Diverse Spirituality

What does “spirituality” mean? I find the term altogether slippery since so many use that term for so many different facets of religion and life. Yet, it is a sturdy word when it emerges from careful theological thinking and texts of the Bible — we are “spiritual” Paul says because we no longer of the flesh and the Spirit indwells us. But this simple observation has worked itself out in so many ways, and a recent Counterpoint series book, called Four Views on Christian Spirituality (ed. Bruce Demarest), enters into dialogue between Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Progressive Christianity, and Evangelical Christianity. I need to add that this sketch commits the usual: it ignores the Anabaptists, and on this topic one you can’t make them a part of any of the groups, including the evangelicals. (I’ll drop this concern now that the point is made.)

How does an Orthodox spirituality vary from your perception of Christian spirituality? What can it contribute to evangelical or mainline spirituality?

The articles are written by my friend and colleague Brad Nassif, Scott Hahn, Joseph Driskill and Evan Howard, editor for an evangelical dictionary on Christian spirituality. Dialogue on this topic is rarely seen since theologians have always preferred doctrines and confessions and creeds and exegesis over how the Christian life/spirituality is understood in each Christian tradition. So this book is a treat … and landmark contribution. We begin today with Brad Nassif’s piece.

1. Orthodox spirituality is gospel spirituality, and here Nassif emphasizes a whole life of Jesus — cross and resurrection. [There’s not enough attention on the teachings of Jesus, but neither are they completely absent as they become featured in the life of St. Anthony.] But a major feature of Orthodox gospeling is the Incarnation, and in that term the whole world of Orthodox spirituality opens up. There’s more here: the “life” of Christ involves his eternal perichoretic relation in the Trinity [mutual indwelling in love and self-giving], and all Orthodox spirituality is about entering into that perichoresis.

2. Orthodox spirituality is liturgical and here Brad gives us — in about as short a summary as one can possibly give — a complete introduction to the liturgical life of the Orthodox. (The great Hagia Sophia is pictured above.) It’s about Pascha — Good Friday to Easter. This is all about death to sin and the granting of a new resurrection-based life in Christ.

3. Orthodox spirituality is rooted in the sacraments, but the Orthodox do not believe the sacraments are restricted to seven but that all of created matter can become sacramental as God uses it as a means of grace, from Eucharist and Word and icons to daily life, vocation, and mowing the lawn. The sacraments work synergistically: collaboration between God and human free will in faith and obedience.

4. Orthodox spirituality is grounded ontologically in O/orthodox theology. Here Nassif, a master of the topic, sketches the creeds and the fundamentals of Orthodox theology. Which is either mystical or it is not genuine theology. And it is both cataphatic (knowable) and apophatic (unknowable), leading to the mystery at the heart of all Orthodox theology.

5. Orthodox spirituality is guided by monasticism, and here Brad talks about his beloved St Anthony. There are no secrets; there are no required regimens; genuine Orthodox spirituality is about loving God and loving others and about self-denial, daily, in the grind and not simply the observance of disciplines. There is the theme of silence — hesychasm — in Orthodoxy but Nassif keeps it from taking over. The use of the Jesus Prayer is also briefly discussed.

6. Orthodox spirituality is missional — ideally I say to Brad at times. That is, as the Father gives the Son outwardly, so the church is to be outward focused.

7. Orthodox spirituality aims at deification — and here Brad dips into proper meanings of the term: essentially it is about glorification of the Christian and not about pantheism or becoming divine. It is about entering in union with Christ into the full experience of the Trinity. The indwelling of the Spirit and mystical union … these are the essential features.

What to say? Well, as an Anabaptist (not to ignore a Gospel specialist), I’d like to have seen more emphasis on the teachings of Jesus — how does the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, fare in Orthodox spirituality? What about discipleship as learning from Jesus to follow his teaching and his Lordship? What about Messiahship and kingdom theology? Where is Israel’s Story in Orthodox spirituality?

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  • Wow. Isn’t this what so many “post-evangelicals” are talking about???

    As I learn more and more about Orthodoxy I’m finally finding words to express what I’ve come to believe about God as I’ve thought read and prayed over after all but leaving church a couple years ago.

    My doubts about Orthodox Churches aren’t theological, but liturgical now. Maybe you can’t separate those though. Might have to learn more about it. : )

  • As an Anabaptist dyed-in-the-wool I’ve become numb to our stream of theological thought getting a pass.

