Lost in Translation

Engaging in conversations about the Orthodox faith – with others born and nurtured in the West – I sometimes feel that something is “lost in translation.” I say, “Church,” and something else comes to the listener’s mind: either something Roman or something Protestant, perhaps Anglican. I begin to explain that Orthodoxy cannot be explained or defined in terms of either Rome or Protestantism, for Orthodoxy did not come from Rome or from Protestantism and does not owe very much to them (occasional influences here and there that remain a matter of debate within Orthodoxy but nothing of great significance). There may be common roots – but the Western experience of the Church began to move in a different direction very early on. The common history of Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy is, in many aspects, slim, at best. But, of course, we human beings want to understand one another and so we struggle on, speaking words of the same language whose context has given them radically different meanings. East and West are “lost in translation.”

I had this come home to me recently while reading my way through the latest copy of the Smithsonian Magazine. I like the magazine – it has wonderful pictures and articles that are informative and just the sort of length that such casual reading demands. In just such a casual moment the other day, my eye was caught (the magazine was lying open) by wonderful pictures of the frescoed Churches of Romania. Some parishes, others monasteries, they have long been part of the ecclesiastical treasures of the Orthodox world. The pictures were enticing enough to demand reading time as well.

All was going well (even if the article seemed to lack depth) when suddenly I read a description of the Churches as:

modest, three-room Gothic churches, covered from bottom to steeple-top with Byzantine iconography in vivid, intense colors.

There it was – lost in translation. I can only hope the author was using “gothic” in the literary sense of the word, as in “gothic” novel. However, when speaking of churches, the word “gothic” tends to have a very specific meaning – something that is radically opposed both to the architecture and the intention of an Orthodox Church. There is a theology of space related to architecture – a theology that is proper to the gothic style – and there is a theology of space related to Orthodox Churches that runs from Constantinople, through Eastern Europe and on into Russia.

What becomes “lost in translation” is convincing someone from the West that “gothic” doesn’t just mean “old church building style.” Or, more than that, convincing someone that the difference in architecture is signficant and represents a very different way of perceiving the human relationship to God.

This is not just a question of comparative architecture; it is a difficulty that runs throughout Church life, East and West. For many centuries, the West has been the dominant culture – dominant in economics, politics and war. It has long been a Western habit to see other cultures as a subset of something already familiar – thus when someone else says, “God,” it is assumed that he means the same thing that anyone in the West means when he says, “God.” And this is simply not the case.

There are many words that are more like “place-holders.” We use them because there is nothing better at hand or no equivalent in the language we now must use. Translating Byzantine texts, and translating Eastern Orthodoxy into a Western language, such as English, and not creating confusion is nearly impossible. Thus from service to service the Orthodox pray, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” Western ears hear blasphemy where none is intended.

The translation problem can work both ways. A conservative Protestant asks an Orthodox, “Are you saved?” If the answer comes back with anything less than, “Absolutely!” the assumption is made that this is a person who has no relationship with God, a person who regularly prays for Christ to save them and have mercy on them. Lost in translation.

It is important for Christians to listen to each other – if only for the sake of understanding what is being said. A standard work on the history of Christian doctrine continues, in edition after edition, to say that the Eastern Church never developed a doctrine of the Atonement. How absurd! What Christian Church would have no understanding of how it is that God has reconciled us to Himself? And yet, there the charge remains, lost in translation. In the end we may have irreconcilable differences. What differences there are will never be overcome by calling something gothic when it’s just Romanian. With more than 250,000 words in its vocabulary, surely English can do more. With charity in our hearts we all can do more.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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37 responses to “Lost in Translation”

  1. Bosphorus Avatar

    Thanks for this post. So often the problems of translation are worsened by a feeling that a word “belongs” to a particular tradition, that a particular tradition has assigned to word its only proper meaning, and that any other use of the word is a misuse. Add to that the way in which words long familiar to us acquire a physiognomy–a kind of face–and that look at us with that face anytime we see them. The physiognomy plays a crucial role in the way we choose and value words.

    My own view is that a help to charity where such conversations are concerned is Gottlob Frege’s so-called Context Principle: Never ask for the meaning of a word except in the context of a proposition. The Principle helps a person to resist claiming the ownership of a word and to resist the physiognomy that he takes the word to have.

  2. Theodora Elizabeth Avatar
    Theodora Elizabeth

    Fr. Stephen,

    Your blog is one I am sure to stop by daily, along with Fr. Joseph Huneycutt’s Orthodixie.

