Evangelical Appropriation of Tradition

“Too catholic to be Catholic”: Communion with Idolaters?

Posted on Updated on

The Parakatathiki (“Charge”), when the Eucharist is placed in the hands of a newly-ordained priest by the bishop, and he is charged by him to guard it until the Second Coming of Christ. This picture is from my own ordination.

A post of mine from March, Evangelicals at the Eucharist, has inexplicably been getting a bit of traffic again over the past few days. I was assured in the comments that, in my criticisms of Dr. Peter Leithart’s call to Evangelicals to return to putting the Eucharist at the center of worship, I was pinning the wrong guy. But a close reading reveals that I was not so much attempting to critique the full body of Leithart’s work, but rather speaking in the same “room” that he was speaking in, i.e., modern Evangelicalism, which is as Zwinglian as the day is long. Leithart might have a relatively “high” view of the Eucharist, but the people he’s speaking to, on the whole, have almost no view of it at all. Why? Because they have no priesthood.

That said, in the midst of the comments was posted a new piece from Leithart, Too catholic to be Catholic, published on Monday, in which he professes himself “too catholic to be Catholic.” The closed communion discipline of Roman Catholics and Orthodox makes them “sects,” and he is “too catholic” ever to do such a thing. It is essentially a “Why I’m not Roman Catholic or Orthodox” mini-manifesto.

I read Dr. Leithart’s post with interest, and its internal contradictions are really quite astounding. He is so “catholic” that he would welcome the Orthodox and Roman Catholics into communion, while in nearly the same breath actually proclaims us to be idolaters! While it’s not made evident in this post, it is also the case that he borrows heavily from theologians in those communions, which may be part of why he has been brought up on heresy charges (acquitted, mind you) by his own denomination. By his own definitions, he’s actually using idolaters as a source of theology. If this is catholicity, it has to be the weirdest type I’ve ever seen.

Catholic here seems to mean being so inclusive as to accepting to communion not only heretics but even idolaters. (Remember that an idolater is someone who unrepentantly worships an idol as a god.) I wonder whether communion should have any limits at all then—resumably not, as he decries the “closed communion” of his fellow sons of the Reformation. Should it even be extended to the unbaptized? It makes little sense to me that Leithart would remain apart from the Orthodox and Roman Catholics on the basis of his doctrines—doctrines which proclaim us and most Christians throughout the ages to be idolaters—and yet somehow chafe at the exclusivity of the tradition of closed communion?

Leithart writes, “To become Catholic I would had [sic] to contract my ecclesial world. I would have to become less catholic – less catholic than Jesus is. Which is why I will continue to say: I’m too catholic to become Catholic.” But his “catholicity” would include communing unrepentant idolaters. Is that really the kind of catholic Jesus is? The Scriptures proclaim that the temple of God has no agreement with idols, which makes me wonder how he arrived upon his notion of Jesus’ “ecclesial world.”

It also occurs to me that, in speaking of communion, when you have to refer to an ecclesial world rather than the Church, you have a big theological problem. For the Orthodox, the Church is communion.

In arguing for his “catholicity,” Leithart at least appears to have accepted the Roman Catholic definition of catholic, which is “universal.” Mind you, Rome applies this universality in terms of its governance, but Leithart appears to be applying it in such a sense that it obliterates the very point of sound doctrine, which is to guide the believer in his communion with Christ in His Church. Either Leithart would gladly admit idolaters (the Orthodox and Roman Catholics) to communion, or else he is simply unhappy that the lines that he would draw for communion are different than the ones that others do. Either way, it makes little sense. I suspect he means something different by catholic, however.

In any event, the traditional definition for catholic is not the ultramontanist one Rome uses nor the confusedly pietistic one of Dr. Leithart, but rather simply what the word actually means—katholikos, from kata and holos, “according to the whole.” That is, the catholic faith is the whole Christian faith, and the one Church is catholic because she maintains the wholeness of the Christian faith, not merely a few minimal parts. One cannot, for instance, debate whether Scripture must be somehow read apart from the tradition that produced it or whether succession from the Apostles avails anything at all, considering such things non-essentials, and yet somehow be catholic.

