I wrote yesterday about the “conversion (to Orthodoxy) story” of Father John Whiteford, who influenced my conversion from a much different Protestant tradition. Today, I want to share a few more excerpts of his story.
So while at [Southern Nazarene University], my studies went on several tracks at once: there was the material I had to read for class; there was the material I read to counter the [religiously liberal] material I had to read for class; there was the material I read because I became interested in a particular topic; and then there was the material I read because I was looking for something deeper.
Perhaps his professors were trying to “make a new contribution to theology.”
Of a Pastor he encountered at a “non-denominational Church”:
I noticed over time that this pastor would preach based on whatever he happened to be reading at the time. For a while he was preaching sermons based on a Christian novel about spiritual warfare entitled “This Present Darkness.” Then he started preaching from Watchman Nee’s book “Spiritual Authority.” It began to seem like that church’s doctrine hinged on what he had eaten the night before. I increasingly began to see the folly of non-denominational Churches that have no accountability to anyone or anything beyond the whim of the pastors who head them.
Been there, done that. Even a little bit in the Christian Reformed Church, though far oftener in generic Evangelical Churches with no higher authority than the pastor.
Of an early interaction with an Orthodox Priest:
In that same course, our final paper, which we were each in turn to present to the class in the final days of the semester, was to be an exposition of our personal theology of the inspiration of Scripture …
Most of my research on the question of the inspiration of Scripture focused on the question of what Tradition had to say about it, and since at that point I had more or less a “branch-theory” understanding of what constituted the Church, I analyzed it in terms of what the “Early Church” had taught on the question, then what the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, and then the various major branches of Protestantism had historically taught… with a special emphasis on the branch that I was on at the time. What I found was that all Christians had affirmed the idea that the Scriptures were fully inspired, and were in fact inerrant. I had good sources for most of those sections, but not for the Orthodox. But I knew enough about the Orthodox Church to know that I needed to adequately cover their perspective. Since I had met Fr. Anthony Nelson and worked with him on several protests, I decided to call him up and discuss it with him. When he explained the Orthodox understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture, it made so much sense that it essentially became the final conclusion of my paper. In short, his explanation was similar to the one I later found in the writings of St. Augustine (Letter to St. Jerome, 1:3). We believe that the Scriptures are inerrant because God, as the one who inspired them, is on one level the author. If, however, we find something in Scripture that seems at odds with reason, we conclude that either we have flawed reasoning, or we have misunderstood the meaning of the Scriptures, or perhaps we have a bad translation or a bad manuscript… but we know the Scriptures are true… and if we don’t know for sure which of the above factors is the cause for the apparent conflict with reason, we don’t spend too much time worrying about it, because our understanding of the Scriptures as individuals is not infallible, nor should we expect it to be. The Church’s understanding of the Scriptures as a whole is infallible, and if we remain under the guidance of the Church, we will not go too far wrong.
No matter the question, one needed only to ask “What has the Church always taught on the matter?” Once you found the answer, the problem was solved; you just needed to conform to the teachings of the Church.
Of his realization that he probably was going to become Orthodox – which he hadn’t even told his wife yet:
[U]ntil I was sure that I wanted to do that, I didn’t let even my wife and closest friends know how serious my interest in Orthodoxy really was. Unfortunately, this had the effect of leaving many of my classmates and acquaintances thinking that one day I was a conservative Nazarene, and then on a whim I one day became Orthodox, but in reality it was the conclusion of a very long process and a great deal of intense study.
I had an analogous experience because I was an Elder in the Christian Reformed Church and had promised at my installation to not stir up trouble over any doctrinal doubts I might develop. For that reason, I bit my tongue and my eventual decision almost certainly seemed abrupt (though I absented myself for the public announcement, not returning except for weddings, funerals and such).