    You wrote, “Thus from service to service the Orthodox pray, ‘Most Holy Theotokos, save us!’ Western ears hear blasphemy where none is intended.”

    Perfect example. I’m in a predominately convert Antiochian parish (in the Archdiocese since 1993), and we get many non-Orthodox visitors due to our reputation. Sure makes for some good people-watching and conversation after services. I have seen some interesting facial expressions when our priest intones, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us” at the end of Vespers. Bet he gets asked about that phrase often.

    Interestingly, in the “Five-Pounder” (aka “Divine Prayers and Services” compiled by Fr. Seraphim Nassar – the Antiochian primary liturgical resource), on p. 46, in a footnote on the Paraklesis service (aka the Supplicatory Canon to the Theotokos), there is a footnote explaining “Most Holy Theotokos, save us”:

    “Save us through thine intercession with thy Son our God.”

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Of course, one of the problems in the use of the word “to save” is that for some, the word has come to have an extremely narrow connotation, not only to refer only to Christ, but only to a very narrowly defined notion of atonement at that. I have sometimes suggested to people to get a lexicon and look at all the places in the New Testament where the word “save” is used, and note how broad its meaning is. That is sometimes helpful.

  4. Theodora Elizabeth Avatar
    Theodora Elizabeth

    Fr. Stephen,

    “…one of the problems in the use of the word “to save” is that for some, the word has come to have an extremely narrow connotation, not only to refer only to Christ, but only to a very narrowly defined notion of atonement at that.”

    Oh, yes. I came to Orthodoxy having been raised a Roman Catholic, with a five-year stint among Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians before being introduced to Orthodoxy. As a result, I had no issue with the Orthodox practices that so freak out Protestants – Mary, the saints, icons, bishops, etc. I find it rather interesting sometimes to read through intro to Orthodoxy materials aimed at Protestants, particularly Evangelicals. It’s a totally different mindset to me. In fact, most of the intro to Orthodoxy materials seem to be aimed at former Protestants. I’m a rarity in my parish, having come from a liturgical background. Most have not.

    I had such an easy time slipping into Orthodoxy – not only from my previous religious background, but due to the fact that I’m single and living at a distance from my Catholic family – that I sometimes forget the very slow process conversion is for some folks.

    As an Episcopalian friend of mine used to say, her response to “Are you saved?” is “Every morning!”

  5. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I came from a high-church Anglican background – thus prayers to the saints, Mary, etc. were not an issue. But the mention of saints and the Mother of God was still very, very restrained. I much prefer the constant companionship of the saints in Orthodox worship. Anything else would now begin to feel quite lonely. But I’m not sure that what I mean by that would be understood unless I was speaking to someone Orthodox. It gets lost in translation!

  6. Theodora Elizabeth Avatar
    Theodora Elizabeth

    Ah, “the great cloud of witnesses.” But we all have our “favorite” friends among them: aside from my patron saints (Theodora the Empress who restored the icons and Grand Duchess Elizabeth), I’m particularly attached to Blessed Xenia of Petersburg, John of Shanghai & San Francisco, and St. Nicholas.

    They are such a comfort and I talk to them as I would a close human friend. Protestants would think I’m nuts for talking like that, but that’s alright. 🙂

  7. Fatherstephen Avatar

    We have friends in common. St. Xenia has done me many favors. We have a number of women in our congregation who are named for the Grand Duchess Elizabeth.

  8. Fr Nicholas Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephan,

    First I would like to say how very much I enjoy your blog. My background is Southern (Alabama) though I have lived in the North now for many years. So much of your writing thought provoking and resonates within my own experiences.

    Anyway, while I agree with your wonderful discernments on communications..I wanted to add that the Smithsonian article was not completely wrong. There very pronounced Gothic tendencies in some Romanian architecture. The pointed arches and windows were frequently used in Transylvania and Wallachia, as also the much steeper roof lines (to shed the snow). This of course was “acculturated” with byzantine aesthetics’s and Orthodox theology, but if one goes just on forms, it could certainly be said to have major Gothic elements. They are used in a non western way, and the other major defining characteristics of the Gothic “look’ stained glass, wall sculpture and the cruciform elongated nave/transepts/chevet is almost entirely missing. Since I worship in a “Ohio byzantine style” (our monastery is an old house is built to resemble Mt Vernon) I have great sympathy for local adaptation!
    Once again, many thanks for you delighful and insightful blog.

  9. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you for the reply. I wondered if the author meant the word in such a fashion. One sentence more would have made it clear. I am so used to seeing Byzantine and Eastern things explained wrongly in magazines that I may have jumped the gun on this one, as they say. I would rather be wrong on this.

