Flirting with Eastern Orthodoxy Part 2: Ah, Mary

Or “Becoming Orthodox” by Peter Gillquist Part 2

I grew up in the Independent Christian Church, which means that I’m pretty far out on the rapidly spreading branches of Protestantism.  I couldn’t really tell you what the Independent Christian Church believes, however, as the church I attended as a youngster was a small, country church, and I didn’t pay much attention until high school.  Church or denominational history didn’t really enter in to it, although we did claim to be non-denominational.  We answered to no central council or authority, in other words.  All this to say, being of a Protestant bent, I have some very strong reactions to thoughts of Mary beyond what is generally shared in The Nativity Story.  Praying to Mary seems rather odd and uncomfortable to me.

Well, I’ve reached the chapter on Mary in Gillquist’s book and I’m a bit surprised by some of my reactions.  First, I either agree with him or at least take his point on a few issues.  I understand the reasoning behind the phrase “Mother of God”.  It actually makes sense to me.  The gist of the phrase is that Mary isn’t so much the mother of the Trinity (as the Trinity has no mother), but that she is the mother of Jesus, who was divine.  “Mother of God”, therefore, asserts that Jesus is God, not merely mortal and human as some heresies throughout church history have claimed.  Okay, this makes sense to me.

I take the point that Mary is the greatest woman who ever lived due to the fact that God chose her, and he chose her due to her purity.  She is also a role model of obedience, purity and faithfulness.

But what truly surprised me was when I started to see the reasoning behind the believe that Mary was Ever-Virgin.  Sure, Protestants will agree that she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but I think very few would say she and Joseph never consummated their marriage.  However, the Orthodox do believe this, thus Mary is Ever-Virgin.  Now, it seemed to me that it was quite absurd to think Joseph would be okay with never having marital relations with Mary.  It seemed ridiculous to think Mary was Ever-Virgin because, well, didn’t Jesus have brothers and sisters?   Church tradition asserts that James was the brother of Jesus.  There are actually two things that have made me begin to waver on this idea.  First, Ezekiel 44:1-2, a verse from a prophetic book, so take that for what it is worth, states, “ Then he brought me back to the outer gate to the sanctuary which faces toward the east, but it was shut.  And the Lord said to me, ‘This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter by it, because the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut. (NASB)’” The implication here is that the gate is Mary’s womb and that Jesus entered the world by her womb and “no man shall enter”.  The prophetic language here is rather compelling.  But it is one verse, right?  Well, the second thing that began to sway me was the account in John’s Gospel when Jesus, while on the cross, saw his mother and John.  He told Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” then told John, “here is your mother.”  Essentially, he is providing for the care of His mother, trusting her to John’s care and provision.  This seems to be quite reasonable until I realized that if Jesus had brothers, why would He give Mary to the care of a disciple.  It would be the responsibility of the His brothers to look after Mary.  Thus, this is a bit of an oddity.  It is true that sometimes the Bible uses the term “brother” to designate a close relation (cousin, nephew, etc.), so there is room for Jesus to be an only child.  There is room for her to be Ever-Virgin.  The question I have now becomes, is it truly essential to believe this?  Does it really change anything I believe?  At this point, I’m not sure that it does, but who would have thought the whole filioque issue would mean much without the tapestry of church history to observe?

These are the things that I’m coming around on, although the Ever-Virgin idea is still new and uncomfortable because it is in contrast to my Protestant heritage.  But I mentioned things that I am still unconvinced by.  These have to deal with Mary as intercessor and Mary saving us, both ideas are present in prayer by The Orthodox Church.  I will grant Gillquist that Christians have a part in the salvation process.  Paul says we are ambassadors of Christ.  While Christ does the actual saving, we can help point people to Him, we can witness to His work and kingdom.  We can turn others from destructive ways.  In doing this we save them, but we do not actually give them salvation.  That is Christ’s alone to give.  But while I agree with Gillquist on this point, why ask Mary to save us when it is Christ doing the saving?  Many of the examples of Christians saving people involve the living helping the living, not someone in Heaven helping someone on Earth.  Likewise with intercession, if I ask someone to pray for me, I don’t do it by praying to them.  And the examples Gillquist uses on both intercession and saving could be used, it seems to me, with any saint that has gone before.  Why not pray to Paul or Peter or Mother Theresa?  Granted, praying to the saints does play out, but prayers in the Psalms and The Lord’s Prayer (or Our Father) show believers praying to God in Heaven.  Why the middleman?  And isn’t Christ our intercessor before God?  I’m not sure Gillquist has convinced me on this part.