Of attending Orthodox Vespers Saturday, then presiding as Associate Pastor of a Nazarene Church on Sunday:
The contrast between these two very different styles of worship on a weekly basis had the effect of increasingly convincing me of the shallowness of Protestant worship in general, but especially the “contemporary” style of worship that my Nazarene Church was using. There were two “worship songs” that stood out as being especially shallow. One was “As David did in Jehovah’s sight, I will dance with all my might” – which had no meaning other than that we were going to jam to the tunes of the rock band that was playing the music. Another was “Blow the Trumpet in Zion,” which was based on words from Joel, chapter 2. However, this song twisted the meaning of the words in that prophecy to suggest that it was talking about what a powerful army the people of God were, when it fact the prophecy is a prophecy of judgment on the people of God who have sinned. The army that is talked about in that passage, that is about to “run on the city” and “run on the walls” is an army that is coming to destroy Zion (Jerusalem) at God’s command. The trumpet is blown in Zion to sound the alarm, because Jerusalem is under attack. God is calling His people to repent, if they wish to avoid this judgment… but this “contemporary worship” song is anything but a penitential song. One Sunday, when I was asked to preach, I preached on Joel 2, and explained why this song distorted the meaning of the passage, and what it actually meant. Next Sunday, the “worship team” sang it again, as usual.
I managed to keep a fairly safe distance from such stuff even as a Protestant, but as our Church has a “worship skirmish” if not full-blown “worship wars,” I have heard “As a deer panteth for the water” (a “praise song” probably unknown now to anyone under age 15, such is the shelf life of such things) about a million times more than I needed to hear it. Note: The Groove was much more important than the Truth.
When I was studying Martial Arts in High School, the style I studied was a form of Chinese Kung Fu. Now in my Martial Arts school we had a number of “converts” from Tae Kwon Do, who had for some reason decided that they wanted to learn Kung Fu. What was interesting though, is a neophyte could walk in off the street and they would have an easier time learning to do the forms and stances correctly. The problem was that many of the stances and forms, as well as punches and kicks were very similar – but just different enough to make it very difficult to learn to do it the Kung Fu way. But when it came time to put these techniques into practice – when we sparred – this problem became even more apparent. With time, many of these “converts” learned to do the stances and forms correctly (though the Tae Kwon Do influence could still be seen at times) but when they would spar – many of them would spar as if they had never studied Kung Fu at all. The instructor would often stop the action, and tell such people, “Look, Tae Kwon Do is fine, if you want to learn Tae Kwon Do, but you’re here to learn Kung Fu. If you want to learn Kung Fu, you’re going to have to put what you know about Tae Kwon Do aside and use the techniques that you’ve learned here.” The reason these people reverted back to Tae Kwon Do while sparring is simple – when you’re sparring, you’ve got to think and act fast, and Tae Kwon Do was what came natural to them – in fact it was preventing them from arriving at the point at which Kung Fu would become natural, and so until they could come to the point at which they would lay aside their Tae Kwon Do techniques – little progress in Kung Fu could possibly be made.
Similarly, in the Orthodox Church today there are many converts from Protestantism, who have seen in Orthodoxy that which they found lacking in their former Protestant experience, but very often they speak and act in very Protestant ways still. This doesn’t mean that a convert from Protestantism can never really become authentically Orthodox, but it does mean that he has some additional hurdles to overcome. I should also point out, however, that many “cradle” Orthodox who have grown up in America’s Protestant culture, often think in Protestant ways, and so many of them also have to go through a conversion process of sorts, if they are to acquire an authentically Orthodox mindset… and here, they can be even more disadvantaged than a former Protestant, because at least a former Protestant knows that he once was a Protestant. Too many of those born into Orthodox families are completely oblivious to the influence that Protestant thinking has had on them.
This is very, very true. I’ve been lucky enough to become Cantor of my parish, so I’ve been “forced” to attend services and absorb what’s going on, but have never had to ad lib a single word. I can think of far worse regimens for unlearning Protestant ways.
I should point out that I did not leave the Church of the Nazarene angry. I was grateful for all that I had learned that was good and true, and the many sincere and loving people I had encountered. At the time I left, I thought of the Church of the Nazarene as a conservative denomination with many good qualities, but after discovering the patristic views of what constituted the Church, I simply became convinced that, as well meaning as it was, it just wasn’t the Church of the Fathers.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)
Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.