  10. […] Glory to God for all Things, notes how much can be lost in translation between the eastern and western churches. […]

  11. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    Good points all Fr. Stephen, so often you articulate what I struggle with. One thing that I have been playing with at the edges of my mind are the recent conversion stories of some prominant folks who chose the “Tiber” over Holy Orthodoxy. Among the reasons they give is that they are “western Christians” and hence are under the jurisdiction of the western patriarch, Rome. They go on to speak of liturgy and language, etc. but the first reason is the one that I find a non sequitor, how do they explain Roman Catholic Viet Nam? The Phillipines? Etc.
    I think they are taking this East vs. West thing to an odd extreme, and they speak of Thomas Aquinas and Blessed Augustine as if they could never be wrong on anything. Saints have been known to be wrong upon occasion or to have been proven so later. If I remember correctly, Aquinas finally saw God and stopped his scholastic blathering, he finally got it, there was nothing else to say. The Orthodox Chuch has known this for a very long time. Way to go Thomas!
    I guess the point is, why do these folks have to write that one is better than the other? Why do they even have to justify their choices? It seems to me that deep down they must know they are losing something in the choice for that to be true. Perhaps this just a perpetuation of the schism, and more division than there has to be. Yet, I know my own bias and I will never understand their justifications or arguments because of it.
    Just wanted your thoughts on the matter…
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,

  12. Fatherstephen Avatar

    The divide between East and West is real, though not entirely geographical. I suppose someone who converts to Roman Catholicism may feel a need to justify why they did not become Orthodox because both make similar historical claims and those claims must have played a large role in their conversion. I’m not a West basher (or I try not to be) but the reality of Orthodoxy, even with what problems we have, simply bears the truth in a fullness I see no where else. But it is so hard to translate that into terms that someone else understands. Thus I write, speak, wait and in patience am able to occasionally be of help to someone. If that is so, then all is worthwhile.

  13. Matt Avatar

    This is a topic that has been painfully close to my heart since I first began investigating Orthodoxy. I believe I have mentioned this in a comment here before, but my family comes from a somewhat “Fundi-gelical” Southern Baptist background. To put it another way, Lutherans and Methodists were “too Catholic” for us. And, even now, the word “save” still holds an Evangelical connotation for me (I’m working through that).

    From the time that I first began to look at Orthodoxy, I have noticed a gulf appearing between myself (and my fiancee, for whose company in this journey I am ever grateful) and my family and friends from the Baptist church. This gulf is simply language. We all speak English, most of us speak Southern ;-), but when it comes to talking about the Church, I might as well be speaking Greek.

    One example of this gulf, actually, would be part of Theodora’s comment above, about talking to the Saints as close personal friends. Many such comments appear on the website of my parish about St. John Maximovitch (I believe this is the same John she (forgive me if I get the gender wrong) refers to?), some expressing even greater devotion to St. John. My mother, when I first began visiting this parish, went to the website and found these statements about John, and, to her, they rang of blasphemy. To her, they were expressing devotion to John that should be given only to God! The very idea that one could have a “personal relationship” with a dead person! To her, this was idolatry (with hints of necromancy).

    The fact that the church’s website is largely about St. John anyway didn’t help; a church’s website should only be about Christ, not about “some man,” no matter how great he was.

    Ultimately, I’ve found, the only way to talk to Protestants fairly about the Church is when one can get beyond the surface questions and deal with the underlying presuppositions. For instance, I believe many disputes could be largely resolved (or, at least, some progress could be made toward understanding) if Sola Scriptura were dealt with first. This was the case with myself, at least. However, with many Protestants (especially Baptists), the slightest suggestion that Sola Scriptura might be wrong will more likely earn hostility than an open ear.

    I just wish I were a better communicator in this regard. There is so much I have yet to learn, it makes it difficult to express these things in a way Protestants can, at least, not immediately reject. Regardless, I know no one can be “argued” into the Faith.

    I hope I haven’t said anything unfairly, and I apologize for the length, but, as I said, this is an issue painfully close to my heart, and it likely will be for some time.

    Please, pray for me!

  14. Fatherstephen Avatar


    You’re very likely correct that it will remain painful for some time. It’s not a bad suggestion, given the propensity for mistranslation that a parish’s web-page be dominated by Christ and the Orthodox witness to Christ – with other side pages of interest in the saints, etc. Only if to avoid misunderstanding. But that’s sort of the way things go.

