Fullness and Reform


There is a certain givenness to life – at least a whole lot of it. I have gradually come to accept that thirty years, ok, forty years after my growth spurt, I will never be taller than 5’7″. I’ve even given up on adding the extra 1/2″ that I claimed for many years. You are what you are. There is something deeply anti-modern about such a confession. To agree that your gender is the same gender you were born with and that there is nothing you wish to do about it is, at least, out of step with most of network television.

We live in the land of choice and thrive in an economy of choice. Thus anything that offers us the ability to redefine ourselves, to make choices, seems preferrable. We like to be “all that we can be,” and prefer to be the ones who make that determination.

There are few if any things in our lives that we do not believe can be made better. “New and improved,” is ubiquitous in the grocery aisles of our rich land.

All of this becomes very confusing when we turn our attention to Christianity and the Church. None of us would probably want to belong to a Church that billed itself as “new and improved,” and yet the assumptions that undergird much of our commercial civilization undergird much modern theology. The operative word here is “modern.”

When the Reformation began, it was, by definition, a “modern” movement. The philosophy that guided many of its leading lights was, in fact, known as the via moderna, to distinguish it from the way of Aristotle or Plato. Semper Reformanda (always in need of reform) was a hallmark of 16th century Western thought about the Church. Something was wrong and something needed to be fixed. The semper was probably the killer word. “Always” guaranteed not a reform, but reform as a way of life. Change became the name of the game.

Now it’s also true that many would probably want to nuance all of this and say that semper reformanda only referred to some things and only to the state of humanity who was “always” messing things up and therefore “always” in need of reform.

It’s hard to argue with that. As an Orthodox Christian I would quickly agree with any demand of “always repenting.” Anyone who is as accomplished in sin as myself would have to admit the constant need of repentance in life. The difference would be that as an Orthodox Christian I would agree that repentance is, in fact, the natural state of man, the right state of man in relationship with God, not simply the state needed to fix me. Repentance is what it looks like to rightly live in relationship with God, and not simply my efforts to return to some other state. We don’t really have a word for that other state. Righteousness cannot exist apart from repentance in the Orthodox life.

What is missing in modern notions of reform or change is an acceptance of the givenness of life. Givenness could perhaps be embraced as the “sovereign will of God” under many Reform schemes – but such ideas will always stand in tension with the notion of reform or change.

Orthodoxy certainly agrees that something has got to change – but that which must change is me. I am not the reformer of the Church – the Church is the reformer of me. There’s a great difference. I do not accept everything in life that is given – certain injustices are worth everything I can do to change them. But much of what must change in me is the idolatrous notion that I can change anything and everything.

Certain primal notions define our view of life and the world. “Ever Reforming” is one notion – one that plays a large part in our modern world.

The Orthodox notion of “fullness,” that God has given us the “fullness” of Himself is a contrary primary notion. It assumes that pretty much everything I need already stands there waiting. What hinders this fullness from taking up residence in my life is not the need to reform the fullness, but the need for this poor vessel to repent and yield its heart.

An interesting character who turned from one world view to another was the author, Fyodor Dostoevsky. As a young man he was enamoured of much of the revolutionary thought floating around Russia. Socialism (a secularized version of certain Christian ideas) promised to change the world. The result was a young man’s clash with the Tsar’s intelligence service and a death sentence.

The turning point of his life occurred in the last few minutes as he awaited a firing squad. In those few minutes, when, quite assuredly the revolution was not about to occur, Dostoevsky found a different revolution, one that changed him profoundly. Suddenly he saw life – the whole of it – and embraced the Gospel of Christ. As a Russian Christian he embraced that life in terms of the beauty of the given world. He saw the fullness of life around him that he had spurned and his heart discovered repentance. Fortunately, he was issued a reprieve and was instead sent into exile.

The result can be found by reading his novels. There, the world does not change – people do. The fullness comes to dwell in the heart of a murderer, a prostitute, a drunk, an idiot. In all of his characters, it is the fullness that beckons to a greater life, not the hubris of man’s dream of building a better world, or an improved church.

Competing visions – fullness and reform. Dostoevsky or Marx. On the whole, I’m happier with Dostoevsky.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





11 responses to “Fullness and Reform”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    In the painting at the top of the post, Dostoevsky is seen in his Siberian prison cell. It was there that his Christianity began to mature and the vision that would shape his novels began to break forth in his heart.

  2. Ezekiel Avatar

    This is very insightful. Having come to Orthodoxy after 33 years as a Lutheran pastor, I find your thinking regarding the idea of semper reformanda refreshing.

    It sets the state for always being against something, or for always changing something. For many years, decades, in fact, I struggled with this over against the confession of “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” It was as though the Church had somehow disappeared until, of course, the 16th century! 🙂

    Thanks for the comment!

