Monday 9 July 2007

Encounters with tradition (6): from Restoration to Orthodoxy

A guest-post by Daniel Greeson

I grew up in a small sect (non-institutional churches of Christ) within the Stone-Campbell Movement, known otherwise as the “Restoration Movement.” My grandfather and father are both ministers within this movement and at the age of 16 or so I began the process of preparing for a life of preaching. I was that kid who sat in high school with a commentary on Isaiah and an open Bible, fiercely scribbling notes for my next sermon. I was shown a lot of grace those first few years at my home congregation and other congregations throughout the state of Arkansas.

It was during these formational years that I ran across C. S. Lewis and quickly devoured The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. This was the first time I had seriously engaged with someone from outside of my tradition, and I came away having learned a lot and questioning a lot. In the group I grew up in, we were the only ones who had the Truth, and all other denominations were wrong about pretty much everything. It was also at this time that a girlfriend’s father introduced me somewhat hesitantly (I now know why!) to philosophy.

I was soon off to Florida College where I spent two years in the Biblical Studies program. Here, I was first faced with the problem of modern biblical criticism. I did not feel that biblical criticism was ever critiqued adequately at the college. Basically, biblical criticism was “liberal,” and therefore wrong. Similarly, my theology classes exhibited a poor understanding of the texts and a superficial engagement with other interpretive traditions. At this time, I began researching the history of the Restoration Movement, and I found a lot of disconcerting things (e.g. what the founders of the Restoration Movement actually believed and did!).

Outside class, I was exposing myself to folks like Yancey, Bonhoeffer, Brueggemann, Barth, and other evangelical voices. I have posted on a former blog of mine that Yancey saved my soul. It was Yancey who introduced me to Bonhoeffer, Barth, and other writers. And it was really St Paul and Yancey who taught me about grace. I also began reading about the “emerging church,” and I found a resonance with postmodern sensibilities. What was helpful was not Brian McLaren et al., but what they were reading. I began the summer after my sophomore year reading N. T. Wright, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Hays, John Howard Yoder, Lee Camp, Miroslav Volf, Lesslie Newbigin, Stanley Grenz, Marva Dawn, and others.

I transferred for my junior year to Western Kentucky University, majoring in Religious Studies and Philosophy. It was at Western Kentucky that I began making my break with the tradition of my youth. I soon ended up in a progressive evangelical church. It was here that I learned very quickly that I was not really as “progressive” or “evangelical” as I thought, and I became disillusioned with the emerging church. I discovered that it felt and reasoned a lot like liberal Protestantism.

So I began the process of trying to discern which tradition made the most sense to me, and which tradition I would feel comfortable ministering in (not that ministering is ever comfortable!). This seems a bit pragmatic now, and I freely admit that it was. I visited Disciples of Christ, Methodist, and Episcopal churches. But I felt at odds with what I found at each church, especially with a poor view of Scripture and of the basic orthodox Christian doctrines.

I was basically a sacramental and liturgically minded Anabaptist wannabe (kind of Hauerwasian, eh?). But when a friend said that he was prepared to stay evangelical even if it meant reforming almost every church he pastored, I knew that I needed to join a historical Christian tradition. I immediately turned to Orthodoxy (having already read Fr. Schmemann’s For the Life of the World), and began devouring books about Orthodoxy (Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Vladimir Lossky, Fr. Georges Florovsky, Daniel Clendenin, Fr. Thomas Hopko, Frederica Matthewes-Green). I also attended my first Divine Liturgy, and after that experience – and talking with converts from Lutheranism and Anglicanism – I was on my way into a serious investigation of Orthodoxy. I have not been to another service besides an Orthodox Liturgy since.

Why Orthodoxy? I became Orthodox because I finally found a tongue in which I could converse and pray. It was a tradition that made sense of history, theology, ethics, and a sacramental life. In Orthodoxy I found all the positive points of my childhood faith (prayer, ethics, holiness, doctrinal focus) melded with the concerns of my newly found adulthood (philosophical and theological sophistication, beauty, and community). It was in an Orthodox church that I was able, for the first time, to worship God “in spirit and in truth.”

I did not become Orthodox to escape Western problems or to run into a cultural ghetto (God forbid!). I became Orthodox because I felt that I had encountered the early Christian Church. I became Orthodox because I had to repent to enter the kingdom of heaven. I became Orthodox because I found a spiritual father in my priest. I became Orthodox because I knew that through the grace of God one could actually become a saint. I became Orthodox because I became – in a real sense – contemporaneous with the Fathers of the Church.

I am grateful for all the Christian traditions that have shaped me. But I’m joyful about my entrance into the Orthodox Church, and I fervently pray for the salvation and unity of all.

“For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.” —The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom


Anonymous said...

