...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Why Orthodoxy? (Final)

I had hoped my previous posts on why I'm drawn to Orthodoxy would have resulted in some good dialogue with those people I had engaged in some intense dialogue a couple of weeks back - no such luck, unfortunately. I always enjoy a good debate/discussion, particularly over matters passionately believed and dedicatedly defended. You may not ever change anyone else's mind, or have your own changed in turn, but you learn so darn much! So this will be my final post in this little series, which I hope you have enjoyed.

First, I have to say that the last 2 posts on "why Orthodoxy?" were not meant to be an airtight case against Protestantism. I know my arguments are not immune to critique and there are probably several points on which my understanding of Protestant theology/ecclesiology is insufficient. I do not regard my arguments and conclusions as the final, authoritative word on these matters, but I think my explorations have raised enough questions for me to have serious doubts about Protestantism's claims. This doesn't "prove" Orthodoxy to be correct but it makes looking outside the Protestant box a perfectly rational & reasonable thing to do. I guess, in essence, I've only really been arguing for this; that other Protestants would recognize the legitimacy of looking elsewhere due to internal faults within Protestantism. No amount of debate is going to totally prove one side or the other is correct - I can only hope that I am able to get other Christians to crack open their door to this wide, new realm of possibilities.

Thus far, I've explained my personal background and why I initially started searching for something else or something more than what I was used to. I also briefly explored that initial aesthetic draw to Orthodoxy and the subsequent challenges my search uncovered to my former way of thinking. Now I'll finish with why I feel the need to settle my "question of Orthodoxy", as I put it, that lingering draw that compels me to use Orthodoxy as the point of comparison for so many things.

The subtle pull I feel towards Orthodoxy is composed of many smaller, but interwoven, strands. Some I have already touched on - the reverence, non-emotional worship, intense focus on God - so I will talk about those that I haven't discussed yet. One of the primary things I appreciate in Orthodoxy is its completeness. Not that it has plumbed the depths of God or of faith. By no means! But it has spent almost 2000 years putting the daily nitty-gritty of the Christian life through the ringer. The faith it presents today has been tested in the fires of the temptations of the desert, the trials of the persecutions and the mundane struggle of plain, ordinary folks going about their lives. In many ways, it reminds me of a stone tumbler, which I became familiar with in grade school. You put an unassuming, jagged, rough piece of stone into a drum with a bunch of other stones and set it spinning. After a few days, that rough, unassuming stone has become a polished piece of marbled beauty, with color, depth and a smooth perfection. That is what Orthodoxy feels like to me - the rough edges have been knocked off over the centuries of trial & error in the lives of holy men and ordinary men, holy women and ordinary women, and what is presented to us today is that polished thing of beauty. It says "here it is, this is the faith you need and these are the things you need to do to strengthen it and grow closer to God. Trust me; I've guided tens of thousands of people through their lives, through their temptations, failures, victories and successes." But it doesn't do so in a dictatorial way! It offers the freedom that can only come through submission. A musician that can improvise pieces of incredible beauty or brilliance can only do so because they have first spent years mastering the basic techniques and applying them in ever more complex fashions. Only when they've accomplished that does the freedom to simply sit and play manifest itself. And we would never claim that those music teachers who force their students to go through those basics are being heavy-handed or restricting the freedom of their students. No, it is precisely for the sake of their musical freedom that students must be put through those exercises. In the same way, Orthodoxy provides those "music lessons" on the basics so that we may obtain that greater freedom. It gives us the basic techniques and exercises we need in order to die to self, take up our cross and move ever closer to God and the freedom of unity with Him. I don't feel that same completeness in any other Christian system and certainly no Protestant system has that same authority and experience.