    In sola Scriptura discussions I have had, often my starting point has not been to attack Sola Scriptura, per se, but to help someone else realize that they do not use Sola Scriptura (nor does anyone) but that everyone uses some form of tradition in an a priori sense and brings that to the Scripture. Then the question becomes, on what authority or what basis do you use that tradition? Orthodox is not so different than others when it comes to how we read – it’s just that we’re quite up front what that question and speak openly of how tradition plays a role and by what authority it does.

    One reason for this is that this “literary” (if I may use such a term) questions arose quite early for the Church in its defense of the faith, and we answered the questions very straightforwardly, in some cases with literary arguments that were not to be seen again until near the end of the 20th century in the West. It’s interesting.

    My God keep you.

    Funny, we are all in the translation business. It is the life of heaven itself that is being translated into our lives. Indeed, much is lost in translation in that exercise.

  15. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    On my main wall of the dining room, is where are icons and altar is, topped by the icon of the mystical supper and a lovely Ukrainian handcarved cross that a friend made us, and we have a shelf that our candles and paper icons and little treasures sit on, like holy oil, etc. But all of our icons are there. It is quite a stunning sight for visitors and most of them are not Orthodox. Whenever I see them looking at the wall, or peeking but not asking I always say, “What do you think of my family pictures?” This seems to invite good questions, because our saints are our family in heaven too. They pray for us, just like our God parents do. I think explaining the relationships helps alot, and that they Church Triumphant exists.
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,

  16. Sean Avatar

    Three observations: One, the journalist was just lazy (and maybe that’s a Western problem). Two, something that Jaroslav Pelikan is known for is his statement on the need for creeds. Of Africa he said that we didn’t need to christianize africa, we needed to africanize christianity. This suggests that christianity will always need to be local while yet remaining orthodox. Three, the major historical christian divisions (Orthodox/Roman/Protestant) occurred along language barriers (Greco-Slav/Latin/Germanic).

    I take your point on translation issues – particularly where it relates to Protestantism. I recently read the agreed statement of the North american orthodox-catholic theological consultation (http://www.scoba.us/resources/filioque-p01.asp) and it sketches out the way in which Latin translations of original Greek formulations were inadequate and partially the cause of later mischief.

    Now three questions. [Sidenote: these aren’t accusations/statements masked as questions. They’re really questions.] One, you say, “someone from the west.” Since you are from the West you must mean western-minded, right? How does a western minded person become eastern minded? If i take the St Stephens course will that do it? I’m genuinely curious what markers you perceive that i couldn’t know about, being neither an easterner by culture or by religion.

    Second, you use architectural theology to suggest a way of thinking that is alien to the western mind. But architecure was never a problem. In the early undivided church there existed a diversity architecural uses – homes and catacombs. The use of the basilica style (the long style) was employed as early as the fourth century. The style certainly evolved or developed, too. One can see changes in outward and inward appearance from, for example, St Pauls Outside the Walls (late 4th cent.) to the Italo-Byzantine St Apollinare in Classe (c.549). I don’t suggest we elide the differences between the longitudinal and central styles and their relation to eastern and western theology, but it was never a scandal in the unified church (like unleavened bread, fasting practices, shaved beards, etc.). Also, we have to consider that the use of a central plan with dome for Hagia Sophia (532), which became the model for much Orthodox (and Ottoman) sacred architecture, probably had as much to do with Justinian’s desire for massive scale as with theology. So, is the architecture of the early church really a good jumping off point for discussing Easterness? (OK, this was a little bit more rhetorical, but I’m still curious)

    Third, pace Pelikan, is the orthodox mind necessarily an eastern mind? Why not just Orthodox?

    By the way, I ask all these things as someone fascinated by Orthodoxy. As a Roman Catholic finding out about Orthodoxy is like finding out that my dad had a twin who was separated from him as a young adult. Well, what’s he like? How are they alike and how different? To what extent are the differences essential? I appreciated Fr. Hopko’s remarks on this (http://www.svots.edu/Faculty/Very_Rev_Thomas_Hopko_Category/orthodoxunity/).

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Western and Eastern are not necessarily geographical markers (I think I said as much in one of the comments). If you convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, do you not in time come to think more like a Catholic? If you accept Orthodoxy (which, for whatever reasons, is described as “Eastern” in contrast to “Western” where it differs from Protestants and Catholics) do you not in time come to see and think in an Orthodox manner rather than a Protestant or Catholic manner?