    I have found, though, in dialogs with some Orthodox friends that there is perhaps more commonality between Orthodoxy and Anabaptism. It makes me wonder, sometimes, if some of the early Anabaptists had some contact and connections with Orthodoxy in forming their radical reformation.

  • T

    I do love Orthodoxy, at least on paper. If the liturgical form of worship could loosen up a bit (or even a lot), I might be out of excuses!

    FWIW, this book uses “spirituality” in the way that I think it is a very useful term. In a time such as ours when the evangelical church needs badly to think about how its orthodoxy and orthopraxy work together into an integrated approach to worship and life and formation, we need to be talking about this. We don’t just need, for example, to talk about evangelical theology, but evangelical spirituality (and the same for Reformed, etc.). What is interesting, IMO, is that a church’s stated theology may mirror another’s, but its spirituality could be very different. For example, I don’t think many Christians in more conservative churches differ much theologically from many charismatics. But their spirituality can be very different. “Spirituality” denotes, to me, how the content and priorities of beliefs are translated into and reinforced by regular practices and attitudes and norms, both individually and corporately.

  • Matt Davis!

    would you mind picking up the topic of Anabaptist spirituality for just a minute. As a seminary student who has become highly interested in the Anabaptists over the last few years I’d love to see what Anabaptist spirituality looks like.

  • T

    Also, I’m no expert on Anabaptist or Orthodox particulars, but wouldn’t the Orthodox emphases on incarnation and perichoresis, as well as the aim of deification, all within their approach to dying with Christ and rising to live new life in union with God . . . wouldn’t all that be hand and hand with (or at least parallel to) the concerns of discipleship and SoM spirituality?

  • scotmcknight

    Matt Davis! … I’ll do something about this in the future.

  • I have become more and more fascinated with Orthodox spirituality in the last few years. It seems to me to be less overt but more deep and abiding than the fundamentalism/evangelicalism I was raised in and am used to. What I mean by “less overt but more deep and abiding” is: it is not something that they feel the need to talk at length (pontificate?) about, they simply do it and live it and let it permeate their lives.

    I’d be interested to know if you agree, Scot. I’m still searching for the best way to express this.

  • This book contributes to an important dialogue between Western and Eastern Christians. Western Spirituality, as rich as it is, is guided by our western theological concerns (prompted by Augustine, Aquinas, the reformers and so forth). Orthodox theology and spirituality has developed separately and brings a breath of fresh theological air to this important conversation. Orthodox theology and spirituality are inseparable. Another important challenge to Western Christians.

  • EricW

    T says:
    April 25, 2012 at 8:39 am

    I do love Orthodoxy, at least on paper. If the liturgical form of worship could loosen up a bit (or even a lot), I might be out of excuses!

    When we were in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 2009, our guide pointed out to us a ladder on the 2nd floor outside. It had apparently been there for several years (I think he might have said seven), because the responsibility for the repair job it was going to be used to do was still being debated by the various churches who control the Church. Plan on waiting at least 50x that long if you’re expecting or hoping for the liturgical form of worship of the Orthodox Church to change. I think the last time The Divine Liturgy underwent significant change was during the time of Nicholas Cabasilas, and that was primarily to the content, not the manner or form, IIRC.

    (Full Disclosure: We were Orthodox for 3+ years, beginning as inquirers, then as catechumens, and finally as fully-baptized-and-chrismated members. Though our priest and church (OCA) were very conservative, the only “loosening up” we ever noticed in some other Orthodox churches – Greek, Antiochian, Romanian – was the introduction of pews, minor organ use with the otherwise a capella choir, and clean-shaven priests.)

  • Charles Twombly

    Scott, thanks for this. Interesting comments from others as well. Brad’s the perfect person to contribute to the spirituality volume, since he knows evanglical theology/spirituality almost as an insider. I have a special interest here. As someone who grew up in both pentecostal and (anti-pentecostal) Bible churches, but who became an Episcopalian while in seminary 46 years ago, I also became a “closet Orthodox” (my wife’s term) at the same time. Have lots of appreciation for all these traditions and hope what’s best in each has not been “left behind” by me. Orthodoxy, though, seems to me to have things in its treasure house that have largely been lost or never discovered elsewhere. Scot, examples could be culled from your list above. Am assuming Brad fleshes these out in very fruitful ways.

