Evangelical Anchoretism

I am asked in debates with Orthodox what is “Anchoretism,” of which I routinely accuse them.  Fair enough.  I can give cerebral definitions like “trying to obtain hyperousia by human efforts.”  (By the way:   that is exactly what theology of glory means, not a synonym for theonomy).  That’s a fairly damning definition, but I think we can take it a step further.

Only Evangelicals could think of something this stupid (Yes, I realize it is a parody but I’ve had conversations with Evangelicals who actually spout this nonsense). However, they are drawing upon an ancient, if erroneous, church teaching. Here is a confused but mostly helpful summary of fathers’ teaching on intercourse for priests (The Eastern Orthodox are correct to note that the Bible allows for bishops to marry. They are incorrect in their gnostic conclusions).

I understand that they urge “living in celibacy” because they see themselves as a continuation of the Levitical line. That raises another problem which I’ll address later.

Back to the video: while it is a parody and not to be taken literally, it does raise important issues. Their silly app which rings when the other is having impure thoughts, and the wife says, “You’re thinking of me, right.”

The husband: “How can I, since you go into the bathroom to change?”

You can draw your own conclusion on where that is headed in a few years, but this is the practical consequence of “being more holy because I am more celibate than you.” I know of an EO convertskii who appeared to take this vow a few years ago. Nothing good can come of this. The apostle Paul urges to withdraw from intercourse for a brief period of time to devote to prayer, but just as strongly urged them to have intercourse again so they won’t be tempted by the devil.

No wonder Paul elsewhere considers these people as “teaching the doctrine of demons.” Literally.

The Canon of Scripture (Bruce)

Bruce, F. F.  The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove,IL:  InterVarsityPress, 1988.

The canon of Scripture is one of the most important questions of Christian theology.  It is directly related to the most important question of Christian theology:  the question of authority.  One’s position on the canon either justifies or undercuts one’s ultimate authority.   Bruce’s book on the canon is not remarkable:  he does not say anything that was not already said by Bruce Metzger of Lee McDonald.   That is not say the book is useless—on the contrary.  Bruce represents the finest of conservative, evangelical theology and his conclusions and methods are always sane and judicious.   This review will briefly highlight Bruce’s method (which is more of a historical survey) and reflect upon Bruce’s conclusions:  how strong they are, whether they actually follow, and what this entails for Evangelical theology.

Bruce gives a brief survey of the meaning of the word “Canon” and the different senses it was used in church history.  Canon did not mean list of books in the Scriptures but the rule of faith by which one determines other aspects of the faith (Bruce 1988:  18).  In other words, canon meant “tradition.”

Bruce has a section on the Old Testament development of the canon.   Here he follows the standard evangelical line that the Old Testament canon was definably formed by the end of 400 B.C.   He makes this claim on the basis that the church appealed to a set of Scriptures (29).  Like other Evangelicals, he appeals to Josephus’ claim that the unbroken succession of prophets ended around 400 B.C.   He ends the chapter with an interesting (and I think accurate) suggestion that the practice of the worshipping community recognized the canon (42).  In other words, liturgy shaped the canon.

While there was some controversy in delineating the New Testament canons, the areas of concern were always clearly noted, and the discussion is somewhat simpler by comparison.   The Gospels and the Pauline epistles did not have trouble getting into the canon.   The Apocalypse was problematic because heretical groups appealed to it.   Bruce gives a survey of Church Fathers on the Canon from Clement of Rome to Athanasius.

There is some repetition in Bruce’s narrative.  For example, in the development of the New Testament canon he discusses Athanasius and Tertullian.    Later on he has chapters on Athanasius and Tertuallian which say the same thing.

The most important questions about the canon are the ones at the end:  what are the criteria for canonicity and who gets to make that decision?   Bruce lists the criteria: apostolic authority, antiquity, orthodoxy, and catholicity (pp. 256-262).  He lists other sub-criteria as inspiration and widespread use, but I will focus on these four.[i]

Conclusion and Response

While it is true that the Church appealed to a set of Scriptures commonly known as the Old Testament, it nowhere identified the contents of those writings in a systematic form.  In other words, there was an Old Testament canon, but there is no proof that it had hard, fixed boundaries, appeals to Josephus notwithstanding.   Appeals to Deuteronomy’s warning not “to add to this book” do not help, since those who claim a fixed OT canon apply Deuteronomy’s warning to the whole OT canon (which deligitimizes most of the OT—and Moses was simply applying that to the Torah).   If one says the Jewish community did not define the OT canon because everyone already knew what was in it, this is a huge argument from silence and assumes what one is trying to prove.