Orthodoxy's completeness is really the result of 2 complementary aspects of the Christian life - the life of the head and the life of the heart. What I described above is really the life of the heart, and by that I mean the life of feeling, struggle, emotion and the daily search to find meaning and direction. It is also the life of the gut - the daily struggle for survival. These things don't always require a great deal of thought and, indeed, are often spoiled by too much reflection. When I look at my wife and feel the tugs of love and the appreciation of her beauty, putting those emotions through an intellectual analysis will rob them of their depth and meaning. There are some things that should simply be left to the experience of them, without feeling the need to route them through the intelligence for too much examination. But Orthodoxy does not just serve the life of the heart. It is a rich tradition, full of intellectual rigor and debates that lasted (literally) centuries. I can't imagine any modern person being satisfied with a discussion that will outlive them, and yet, that is what many of the saints had to do. Orthodoxy is deeply philosophical, tackling incredibly hard, and some would say obscure, problems and questions with gusto. It accepted no quarrel about the "practicality" of these debates; they were about the very person of God and the nature of his Church, and were thus by definition vastly important. Where so much of modern Christianity is focused on 'how-to' books and therapeutic approaches to theology, Orthodox maintains that tradition of hard, demanding theological reflection. It offers what we need to sustain us both in our hearts and in our heads, providing a life-time of material for thought, discussion, debate and exploration. As someone who values education and learning, such a cornucopia cannot be easily passed over. And yet there are those that would say I could appreciate and study those things without actually becoming Orthodox. To a certain extent I would agree with them, but ultimately, I think it is impossible to truly grasp and understand what these saints are saying if I am not apart of the same ecclesial stream that nourished them. How can I truly understand what they say about the bishop if I have none? How can I appreciate the totality of the Eucharist if I cannot celebrate it with them?

Which brings me to the final reason I will discuss; the comprehensiveness of the church. I still struggle with the idea of prayer to the saints and the Theotokos, as any Protestant likely does. It is an alien concept and one hard to accept on its own terms. For me, it is probably the greatest hurdle I will face to becoming Orthodox. Most of the other differences with Protestantism - liturgy, sacrament, hieararchy - I can understand and submit to without problem, but this is much harder. But even for that difficulty, the idea is so intrinsically appealing that I cannot quite get away from it. When I worship on Earth, I am joined by Heaven! And not just angels, but all the saints, all those who have walked this path before me. It brings the idea of the Church as the Body of Christ into critical focus and makes unity all the more important. If we're separated here, how can we joined There? The more I search, the more I explore, the more convinced I become that unity, true unity, should be one of the strongest critiques we offer to the world because unity is really about love. A love that cannot separate us from Christ, nor from the other members of His body.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Nathan.

“…ultimately, I think it is impossible to truly grasp and understand what these saints are saying if I am not a part of the same ecclesial stream that nourished them. How can I truly understand what they say about the bishop if I have none? How can I appreciate the totality of the Eucharist if I cannot celebrate it with them?”

There’s truth to this, Nathan. The more fully I entered into Orthodox life as a catechumen, the more the words of Sts Gregory, Basil, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Isaac the Syrian, John Climacus and Gregory Palamas opened up for me. Of course, I’m just an armchair scholar and it’s a long process, but I certainly read and understand these better now than I did before because I feel like I really do share a certain context with them that I lacked before.

As for prayers to the saints and the Theotokos, I understand completely. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but the Orthodox veneration of the Theotokos comes from centuries of sustained meditation on the miracle of the Incarnation and her role in God’s accomplishment of our own, and the world’s, salvation. It’s hard for us as Protestants to simply adopt that sustained meditation on Mary and make it our own when we’ve been so thoroughly cut off from it in our individual lives and in our Protestant grounding.