Good, interesting and fascinating post. Just wondered about once sentence..

I became Orthodox because I had to repent to enter the kingdom of heaven.

What do you mean? You never repented before you joined the Orthodox church? Did you not enter the Kingdom before Orthodoxy? Just wondering..

Daniel said...

Thanks Arni. Let me clarify that sentence.

Orthodoxy has shown to me the gateway to repentance like no other Tradition had ever done before. This is not the fault necessarily of any other Tradition. It is rather what I have experienced in the Orthodox liturgical life (e.g. Read the Canon of St. Andrew that Orthodox go through during Lent)and Orthodox theology (e.g. the constant focus on asceticism).
I had of course experienced profound repentance before Orthodoxy, but not with the help and guidance of a Spiritual Father or within the Liturgical life of the Church.
I encourage picking up Archimandrite Sophrony's "We Shall See Him as He Is" it is a profound read and a good introduction to Modern Orthodox theology, as far as I can tell, from a monastic vantage. -"It is naive to think that one can follow Christ without shedding tears." pg. 49-

I believe entering the Kingdom of Heaven is not a one time event but a gradual process of the opening up of the human to the reality of the life of the Triune God. So I was experiencing this before Orthodoxy to some degree, but I cannot say that it is near the same as what I have encountered since becoming Orthodox.

I hope that offers some clarity.

::aaron g:: said...

Daniel: What an interesting journey. Thanks for sharing.

Ben: I'm glad to see this series is still going.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this compelling testimony, Daniel. I just want to say to those not in the know that the religion and philosophy programs at the small, state-run, Western Kentucky University are gems. They could qualify as among the best kept secret treasures of the academic study of religion and philosophy--and, unlike with most state-run universities in the U.S., the scholars at WKU are professing Christians!

That wasn't the main point of your testimony, I know, but I thought I would point it out.

Anonymous said...


I went to WKU a few years ago. Did you take Trafton for anything?

Daniel said...

You're right, WKU is a jem. It is due to their library and professors that I have been able to pursue a lot of my interests theologically and philosophically! I have done work on St. Augustine, N.T. Wright, the Arian Controversy, Liberation Theology, Pauline scholarship, Historical Jesus work, and soon to be my last semester Lonergan and Aquinas. This isnt mentioning my philosophy classes! It is quite the blessing to have a lot of Professors at a State University who are active and professing Christians.

Yes, I have taken Trafton for quite a few classes. It was while studying with Trafton in an independent study on N.T. Wright that I realized I needed to seriously consider the Church Fathers.

thanks guys.

Anonymous said...

Hi Daniel,

Thank you so much for such an arresting and stimulating account of "the way of a pilgrim".

I notice that, in your personal bibliography, there is no mention of Rowan Williams. Do you know his life and work? Williams was born here in Swansea where I live and minister. He has a Welsh Presbyterian background, but before he finally moved into Anglicanism and the priesthood, Orthodoxy (which had fascinated him since teenage) and the monastery were powerful vocational alternatives. Indeed Williams did his doctorate at Oxford on Lossky, and his work on Arius and the Desert Fathers is seminal.

In his Anarchy, Church and Utopia: Rowan Williams on Church (2005), Theo Hobson observes: "Orthodoxy is seen by Williams as the Christian tradition least tainted by modernism, rationalism, individualism. It preserves a sense that salvation is intrinsically social. It also has an inbuilt respect for tradition; it consistently attempts to 'pursue a theology of the historical mediation of revelation, a theology of tradition. For many students of the field, this remains one of the most abidingly interesting and fruitful contributions of the Orthodox vision in contemporary theological discussions.'"

Ring any bells (or light any incense!)?

Thanks again.
And, yes, thanks to Ben for this marvellous series.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Daniel. That does clarify things. :)

Derek said...

Well, look at that. WKU and Trafton getting talked up in an international forum.

Thanks Daniel. It's nice to finally hear a thorough account of your journey.


Anonymous said...

Wow. An amazing and well-written account of your spiritual journey. It especially strikes a chord with me. Ordained Anglican though I am, Orthodoxy's called me for years.


Daniel said...

I have most definitely heard of Rowan Williams! I first encountered his work "Wound of Knowledge." I had searched my library to find something by him (at that point I was very interested in becoming Anglican) and began devouring the book as soon as I checked it out. I was moved to tears by the first chapter. I had not read a more beautiful theology till then. Which is another aspect of Orthodoxy I love, the theology I read is the most penitent and beautiful I have ever read.
I have read more Williams since, his work on Arius and Tradition I read for research on Arius, and his book "Why Study the Past?" is also a great read. I think it is a must for anyone delving into historical theology.