Likewise, his preferred self-moniker, reformed catholic, also makes little sense from the proper definition of catholic. If his faith is truly whole, then why should it need reform? Even if catholic just means “inclusive” or “universal,” then why the need to be “reformed”? It seems to me that no reformation is warranted for someone who wants to commune with idolaters. Why reform them or anyone else when they’re not cut off from your altar? What is actually gained by reform, if not communion?

I must admit that I honestly do not understand the Leithart version of catholicity (though I suspect what he really means by it). He seems to be a man very much concerned with sound doctrine, and yet soundness of doctrine apparently should have no effect at the chalice. But St. Paul warns us otherwise.

As for how becoming Orthodox or Catholic reflects on converts’ former religious experience, Leithart seems not to be aware of something that is amply available in nearly any convert story out there. Most converts do not, in fact, see their previous religious experiences as wholly devoid of grace, as being defined by unmitigated darkness, but rather as having been in some sense a propaideia—a preparation for receiving the fullness of the Christian faith, a preparation for which they are usually quite grateful. I know very few who look on their former communions as Leithart fears they should. Of course they will look on where they’ve converted to as being better, else they wouldn’t convert. But Leithart would have someone whose convictions run that way stay where he is!

There is quite the irony that, while he quails at the idea of an ex-Protestant convert to Orthodoxy or Rome looking on his previous Protestantism as lacking something, he himself looks upon the Orthodox and Roman Catholics as outright idolaters. Thus, the only solution to this convert syndrome seems to be for everyone to stay where he is. The only possible solution to the extreme contradictions of doctrine between the various communions is pietism, the denial that doctrine even matters.

He seems to apply this pietistic dogma-muzzle selectively, though. After all, he still has big criticisms for many of us. But if we were to convert to his way of thinking, would we not then have to look at our time in our previous communions as, in his words, “living a sub-Christian existence”? In the end, it seems that this argument against conversion is really just a cryptic argument that his Christianity is indeed the one true kind. I have no problem with that, but he should just say it: Don’t become Orthodox or Roman Catholic, because they’re wrong and they’re idolaters. Become (his variety of) Reformed, because it’s the one true way. But I think saying it outright wouldn’t be “catholic” for him.

It seems to me that catholic, at least in this piece by Leithart, is really just a synonym for pietism, dressed up in a grand old word with powerful theological import, yet evacuated of its proper meaning.

Update: Here’s a related critique by a Lutheran. (Thanks to Chris Jones in the comments on this post for pointing this out.)

And here’s another Orthodox response (part 1) to Leithart, written by a member of my parish, pointing out how Leithart’s “Reformed catholic” view is at odds with most of the Reformers and has its provenance in Zwinglianism. See also part 2 and part 3.

Also worth reading is this thorough response by a Roman Catholic, especially pointing out the deep connection in the ancient Church between doctrinal orthodoxy and communion.

Update: Leithart has issued a clarification on what he means by “idolatry” and so forth. Here’s my response:

It seems to me that he again wants to define a word (idolatry) in a new way and then claim that his definition is the right one. We “brethren” of his are, it seems, too idolatrous to be Idolatrous.

His analogizing doesn’t work here, though I suppose one could pick up his analogy and turn it around a bit—it is Protestants in their myriad factions who are manifestly those who have departed from any sense of an undivided Church, set up their own “high places,” and then are demanding that the Temple in Jerusalem be torn down so as to legitimize their schism and heresy. (I would of course also include Rome as having departed from the Church, though the pattern doesn’t quite fit the analogy.)

Rome left the Church through heresy and schism, and Protestants left Rome through the same process. It is now nearly the height of anachronism to demand that the Orthodox join the (at least) twice-separated Protestants in their innovative doctrines and man-made worship.

In any event, the analogy doesn’t really hold. Ancient Israel is not the Church but only a foreshadowing of it. One could still be part of ancient Israel on the basis of birth and circumcision, but entering and remaining in the Church require the apostolic faith. One could not really divide from ancient Israel, but division from the Church is clearly shown as possible in not only the New Testament but in all subsequent history.