It’s funny, but where the Orthodox are sometimes such sticklers for precise language, there are apparently times when the Orthodox are content to throw precision out the window in favor of poetry. This is sometimes the case with prayers to the Theotokos where she is referred to as “our only hope” or where we call upon her to “save us.” Prayers like this are still a struggle for me and my wife on occasion. But as someone told us when we were inquirers (and it kind of rubbed us the wrong way at the time, but it makes more sense to us now): “After a while it becomes less of an issue.” It becomes less of an issue, however, not because your theological feelers go numb, but because you come more fully to understand the total context of Orthodox faith and practice. If you isolate the words of certain prayers like these, yes they sound offensive. She is not literally our only hope. She does not save us by herself. But within the total context of Orthodox faith and doctrine, the prayers are less jarring and you come to understand the love and devotion and thankfulness with which they are offered, and to understand that the Theotokos is never divorced from her Son in the Church’s heart or prayers and these things are only said to her because of Christ and her unique place in the economy of salvation (as a second Eve and more, as St Irenaeus writes) and the role Christ gives us each to play (and His Mother in exemplary fashion) in the work of salvation, which is nonetheless entirely HIS work.

In my experience, that division between precision and poetry is drawn right down the line dividing dogma and devotion. Dogma demands precision because it deals with the stuff of Christian revelation: The Trinity and the person of Christ: God’s self-revealing love for us that saves us. Devotion, on the other hand, is more about our response to that saving love, a response that can only be poetry. The fact that the Mother of God (except for as much as she is truly held to be and is properly called “Mother of God” – which is a Christological statement, not a Mariological statement) is not considered a proper subject of dogma within the Orthodox Church -as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church which makes positive dogmatic statements about Mary’s person- attests to this distinction and provides a certain amount of freedom for the Orthodox believer when he or she approaches expressions of devotion or on questions like the nature of Mary’s sinlessness, etc. If in dogma, then, we hold onto what we have received, perhaps you might say that in devotion we celebrate that gift and give back as we are able because we can’t be silent. Prayers of devotion, whether addressed to the Holy Trinity or in celebration of the saints and the Theotokos, are primarily expressions of love and thankfulness. When the focus of such prayers fall on issues of dogma, precise language dominates; when the focus turns away from dogmatic topics, poetry dominates because poetry is the more natural means to express thankfulness and love.

Anyway, just some of my own thoughts and observations. For what it’s worth, I once wrote a big letter to my sister in law about Orthodox veneration of the Theotokos. If you’d like a copy, I can send it to you.


Karl Thienes said...


I highly recommend reading Doug's letter to his sister-in-law.

Nathan said...

Doug -

"Great post, Nathan."

Thanks. I was hoping the series would spark a good debate with those guys, but oh well.

I think, similar to your experience, the more I'm becoming immersed in Orthodoxy, the more natural the veneration of the saints and the Theotokos becomes. I also recently read a good book on the development of the Orthodox liturgy and it pointed out some pretty early examples of the Church's prayer to Mary, et al - that helped to clarify things for me. It helps to see such early examples as organic parts of the faith.

And thanks for the offer, but you already sent me a copy of your letter! I read it with great interest and found it very compelling. I think my wife read through at least some of it, but it'd probably be a good idea for us to go over it again together. We've been having a lot of discussions about Orthodoxy after the liturgy so it'd probably spark something.

Anonymous said...

Doh! I'd forget my own name if my wife didn't remind me on a regular basis!


Anonymous said...


I have read with interest your posts. As a catechumen, I still have issues with the saints'/Mary's intercession for us. I can't get past the idea that if this is what God wanted us to do, would He not have had Paul, Peter, or Timothy address it more thoroughly?

I hope you continue to post as you learn and grapple with these issues.

Here's a question my mate asks. When did the church officially begin venerating Mary? Do you know?


Nathan said...

Sam -

Greetings and welcome!

To answer your question, I think the "official" Orthodox (or Roman Catholic or Oriental Orthodox) answer would be something like "since day 1." At the very least, they would say the seed of the practice was started by the Apostles and later came to fuller expressions as the Church explored the Apostolic Deposit, both in response to the guiding of the Spirit and in response to heresy. I understand that position, but like you, a little historical backing would go a long way in easing my mind.

I found this article on Orthodoxy Today a while back that looks at the veneration of the saints in general - http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/OrrSaints.php. It looks like the practice was already well established by the middle of the 3rd century. I noticed that neither Origen nor St Cyprian are offering any kind of defense or argument on behalf of the practice, which would seem to imply it was a settled question.