Yes, there was an “Old Testament” and most of the books in this “Old Testament” were similar, but the “Jamnia” canon and the LXX differed in content per the Apocrypha—and it is the LXX that the early church followed.   (Another important point is that the Jamnia council to which many Evangelicals appeal, was radically anti-Christian in its orientation.)

Criteria for the Canon.

In conclusion I will look at Bruce’s criteria for the canon.  His criteria is helpful but raises more questions than solves:

  • Apostolic authority:   Was it written by an apostle?   This is problematic because Mark, Luke, Acts, and probably Hebrews were not written by apostles.   Bruce is aware of this and softens the argument that they were written under the aegis of an apostle (Mark-Peter; Luke-Paul).  Bruce notes that all four gospels are anonymous, so how do we know who wrote what (which is important for the “apostolic authority” argument)?  His unspoken answer:  because tradition says so.
  • Orthodoxy:  This next criterion was important because many false gospels under the names “Peter” and “Thomas” were circulating, so it became obvious that “apostolic authorship” was not enough (nor was it self-authenticating).   Did the gospel teach the apostolic faith?   The interesting question is that the apostolic faith is defined, not as Scripture alone, but the prior teaching of the church (150).  Reflect on that statement for a while:  we know something is Scripture because it agrees with church tradition.  Corollary:  church tradition determines the horizon of Scripture.    Bruce hints at this but is not explicit about it.
  • Antiquity:  this was to rule out literature that may have been edifying, but was not part of the original Christian writings, namely The Shepherd of Hermas.
  • Catholicity:  If the church is one, holy, and apostolic church, then it cannot have numerous canons for an indefinite period of time.


Bruce did a fine job in this book.  He offers a number of helpful meditations on various Scriptures and wades through a minefield of difficult issues.    Bruce is aware of many problems relating interpretation to canonicity, and hints at a few solutions, but ultimately pulls back.  Nevertheless, this book is rightly known as the standard on the canon.

One other corollary:  Greg Bahnsen made one argument popular:  we know it is the bible because God’s word is self-authenticating.  Never mind the Mormon, Muslim, and JW can make the same claim (it begs the obvious question:  self-authenticating to whom), the historical truth of the matter is that the earliest Christians, who much closer to the situation and more familiar with the issues, either did not think the text was self-authenticating, or were horribly deluded if they did

Another problem with the above claim:   if I say Tobit is self-authenticating, and the Reformed presuppositionalist says it isn’t, who gets to make the call?

[i] Lee MacDonald gives the same list as Bruce, although MacDonald is more aware of the problems in this list and offers a much fuller and more satisfying discussion.   The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1995).

Conversion stories: look while you are leaping

The guy who currently blogs at ViatorChristianus (or something like that; I don’t like linking to guys who were at one time associated with the Federal Vision movement.  It attracts unnecessary traffic and old wars are brought up) did some really good posts on the reasons why one would leave Evangelical and Reformed communities for the epistemological certainty that Roman Catholicism and/or Orthodoxy brings.   And to be fair, he had a lot of good points.  Many guys do convert to Rome/Orthodoxy for some very bad and shallow reasons.

This post is about conversion stories, though not mine:  I have yet to convert to anything.  I am going to get everybody angry in this post, though in a rather unique way.   Orthodox guys will get angry because they will think I am attacking Orthodoxy.  I am doing no such thing.  If anything, I am actually offering something of an apology for looking into Orthodoxy.  Further, I agree with Orthodoxy, but it is still hard to undo 20 years of Evangelical subculture and the expectations that culture brings.   I do ask your pardon.  This post is simply a snapshot of someone along the way (and in one sense it is no different from Fr Peter Gilquist’s experience when he led some evangelicals to Orthodoxy).

Evangelicals will be tempted to say, upon reading of some of my disappointments, “Aha!  We told you it was a dead church and not biblical and not faithful to our American Conservative Republican Christian distinctives.”  To which I urge silence:  Evangelical theology is flawed on the structural level and cannot mount anything resembling a defense.

Anglicans might be tempted to say, “Well, join Anglicanism.  We have liturgy and we are sensitive, sometimes it appears more so, to many Western liturgical concerns.”  That might be true, but the leader of the Anglican church is still hesitant to say that butt-sex is wrong, and he ordains women.   So, no die.  Perhaps one can see Anglicanism as a stopgap on the way to Orthodox, barring any other liturgical alternative in the community–I can follow that line of reasoning, but no more.

I’ve talked with some facebook friends on my–and others Reformed inquisitors–experience with Orthodoxy.   In what follows I will be told that I should not import Western Evangelical expectations onto the life of the church.  While I still have some questions–based on reading Eastern fathers and noting severe disjuncts between said fathers and what I experienced in Liturgy–I will agree for the moment.  I cannot stand in judgment upon the church, but I can’t pretend I have a blank slate mind as well.