Again, Leithart presumes his own relativistic ecclesiology and simply expects the rest of us to follow. He claims that believing in one true Church is “easy” (as though something being “easy” is an argument against it), but in our relativistic age, that claim actually ruffles quite a lot of feathers—despite that point of ecclesiology having been almost universally adopted prior to the 20th century, even in Protestant circles. His “divided Church” ecclesiology is really the much “easier” approach, aligning as it does with the spirit of the age and its mindless call to “inclusiveness.”

It’s easy (there’s that word again) to call someone a “sectarian” when you don’t want to measure up to what it takes to be in communion. But the one who has cut him off from communion from Orthodoxy is not the Orthodox, but himself, and he remains so deliberately, thus revealing himself as being the sectarian.

He is at least consistent when he says that, according to his ecclesiology, Christ is divided(!). What that reveals about his Christology is left as an exercise to the reader. (Or, you know, St. Paul.)

A commenter on Facebook also adds this: His “clarification” is just as confusing as his previous post. The divided kingdoms were divided as God’s judgment against them, and to top it off the Northern kingdom was completely eradicated. Does this mean then that God will send in a group to eradicate the sectarian “northern kingdoms” of Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism?

Another commenter has this to say: There’s no difference between ‘high place’ and ‘golden calf’ worship re: the Northern Kingdom. Both were part of an attempt to accommodate YHWH worship to the then current culture by Jeroboam son of Nebat (in fact, Scripture generally lumps them together as ‘the sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat’). I see nothing in Orthodox or Catholic worship that compares. Quite the opposite. The comparable current trend is evangelical worship that attempts to accommodate the worship of Christ to the current American culture. A lot of the comments on your blog tell me that there are some folks out there who need to go back and reread these passages closely.

Before he brought up I Kings for no good reason, I thought he was connecting the ‘idolatry’ charge directly to the Eucharist…if so, that’s an old (and to my mind valid) charge made by the Reformation against Rome (at least since the Libri Caroligni), but doesn’t apply to Orthodox practice at all.

Evangelicals at the Eucharist

Posted on Updated on

The Parakatathiki ("Charge"), when the Eucharist is placed in the hands of a newly-ordained priest by the bishop, and he is charged by him to guard it until the Second Coming of Christ. This picture is from my own ordination.
I was fascinated today to run across this call to the Eucharist, written from a Reformed perspective, by Peter J. Leithart, pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and an eminent Evangelical theologian. (Seeing this, along with my recent posts on Evangelicals observing Lent, I’ve decided to create a new category for posts on this weblog: Evangelical Appropriation of Tradition.)

This is a fascinating self-criticism from within Evangelicalism, but I have to admit that after I got to the end, I had hoped there would be more to it. There is something very much missing from this, and as I attempted to remember how I would have read this as I would have as an Evangelical sixteen or so years ago, it came to me. There must be Evangelicals who read this piece and are thinking: Why?

The argument that Leithart makes here for Evangelicals to put the Eucharist at the center of their worship is really pretty weak: It helps Christians to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, well, we can remember such things in other ways, can’t we? If it’s really just about remembering, why should we have to break out the wafers and grape juice all the time? (And, you know, we have to vacuum the carpet afterward.) What does all that ritual actually do, anyway?

Mind you, I think Leithart is actually right about all the criticisms he levels at the results of a de-liturgized worship life. There can be no Church without the Eucharist. Christians are politically vulnerable without the Eucharist. Christian life is reduced to fads and programmes without the Eucharist; or, in the words of Fr. John S. Romanides, “When theology is false, then Christianity is reduced to activities.”

But, why? Why is a de-liturgized worship so vulnerable to all these distortions? Why do Evangelicals largely not see the point in the Eucharist?

It is because the Evangelical Eucharist is, to use Leithart’s term, merely a Sign. If it’s really just a reminder—a sign—then once I feel like I’ve gotten my memory in order, I don’t need the reminder any more. (And let’s not forget that doing communion all the time looks suspiciously Catholic.)

