Evangelicals Turning to Eastern Orthodoxy

Evangelicals Turning to Eastern Orthodoxy January 13, 2014

It can shock the socks off some ordinary evangelicals when they hear that one of their children or someone they know well decides to jump ship to become Eastern Orthodox. (The same goes for evangelicals who turn to Roman Catholicism, and I have written about this in Finding Faith, Losing Faith, along with Hauna Ondrey.) But it happens — sometimes good Biola kids go Eastern and good Wheaton kids go Catholic. The bigger fact, of course, is that far more Easterns and Catholics become evangelicals than the reverse (but that’s another story, and that’s in Finding Faith, Losing Faith too).

What happens when someone turns Eastern Orthodox? In Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church, D. Oliver Herbel proposes what I think is both a convincing theory but one that could be sharpened. In his book, Herbel examines four paradigmatic converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, only one name will be known to many readers of this blog. The four are St. Alexis Toth, Fr. Raphael Morgan — both of whose stories take us back a century or more — and then Fr. Moses Berry, in Missouri, and the recently deceased Peter Gillquist.

The known figure is Gillquist, who was a leader in Campus Crusade, went on a mission to find the NT church, thought he and others had found it in a kind of Americanized, evangelicalized, Gillquist-ized version of Orthodoxy, then they got some recognition and eventually they moved all the way into the Eastern Orthodox Church. The stories of Toth, Morgan and Berry were just not that interesting to me, though Herbel’s research is careful and judicious. Gillquist’s story, again carefully studied, reveals too much authoritarianism but he and his numerous companions seemed to have submitted more than adequately in the end to the Eastern leaders.

Here is the convincing and compelling thesis of Herbel: American religion fosters individuality, creativity, and newness. Hence, the splits of splits of splits in American denominational bodies. At the heart of many of these splits is restorationism, the attempt to get back to the original way of doing things in the New Testament era.

In addition, at the heart of American religion is an incurable anti-tradition tradition. That is, we Americans by and large oppose a religion that is too old and ancient. We like the new. Our “tradition” is anti-tradition.

So, Herbel now: the stories he focuses on (Toth, Morgan, Berry, Gillquist) are examples of (1) the spirit of restorationism, (2) caught up in the all-too-American anti-traditionalism, and that (3) manifests itself in being anti-traditional by being traditional (Eastern Orthodoxy then appeals to both the anti-tradition of American newness while moving into a tradition that is old). He overuses the word “irony” here but it’s a fair and accurate use.

So, let me put this together again: these converts search for the original-est NT church by riding the American encouragement to be anti-traditional. Yet, their restoration spirit encounters the Great Tradition of the Orthodox church as the best form of restoring the NT church so they end up being anti-traditional by being unAmericanly traditional! Clever, and right.

I wish Herbel had compared why the restorationism of the evangelical converts is not on par with the traditionalism of the Orthodox when their theological orientation is more or less the same (and frankly the evangelical-rooted Orthodox converts are some of the best witnesses today for Orthodoxy). The tension appears to be over what one thinks is restoration while the others see it as a millennia long living tradition — rather than (just?) the original faith.

Herbel’s work lacked nuanced analysis of the crises at work in the conversion of his subjects. Rambo and I have both explored this in our books (mine in both Turning to Jesus and in Finding Faith, Losing Faith) while Herbel stuck with little more than general (if accurate) orientations. There are a variety of crises at work when one converts and these could have been explored.

Finally, this book, especially the endnotes, was riddled with typos. I found enough that I got irritated and stopped marking them. OUP ought to be embarrassed with its copyeditors.

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