I understand Williams appreciation for Orthodoxy and seeing how it is in many ways vastly different from certain Western traditions. This can yield its own problems (e.g. this tends to add to anti-Western sentiment found among some Orthodox), but overall it creates a cohesiveness that I have found no where else.

I wish I had been able to discuss things from my philosophical movement as well, because it played a huge role as well. But you can't talk about everything on someone else's blog!

thanks again folks.

One of Freedom said...

What a beautiful post. I've encountered some of what you've described in the best of the Orthodox Church. One of the benefits of studying at St. Paul University which has a strong Eastern Studies programme. And one of my favourite places to pray in the whole school is the Orthodox chapel. I find that my thinking is too Western to be fully comfortable in the Orthodox Church, but I appreciate its beauty. I'm also very sacramentally oriented, but in an evangelical way.

I'm glad you found your home in this wonderful body of Christ. Thanks for sharing your journey.

Matthew said...

Hey, another reformed church-of-Christer! That gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. =)

Anonymous said...

Sounds a lot like my own story, only I started out as a fundamental Baptist. I too began my real theological journey with Lewis, and then moved on to Wright and the others you mentioned, and then have most recently come to Orthodox theology. It's neat to know there are others out there who have same kinds of experiences. Thanks for sharing.

Daniel said...

Reading these responses made me realize an element of my journey that I didn't comment on.

The internet has been an invaluable tool for resources and for friendships. I have made significant real life contacts through blogs. The theology and thinking I was exposed to via blogs has been one of the most rewarding things. It has also in some ways been damaging, which I have reflected just recently on my blog about..
but anywho, thought i would add that.

Robert Cornwall said...


Having gone on my own religious pilgrimage from Episcopal to Foursquare and finally to the Disciples of Christ, your journey is unique and I welcome your testimony. But just a couple of questions:

1. What qualifies as a small sect? -- As the Churches of Christ number well past 1 million members and have several signficant universities including Pepperdine and Abilene Christian University -- they have also produced several outstanding biblical scholars including Abraham Malherbe of Yale Univ.

2. Now I write as a Disciple (the left wing of the Stone-Campbell movement), but I'm interested in knowing what you find objectionable about the teachings and practices of the founders.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the questions.

1. I grew up within a sect WITHIN the Restoration movement. The non-institutional COC, not the mainline COC. To the right of the mainline COC there is a large group of splinters.

2. I found that there was no connection from what the group I was in was teaching and what the Restoration people taught. So my main issue at that time was the inconsistency with what the Restoration founders had said/believed/practiced and what I had been taught growing up. This caused a rift that set the sect I was within in an ahistorical dreamworld, with far to many complications. I hold Alexander Campbell in esteem, but do not hold Walter Scott (who had Arian leanings), or Barton Stone's associations with Pentecostal excess in the Second Great Awakening.

I think my experience of the Restoration Tradition was probably a much different one than you have encountered in the Disciples of Christ. I hope this clears some thing up.

Phil said...


Thanks for this post. I attend a "progressive" Church of Christ in Nashville and because of a lot of same things as you, I have grown to greatly appreciate people outside of the Restoration tradition, but also some of the lofty (if misguided) goals of the original Restorationists. Your journey is extremely interesting and I really appreciate you sharing it.


Jason said...

Robert Cornwall said...


Thanks for clearing up the relationship with the Church of Christ. I thought that it might be what you meant.

As for the founders -- I'm assuming your attraction to Orthodoxy involves being drawn to the creed, something of course the Stone-Campbell Movement rejected. Of course context is everything and the founding generation was operating on the American frontier in the aftermath of the birth of the nation. So, obviously it is freedom that is the hallmark of the Founding Generation -- something that is easy for we later descendants to get away from.

Again, thanks for sharing. By the way, when I was your age I was just finding my way out of Pentecostalism. When you get old and gray like me -- 49 -- it will be interesting to see where you'll be. Keep yourself open to surprising twists and turns.

Anonymous said...

Orthodoxy appears to attract you because it doesn't have a central authority but has all the other important elements, Tradition, Penance, Eucharist, etc. The Eastern Catholic Churches have every thing they do. But I think you fear [the Eastern Catholics'] papal submission - it's a Protestant mindset. That's why you haven't even checked those Churches out. Maybe you should...

Daniel said...

Where in my post would you assume that I am not in submission? I am in submission to my Bishop. Why must I need a central authority? The early Church did not have one.

I am not in submission to the Pope because I believe he is a Bishop that should reside in honor, not in universal authority. It is not my protestant mindset, that is simply bad rhetoric and bad taste.

I haven't checked out Byzantine Catholic churches because I do not agree with Roman Catholic teachings. It is not because of an unwillingness to submit to an authority.

Your own Pope recognizes the validity of the Orthodox communion. It is a shame there is division, but that division exists for many reasons.

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