    Edward (Ezekiel) Wolfe

  3. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thank you for your response. I genuinely mean no ill will towards our modern culture, only to observe the effect of constantly extolling change. There are things that need to change which we rarely pay attention to, and there are things that are changeless (or ought to be) and these we should leave alone. I am amazed in some election years when analysts say that voters simply voted for “change.” It’s as if we need to switch channels every so often.

    Dostoevsky’s account of the change that occurred within him as he awaited execution was not recorded for some twenty years and then first in a letter to his brother. It is worth digging up and reading (perhaps I’ll make a posting of it). I think of the verse in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (10:6-8): Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down)or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach);

    It is all so near us. Thank you!

  4. Roland Avatar

    In his latest rants, Richard Dawkins has asserted that to raise a child in a particular religion is akin to child abuse. He seems to think that one’s religion must be a choice, not a given!

    For those of us not born into Orthodox families, Orthodoxy itself can be seen as a choice. As we become immersed in Orthodoxy, its givenness becomes more and more apparent to us. But to our modernist friends looking on from the outside, it can look like just another choice.

    You wrote, “None of us would probably want to belong to a Church that billed itself as ‘new and improved.’” That’s precisely why I’m in the process of leaving the Episcopal Church!

  5. Jonathan Avatar

    “As we become immersed in Orthodoxy, its givenness becomes more and more apparent to us.”

    Oh! how true! In telling my friends about why I joined the Orthodox Church, one thing I try to remember to mention is that it wasn’t so much a choice against my former church or the members or the preacher, the music, etc., etc. Rather, I tell them, I saw something in Orthodoxy that was right and good and so full of beauty and truth that I couldn’t deny it, and I knew I had to be a part of it. This became especially clear after witnessing Forgiveness Sunday. To see the love of God acted out by the entire parish in such a humble way rent my heart. That was it for me.

    Yes, there was a choice made. But that choice wasn’t to simply join another church. It was a choice to heed the call of my Savior to enter into His Church.

  6. Tia Avatar

    “it wasn’t so much a choice against my former church or the members or the preacher, the music, etc., etc. Rather, I tell them, I saw something in Orthodoxy that was right and good and so full of beauty and truth that I couldn’t deny it, and I knew I had to be a part of it.”

    And right here are the words I’ve been trying to articulate over the last few days, after the dismissive accusation was made that we are just “church hoppers”. In our time, people (some? the majority?) tend to think that to choose something must mean it is reactionary against something else. That element is no doubt there in our case but it’s what drove us away from the church in general, not towards Orthodoxy.

    It’s kind of like our reasons for homeschooling. They are positive reasons: we like having our children around us, we feel we do the best job of letting them grow when they are not gone all day. There are lots of negative reasons not to attend public schools, and they are a small fragment of the reason we do not use them. But even if they were excellent we would still want our children home.

    I choose Orthodoxy because of what it is. Not just because of what it’s not.

  7. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I think that the fullness of heaven, when “we shall know even as we are known” is also some of the same process. I do not think at all of my former life as an Episcopalian most days, because the fullness of what I know is so sufficient that it is not necessary to compare.

    In Lewis’ The Great Divorce, perhaps my favorite of his books, there are those who have made a very long journey from deep heaven to the point where the “bus” comes us from hell in order to greet and help them stay if they wish. I can understand the journey, some days.

    Interestingly, the failures within the Orthodox world (and there are plenty – we’re just sinners) are also covered in this same fullness, such that I don’t feel compelled to be other than patient as God works His will in us.

    Amen to you all!

  8. Barnabas Powell Avatar

    I’ve called it “the matter-of-factness” of Orthodoxy that so intrigued me, but your “givenness” is exactly right.

    It seems that the struggle (for me, at least) is to learn to be present in the moment I am in, rather than always trying to re-make the universe.

    The paradoxical truth is that if I allow the faith to re-make me, then the universe is, indeed, re-made.

    As a wise man once told me “We get what we need by going through the door of it’s opposite many times.”

  9. […] Father Stephen has an interesting blurb on “givenness” and I enjoyed thinking about it. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with his take on the Reformation being a constant change but understand his point. One of my thoughts is to wonder why they think that the “early church” and their model is one that started in the 3rd or 4th century and not the first. The first century church was nothing at all (at least in my estimation) like the third century – so why stop there? Why not go all the way back? Jesus came to free us but by the third century the church had incorporated many of the same rules that the Pharisees and Sadducees forced upon their flocks. I don’t understand why we would willingly accept these bindings. […]

  10. Ricardo Avatar

    Totally agree with your post.
    I have a side question…
    Would you say that the Catholic Church shares this notion of fullness found in the Orthodoxy, as opposed to the Protestant Churches?

  11. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen

    I would assume that Roman Catholic Church would share this notion of fullness. I don’t think they use it to quite the extent we do.

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