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Flirting With Eastern Orthodoxy

Recently I have begun to study the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity.  This was due in part to feeling that my evangelical faith is feeling a bit uncomfortable, but also due to a man I respect and admire joining the Eastern Orthodox Church, which caused me to want to investigate the history and theology of the Orthodox Church.  Working in a Christian bookshop has enabled me to gain access to a few books on the topic as they come in (which is not very common in the mid-western United States).  My starting point has been a book by Peter E. Gillquist titled Becoming Orthodox.  It is a memoir of sorts that chronicles the journey of Gillquist and other evangelical Protestants as they attempt to understand the their life in faith, which eventually led them to Eastern Orthodoxy.  I finished part one tonight and wanted to write up a few thoughts.

Are you leading me astray?

First, I seem to agree with Eastern Orthodoxy on two of their criticisms of Catholicism and Western Christianity.  The Pope, while I don’t believe him to be an evil man as some evangelicals seem to portray him, is not an office I see a lot of precedent for.  I acknowledge that The Bishop of Rome was historically important as the seat of Christianity moved there after the destruction of Jerusalem, but does that necessarily mean that The Bishop of Rome should evermore be the head of the world-wide Church?  I find it a bit uncomfortable, I admit, but I’m also willing, at the moment, to agree to disagree on this particular issue.

The second criticism of Eastern Orthodoxy, one that I discovered in doing some earlier research on the tradition, requires the filioque debate.  Essentially, the Eastern Orthodox Church rejects a change that was made to the Nicene Creed.  Originally, the creed stated that The Holy Spirit proceeded from The Father and is to be worshipped with The Father and The Son, which was in accordance with John 15:26.  However, the Nicene Creed in the West was eventually changed to the Holy Spirit proceeding from The Father and The Son.  On first glance, this seems to be a very minor, almost insignificant change.  However, the more I thought about it and the more I looked at the Evangelical Church in America, the more I began to see how marginalized The Holy Spirit has become in all but the Charismatic denominations (and even there, the view of The Spirit almost seems to have swung completely too far in the other direction).  The Spirit is discussed, but it certainly isn’t seen as, or talked about, being on equal footing with The Father and The Son.  I think Francis Chan addresses this issue, albeit without Eastern Orthodox leanings, in his book Forgotten God. So, I find myself agreeing rather firmly with the Orthodox Church on the filioque issue.

Levar Burton told me to take a look, it's in a book, so that's where I'm looking.

Does this mean I’m Eastern Orthodox now?  I rather doubt it.  Honestly, I haven’t done nearly enough research to consider any changes, but I do feel drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy in ways that I haven’t yet begun to comprehend.  And while Gillquist’s book makes for interesting reading for a beginner on this topic, it sounds somewhat similar to other “is church as we know it truly the historic church” books.  Although, in Gillquist’s defense, his was written about fifteen years before some of these other books, and he points firmly to an ancient practice of Christianity, rather than a post-modern one.  But I must confess that my knowledge of Church history is quite basic and not developed enough to really know if I can refute some of Gillquist’s claims with regard to First Century Church practices and Eastern Orthodoxy.  Not all scholars in New Testament Christianity seem to become Eastern Orthodox.  I rather enjoy N.T. Wright’s scholarship, and he is Anglican.  But, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe.  I know a few other traditions also claim to be The Historic Church.  They can’t all be correct.

My final thoughts on the subject.  Gillquist mentioned that the Western Church has continued to reform and counter-reform, dividing into smaller and smaller branches, while the Eastern Orthodox Church has remained constant.  I must admit that I want to know how accurate this claim is.  I have wondered in the past if the Western Church is either a) continually attempting to reform itself into something that it has subconsciously lost, or b) founded on the attitude of “no, that’s not the way to do it, my way is!”.  We really do seem to keep dividing and subdividing.  Is the Eastern Orthodox Church really different in this regard?  If you can fill in my gaps of knowledge on this, I would certainly appreciate it.