(And before we get started I just have to add, St Gregory of Nazianzus delayed baptism for ten years, while holding to something like Orthodox belief.  Cf. Brian Daley’s St Gregory of Nazianzus).  The following is adapted from several emails with several friends.

I’ll be honest with you–and I’ve told Mr. _______ as much–but I don’t know if I can keep going to St _______’s.  I certainly can’t bring my family there.    Most of the service now seems to be in Greek, and even then isn’t always following the book (so I have no idea what is going on half the time, and while I can read and understand Greek; my wife would be completely lost).   The kids at the church are out of control, and the parents make no effort to discipline them;  I would give examples, but it would seem like I am exaggerating (I am not).  I understand that telling a parent how to discipline their kids is about as awkward as giving sex advice, but still….  It is distracting to see (hear?) a kid playing his Nintendo DS with the volume up, or another kid walking down the aisle gathering liturgy books (and dropping them), or throwing models cars across the room (I am listing the things I have seen).  Add this to the general confusion I feel, and no doubt my wife would feel, I can’t help but recall St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians about worshipping God in a way you really don’t understand, and confusion, and chaos in order.

I’ve been told that I shouldn’t bring Evangelical expectations of corporate singing and judge the Church based on my understanding of what I want it to be.  Fair enough.  Let’s put it into context.   There were about eight to ten people there, and I think maybe two were chanting (yours’ truly being one of them).   Is this what the Psalmist meant when he alluded to corporate singing?  It could be.  I don’t know.

  There was no homily the last time I was there.  I realize the homily/sermon doesn’t have the same import as in Protestantism, but St Paul did say something like “preach the word.”  How do we go from St John Chrysostom to having no homily at all?  And no, before one points out, this was not merely a prayer service. With the last priest at this service there were homilies, and fairly decent ones, too.
I don’t want to be one of those guys who gets all interested in Orthodox theology, but rejects the church because it didn’t meet his expectations.  I’ve had friends reject Christianity on that point.  I realize I don’t have the right to judge the church based on my expectations, but on the other hand, I’m no idiot in Church history either.   Gregory Nazianzus’ sermons were over an hour in length.  I don’t want to sit through an hour long sermon, but how do we go from that to having no sermon at all?
I don’t really expect–nor do I judge them harshly on this–an older, largely Greek community that is very small to engage in active missionary evangelism to Western potential converts (though if the OCA or Antiochians came in with a “Western Rite” church in North Louisiana, it would have HUGE potential.    Yet, there is a substantial undercurrent of resistance to the Western Rite among many Orthodox–see for example, Fr Alexander Schmemann).
 Well, that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.   I’m not rejecting Orthodoxy, but am remembering something that Joseph Farrell said, “When you enter Orthodoxy, enter with your eyes open to the problems in modern World Orthodoxy“).
I have another reason for writing this–it serves as a cautionary tale to guys who read a few books on Orthodoxy, internet debate a few Calvinists, and think they are “truly Orthodox.”  No, we are not.  We are still learning, and there are numerous considerations which are far more difficult than simply trying to follow a Greek-spoken liturgy:
  • Which branch of the Orthodox church is the true one:  Coptic, Armenian, Chalcedonian, etc.? How do you know?
  • How come Monachos.net always deletes threads that ask questions about Freemasonry and the Ecumenical Movement?
  • Which Calendar is correct?
  • If we have to move from our current location, possibly hundreds of miles simply to find the right bishop, doesn’t this also imply that Orthodoxy will never truly come to this region?
  • Is this the approach the Man from Macedonia took?
Even though I am open with my thoughts on this topic, the above reasons are also why I don’t debate Calvinists and Catholics on Orthodoxy.  Most importantly, I don’t want to pull a Jay Dyer and reject Orthodoxy because SCOBA has a weak view of the Old Testament precepts, or whatever Jay’s reasons were.
So yes, I am still very much interested, but the above is a snapshot of life on the way.

Canons and monkey-wrenches

The familiar Scripture norms the norm argument.

While it is more sophisticated and healthier than the chaos autonomy of the low-church evangelical, and it does slow the inherent mechanism for self-destruction and schism that is inherent in the evangelical mindset, it still comes up short.  If Scripture qualifies and subordinates human authorities and traditions, then it must qualify and determine the canon.  Yet this is the very thing that can’t be done.   You can’t know what is Scripture without presupposing a canon, yet a canon is a human tradition.

Do you see what is happening?  The Scripture is supposed to qualify and limit our traditions, but it is the canon–which is a human tradition–which qualifies and limits Scripture.

Honky Tonks or Incense?

The first book I ever read on Ancient Orthodoxy was by the Evangelical theologian Daniel Clendennin, titled Eastern Orthdoxy: A (something) perspective.  When I first read it (Summer 2008) I didn’t know enough about Orthodoxy to judge it, save to say I was pleased he didn’t go all “TR” and bash Orthodoxy (and by extension, associate it with Communist Russia).

