Catholicism versus Orthodoxy

A former Calvinist convert to Eastern Orthodox, I nevertheless have for 13 years tried to give Roman Catholicism its due. But having just finished Scott Hahn’s book Rome Sweet Home, where he dismisses Orthodoxy fairly perfunctorily, I rise in brief defense, letting chips fall where they may.

As I have said and written, two epiphanies were most memorable in my journey to Orthodoxy:

  1. My core doctrine of sola scriptura (the core doctrine of Protestantism, along with sola gratia) was inadequate to support my doctrinal system (or anyone else’s) and, ironically, was unscriptural.
  2. My belief in “one holy catholic and apostolic church” of the Nicene creed was a “spiritualizing away” of Nicene ecclesiology — the kind of equivocation I’d dismiss as liberal compromise in any other creedal setting. The Church was in the creed because of its indispensability to healthy Christian life; Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Second Coming, Final Judgment – these weren’t enough. Church (and baptism) made the creed, too.

Those epiphanies could as easily have led to Rome as Constantinople. That, and the concurrent conversion of a devout Protestant pastor friend to Catholicism, are among the reasons why I have not generally tried to fully explore, and then communicate dogmatically, all the history leading up to and following the separation of Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the Great Schism.

I probably became Orthodox, truth be told, partly because it was in the course of trying to refute Orthodoxy (of which I had very recently been entirely ignorant; the discovery that Lafayette had a fledgling Orthodox Parish increased the urgency of correcting that) that I encountered my errors. I explicitly explored Catholicism relatively briefly because I encountered many of the reasons for Orthodoxy’s differences from Catholicism while exploring Orthodoxy.

Scott Hahn had the same two epiphanies I had. His book’s dismissal of Orthodoxy is superficial in the best possible way. It’s very hard to assess a religious tradition from “outside.” One who attempts it is in danger of bearing false witness, as do many Protestant fundamentalists who pick a few factoids about Catholicism (or Orthodoxy) and then draw lurid inferences about what dire consequences he thinks must follow (e.g., we believe that we earn our salvation, Christ’s atonement being insufficient), even if we don’t admit them. But since Hahn is so very prominent and widely-read, even perfunctory and superficial dismissal calls for response.

I will try not to say too much about Roman Catholicism because I am outside it and always have been. I will speak instead about Scott’s own story – his account of how he made his way to Rome and rejected Orthodoxy.

I sensed that I might find Scott’s arguments unpersuasive when he began talking about is infatuation with Covenant Theology – a Reformed distinctive with which he became very deeply involved. He finds it the central biblical theme (contra Orthodoxy, which finds the Christ the central theme, as He Himself famously explained in an unrecorded talk on the road to Emmeaus).

As I thought he might be foreshadowing, Hahn apparently brought his Covenant theology into Catholicism with him. I find that jarring.

I like the idea that Christ fulfills all legitimate spiritual longings, so I can’t object in principle to a Calvinist segueing into another Christian tradition because he finds that it deepens his personal understanding of covenant, or of dispensations, or of logos, or of just about anything. Still, Hahn’s theology strikes me as an idiosyncratic if not syncretistic form of Catholicism. Indeed, some of Scott’s former colleagues in Protestantism predicted that he’d get in trouble, if not excommunicated, for being unacceptably “Biblical.”

It’s far from obvious that “covenant” is anywhere near as central to official Catholicism as it is to Scott Hahn. The index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church gives far less space to covenant than to many other topics — even under the letter “C”!

This introduces my first point. One of the reasons Scott Hahn rejected Orthodoxy – after speaking briefly with Peter Gilquist (whose conversion from Campus Crusade for Christ-type evangelicalism to Orthodoxy must have still been quite recent) was that, in his words.

I found the various Orthodox churches to be hopelessly divided among themselves, similar to the Protestants, except that the Orthodox were split along the lines of ethnic nationalisms; there were Orthodox bodies that called themselves Greek, Russian, Ruthenian, Rumanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Serbian and so on. They have coexisted for centuries, but more like a family of brothers who have lost their father.

About this, first, the observation that the argument is subtly circular and a bit invidious. It’s invidious because the division of Protestants is formally doctrinal (the extent to which doctrinal differences may be a pretext for empire building is beyond my scope), the result of their inability to agree about the meaning of a Bible virtually all profess to be authoritative and clear. That raises real questions about the very foundation of Protestantism.

The Orthodox, in contrast, are doctrinally and liturgically united – serving the same liturgy and in communion with one another, which is a big deal since we believe (as does Rome) that the eucharist is the true body and blood of Christ, and we accordingly don’t communicate all comers. Comparing our jurisdictions to Protestant doctrinal disagreements is kind of a cheap shot, really.

It’s circular because formal jurisdictional division means no more than that our real unity is not jurisdictional, under a single figurehead like the Pope. He says, in essence, that our ethnic jurisdictions mean “hopeless division” because we have no Pope and he was beginning, when he reasoned thus, to be unable to imagine unity without a figurehead like the Pope. Our real Orthodox unity is sufficiently counterfactual to his theory that he needs lamely to deny it.

I use “figurehead” advisedly, as it implies little real power, which, I believe, is objectively true, theory (and my personal admiration of the current and prior Popes) notwithstanding. Indeed, one of my law school classmates, a convert to Catholicism, opined that he preferred a figurehead in Rome who claimed infallibility and plenary power but in fact left things pretty well alone most of the time, to some sweaty, pompadoured, unqualified “preacher boy” who denied infallibility or personal authority, but who meddled constantly and capriciously in the name of the Bible. That tells something about the Catholic reality, I suspect.