    I know from experience that although I was way more than sympathetic to Orthodoxy for 20 years, it has instead been in the last 10 years, as I have actually been Orthodox and thus immersed in Orthodox worship (lex orandi, lex credendi) I have realized how much it has changed how I see things and approach things. Perhaps the geographical adjectives are misleading but its an attempt to talk about a difference that is real – even in the lives of converts. Patriarch Bartholomew, when he spoke in the Washington area in one of his more recent visits, referred to a difference between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity as “ontological.” I think he may have overstated the case, but it was an effort to try to say to those on the outside that you have no idea of how different things are until you see them from the inside (within Orthodoxy).

    The differences are there and simply become greater in time. My youngest daughter, who has been raised Orthodox (she was six when she was chrismated) recently had opportunity to read an account of the substitution punishment theory of the atonement. She was so taken aback by this account (that is the stock in trade of much conservative Protestant theology) that she could not believe that there were any people who actually believed such a thing. And yet, she was born in East Tennessee. Nevertheless, I would have to describe her understanding of God to be “Eastern” (at least in its origins).

    But I would agree with you, the adjective “Orthodox” could easily be substituted for “Eastern” with the one exception that the non-Orthodox Christian mind is the shaper of our culture in a way that Orthodoxy is not. The world outside frequently looks distinctly foreign to an Orthodox Christian, even if they’ve never known any other culture.

    The differences in some cases are not essential, but in some cases they may very well be. It is increasingly the case that Orthodox thought is having strong influence on Protestants and Catholics, such that some of the differences make begin to be minimized. Only time will tell.

    But my quote of the Patriarch of Constantinople suggests that it may be a while.

  18. Sean Avatar

    Well, thanks for the kind response. I might have guessed that some words were used a bit generically, but I wanted to ask to be sure since the meaning of words was implicit in the original post.

    I know that some Orthodox clergy found Patriarch Bartholomew’s statements over the top (“bizarre” was how one Bishop described it to me), but I nevertheless believe that what you say is true regarding the sense of foreigness. But I think the world seems strange to a lot of christians. Nostalgia. As Van Morrison, and others, said, “We are strangers in this world.”

    By the way, I sincerely appreciate your blog and it’s personal and pastoral emphasis.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar


    I probably should add that in light of some of my recent posts, there are the additional problems raised by the false self versus the true self, a problem to be found everywhere, regardless of religion. False self confront some else’s false self is never going to get anywhere. And since we are the kind of sinners where the false easily triumps over the true, it is far more likely that my dogma and your dogma will have a conversation while you and I never meet. Unless there is a meeting of true self with true self there is no possibility of a saving relationship. This is hard (and is true on the level of Orthodox to Orthodox as well as Catholic to Catholic).

    In the end, we must call on God to have mercy on us. All of these things are beyond the human realm of help. Unless He helps us – we have no help.

  20. Sean Avatar

    Not arguing and sorry if I’m hogging your time, this is very helpful, bless you. But you say that all of these things are beyond the human realm of help. Doesn’t it at least help to be Orthodox? Or is this grace?

  21. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    Isn’t Greece in the European Union? Are they not considered to be “western” as a country though they be mediterranean in culture, they are not Northern European “western” but they are not far east “eastern” like the hindus and buddists. I guess I am trying to say how far is east? And Christianity is a world-wide religion, Orthodoxy is everywhere, like the RCC.
    I agree with you Fr. Stephen about the phronema, or mind of the Church, it takes being in it to develope, it takes living the life of Christ to attain, to become Orthodox.
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,

  22. Matt Horwitz Avatar
    Matt Horwitz

    Fr. Stephen,
    First of all I want to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with the web-connected world. I rarely come away from your blog without a new or more nuanced understanding of God, the nature of faith, and our existence in community with others; you have a knack for examining the concepts by which the West understands Christianity and casting them in different terms to better align them with the truths they are supposed to represent. For this reason your blog has been important in my own Christian walk. I left the world of evangelical Protestantism a few years ago disaffected and unable to believe, and my journey back to faith has required me to radically redefine just about everything I thought I knew about God. Suffice it to say that your words have been a light in dark places for me and are much appreciated.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar


    Of course I think it helps to be Orthodox (though this is something that itself is only by God’s grace). But I was speaking specifically about mutual understanding and in that statement about speaking from within the “true self” which is certainly only established by God through grace – though being Orthodox, I believe, is of a help. But none of these things are human efforts – but efforts we as humans make that, by God’s grace, become more than our efforts and actually bear fruit.

    Though not Western (which is famous for its doctrine of sola gratia – grace alone), Orthodoxy as well does not think that anything good is accomplished apart from God’s grace.