"The Orthodox Liturgy" by Hugh Wybrew is the book I referenced above. He says:

"From the third century comes the first evidence of Christian iconography....Most of the scenes depict the salvation of individuals in response to their faith and prayer, and correspond to the prayers made for the dead: in the past God has saved these individuals, may he now save those who have died....There recurs the conventional image of mother and child. But is not clear if this always represents Mary and the child Jesus." (pg 23)

The veneration of icons and the veneration of the saints are closely linked, so I think we can safely say the practice was present by the third century and almost certainly sooner. I'm sure Mary would have been a part of this veneration, if only in a generic sense. If you include the Martyrdom of Polycarp as an example of veneration, then we can push veneration back as early as the middle of the 2nd century. Whether this included any special veneration of Mary and what precisely those forms might have been, I don't know.

I think part of the problem is that neither the Apostles nor the early church fathers ever appear to write any systematic theology - their stuff is so ad-hoc to the requirements of whomever they're addressing and leave so much unsaid. No, the NT writers don't offer us much about Mary, but neither do they tell us real specifically about how they structure their worship, what they think about the sacraments and they don't get real in-depth about the Trinity. There are bits & pieces to be sure, but we don't get a complete picture. For myself, I'm starting to get a bit more comfortable with this ambiguity, but its a slow process.

Doug, Karl - you guys have anything to add?

Nathan said...

Doug -

I was wrong, I don't have the letter anymore. I'd had it stored on my work computer and thought I'd emailed it to myself before leaving that position but I can't find it - can you send it to me again?

Anonymous said...


No, nothing to add. In answer to the critique about veneration of the saints (and Mary specifically)not being in scripture, you're right to point out that if we are going to limit ourselves to the strict letter, we might have to considering tossing out such things as the doctrine of the Trinity or the Godhead of the Holy Spirit as well. The 4th century Arians and Pneumatomachoi certainly thought so, on Biblical grounds. St Basil's "On the Holy Spirit" is the thing to read on this front, of course.

Others might also respond that in fact there is a certain form of veneration of the saints in evidence in Scripture. The saints of the OT are in a sense venerated in the New, for example. Think of the list of examples given in the "Cloud of Witnesses" passage in Hebrews. Others, and many Church Fathers, have seen prophetic veneration of the Theotokos in certain of the Psalms. These things, however, are not the stuff of hard and fast argument.

I'd be glad to send you another copy of that letter. I don't know if I have your email address handy, though. Drop me an email at xanthikos@gmail.com and I'll repond and attach the letter for ya.

God bless,


Perry Robinson said...

When you grasp the Orthodox doctrine of the essence and energies of God, the role of the Theotokos will become clearer to you and less problematic.

Also, grasping how the Fathers view the OT law as preparing and purifying a people over time will also help. Basically, Mary is the end of that process and so all of humanity is summed up in her. Ireneaus calls her the Second Eve for by her free act and her free cooperation with God, the redemption of the world takes place.

Furthermore, Christ doesn't take up a portion of humanity in the incarnation, but all of it and he gets it from Mary. By Orthodox teaching, everyone is redeemed but not everyone is saved. Everyone receives eternal existence but how they spend it is up to their use of their free will.

In salvation we become partakers of the divine nature as Peter says but this cannot mean becoming God by essence. Rather we partake of God's energies, powers, wisdoms or activities. These are the energies that were displayed at the transfirguation with the eternal uncreated light that shone from Christ.

The bones of martyrs were collected in the early church and the eucharist was celebrated over the tomb of a martyr. This is why there are relics inside the altars of Orthodox Churches. The idea is that the martyrs were deified or "sanctified" by the divine energies.

Mary likewise is the chief and first human to be deified by the divine energies because she cooperates in freedom first and to a greater degree than anyone else. To NOT venerate her or other saints would be to deny the teaching of Scripture that we become partakers of the divine nature. It would be to deny that we partake of God's life.

