Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Review of Book "West of Jesus"

           That the book West of Jesus (published 2006) is an exercise in combative polemics may be seen clearly in its subtitle: The Bible's Answer to the Protestant Departure from Orthodox Belief. In this it is typical of many of the volumes published by Regina Orthodox Press and associated with the combative figure of Frank Schaeffer (who pens an endorsement for the book's back cover). The author names himself simply as "Anthony", though a blurb on the same back cover reveals that he was a former Episcopalian and Evangelical convert to Orthodoxy who was rebaptized in an Athonite monastery in Arizona. It is a slim volume of 118 pages--one which offers a very small battlefield on which to fight such a large battle.
          It attempts, for example, to deal with Church History in chapter one in a mere nine pages, and includes subsequent chapters dealing with "Holy Tradition", "Sola Scriptura", "The Holy Sacraments" (he enumerates seven), "Eternal Security", "Other Divergences" (which include the proper Old Testament canon, the preference for the Masoretic text, Evangelical eschatology, the Holy Virgin Mary, and Prayer with Saints, all within 23 pages), "Disregard of Liturgy", and "Obedience to Holy Tradition". Given that each of these topics really require a separate book to even begin to do justice to the complexities of the matter at hand (to say nothing of the complexities of four hundred years of Protestant variation), one sees that the author has set himself a formidable task.
          He does not begin well. On page 5 he cites a number of Christological heresies, such as those of Nestorius, Eutyches, and Arius and includes among them "Origen's contentions that God had human physical features". Origen, unfortunately for our author, was one of the first to take pains to show that God in fact did not have human physical features, and in the contentions later swirling around this controversy Origen remained famous for his assertion that God was incorporeal. Such a basic blunder does not speak well for the author's credibility or his credentials.
          Howlers like these aside, the book's basic flaw is that the author tries to beat the Protestants at their own game by multiplying Biblical proof-texts, when Orthodoxy's main quarrel with Evangelical Protestantism is that this theological method is too poor to do justice to the Biblical material and is itself invalid. In his haste to smite Protestant departures the author oversimplifies both the Protestant theology he attacks as well as an authentic Orthodox response.
          Take for example his attack on "Eternal Security" (known in the Reformed tradition also as "the perseverance of the saints"). He writes, "Say I accepted Christ Jesus my Saviour on January 1, 2006 at 2.47 PM. The concept of eternal security contends that this would have triggered permanent, instant, almost magical 'salvation.' When following this premise to its conclusion one must allow for scenarios such as a subsequent renunciation of Jesus Christ say a year later going on to commit multiple sins (e.g. robbery, murder, rape) until and then dying and going to heaven". It is unlikely that any Evangelical or Reformed theologian would recognize this doctrine as his own doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. He would be more likely to contend that if a person so spectacularly renounced Christ so as to commit robbery, murder, and rape that the person was never saved to begin with. Creating such a parody of Evangelical teaching is unlikely to convince many Evangelicals that the author has any understanding of their theology in the first place. Straw men may be fun to knock down, but the exercise makes for poor apologetics.
          Or take the example of the author's handling of the Old Testament canon. Oversimplifications follow one after another. The author writes, "the Scripture used by our Savior and His followers was the Septuagint Old Testament". While the apostles used the Septuagint when branching out into the diaspora (though even here not rigorously), our Savior did not use the Septuagint. As a Palestinian Jew He would have used the Hebrew text available in the synagogue, "targumed" or paraphrased afterward into His native Aramaic. The author also seems to conflate the Church's use of the Septuagint with its acceptance of the longer canon of the Old Testament, and he talks about "the long canon of Scripture...that Jesus used". In fact it is highly doubtful that the Old Testament canon was completely closed in the first century, and so any talk about "the canon which Jesus used" is anachronistic. (See L.M. McDonald's The Biblical Canon for details.)

           The author is to be congratulated for wanting to deal with Protestant objections to Orthodox teaching. But patience is required for such work, and the first order of business is not refutation, but understanding. There is little evidence that the author, for all his good intentions, understands the many variations of Protestant thought. An informed and scholarly Protestant would have little to fear from this Orthodox broadside. I can only hope that this one does not fall into his Protestant hands. The case for Orthodoxy is actually much stronger than Anthony's book would suggest.