Second, I suggest that the formal unity of the Roman Catholic Church papers over some substantial disunity of its own. Scott Hahn’s arrival packing graduate-level work in “covenant theology” that may be alien to official Catholicism is one small example.

Liturgical chaos is, at least from Orthodox perspective, a much more serious issue. Is Scott Hahn united with, not in some deep sense divided from, perpetrators of the Clown mass in Oakland, or the Halloween masses elsewhere, or the Barney Blessing?

Out of the many choices, what kind of Roman Catholic is Scott Hahn?  Drums’n’guitars’n’Levis? Tridentine wannabe?

Or for that matter, how about the plain old Post-Vatican II Ordinary Mass? I’m sure Scott Hahn is comfortable with that, since it was virtually the only game in town during his entire adult life.

But there’s a Latin maxim: Lex orandi, lex credendi. A Latin maxim, although these days we “Greeks” seem to believe it more fervently than does the “Latin” Church.

Here I could very quickly get out of my depth. Suffice to state my opinion: the vernacular in Liturgy is great, but when you make the panoply of changes that the Roman Church has made, starting with the the Celebrant facing the faithful, like an emcee, instead of facing east along with everyone else (as the Church did universally for almost 2000 years), you’re going to change the faith at least subtly. The medium is the message.

In short, my impression is that the Catholic Church is diverse to the point of substantial disunity beneath the formal unity of professing the authority of the Pope, whereas the Orthodox are substantially united beneath a very superficial, and far from universal (ethnically mixed parishes in the U.S. are very common), ethnic division.

Hahn’s second reason for rejecting Orthodoxy is both candid and perhaps clueless:

Orthodoxy was wonderful for its liturgy and tradition but stagnant in theology.

(Emphasis added) I take perverse pleasure in this common indictment. Assuming it’s true – and for all I know (and hope), it is – what does “stagnant in theology” mean objectively beyond that we’re not changing doctrine (since neither God nor man has changed)? Is changing theology a virtue? Why?

We have a saying in Orthodoxy: “the true theologian is the one who prays well.” There, in prayer, is where man meets God face-to-face.

He who meets God regularly in prayer knows more about God than the obsessive-compulsive academic with furrowed brow trying to come up with some Great New Thing that will earn him a doctorate — and if he’s lucky, will not replicate in newish garb some long-condemned heresy (some oddball somewhere might still recognize a heresy). “Theology” as an academic discipline that in theory can be mastered by an atheist (and no doubt has been as the believing first year student loses his faith but keeps his career parth) is not something we Orthodox hold in very high esteem; neither is doctrinal novelty, including all the dogmas the Pope has promulgated on his own since the Great Schism. Hahn’s “stagnant” is our “preserve and transmit the faith without alteration.” There’s a world of difference in attitude in that.

Thus, I’m unmoved by Hahn’s third and final stated reason for rejecting Orthodoxy;

I became convinced that it was mistaken in doctrine, having rejected certain teachings of Scripture and the Catholic Church, especially the filioque clause (‘and the Son’) that had been added to the Nicene Creed.

(Emphasis added.) Perhaps Hahn elsewhere has explained how “the Holy Spirit … who proceeds from the Father and the Son …” is scriptural when Christ explicitly says the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26) and nowhere says He proceeds from the Son, too.

I mean that. Maybe Hahn has explained his view elsewhere. You can’t say everything in one slender volume. But I’m not going to scour his numerous other books to find it. He just assumes it, as far as appears from Rome Sweet Home.

To the Orthodox, this is not just a matter of following the very words of scripture as a very safe harbor against error; it’s also a matter of the authority of one part of the Church (when the Church was still one) to change the creed adopted by the whole Church in ecumenical council. That’s what Rome did, and Hahn seems untroubled as he acknowledges that the filioque was added to the Creed. Added by one patriarch of five while the other four rejected it.

In short, I find Scott Hahn a very bright guy who courageously and with risk of great personal cost reasoned his way into one of two Christian traditions that holds substantially what the ecumenical councils of the Church held and what the Church believed universally for 1000 or so years.

Regrettably, he reasoned his way into the one of two that believes some things that no ecumenical council ever held, and that in my opinion tries to achieve unity based on the human criterion of a Pope (and to achieve rational certainty about matters that are forever beyond our understanding — in Scholasticism, a topic I haven’t really explored here). He has had a gratifying career there after all, supporting his family and attaining considerable limelight. He’s a bigger “rock star” among evangelical-to-Catholic converts than Fr. Peter Gillquist is among evangelical-to-Orthodox converts. He and his beloved wife (who, oddly, gets credit as if she were sole author of the Kindle edition), get to travel and minister together as they dreamed as young zealous Calvinists.

And he’s kept his essential Calvinistic “covenant” framework, apparently, somehow. Wow! Is this a great country or what!?

By God’s grace, we’re none of us finished yet (so be patient!). Maybe someday a little light will go on and I’ll say “how could I ever have missed that proof of the Pope’s authority?” But I’m not holding my breath. One book like Rome Sweet Home every 5 years or so seems like enough for a reality check. The possibility that I’ve overlooked something crucial increasingly seems remote, and I’m content with what even Hahn concedes is a wonderful liturgy and tradition, and a stagnant stable, historic, ecumenical and conciliar theology.

And, I add, a wonderful Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, who saves even confused people with skewed theology. Just don’t push your luck skewing your theology on purpose, gentle reader. I think Hahn or Tipsy is right: Rome, Orthodoxy or relativism are your choices, it seems to me.

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