  24. Sean Avatar

    Thanks for your patience.

  25. Matt Horwitz Avatar
    Matt Horwitz

    Oops. I accidentally submitted that before I was done typing my entry; trust me, I wanted to do more than simply gush about your site. 🙂

    The topic of this particular entry brought to mind a book I read early in my journey back to faith—I was confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church this past Easter—titled Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic. It’s not the most in-depth apologetic for the Catholic faith available, but it has been valuable to me as a sort of Protestant-Catholic dictionary: the book is written specifically with the intention of sounding like a Protestant text (most noticably, its Bible passages are taken from the NIV and the New Testament writers referred to without the appellation “St.”) but deals with Catholic issues. So the notion that reconciliation between East and West is made far more difficult on account of linguistic divergence doesn’t surprise me, these troubles being present within the Western tradition as well.

    Incidentally, Born Fundamentalist makes little or no mention of the Orthodox faith, and I didn’t know much at all about it until I was well along the confirmation process in the RCC. The impression I was given of Orthodoxy via Catholic apologetics was that it was a halfway point between Catholicism and Protestantism: “The Eastern Orthodox have confession and bishops and they pray to saints, but they don’t believe in purgatory or recognize the Pope.” And, of course, the implication of most accounts of the Great Schism is that the East hasn’t been able to accept the truths that the West has put forth (i.e. the filioque clause and papal primacy) but that they’ll eventually come around and rejoin the One True Church. That, of course, is a terribly impoverished interpretation of the faith and hardly captures the nuances of the Catholic-Orthodox division, which are far more complicated than that.

    That Orthodoxy to a Catholic would appear to be little more than Catholicism with a few doctrines missing leads me to believe that, even when we do manage to express his own faith in the other’s language (of which the term “dialogue,” so popular in post-Vatican II thought, smacks uncomfortably), no one’s actually listening to each other. What I would hope for is this: that we could not only learn each other’s language but, in speaking, listen, and allow ourselves to be changed by what the other side has to say. I can’t imagine that everything about either expression of faith is perfect, and I know for a fact that Roman Catholicism would become better were it to become more like the Orthodox Church.

    On that note, I suspect that there are ways in which the same is true in reverse, but I don’t want to start an argument, nor do I have the knowledge to back up whatever charges I would make. 🙂

    Whatever the case may be, I’m finding my faith very much changed by what the Orthodox, and you in particular, Fr. Stephen, are saying to me. (Incidentally, my roommate, a Protestant, and I are about to embark upon reading His Life is Mine by Fr. Sophrony—my suggestion. Wish us luck.) My question to you is this: I want to make myself a vehicle for God to bring about greater unity between our churches; what can those of us who are neither theologians nor bishops do, apart from listening and changing?

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you, Matt. I think listening is good and praying is the best of all. Unity is not the goal – but union in Christ. No one should want a union unless it is the work of God.

    The description you first heard of Orthodoxy is part of the reason Orthodox can be as noisy as we are. It is a sad caricature of the Orthodox faith. Again, lost in translation. I could say more, but I would probably only sin in doing so. More prayer, much more prayer.

  27. Chip. Avatar

    A peanut gallery reaction to two of the strands from this discussion —

    On the saints: My mother was Episcopalian, while my father was Roman Catholic. I ended up in the a low-church Anglican Sunday School (due to better child care arrangements, my mother claimed). My eight-year-old mind was part amused and part outraged at the deference to the saints in general and to Mary in particular when first I experienced a Catholic Mass. I made my objections known, with the certitude of a youthful theologian. My father pointed to the Apostle’s Creed and said that we are to believe in “the communion of saints.” I paid no attention to his answer then. Forty years later, his words came back to me. I did not just recall but re-experienced his answer. I do not know how to approach the saints for their intercession, but I am certain of their connection with us through Christ. And I hope some of my words may be true enough to resound with grace, even more than four decades later.

    On translation: As mentioned above, I started in a Protestant tradition, and I grew more reformed as I grew up. The sermon was always the highlight of any service to me, and I viewed the Eucharist as only an occasional sidelight to preaching. Later I went to a Jesuit university and even took a class with the title of the Theology of Christian Worship. In all this time I it never crossed my mind that the Eucharist holds center-stage for all litugical Christian believers. Instead, I regarded the Catholic Mass as a rote tradition, generally with bad preaching. It never entered my imagination that communion through the elements was the main point and focus of our worship. Please note: Nothing could have been more obvious, and no one could have tried harder, to show off this blatant truth. But I never “translated” a most basic point, a point made available by experience, by observation, by academic study, by discussion . . . (A less generous — or less irenic — reading might say that I had not ears to hear because my mind was blinded to this truth).