But now, if the Eucharist is actually real, if it’s actually what Jesus said it is, “food indeed” and “drink indeed,” if eating and drinking it actually put life into you, if it’s really so serious that you could get sick or die if you partake unworthily—well, that’s something else. When you’re given the opportunity to eat and drink God, then of course you will put that at the center of your worship.

And when that Eucharist is truly the flesh and blood of God Himself, then there is no way you could ever stand to surround the act of communion with anything remotely faddish (if you do, it will clearly be a blasphemy). Eating and drinking God requires a dignity and power and reverence that are entirely beyond whiting out the lyrics of the latest Lady Gaga song to be replaced by what a friend of mine calls “Jesus is my girlfriend” music. There’s a reason why, when most of us picture Heaven (including the Biblical writers), we do not think of a pop concert.

And if you are eating and drinking God, and that’s putting life into you, then you are going to be granted, quite frankly, an otherworldly power that will not only make the unity of the Church utterly critical (not to mention, obvious), but you will also not be beholden to the temporal, transient temptations of this world, whether political or in other cultural ways.

In traditional Christian theology, the Eucharist creates an extension of the very incarnation of Christ. But in the Evangelical theological world, where associating physical matter with holiness is just idolatry, then you are creating an incarnational no-man’s land where holiness cannot touch. But you still have to live there, so you fill it up with programmes and politics, not to mention emotion and intellect.

A Christian life whose weekly high point is essentially a concert followed by a lecture (even a very good lecture) is not going to have the kind of otherworldly power as one where you get to eat and drink God. It just can’t hold a candle.

Leithart also speaks of the priesthood of all believers (and, indeed, the Orthodox believe in that, too), but what is the point of a priesthood who really aren’t offering up any real sacrifice? A priesthood of “signs” is really just a priesthood of pretense, of pretending. No one puts on costly vestments and takes up golden vessels if he believes that what he places into them is just a symbol of something that’s not really there. (Well, some do, but eventually, their theological descendents always eventually start to put those things off, because they just don’t see the point any more.)

The problem with Leithart’s call to Evangelicals to come back to the Eucharist is that he doesn’t give them any overriding, compelling, positive reason to do so. His negative reasons are good, but theology has to have its own inner purpose beyond preventing or addressing dysfunction. The Eucharist’s purpose is not to hold back these distorting tendencies he identifies so concisely. Rather, its purpose is for those who receive it to become partakers of the divine nature.

And when you’re doing that, well, that changes everything.

Update: A friend points out this piece which examines all these issues in terms of their Augustinian theological background from an Evangelical (but apparently non-Zwinglian) perspective. He also rightly points out that Leithart himself probably would not embrace the fully Zwinglian “pure sign” sacramental theology I make reference to above. But of course Zwingli’s ideas about the sacraments are the context for almost all Evangelicals, and Calvin’s Eucharistic theology (from which Leithart is drawing) has its weaknesses precisely for the reasons outlined in the post on Augustine’s sacramentology.

Another point well-made by my friend is that the real reason why there is not likely to be any sort of Eucharistic revival among Evangelicals is that they really have no actual priesthood. It’s not something that can simply be started up by people who read some books. If you have no connection to the ancient traditions of Christian priesthood, what would actually make you think that the prayers of your newly-created priesthood actually would be the means by which God transforms bread and wine into body and blood? Ultimately, the various elements of tradition that are being appropriated here by some Evangelicals will necessarily be distorted, because they have been removed from the context of the tradition that gives them their power and meaning.

Evangelical Lent Redux

Posted on Updated on


In my previous post, a comment from a Protestant challenged me to argue for Lent purely from Scripture, also saying that his own experience of Lent, like Mark Galli’s, was pretty miserable. That led me to consider that I actually had left several important things out in the previous post, most especially touching upon the question of the dualism of Evangelicals and what that might do to their appropriation of Lent. Following is my response to that comment, which I thought merited a post of its own:

If you want for me to reconstruct Lent using only a sort of “raw” reading of the Scriptures (i.e., without reference to any interpretive tradition), of course that is impossible. But then again, so are things like having an annual festal celebration of the Resurrection (Easter) or Christ’s birth (Christmas), weekly worship services on Sunday morning, and Sunday School.