    Some brief words on Anabaptism and “teachings of Jesus/Kingdom of God” matters. (1) Groups like the Bruderhof obviously found much congeniality, at least at the level of personal discipleship and “spirituality” (though perhaps not at the liturgical level). I have close by a copy of a book published by the (Bruderhof) Plough Publishing House; it’s called THE GOSPEL IN DOSTOEVSKY. That now-defunct publisher had other titles in its list from the Orthodox tradition. (2) If you look beyond the Creed and the Councils to both the liturgical and monastic traditions, you’ll find much that’s deeply rooted in the gospels (synoptic as well as Johannine). Not sure what to say about the role of the Sermon on the Mount, but look at the breakdown of Great Lent and see how crucial episodes in the life of Jesus are to shaping the Lenten journey. What other tradition (apart from Roman Catholicism) focuses so intently on events like the annunciation, the temptation, the transfiguration, the raising of Lazarus, and on and on? What other tradition (besides the RCC) has central figures who display such radical obedience to gospel commands such as that which drew St Antony to give up all and head to the desert? My own guess: Orthodox spirituality is far more grounded in the gospels than the evangelicalism I was raised and trained in (the latter owing far more to the epistles, especially Paul’s). Could go on. Just want to drop by and offer a few thoughts.

  • michael


    Love the post on Orthodoxy! Just skip the other three traditions. 😉

    I’m an Anabaptist very interested in Orthodoxy. My guess is that the “weakest” aspect of Orthodoxy is their “missional” aspect which as an Anabaptist is obviously important since Anabaptist are perhaps most noted for the belief that your faith has practical demands on your life.

  • Miriam

    I almost hesitate to comment because I’m still a relative new convert (2 years as of this Pascha, been attending for a little over 3 years), having growing up in a mixed environment–a little bit of charismatic Xity when I was younger, lots of times in a Reformed Baptist church (that bordered a little bit on fundamentalism at times), Evangelical, before converting; sometimes my theology is still shaped a little by those things too, I haven’t parsed out all the differences and similarities yet.

    But wanted to respond to this:

    “What to say? Well, as an Anabaptist (not to ignore a Gospel specialist), I’d like to have seen more emphasis on the teachings of Jesus — how does the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, fare in Orthodox spirituality? What about discipleship as learning from Jesus to follow his teaching and his Lordship?”
    For me, these things are tied into #7. Every Sunday, we publicly read an apostle as well as the Gospel…having spent much time in a Reformed Baptist church that read everything through the eyes of certain letters of Paul [and perhaps bits of the OT], I was relieved to finally hear the gospels read and taught from regularly. They’re interwoven with being united to Christ, for me. I don’t divide His teachings from His incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, they’re all one thing to me, and all a part of “theosis” (deification, and thanks for mentioning it’s not like pantheism. 🙂 )

    What about Messiahship and kingdom theology?

    We don’t use the same language of “kingdom” that I became familiar with in my OT theology classes, but I think we live it out similarly. Perhaps it’s just something I’ve taken with me–I first learned about kingdom theology at Gordon and it transformed my entire life. We talk about the kingdom a lot in Orthodoxy, especially in the Liturgy, because it is there that we uniquely enter the kingdom. We believe that in Liturgy the Kingdom is made manifest (not that it isn’t made manifest in other places and times, it’s like your comment on the sacraments…we have sacraments, and they’re unique, but they’re not limited, they expand out and EVERYTHING good ultimately has the potential to be a sacrament.) So it might not be talked about as explicitly as it is in some places, but I see it lived out in my church–on Sundays, but also when we serve the poor (especially connected with our fasting periods during Lent and at other times), etc.

    Where is Israel’s Story in Orthodox spirituality?
    This is something I’d like to see more of too. Unfortunately, a lot of the OT reading were cut from main services–or that’s my understanding of it. That’s part of why I love Pascha and the hymns we sing throughout all of Lent. The OT is completely woven into all the hymns, into all the feasts. It’s not perfect–sometimes things get over-Christianized so that Israel’s story itself gets lost. One of the things that always struck me about Orthodoxy when I first started attending was how much it reminded me of the synagogue visits I used to go on for classes. (I mean no offense to anyone in saying that.) There is a very Eastern flavor about both that feels like home to me more than anything else does.

    I’m not sure if that sheds any light, and by no means am an expert or an authority on Orthodoxy. Just some reflections from a convert who has fallen in love with Orthodoxy.