    As you have said many other times, Fr. Stephen: Lord, have mercy.

  28. David Avatar

    This is a long topic indeed with much to think about. Strange that I think of “Greek” as the very soul of what it means to be “Western”. As the Orthodox church is “Greek” so I think it is “Western”. That is the Hellenized church.

    When I think Eastern, I think Hebrew, and I pull out of my theology the neo-Platonic world view of the West. As I’ve been searching out Orthodox theology recently, so I’ve been searching out Hebrew theology.

    It remains this way for me, that Paul’s explanation of the new revelation of God in Christ, is really the only “new” thing in the “new” testament. I seek to read it as a Hebrew and not a Greek even though I am an adopted son of Abraham instead of one by blood.

    Surprisingly the same “Greekness” which puts me off the Roman church, puts me off the Orthodox church as well.

    While I’m prima scriptura (not sola, which as you said is an impossibility) I judge even the church fathers by there adherence to the very scriptures they helped assemble. When Ireneaus speaks of Christ living a complete life dying of old age, I just black out that line as “false”.

    I’m unable to look at theology in any other fashion. All statements are either “verified by scripture”, “falsified by scripture” or “unknowable by scripture”. The unknowables I consider not theology but Christian philosophy.

    As I’ve said in past posts, I am trapped in this.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    David, may I suggest the following: There are two types of Hellenism, the neo-Platonic type from which the entire western tradition suffers and the type that has been turned into compost by the grace of the Holy Spirit working through the Church Fathers of the seven Ecumenical Councils. A work that was further advanced by St. Gregory of Palamas and the Orthodox councils that examined his articulation of the union with God and Christ in the Church.

    Starting with St. Augustine, the church in the west for some reason teneded to ignore all of the hard, sweaty, difficult work the Eastern Fathers had done to pick through Hellenic philosophy and find that which could withstand the fire of the Truth and that which could not.

    It can be said that for the Orthodox, the Bible is a book of prayer that enables us to enter into the mystery of God’s mercy in worship. Truth is the Person of Jesus Christ whom we meet in that mystery. Because it is God whom we meet, it is all unknowable. At the same time He empties Himself out for us, to us, within us in an incredible act of kenotic communion. Whereas Isaiah saw it from afar, because of the Incarnation, we are brought into heavenly worship as the veil of the Temple is rent.

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    David, I think it’s a difficult position to be in to judge the fathers, or to judge that we completely understand the Scriptures. The Church of the Fathers in inseparable from the Holy Scriptures. Attempts to do this a an illusion. The Church that wrote, believed, interpreted, defended, etc. the Holy Scriptures continues among us. You can’t just leap ahead two thousands years and think that we understand all of it so well that we get to pick and choose that neatly, much less from the outside. This is certainly a place to stay stuck. We get unstuck by yielding ourselves to Christ and the life He has given us in the Church.

  31. kevinburt Avatar

    There have been books written about the Hellenization obvious in St. Paul’s theology. I’m no theologian, but someone more aware of this than myself might be able to point out examples. Even in the words of Christ, himself a Jew, one can find evidence of “Hellenization.”

    David, how would one approach Scripture itself from your “three questions” vantage point? How can Scripture answer those questions about itself? Where would Scripture itself (if it did even explain to us its own parameters) limit “theology” to only what is explicitly affirmed within its own “pages”? And if Scripture does have all the answers, isn’t there still the significant issue of understanding its meaning and proper application?

    I don’t ask those to be contentious. Like Fr. Stephen said, I’m finding it harder and harder to extricate Scripture from the womb that gave it birth, the Church. I don’t see how that can be done. It seems like trying to remove and resell the studs from my house, while keeping the house itself.

    I also wonder why we should fear “Greek” words or influences or “ways” of explaining things. If the Holy Spirit did not leave on sabbatical once the apostles were gone, shouldn’t we expect the Church in coming years to continue to be led by the Spirit, even if She became largely Greek? Could the Holy Spirit not just as effectively christen Greek thought, even as it did Jewish thought?

  32. David Avatar

    This continues to be a very helpful discussion for me. I pray that I don’t tax anyone’s sensibilities.

    I used to think that where Christians differed from one another was from error (some simply have not investigated the text, the historical church or frankly consistently read a newspaper in the last decade). But let me put aside those people because they aren’t a part of this discussion (and frankly I don’t think about them much anymore).

