The Shortcomings of Contemporary Orthodox Apologetics

Ambrose Andreano

I would say I am someone who is rather engaged in the online world of Orthodox conversation, so for someone like me, it does not take very long to notice particular patterns with Orthodox conversation (if one could call what I often see, “conversation”) in the realm of contemporary Orthodox apologetics with the non-Orthodox. Even though I am Orthodox, I think it is necessary to be honest about what we need to work on. So, here are some of the things I’ve observed:

“The East doesn’t define things, that’s a Western thing.”

This is one line that is frequently stated to contrast the Orthodox approach to the that of Western churches. However, such a statement is also extremely misleading. We don’t have some explicit tradition stating thou shalt not define things. There are some underlying general differences in how the medieval West developed through Latin scholasticism, but in my opinion, much of this thinking is honestly unfair to Roman Catholics, because it seems “defining things” was largely a direct result of both 1) intellectual theologians being over-represented, and 2) the pressure from the Protestants that forced them to draw lines in the sand. Had the East been the ones with the Protestants (instead of being somewhat suppressed by the Ottomans), there would most certainly have been similar developments among the Orthodox, and we need to be humble about that. Zealously pointing out that the Orthodox Church avoided such a theological crucible is not a good selling point, as it could be interpreted that Orthodoxy is simply not as developed as Catholicism, and is thus not relevant with regards to the questions of modern society.

Every Eastern Orthodox theologian was in the business of “defining things” to some extent (St Athanasius, St Gregory the Theologian, St Gregory of Nyssa, and especially Origen…all of which are Eastern), so establishing theological clarity through the refining of definitions is not automatically a bad thing. This reality is why we use the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed instead of the original Nicene Creed. Some stuff needed to be reworked and added to bring further clarity in light of the present heterodoxy. Changing the creed is not an issue in of itself. Changing the creed without the approval of the whole Church is another story.

This “Anti-West” mentality seems so pervasive in contemporary Orthodox apologetics (or to be more accurate, “polemics”), and it seems to me that it is largely (if not entirely) built upon the Russian philosophical foundations of Aleksei Khomaikov and his 19thcentury critiques of the West, rather than something truly ancient. It was the ideas of Khomaikov that influenced the great Russian Orthodox theologians such as Vladimir Lossky and Sergei Bulgakov, giving their theology a bit of a polemical flavor. However, I think it is not in the spirit of Orthodoxy to demonize the entirety of Western civilization just because it developed differently, and that was certainly not the approach of Georges Florovsky (as Marcus Plested points out in his book Orthodox Readings of Aquinas).

If one approaches apologetics with the assumption that the West has it all wrong, such apologetics will inevitably mutate into the barking of the deaf. Talking to others with fingers in your ears isn’t dialogue, its preaching. If you’re good with a shield, then there is no need to use a sword. In other words, we ought to forget about attacking everyone who isn’t Orthodox and focus on our defense. We need to ask the questions: “How do people attack us? What arguments would be a good defense against these attacks?” We need to stop being trigger-happy, and start getting better with the shield. I’ve seen Orthodox Christians speak to Catholics with attitudes that downright scandalized me. It’s like watching a deranged husband slap his wife for burning his dinner back in 1054. I encountered one Orthodox person on the internet who was a total jerk to Protestants and justified his hostile behavior by claiming he’s just being like St Ignatius. Indeed, some read the Church Fathers to imitate their virtue and ignore the vice. But others, like that man, prefer to identify with the vice, convincing themselves it is virtue, and then justify their own vice.

I’ve also seen many Orthodox Christians go out of their way to find things with which to disagree with Catholics, and even try to create polemic-based dogmas around those points of disagreement… not because the Western understanding is necessarily false, but because it’s Catholic (or because it isn’t Byzantine). It’s time we stop the domestic abuse, and start wooing the woman back into communion with class. Like a true gentleman, not like a drunkard. Do not the Scriptures say in Romans 2:4 how it is the “goodness” of God that leads to repentance? If you are Orthodox, and you want to be better than the non-Orthodox, be better at humility. Be better at charity. Be better at prayer. This is how we win apologetics.

“The Orthodox Church continued unchanged for two thousand years.”

This is a very common statement, but it is also dishonest. Of course there are going to be changes. The first century Church was not citing the Nicene Creed. St John Chrysostom was not singing hymns written by St John of Damascus. We today do not use the first century liturgy of St James. There was a time when only married men could become bishops, and now it is the complete opposite. There were many years when the majority of the Church was Arian. These things cannot be adequately addressed if we continue to say simplistic things like “the Church has never changed.” Fearing the word “change” is not a good reason to perpetuate false information.

It is my belief that all apologetics must adapt to the response. If you’re a military general and you send soldiers into a forest when you get word that the forest is clear, what happens when you receive word that, actually it isn’t clear: it’s an ambush. Would you not adapt your former strategy to take into account the new development? In the same way, we can’t keep using apologetic strategies that have been unsuccessful for many years. I have seen the way people respond to misleading statements like these, and it leads to extremely zealous converts eventually coming to the realization that they’ve been duped, and Protestants thinking the Orthodox are willfully ignorant of basic facts.

Therefore, popular apologetics must transfigure and take on a form that actually answers the questions people ask, in a way that they will understand. We are quite vocal about our history with translating the Bible (as opposed to the Catholic emphasis on Latin), and yet our translation seems to stop at the Bible. Because when it comes to basic dialogue, we don’t want to validate anyone who doesn’t think, talk, dress, and act like a 8th century Byzantine.

When there is confusion among the people about what something means, the proper response is to charitably seek understanding and find a way to make it work…not ignore it because it’s a foreign language to eastern ears, and pretend like one is winning the mystical life by being ignorant.

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