But that takes us rather to a more basic question, which is on what authority any Christian does anything at all. You want me to show you everything from the Scriptures, but that begs a deeper question—Whose interpretation of them should we use? There is no such thing as a truly raw reading of the Bible. Every text has a context, and major element of the context of reading a text is the tradition in which one is reading it, even if that tradition is something as elementary as what language one happens to know. But of course Biblical interpretation involves a whole lot more than that, and the historic fact that Church tradition actually preceded, generated and defined the Scripture complicates matters even further.

But anyway, probably the deeper issue here is that the “Lent” you as a Protestant have experienced is quite different from the experience I as an Orthodox Christian also call “Lent.” Whatever combination of fasting, abstinence, church services, devotions and confession you may be doing is not the same as what I’m doing. We are using the same word to refer to two different things. You don’t mention what kind of Protestant you are, but there really is no parallel between anything in Protestantism and the Orthodox Christian experience of this season. Even fasting alone—though it could theoretically involve the exact same prescriptions in terms of types and amounts of food eaten—is a totally different experience.

Why is this? It is because of the dualism of Protestantism, its inner feeling that physical matter has nothing really to do with holiness or the spiritual life at all. So physical practices can never really be more than self-discipline or pure memorial. It can only be about thinking and feeling, because Protestants see no link between the body’s efforts and the soul’s salvation.

But for the Orthodox Christian, physical matter is precisely the stuff by which our salvation was accomplished, because God became man, and He really suffered in the flesh, and He really says we have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, or else we have no life in us. And of course the Bible itself is filled with all sorts of spiritual significance for physical matter, not just for healing of death and disease, but also for the engendering of faith and holiness. So it makes sense to us that asceticism and sacrament should be a normal part of our lives.

In short, an “argument” for Lent to a dualistic Christian from a non-dualistic Christian will never make sense. There are no shared assumptions. Lent for the Orthodox is something we do within and guided by the Orthodox Church. It is not a set of autonomously operating spiritual disciplines that will operate outside of the actual community of the Church that was founded by the Apostles. Protestants don’t have that, and they generally don’t want it, so it makes little sense for them to want to appropriate something that comes from within that context. (Mind you, I would argue that it therefore also makes little sense that they would accept the Scriptures, since they were written, compiled and canonized in an ecclesial context they would reject—bishops, sacraments, asceticism, etc.)

As for fasting and other ascetical practices in the New Testament, I’m afraid that you’re not seeing them because your tradition has conditioned you not to see them. But they’re really everywhere. I again recommend this article for a detailed, book-by-book examination of asceticism in the New Testament.

Having said all that, though, I honestly think that if you’ve chosen your spiritual tradition, then trying to add Lent into it where it does not already exist is rather futile. Grafting an oak onto a willow is just not going to work, and trying to incorporate even a little of the ancient Christian traditions of Lent—which presuppose a non-dualistic understanding of spirituality—will only frustrate you. The context is wrong, and so the results will be distorted.

If, however, your spiritual tradition is something you can highly customize and alter as you go (rather than something to which you are called to be faithful), adding or subtracting spiritual practices as you like, then I don’t see why you’d need any authoritative argument at all—even from Scripture. Pick what you like.

“Giving Up Something” for Lent

Posted on Updated on

Could you give up Rickrolling for Lent?

Update: This post is now available as an audio recording at Ancient Faith Radio.

Mark Galli recently posted an article entitled Giving Up Self-Discipline for Lent which is actually a fairly fascinating look into what Lenten ascetical effort looks like from within a Pietist tradition. Pietism is, in brief, the belief that the private relationship with God is paramount and that doctrine and shared tradition in community are relatively unimportant. (For more on this, see Pietism as an ecclesiological heresy by Christos Yannaras.)

That such a piece would be posted on the Christianity Today site is certainly a sign of the times. Lent itself has been religio non grata for Evangelicals’ low-church Protestantism descended from the Radical Reformation for quite a long time. I’ve been surprised in recent years to hear of Evangelicals recovering the idea of Lent, and here we have an example of someone from that tradition reflecting critically on that appropriation.