    PS–Thanks to you, Scot. I read your book “A Community Called Atonement” for my Independent Study on the Atonement. That class was a large part of my journey to Orthodoxy, because of the centrality of Pascha and the Christus Victor model of the atonement. I appreciated how balanced and thoughtful your book was, it’s one on my top-10 favorite books list. =]
    PPS–I would love to hear more about the Anabaptist views on spirtiuality sometime. That is one of the few traditions I have had no real direct experience with, so I’d be curious to learn more about it!

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Well, I am an Evangelical, my twin brother just became Mennonite (the Anabaptists seem to love him 🙂 and I am a part of a Bible study with helping my Eastern Orthodox friends possibly start a church in our area. I also loved Charles very insightful responses. Even though I too have been a closet Orthodox for years theologically (versus Catholic tradition), there are two great stumbling blocks for most Protestants to get by.

    One is Catholicity, the Roman Catholic Church looks more unified than the many groups within Eastern Orthodoxy and the truth is, most of us have been spoon-fed and raised on western ideas, not eastern ones! Along with this is the idea that the Eastern Orthodox church is the only true church. For ecumenical minded Christians, this will definitely be a problem. I suspect one could join the EO’s and think more in terms of the EO church is the highest expression of the church rather than the only true visible one on the planet. And how are there all these Christians in other so called “churches” but their sacraments and body life do not really represent Christ. Really?

    And as some others have already said, change or the liturgy simply do not change in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. On the plus side, the ancient liturgy is beautiful and inspiring at times. On the minus side, it feels like someone is stuck in a time warp somewhere near the 13th century rather than how worship may have been done in the first few centuries. But since they have the oldest liturgies and church traditions, maybe our love for modern innovation and contemporary worship is our real problem?

    Lastly to Scot, I love the Anabaptist tradition and I feel like it’s part of my heritage. My only qualm has been the view that many Anabaptists have said in the past on the supposed “fall of the church.” Constantinian Christianity is supposed to be all the problem and the heritage of the Anabaptists was some kind of pure or idealized going back to the early church. Least we forget, two of the treasures beyond some others from the Constantinian era are the great ecumenical creeds and the canonical Bible we read.


  • Dana Ames

    Christ is Risen!

    T @ 8:51 a.m., yes, those things are definitely connected in Orthodoxy.


    Scot asks, “Where is the SotM?” Well, in a lot of places. First of all, on any “normal” Sunday, the Beatitudes are part of the introductory portion of the Liturgy still chanted in churches of Slavic heritage (along with Ps 102/103 and 145/146), that tells us why it is that we have gathered. Jesus said in the SotM, “When you pray… When you fast… When you give alms…” and we are expected to pray, fast and give alms as the most common expressions of that daily self-denial, and do the things Jesus said, represented by those ellipses, when we are praying, fasting, and giving alms. We pray the Our Father quite often.

    Jesus’ teaching and Lordship: Our prayers are full of requests that God would give us the wherewithal to be able to follow the commandments of Christ. There are Gospel readings for every Sunday, and for every other day of the year as well, and those schedules are widely available. Orthodox are encouraged to read Scripture at home. We revere the Gospel Book as an icon, for it is a very special means by which the Trinity is revealed, and a Gospel Book and cross always rest on the altar and on the reading stand where confessions are heard. Not to forget the Jesus Prayer.

    The Story of Israel shows up in many areas. In prayers of blessing, as at weddings, the notable righteous people of the OT are invoked and recalled. In the prayers at Baptism, God’s notable use of water throughout the OT is sketched. The OT righteous are seen as saints in Orthodoxy and have their own feast days. The furnishings in the altar area hearken back to the Temple and Tabernacle; cf Margaret Barker’s work. The Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete, read throughout Lent but esp the first and fifth weeks, is a running commentary connecting OT history and figures with the universal need for salvation and repentance. “The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching” by St Irenaeus of Lyon (disciple of St Polycarp, disciple of St John the Evangelist) is a veritable outline of the history of Israel, and how, looking retrospectively through Christ, it all pointed to him. The OT readings are mostly found in the Vespers and Vigils, in the evenings. The Vigils of Feasts in particular have many OT readings. Holy Saturday has 15 OT readings – one following next, boom, boom, boom – foreshadowing Pascha as God’s Ultimate Act.


