A staunch Protestant apologist Douglas Beaumont recently published “Tiber Treading No More.” In it he describes how he ended up becoming Roman Catholic despite his valiant efforts to refute it. The tone of the article is positive and kind. As I read it I did not sense any harboring of ill will or grudges against Protestantism. Beaumont’s exodus out of Protestantism was the result of his investigation of foundational theological issues, sola fide and sola scriptura, and the inability of Protestantism to provide satisfactory answers.
In the article Douglas Beaumont briefly mentions how he first investigated Orthodoxy. He met with some Orthodox priests, attended the services, and even signed up for an introduction to Orthodoxy class. I wish he had written more about his exploration of Orthodoxy than just three brief paragraphs! Eventually, he turned away from Orthodoxy and began to move towards Roman Catholicism.
The Real Issues
Three reasons were given why he turned away from Orthodoxy: (1) its cultural divisions, (2) its inability to convene another ecumenical council, and (3) its non-Western character.
Beaumont expressed concerns about the cultural divisions in Orthodoxy. He was afraid of what would happen if he were to move away from the local Orthodox parish he had been attending. I’m not sure what he has in mind. That he would be denied access to the Eucharist? That he would be given the cold shoulder? I wish he had been more clear. I can report that this Asian American Christian from Hawaii has communed at Greek Orthodox, OCA, Bulgarian, and Antiochian Orthodox parishes all across the US. So for me Orthodoxy’s cultural divisions have not been as big an issue as Beaumont makes it to be. Thousands of other Protestant converts to Orthodoxy have had a similar experience. I will say that I do want to see more all English Orthodox liturgies all across the US. But this is really a minor issue. It seems that he confined himself to just one parish. Beaumont could have searched out the various Orthodox jurisdictional options and seen for himself the underlying doctrinal and liturgical unity that they all share.
Douglas Beaumont claims Orthodoxy lacks the unity that the Pope gives Roman Catholicism. While a common charge, it is a very debatable issue. Vatican II introduced radical changes to Roman Catholicism. The Tridentine Mass of 1570 was replaced with the Novus Ordo Mass of 1970. The Mass which once unified the faithful soon became a source of conflict and confusion. A number of traditionalist groups sought to retain the Latin Mass and were eventually excommunicated by the Pope. Others who were distressed by the modernizing features in the Vatican II Mass eventually found refuge and stability in the Orthodox liturgy. Just as there has been an exodus of Protestants to Catholicism, so also there has been an exodus of Catholics converting to Orthodoxy. Thus, the vaunted organizational unity of the papacy disguises the fractured state of worship among Roman Catholics. This is further compounded by the discrepancy between the modern Vatican II Mass and the ancient liturgies.
Orthodoxy’s jurisdictional differences are more administrative in nature than doctrinal. Orthodox churches all use the same ancient liturgies — Saint John Chrysostom or Saint Basil the Great – on Sunday mornings. It is quite common for priest from different jurisdictions to fill in for each other. For example in Hawaii, we have Father Jerome an OCA priest assigned to the ROCOR parish; when the local Greek Orthodox priest goes out of town Fr. Jerome will fill in. This is a common practice and nothing out of the ordinary. This issue of Orthodox “divisions” cannot be casually asserted as Roman Catholics are wont to do. Roman Catholicism’s administrative “unity” has often been overstated and its doctrinal diversity among its members understated. The administrative divisions in Orthodoxy do not contradict the overwhelming theological unity rooted in ancient Holy Tradition. Unlike Roman Catholicism which is using a new and innovative Mass, Orthodoxy retains the ancient liturgies used by the ancient churches.
Douglas Beaumont claimed that Orthodoxy lacks the ability to hold another council. But this is not the case. There is nothing to prevent present day Orthodoxy from holding another council that is authoritative and binding. For example, the Council of Jerusalem was convened in 1672 to address the theological challenge of Reformed theology. This council has been regarded as authoritative by Orthodox jurisdictions. Also, it should be noted that preparations are being made right now for a major Orthodox council in 2016. But the more important fact is that the Bishop of Rome was not the convener of any of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Frankly, this should not be an issue that would lead a Protestant to Rome.
Beaumont understood the division between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy in terms of the West versus the East. The geographic distinction oversimplifies the differences between the two theological traditions. The more critical difference is their adherence to the church fathers. In my reading of Roman Catholic theology I noticed the strong influence of medieval scholasticism that diverged from the early fathers and Ecumenical Councils. I sensed in Roman Catholicism a disconnect from the early church fathers. Theologically, Roman Catholicism is more medieval and scholastic than patristic. Thousands of “Western” Christians have become Orthodox in recent years. In 1987, over two thousand Evangelicals were received into the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy is not so much “Eastern” as it is the Church Catholic.
Advice for Exiting Protestants
There is a hunger among many Evangelicals and Protestants for something deeper theologically and more rooted in the ancient Christianity. Where before people used to switch denominations but still remain Protestants, growing numbers today are leaving Protestantism altogether for Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy. I have two concerns. One is that they may be drawn to Rome’s external unity and unaware of her internal divisions. The other is that they fail to ask which church has maintained continuity with the Church of the first millennium.