    I then moved on to thinking that what separated us was the use of metaphor. I’m still mostly in this place. A simple explanation of this divide would be the absurd notion of actually plucking out your own eye physically because you were looking at women lustfully. Some take literally what others take metaphorically and so there is division.

    But there seems to be another division. And I can’t fathom it’s nature. I cannot fathom that Father Stephen would be claiming that the church fathers in everything they wrote were in perfect harmony with the scriptures and each other. Certainly the councils where they came together to find unity would not have been necessary if unity had been preexistent.

    The fathers greatly inform my understanding of scripture (as does scholarship and I pray the Spirit), but would even they claim that their writings should be canonized along with the apostles? I hate to be overtly modern, but don’t we have to look at to whom they wrote and for what purpose?

    I do not like Augustine, nor his spiritual son Thomas Aquinas (who would say that man’s intellect wasn’t affected by the fall). It gives me great comfort to know that Aquinas put aside even spurned his Summa Theologica after his vision of God. Strange that the Western church picked it back up.

    I do not seek to judge the fathers, only to read and understand. Understanding requires discernment and I would test every spirit against the scriptures. I would be as the Bereans. If the father’s themselves assembled the scriptures how could they object to my holding them to their own prophesy regarding the scripture’s authority?

    I had a good friend who was a Calvinist and so I sought to understand him better by understanding Calvinism. The more I investigated the more I realized that systematic theology is a most dangerous game. So then I doubly caution myself when I argue with the fathers (particularly since they cannot return the dialog for my edification).

    Again, I am stuck. I cannot avoid the encounter, but I cannot simply yield authority to them either. Does the Orthodox church actually teach that Christ both ascended to heaven after appearing to the disciples and yet somehow ALSO lived a life on earth until dying of old age?

    Are not even the church fathers only the fathers because they came to agreement with each other at the ecumenical councils? Those who were heretical were put out. How do the councils defend their position against the heretical except by scripture? Were they always in complete agreement on every issue? What to those members who disagreed? What to the obvious “hammering out” of language in common?

    I don’t see anything inconsistent in holding the Church to the very gospel they preach. And I don’t see any need for apostolic succession. Only the preservation of the good news. I suppose the response is only apostolic succession can preserve it’s truth.

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would not say that they were in agreement about every detail but in general yes. Local councils abounded and took care of matters. Ecumenical councils, though we revere them, were forced on the Church by political powers that be. Nevertheless, we and the faith survived. But what is not seen from a Protestant perspective is that the one Church, of Fathers and the Councils and the Scriptures never ceased. We don’t have to be dissected or figured out. We’re still here. With the same unity of faith that we always had. Though there is no claim to perfection (we would never claim such a thing) simply that this is the Church that Christ promised would not succumb to the gates of hell. I cannot separate from Scripture, the Fathers, the Councils, etc., because they are all manifestations of the One Church. This is what is quite foreign to most.

  34. David Avatar

    Thanks for your patience. I’ve spent too long in my individual matters here. I seek to contribute to, not divert from, the discussion.

    In Him,

  35. Kevin Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Five years ago I started going to an Orthodox Church for the first time. Now Orthodox, yet having grown up Protestant (over 30 years) AND having studied linguistics for a year – I can fully relate to both sides of your article AND the loss in translation – namely semantic meanings of similar words.
    I credit God with the timing of being introduced to Orthodoxy while simultaneously studying linguistics – especially sociolinguistics, which is understanding how culture and language influence each other. I found Orthodoxy to be “the same” Christianity I grew up with (Protestant) but from a different cultural perspective. Thus I was able to wrestle with unfamiliar concepts (Mary – Theotokos; Eucharist – not merely symbols but actually body and blood; “church” – not a nebulous concept but an actual group of people; etc.)
    All this to say – thank you for your article. I am a living example of “Lost in translation” – but took the time to understand.

  36. Dino Avatar

    A find it is an extraordinary misfortune that translations into English are sometimes shockingly poor. The original meaning is lacking in numerous renderings into English.
    Here’s one (of numerous) examples: Jude 1:12. The original “ἑαυτοὺς ποιμαίνοντες” literally means “shepherding themselves”. That translation would have sufficed – retaining the original’s key point about the significance of being inside the tradition/obedience of the Church. However, it is impossible to find an English translation that says this -or something along those lines. They all keep regurgitating the idea that this passage says that “they are feeding themselves without fear” which is not even in the original. It is as if they just re-render the King James’ version mistakes which say: “These are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear: clouds they are without water, carried about of winds;”

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