 16
3. From the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright ©2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
4. From the Holy Bible, New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.