Another Man’s Treasure
Orthodoxy Revisited: Contrasting the Faith and Practice
reviewed by Bryan M. Litfin
As King David and some companions were carrying the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem in an ox-cart, the oxen stumbled, the Ark shifted precariously, and Uzzah reached out to steady the holy vessel. Scripture records that the Lord’s anger “burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.”
This is among the more striking analogies Orthodox apologist Robert Lloyd Arnold uses to explain one of Evangelicalism’s defining characteristics, the doctrine of inerrancy. Evangelicals’ desire to protect the dignity of God is noble, he says, but their effort is misplaced because it is based on purely human judgments about what ought to be done. Such is the tone of his Orthodoxy Revisited. Evangelicals are depicted as good-hearted souls with a faith that is sincere but deeply misguided.
As a patristic scholar, I am already open to what Orthodoxy has to offer my tradition. Indeed, one of Touchstone’s senior editors, Antiochian priest Patrick Henry Reardon, has become a regular in my classes at Moody Bible Institute to round out the staunchly Evangelical fare my students normally receive. Yet even a friend of Orthodoxy like me becomes a spurned lover after reading Arnold’s book.
Arnold shares with the reader his own very personal journey from an Evangelical upbringing into the arms of the Orthodox Church, for which he possesses a zealous love. A Baptist student at a leading Evangelical seminary, he felt like something of a black sheep as he began to explore Christian life within a liturgical context. Eventually he found his way into what he calls the Ancient Church.
His book is written for the already-convinced: his fellow Orthodox who want a bit of insight into Evangelicalism from someone who has been there. Few Evangelical readers will be drawn to the Orthodox Church by reading this book.
One gets the sense that the author walked a wrenching spiritual path as he left the churches in which he was first nurtured. He appreciates much about his Evangelical heritage and is deft at capturing its foibles and quirks. I smiled often as I watched the idiosyncrasies of my own tradition being lampooned. Yet the book also offers a sustained critique of Evangelicalism’s core doctrines and practices.
Perhaps the most significant chapter is the first, in which Arnold rightly identifies the authority of Scripture as the central issue. He accurately describes for the uninitiated Evangelicalism’s ubiquitous biblicism, both at the doctrinal level (e.g., plenary verbal inspiration) and in its popular piety (his depiction of the Sunday-school “Sword Drill,” a kind of children’s Bible quiz, is a treat).
Evangelicals are shown to be true lovers of God’s Word. At the same time, Arnold raises what he considers to be real problems for Evangelicals, such as the short pedigree of the doctrine of inerrancy, the many contradictions in the pages of Scripture, and, most important of all, the inevitability of a traditioned approach to biblical interpretation.
Arnold writes, “Sadly, the Evangelical has been conditioned to view Holy Tradition with a suspicious eye.” Arnold is no doubt right, a point Evangelicals are increasingly willing to acknowledge. Tradition plays an unavoidable—and utterly legitimate—role in responsible exegesis. The difficulty, of course, is in determining just what that role should be.
Subsequent chapters deal with additional Evangelical errors. Evangelical Trinitarian theology is “wantonly crass” in comparison to the richness of Orthodox liturgy, for “the Evangelical imagination has never developed a spiritual appreciation of the Trinity in and of Itself.” Evangelicals seek to apprehend God rationally, and so covet a prize far inferior to the mystical deification offered in the East. The doctrine of Original Sin is a “hideous” product of the “dark imagination of Augustine.” God’s judgment is not a retributive punishment for sin, but a needed corrective from a loving God.
Evangelicals don’t understand that the sacraments are intended to join God and Man in hypostatic union: The baptized person becomes “a little Christ.” Evangelicals fail to realize that grace is communicated through material things and not by faith alone—and so they miss out on the joy of expressing love for Mary and the saints by venerating them through icons.
Readers looking to discover some ecumenical gems amidst the mud being slung here will find large portions of the book irrelevant. The Counterpoints volume Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism (Zondervan, 2004) would be far more suitable for the reader who wants a point-for-point comparison of the two theological systems.
Typos, misspellings, misaligned text, and other minor errors jump off the pages of Orthodoxy Revisited with a regularity normally found in an unedited manuscript. In the first chapter alone, which is called “Prolegommena” instead of “Prolegomena,” the noun principle is substituted for the adjective principal, Jesus changed water to wine in “Canaan,” Calvinists are opposed by “Armenians,” and medieval theology is grounded in “Aristotleanism.” The former editor of Christianity Today, Harold Lindsell, would not appreciate being quoted as saying that biblical inerrancy is “inexplicably” tied to Christian faith and practice, instead of “inextricably.”
It may seem like nitpicking to harp on such matters. Yet they contribute to the impression that the book has not managed to rise above its origins as a series of term papers written by a seminary student as he worked out his conflicts with his Evangelical upbringing. The reader will find one man’s account of his personal issues with the faith in which he was reared, and his exuberant resolution of them in a different church.
The already-convinced may enjoy cheering Arnold on, but if you are an Evangelical (or a “Latin”), the book’s triumphalism will probably put you off. Who wants to watch a man fall out of love with the bride of his youth? Few like to see the ex’s defamation after a messy divorce.
Arnold likens his new love, Eastern Orthodoxy, to a “great fleshy grandmother” with beefy arms, tired eyes, and the smell of incense about her. Many Evangelical readers may just say with the wave of a hand, “Let him have the babushka he finds so attractive.”
Bryan M. Litfin is Assistant Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, and the author of a forthcoming book on the early church fathers. He and his wife and two children live in Wheaton, Illinois, where they attend College Church.
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“Another Man's Treasure” first appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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