My advice to exiting Protestants is that they not be distracted by superficial issues. Rather than compare Orthodoxy against Roman Catholicism they should first learn as much as they can about the early Church of the first millennium. How did the early Christians worship? What did they believe about Christ and the Trinity? What did they believe about the Eucharist? How did they do theology? Then compare both Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church of today against the ancient Church and ask: Which church has faithfully kept the teachings of the Apostles? Did any of the early church fathers hold to the transubstantiation view of the Eucharist?
I encourage inquiring Protestants to investigate the historic role of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). Did early popes exercise their magisterium (teaching authority) independently of the Ecumenical Councils and other patriarchates (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem)? Did any early pope claim the right to unilaterally alter the Nicene Creed and by his own authority – without any consensus whatsoever with the other patriarchal jurisdictions? Did any of the early popes claim an infallible and universal authority over all other bishops or was this a later development? These are important questions because to become Roman Catholic is to submit to the papacy. Orthodoxy views papal supremacy as a doctrinal novelty unknown in the early Church.
Exiting Protestants should take the time to observe and compare the liturgical life of the two traditions. One thing that disturbed me when I investigated Roman Catholicism was the eagerness with which some liberal Catholics sought to administer the Eucharist to non-Catholics like me! I knew the official teachings of the church and yet here were clergy
and religious not just questioning closed communion but actively disregarding it! It seems there are two Catholicisms: an official Catholicism and a grassroots Catholicism that often ignores the teachings of the Vatican. Another disturbing practice is the role of lay people serving as eucharistic ministers. While an accepted practice in Roman Catholicism, there is no precedent for this in the early church. Underneath Roman Catholicism’s external unity are troubling signs of rebellion, subversion, and syncretism. I found in Orthodoxy a liturgical coherence and doctrinal stability that I did not see in Roman Catholicism. This for me is powerful confirmation that Orthodoxy is indeed the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
See also: “Why I Did Not Become Roman Catholic: A Sort of Response to Jason Stellman”
Thank you for your commentary on my recent conversion. I just wanted to say that I appreciated all that you said here very much, and many of these same thoughts occurred to me over the years I was investigating the ancient church. I wanted to make one thing more clear here than I did on the blog. I did not have as much to say about Orthodoxy because by that point I did not have much to sway me either way. I love Orthodoxy and resonate with many of the criticisms of Catholicism you mention above, but in the end I did not feel there was enough legitimate divide between the two camps that a decision either way was terribly important. I am, for better or worse, a western thinker. That plus some pragmatic issues is what settled it for me – not any big doctrinal issues (because I had none between either). That is why I was so brief.
(Also – I have never been a pastor, so that title is inaccurate. Thanks!)
Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge!
Christ is Risen!
It’s good to hear from you. I went in and deleted to the references to you as “pastor.” I admire your search for God’s truth and your positive and charitable tone. This is a much needed quality on the Internet these days.
Thanks Robert. There is much to considered here. But the notion of
real Unity among Roman Catholics seem to simply die the death of a
thousand qualifications. In both Theology and Praxis, it seems the
Roman Catholic are far more like their modern Protestant cousins,
than like the Unified Church of the first century. One Orthodox
convert friend states it like this.
“There would not be space here to provide all the links to demonstrate my point…
but between “liberation theology,” the modern-day Jesuits, the bishop who
recently disciplined a priest for not giving holy communion to a woman
proudly living in a long-term lesbian union, the Charismatic Catholic movement
(the videos I recently saw on YouTube from the Philippines were especially
nauseating), the revisionist scholars and textual critics, etc., etc., it seems
that the [Roman] Catholic Church is anything but monolithic and consistent.
From hyper-fundamentalists to sedevacantists to liberals to charismaniacs to
“emergent church” antics… yeah, it sure quacks like a duck… I mean, it sure
has all the same earmarks of the chaotic and diverse Protestant world.”
Hopefully, more and more inquiring Protestants will begin to take the time
[like many Roman Priests are] and effort to give Orthodoxy a serious and
extended look, before naively swimming the Tiber.
Thank you for sharing with us your friend’s comment about Roman Catholicism’s internal diversity. I agree that we need to encourage inquiring Protestants to take time to give a good hard look at both options.
BTW, I italicized the quote as you requested.
Having this past year traveled my own path out of protestantism (24 years), and into Orthodoxy, I too reached the point of considering Orthodox and Latin traditions. For me the choice was staggeringly clear when considering theological soundness and continuity with the early church. I struggled initially with whether I could handle the cultural differences, but between the amazingly complete theology, and the conviction that Jesus was not a white westerner but an eastern Jew, I embraced what I have found to be a transforming faith and church.
What I’m trying to say is that if one is to discard Orthodoxy it should be on the basis of failures in its theology or continuity, not because it doesn’t fit comfortably into our western cultural world view.
Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge!
Thank you for sharing your journey and your thoughts.
Very well said Andy. Please stick around and help us
say what needs saying…better! And thanks Robert for
the italicized para! 😉
Firstly, thank you to Robert and Douglas for sharing their thoughts. I enjoyed reading Douglas’ piece and Robert’s response, finding much common ground with myself.