Or do we? CT is certainly an Evangelical publication, but who is Mark Galli, and why does he construct his argument in the way he does? We’ll get to that, but let’s first look at the argument itself and how I as an Orthodox Christian would evaluate it.

The narrative here has a classic rhetorical shape: Appear to be criticizing or dismissing something, then reveal how you’re not really criticizing it, but instead revealing its true message contra the popular impression of that thing. Thus, Galli seems to be dismissing Lent (“the Grinch that stole Lent”) initially, but he eventually says that its true value is something else.

How does this actually work out in the article? What he is indeed criticizing is that Lent really is about self-discipline. Self-discipline as an inherent good is part of the Pietist package, and it makes sense to approach Lent from that angle (if one approaches it at all) from within Evangelicalism. Modern Evangelicalism is so steeped in the culture of self-improvement and self-help (not to mention, self-service) that Lent actually starts looking pretty good, so long as it’s understood in this Pietist manner.

And why shouldn’t it be understood this way? Evangelicals’ main cultural contact for Lent is American Roman Catholics, whose Lenten asceticism no longer even necessarily includes actual fasting on Fridays—to say nothing of every day during the season, which is Roman Catholics’ ancient tradition, giving up even dairy, which is why there are Shrove Tuesday pancakes and (around these parts), Fastnacht Day. Rather, what they see is “giving something up for Lent.” Picking something to give up for Lent is a perfectly Pietistic thing to do. (Pietism has, alas, affected not only the churches of the Reformation.)

Because there is no doctrine of theosis (divinization/deification, the process of becoming united with God in His divine energies) in the world of Pietism—nor really in any of the Reformation churches—asceticism has nothing to do with uniting with God. For us who believe in theosis, asceticism’s very purpose is the retraining of the will, not for the sake of mere self-discipline, but rather because the will has to become receptive to divine grace in order to receive it. But that doesn’t exist outside of theosis, so fasting or giving up anything at all for Lent will not, as Galli says, actually lead to more self-discipline. That wasn’t its purpose when it was commanded by Christ, so attempting to use it for that won’t actually accomplish it. Asceticism’s purpose is the retraining of the will, not the self-improvement of the body. Fasting is not a diet to help us lose weight or to become more “responsible.” It is the ongoing struggle against the passions.

What’s also missing from Pietistic asceticism is the guidance of tradition and community. Remember that Pietism’s concern is the private relationship with God, so there is little room for the idea that one should have a father-confessor guiding one’s asceticism, who is himself guided by centuries of Church tradition and experience. It’s something you do on your own and for yourself. So why shouldn’t you just pick and choose for yourself how you’re going to do it?

Galli essentially shares some of these same criticisms that Orthodoxy has of this Pietistic approach to Lent, though certainly he doesn’t make his criticisms from within Orthodox tradition, so there is no theosis here to reveal asceticism’s traditional Christian purpose. He also does not seem to have any problem with the individualized approach to Lent, so he’s keeping at least that bit of Pietism intact. This leads us to ask just how it is he has determined what he calls “the real point of Lent”:

Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.

To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.

What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march.

So here we have to figure out exactly from where within the Reformation Galli is making his criticisms of the Pietistic approach to Lent. To figure that out, I had to do a little digging.

Galli is of course one of the editors at CT, but some Googling reveals that he is also a member of the Church of the Resurrection in the Wheaton, Illinois, area. And to whom do they belong? That also took some digging. (What is it with churches that don’t tell you up front which denomination they’re part of?) They belong to the Anglican Mission in America, a conservative breakaway from the Episcopal Church USA (which has as a body gone quite off the deep end in recent decades). So Galli is coming from that interesting, multifarious and confusing world of Anglican traditions (note well the plural).