    CGC, on the unity of the church, you might enjoy “Church, Papacy and Schism” by Phillip Sherrard, 3rd ed. Orthodoxy seems “disorganized”, but the internal unity is there, and it comes from a theologically different place than that of Rome. I didn’t become Orthodox because I was looking for “the only true church”; I was looking for a God who is Good and Loves Mankind. Kind Orthodox will say it as you have put it: the highest expression, or “the fullness”, of the church. Hope you read Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog. AFAIK, the Liturgy hasn’t changed since about 900… The deepest part of its beauty and inspiration for me is what it proclaims about the Trinitarian Godhead, and especially Jesus.


    Lastly, but certainly not least, EricW – hopefully my friend, since we seem to have some important blog reads in common… Yup, Orthodoxy is very messy, no two ways about it. Some Orthodox can exhibit painfully un-Christ-like behavior. I would agree with many of your criticisms. For myself, the messiness was something that attracted me; I find a refreshing degree of honesty in it. I’ll put up with the messiness and difficulties in order to have the whole of the incomparably vast treasure, only parts of which I have found elsewhere. Peace to you.


  • EricW

    Dana Ames:

    I wasn’t criticizing Orthodoxy at all here, nor commenting on its messiness, simply saying it’s slow to change. As the joke goes:

    How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb?
    What do you mean, “change”?

    Are you thinking of other postings of mine?

  • Dana Ames

    Yes, other places. You’re very good-natured about it when you do offer criticisms 🙂

  • Charles Twombly

    The great Orthodox theologian/historian, Georges Florovsky, reputedly said, “Orthodoxy is the right church with the wrong people.” Take the word Orthodoxy out and substitute another word of your choice. “Constantinian” churches (at their best) make room for those who are “on the way” without clearly having arrived. Those who practice the “anabaptist” principle (if I may generalize) typically don’t in their quest for “pure” congregations. Since the level of purity and “convertedness” they seek is rarely attained, they end up with their own “on the way” folks who are often forced into the hypocrisy of “keeping up appearances.” I hestitate to point this out, since the “generosity” of the ancient churches is often an excuse for general laxness. As for the “gathered church” folks, they have an equal but opposite temptation: Phariseeism. We, all of us, provide living textbooks of strengths and weaknesses for us all to learn from. I value many Christian brothers and sisters in many traditions but have come to value the ancient traditions above all.

  • EricW

    Dana Ames:

    I still find much of value in the EOC. In fact, just this past Sunday I encouraged a few people in our church to visit the local EOC, the one we used to be members of, and sent them some information to help prepare them for their first visit, including emailing them today Brad Nassif’s points that are listed above. They know of our journey into and out of the EOC, the reasons I’m no longer EO, etc. I think every Protestant Christian should have an authentic EOC experience – Divine Liturgy, incense, icons, standing during the whole service (no pews), a capella choir with the congregation fully joining in the singing, receiving the antidoron, sharing in the fellowship meal afterwards, etc. Before I visited an Orthodox church, I had visited several Catholic churches, and my thoughts were that the EOC = the RCC + icons – the Pope. But when I attended my first Vespers Service and later my first Divine Liturgy, I felt I had stepped back in time nearly 1,000 years. It was nothing like my experiences in the several local Catholic church services, nor did that feeling change during our time there. Great Lent & Holy Week & Pascha in the Orthodox Church, including the Great Canon of St. Andrew, has nothing comparable in my experience, nor does anyone fast like the Orthodox, assuming one adheres to all the fasts as I did, as well as said all the prayers, prepared for monthly confession, etc.

    Okay, peace!

  • I have no expertise in Orthodoxy. Although I thought there was an interesting comment in “Journeys of Faith” (Scot wrote the intro) that suggested that one of the issues of wider adoption of Orthodoxy in the US is that there needs to be a fully indigenous US Orthodox church. In general, the Orthodox church in the US is highly connected to the immigrant group that brought it. So Greek, Russian, etc. All of us that are attracted to the Orthodox church but not a part of those immigrant communities (even multiple generation away) do not really ‘get’ the cultural components of Orthodoxy.

  • Charles Twombly

    Find Dana’s comments very helpful (others as well!). Thanks, Dana.

  • Charles Twombly

    Adam, Orthodox groups like the OCA and the Antiochenes are increasingly being filled up by “converts” (usually not of the traditional ethnic groups). I’m told that most of the students at St Vladimir’s Seminary, for instance, are non-Slavic and non-cradle. My guess: the “immigrants” you speak of are perhaps becoming increasingly uneasy at Orthodoxy’s growing appeal. Would love to hear more details from others (anecdotal or otherwise).