My experience is one where I am indebted to several traditions for being sign posts along the way, including even one so foreign as Mormonism for forcing me to think about my faith and read the Bible back in high school. I didn’t spend much time with the Mormons, but their genuine community really did teach me something. We share hardly anything theologically, but Mormon emphasis on community and mission is something all Trinitarian Christians could learn from (funny that the non-Trinitarians do a better job than us here since the Trinity is all about community).
Reformed theology gave me much, but also left many questions. It was a few Catholics that got me to seriously look at my Reformed theology and also my Protestant stances. I found much in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works (despite them not being theological in nature) that pushed me into investigation, but the real eye opener was Devin Rose’s “If Protestantism is True”. Rose was an agnostic who became a Baptist and then became a Catholic, at least I think that was the progression. The polite questions regarding the solas were truly revealing. Rose asked them lovingly and without mockery or derision.
My major problem with Rose’s work was the history. Catholicism’s points against the solas and the pillars of Protestantism are mostly shared with Orthodoxy, if not completely shared. The responses may not be the same, but the criticisms are. Yet there was some historical revisionism at work and I, a historian, was able to see it immediately. One of the most striking was concerning the objection that historically, pre-Vatican II, the Pope and his church had eschewed translating scripture into the vernacular or holding service in the vernacular. The response was to attribute the mission of St. Cyril and St. Methodius directly to the Pope. While the Pope did eventually give his blessing, it was not his initiative. He was just asked for his blessing in order to keep the latinizing Germans at bay in their mission.
Investigating Orthodoxy revealed a different world, a strange one to me. Like Douglas, I have been thoroughly “western” in culture and in thinking. However, the mystical qualities of Orthodoxy are sorely lacking in the western churches. Yet it goes behind just that. The innovations in Catholicism are troubling to me. Transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception (that even Thomas Aquinas didn’t agree with), Purgatory, the Storehouse of the Saints, Indulgences, and Papal infallibility ex cathedra provided serious issues – more serious than praying for the dead, praying with the Saints, and honoring the Theotokos while asking for her prayers. Those practices are clearly ancient while the listing Catholic ones are not. The Catholic concept of gradual revelation through the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t mesh with the truth revealed once and for all.
I understand that Catholic praxis and Catholic dogma are not one in the same. There are many Catholics who don’t believe in purgatory. Many who don’t believe in Papal infallibility ex cathedra, etc. Those Catholics likely don’t see a massive gulf between the Orthodox and Catholic – and there is likely a smaller divide on an individual level. Yet centralized authority was foreign to the Ancient Church and many of the Catholic dogmas are not elaborations or explanations (like the Essence and Energies distinction in Orthodoxy), but innovations. That determination on my part was why I was pushed to look Eastward.
The challenge going forward is to forge a Western Orthodoxy. The cultural eccentricities do not have to be in every Church, not do all the traditions (with a lower case “t”), as long as Holy Tradition is not compromised, there is much flexibility in Orthodoxy to adapt. There will be no rock bands nor innovative theology, but communities can be founded that are not as foreign. I think the OCA and the Antiochians have done this successfully in the US. The Greeks not as much, but they are serving a large immigrant community with history. Still, I have seen the Greek Orthodox adapt in my area. We have OCA, ROCOR, Antioch, and Greece here in Tampa Bay. As Robert said, the priests fill in at other parishes that are under different Patriarchs. The Divine Liturgy is the same, though a bit more Greek is used at Greek parishes. There are also large pan-Orthodox gatherings, though not as large as in my original city, Cleveland, where Romanians, Greeks, Serbians, Russians, Antiochians, etc all come together several times a year. Orthodoxy is staggering because it is the same everywhere and yet different everywhere. Each parish has its own flavor, yet the Liturgy does not change not does much of the praxis. It’s hard to explain. The most obvious difference is jumping from a parish that does Byzantine chanting to one that is tied to the Russians – yet it is still the same. Even going to a ROCOR parish that primarily operates in Russian because of the needs of its people, it is still not hard to follow along and know what’s going on. I’ve been to many churches – Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, and Orthodox. I’ve attended services at different parishes of each, yet the Orthodox are the most consistent. The others jump around a lot. While the Catholics tend to operate on the liturgical calendar, the service is not the same in each parish. I’m not experience enough in Catholicism, but I think Novus Ordo gave each a lot of flex. Yet the Catholic parishes are far more predictable than hopping around Protestant ones.
Orthodoxy is a wonder. No earthly centralized authority, yet the ancient Faith is maintained. Parishes and Dioceses have their own unique quirks, yet also share a common sameness in Holy Tradition. The adherence to the ancient ways and the consistency across time & space spoke powerfully to me.
Nice article and I concur with a lot of points made here. I would like to recommend an excellent book for traditional Roman Catholics, especially Sedevacantists. The book is
“The Sedevacantist Delusion: Why Vatican II’s Clash with Sedevacantism Supports Eastern Orthodoxy” by John C. Pontrello. The book was published in 2015 and has received high reviews.
Thank you Jon!