But he is essentially using a Lutheran argument, which is not surprising coming from a conservative Anglican. They’ve always had a certain affection for Lutheranism. Martin Luther, as you remember, identified good works as being opposed to faith—which was not St. Paul’s argument at all; Paul was instead concerned to contrast grace with the works of the Law of Moses, not with good works in general (Luther’s error was to conflate “the [Mosaic] law” with “good works”). (For more on this, see the rather bountiful references to the inherent close connection between faith and good works in the entire Epistle of James, which Luther was none too fond of.)

So the best that good works can offer—and of course asceticism was very much on Luther’s mind as a “good work,” seeing he was an Augustinian monk—is the same that the Mosaic Law can offer. It is a tutor to show you what a rotten sinner you are. That’s what Paul says about the Mosaic Law, but he doesn’t say it about asceticism. (Instead, the whole New Testament actually speaks quite highly of asceticism and its place in making the will receptive to grace. But never mind that.)

So what we really have here in Galli’s article is essentially a less Pietistic sector of the Reformation criticizing a more Pietistic one.

For Orthodox Christians, Lent and all of our ascetical effort (which includes fasting around half the days of the year, not just Lent, as well as other ascetical practices, none of which include picking something to give up) are about neither the Pietistic emphasis on self-discipline and individual piety and belief nor in the more Lutheran concern of revealing us to be sinners (thus representing the continuum between the Radical and Magisterial Reformations, respectively). There is nothing wrong with either goal, of course, but that is not the point of asceticism.

And I have to say that asceticism is rather a silly method of showing yourself to be a sinner. Wouldn’t it be easier just to take a long, hard look at yourself? And what about the Pharisees who “succeed” in their asceticism? It would seem to have the opposite effect on them. Centuries upon centuries of Christian tradition is finally about “play acting”? Yeah, that does sound pretty “miserable” and “onerous” to me, but that’s because you’re doing it wrong.

It actually doesn’t particularly matter if we succeed in “self-improvement” by means of asceticism. If we do, great, but if not, what we are actually trying to achieve is something different. It is becoming more receptive to the free gift of divine grace, so that we can become by grace what Christ is by nature, so that we can be united to God in His energies, becoming partakers of the divine nature.

It also doesn’t matter if we reveal ourselves to be sinners or not in practicing asceticism. To be honest, if you’re not aware that you’re a sinner simply by being in the presence of the beauty and glory of Orthodox Christian worship, then I’m not sure what will reveal it to you. But I suppose if you belong to a religion that does not know about that beauty, it may well take something else to reveal this to you, because you’re cut off from the true revelation of that glory.

Because he is probably far from experiencing the amazingly heartrending beauty that we Orthodox experience in Lent, I can see why someone like Galli might find Lent to be “a miserable way to live” and why he’d never want to “turn Lent into a lifestyle.” But if you’re Orthodox, Lent is very much “a lifestyle”! We’re always in the process of struggling against the passions of our will, and asceticism is our constant companion—Lent is only one season in which it is intensified. And if we do it the right way—as part of the Orthodox Christian community—it is rather far from being a miserable life. Indeed, the true ascetics always have a curiously indomitable joy.

For the Orthodox, Great Lent’s purpose is possible and revealed only within the actual community of faith, both within space (including all those currently in the Church) and time (including all those who have come before). It is not an individual achievement. It is something that is done within the Eucharistic, liturgical community, which is why Great Lent so radically transforms our daily liturgical life. It is also perhaps why so many people who may not otherwise make confession a frequent practice often find it within themselves to come to confession during the Lenten springtime (and “spring” is what Lent actually means, by the way)—they feel something awakening, and they know that the only possibility for its coming to full alertness is to reconcile and renew with the community with the guidance of their father-confessor.

What is missing both from the Pietism that Galli criticizes and the Reformation opposition between faith and works that he endorses is the doctrine of theosis, which is communion with the Holy Trinity. That communion between us men and women and the Divine Community Himself (for He is three Persons!) is what drives our asceticism and is the inner meaning of Great Lent.

For a great deal more on what asceticism actually means and how it’s everywhere in the New Testament, contra what the Reformation says about such things, I very much recommend a piece by Fr. Georges Florovsky to which I linked above, The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament: Reflections on the Critique of the Theology of the Reformation. In English, at least, you can hardly do any better.