I hope that helps.

Perry Robinson

Nathan said...

Perry -

"When you grasp the Orthodox doctrine of the essence and energies of God, the role of the Theotokos will become clearer to you and less problematic."

I'm sure that is true. As I'm exploring Orthodoxy, I'm coming to the realization that Protestantism is intensely dualistic in its understanding of how God interacts with the world. I know I've internalized the presumption that there is no such thing as "holy ground" or "sanctified space" - no place or thing that continues to bear the marks of the presence of God. This, of course, extends to people as well such that no person can ever really be considered holy. That distinction also relies on certain legalistic understandings of justification/salvation, which are part & parcel of the whole system. I'm seeing that its a far bigger transition than I had first anticipated.

"Also, grasping how the Fathers view the OT law as preparing and purifying a people over time will also help. Basically, Mary is the end of that process and so all of humanity is summed up in her."

I got a free copy of a lecture by Fr Hopko on sin given at a St Vladimir's seminar or conference, and he made the same point about Mary being a culmination of a long process of God's directing the development of humanity after the fall. He only touched on it briefly, but I thought it was a powerful argument - are there any books or articles that you know of that explore that topic in depth?

"Furthermore, Christ doesn't take up a portion of humanity in the incarnation, but all of it and he gets it from Mary."

And that is a kick in the pants! I'm so used to thinking of Christ's humanity as something generic, something generalized that I forget Mary played a role in it. If you had asked me before getting interested in Orthodoxy, I think I would have said His humanity was created quite apart from any contribution by Mary. Aside from a place to hang out for 9 months, I wouldn't have given her much of a role or participation. I realize now that such a position has strongly docetic tendencies, and to think that Christ took on Mary's flesh as his own, and through that my humanity changes things a great deal.

"To NOT venerate her or other saints would be to deny the teaching of Scripture that we become partakers of the divine nature. It would be to deny that we partake of God's life."

I don't know if it would deny that we partake in God's life, but it would definitely deny that God's life in any way affects the physical world. The more I think about it, the more alien such an idea becomes.

Perry Robinson said...


The "dualism" of Protestantism is the product of identifying nature with grace so that a fall from grace implies that nothing of nature is good. This is the basis for denying that any of our works can please God and why justification must be strictly forensic. This is why the Incarnation is thought of in terms of the divine will supressing or determining the human will in Christ (Jn 6:38, Mt 26:39) rather than Christ simultaneously willing two good things both of which are willed by God (the preservation of human life and the salvation of the world). The humanity of Christ ends up being a tool and so the sacrarments end up being a tool or a mere "means" of grace. Nothing of nature can be united to God because nature is evil. The identification of nature with grace is ironically enough pelagian and forces one to either be pelagian or manichean. Either in the fall nature is unharmed because it is grace and therefore it only requires a moral example or it looses all value and goodness and presto, we have total depravity. This is why Protestantism flips to these two extremes, moralism and gnosticism. the problem with Calvinists then, shocking to them as it may be, is that they agree with Pelagius fundamental view of identifying nature with grace. Their dialectic is between sin and grace, whereas for say Augustine it is between a good nature and grace.

As to Mary, try George Gabriel's, Mary the Untrodden Portal of God. You can pick it up from www.light-n-life.com. Christ takes up not just flesh but a human soul from Mary as well.

Levi said...

Thanks for these posts on Why Orthodoxy, they are helping me to formulate my own thoughts as a I respond to Orthodoxy.

Nathan said...

Perry -

I found "Mary The Untrodden Portal" in my church's library. I'm sure I'll be blogging on it as I read through it, and I'd appreciate you coming back around to comment on my posts and help me understand it better.

Levi -

I hopped over to your blog and see that we've probably covered a lot of the same territory in life. The exploration of Orthodoxy my wife and I are undertaking is probably going to be the main topic I blog on over the next several months so be sure to come back by.