Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The development of theology and evangelism

I've been reading through Timothy Ware's book The Orthodox Church as part of preparation for the summer team I'm co-leading to Moldova in June and July*. I've been wanting to brush up on Orthodox beliefs as many of the non-believers that attend the camp are influenced at least nominally by the Orthodox Church.

One of the things that has struck me is the extent to which Orthodox and Protestant beliefs diverge because of a difference in whether Scripture or Church is the ultimate authority. Protestants argue that Scripture is the ultimate authority, whereas Orthodox argue that because the canon was formalised by the Spirit-driven Church, Church effectively is the authority above Scripture. (And so church creeds and the writings of the Church effectively have equal authority to Scripture).

This inevitably has an impact on the development of theology. Whereas Orthodox believers would certainly grant the possibility of theological development (in deepening existing Orthodox doctrines), it seems to me that the Orthodox Church's default position is to look at the writings of the early Orthodox saints. Protestanism - with its insistence of being Scripture-driven - places much more emphasis on theological development. The weakness of the Protestant position is that it can be faddish and perhaps (at least in evangelical circles) does not place enough emphasis on the historical testimony of Christians from other generations. But it appears to me that Orthodox theology starves itself of many of the theological developments that a sola Scriptura conviction has brought - diverse issues, including the nature of sin, the atonement, common grace, the doctrine of humanity and so on. I've no doubt that there are many genuine believers in the Orthodox community (and met some incredible people last time round in Moldova), but these under-developed doctrines seem to be very unhelpful.

Certainly my study so far means that I am inclined to run a session for our team's orientation on the doctrine of revelation. I'm also going to be inclined to show that the beliefs that many Moldovans find incredulous (for instance, that Jesus is not just 'Son of God' (which they learn by rote), but also 'God in the flesh') were testified by early Eastern believers. Eventually perhaps these thoughts will come to fruition in a short resource designed to help evangelicals share the gospel more effectively with nominally Orthodox unbelievers.

* The book, recommended by my dad, is a massively helpful and detailed introduction to Orthodoxy. There are second-hand copies on the Internet for next to nothing. Ware himself is a bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church.

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