It’s a very decent introduction to Orthodoxy, all things (faults included) considered.   Clendenin chooses several loci, or distinctives of Orthodoxy, and explains them to a largely unfamiliar Western audience.  He discussed apophatic theology, icons, theosis, and something else, which I can’t remember at the moment.

Surprisingly, he made a good case for an Orthodox understanding of each topic (keep in mind this is a moderate Calvinist evangelical who would otherwise trash Orthodoxy).    Looking back on it, I think a lot of his chapters could be improved, but all things considered, he did a fair job.

His only complaints about Orthodox are these:

  • According to him, Orthodoxy has some good points on theosis, but fails to take into account Scripture’s teaching on the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s work.  My thoughts:  if by substitutionary he means “vicarious,” then we have no problem:  for all traditions teach some aspect of a vicarious atonement.  Holy Isaiah clearly teaches the Servant took the place of Israel.  If by “substitutionary” he means “penal atonement,” then one must demur for reasons listed elsewhere.
  • He cautions the Orthodox on the Iconoclastic controversy on the lines that the tradition was not as clear on iconodulism as the Orthodox claim.  Well, granted it wasn’t a “slam dunk” case, but the practice of Icons goes back at least to the 2nd century, as iconophobes like Eusebius grudgingly admit.
  • He is upset that the Moscow Patriarch (Blessed) Alexie II likened Evangelical worship services to being in a honky tonk bar.   I don’t know why Clendenin is upset.  While “honky tonk” connotes country music and rural culture, it is for that reason that the Moscow Patriarchate is mistaken.  Most Evangelicals do not even long for honky tonk culture (which connotes the positive values of small town USA and agrarian life).  Nay, rather most Evangelicals seek to model their liturgies after a Britney Spears concert (and before you criticize me of taking pot shots or being unfair, I did a lot of hours in collegiate baptist ministry–I can assure you that’s exactly how evangelicals modeled their liturgy, to the degree they even thought of liturgy. If you don’t believe me, just walk into a Rick Warren clone church).


I have nostalgic reasons for liking this book.  This book dovetailed with my sudden interest in Russia and Orthodoxy.  Granted, the book has flaws, but it does remind one of C. S. Lewis’s dictum in Surprised by Joy:  “God is a rather unscrupulous character.  He often leaves dangerous books innocently lying around.  Who knows what will happen when one reads such a book?”

Celtic Monasticism: Healing of the Nous

With some qualifications, I highly recommend Celtic Spirituality (yes, some of the editorials are tinged with feminism and gnosticism).    The book, if read cautiously, is a gold-mine of Western Orthodox material.   There is a very interesting section on monastic rules.  Many Protestants are bothered by monastic rules–and I was certainly the case for a while.   Given the presuppositions of sola scriptura, the reality of some Roman Catholic abuses 500 years ago, and the fact that many of the rules seem so…arbitrary, monasticism is usually a hard sale to Protestants.

And some of the rules probably are “arbitrary,” but I am seeing something else at play.   While I can’t speak for Orthodox monasticism elsewhere in the world, and I certainly doubt this collection of texts is exhaustive, the surprising thing is that the rules are quite lax.   More importantly, the rules are given with an eye for “healing” and restoration.  I remember in my Southern Baptist days–and I am sure this is quite true of human nature and psychology in general–whenever I would sin I would feel guilty/let down/betraying myself…etc (and this is probably true of anybody).   I would confess this to my brothers in the youth group (who were likely struggling with many of the same things) and they would say, quite rightly, “Jesus loves you and forgives you.”

I suspect the monks knew that, too.   I also suspect they devised these rules to prevent a lot of the lapses.  Just telling someone, “You’re forgiven.  Just don’t do it again” is true but it doesn’t help restore them (particularly in the more heinous situations).  Abstract repentance is often damaging.  Think about it.    Someone is truly hurting, broken, and quite likely an intellectual and emotional rest.   Telling that person “don’t worry about.   Be good and it’ll be okay” will likely throw him or her off the deep end.  On the other hand, when both parties (the confessor and the lapsed) acknowledge there is a problem that needs to be concretely addressed, providing a framework for restoration is the epitome of common sense.  So what if scripture alone doesn’t tell one what to do?  This is where sola scriptura mentality is damaging.   Scripture gives very little advice on concrete repentance (just think of the wide array of human potentialities for sin).   Scripture is a healthy guide but it is not the ultimate database from which all answers may be derived.

True, many of the rules seem…odd.   In fact, many of the sins seem odd (how does one willingly have a nocturnal emission?   On another front, how do people lose the Host?).