The Translation of the Faith

There is an Italian proverb: Traduttore, traditore. It means, “translator, traitor.” It is the observation that no matter how hard one might try, the translation of one language into another is never more than approximate: there can be no “literal” translation.

Every language is, within itself, a universe of relationships between words. There are shades of meaning and associations that simply cannot be moved into another language. When we study a new language, we learn vocabulary, but with the immediate betrayal of the words we want to learn. For, most often, we are given one, or two meanings in our own language to use in understanding. But the meaning(s) of our word can never be an exact rendering of a word in another language.

Imagine trying to translate a pun.

I came up with my first Russian pun recently. The Russian word for theologian is “bogoslov” (Bog=God, and Slov=word, or logos). The pun was to refer to myself as a “Blogoslov.” Russians sitting around in our coffee hour thought it was hilarious. The Americans didn’t really get it.

I love languages. I studied Greek, Latin, German and Russian when I was in college and added Hebrew when I was in seminary. The only thing I can approach having a conversation in, however, is German. And even then, it’s touch and go.

Most Christians live in a world of translation (we can’t all be Greeks). It is interesting that much of the New Testament is not written in very polished Greek. I know this as a second-hand fact. For, although I majored in the language and can read the New Testament pretty fluently, my reading is really not broad enough and deep enough to say, “This is less than polished Greek.” That is the sort of thing any English reader could quickly say about something written in English – even if they couldn’t tell you how they knew that.

And this last point is among the least translatable realities: a child has a “feel” for their native language that only the most fluent second-language speakers can have (and, even then, quite rarely). Those who learn a second language to the level of true fluency sometimes report a strange phenomenon: feeling like they are someone else when they speak the other language, or, a different version of themselves. The gestalt of a language is an inherent part of all that we call personality. Thus, the “other” personality is perhaps not surprising.

There is an even deeper reality about language: it is something we know by communion. At least, that’s the best term I can think of to describe that seamless aspect of our lives. We think with words; we feel with words. And though there are occasions in which our thoughts and emotions seem to lack words, we experience this as a great difficulty and words must be found.

Language is a very useful experience for thinking about true communion. We do not experience language as one thing and ourselves as another. It is part of us. My halting German cannot serve as a vehicle for communion. Flying to Greece recently, we picked up a load of Germans in Munich who were making their way South. In the seat in front of me was a three-year old girl, who quickly unbuckled and turned around to talk to this old man. I realized that my German was somewhere below that of a three-year old, though we laughed and she made fun of my “langer Bart” (“long beard”). My efforts were awkward and clipped. There was me, and there was the child, and my lack of vocabulary stood as an impenetrable wall.

Our faith is expressed in words (among other things). For some, though their own native tongue might be employed, theology and Scripture are a foreign tongue. For the words of the faith belong to a world and a reality that is not a universal experience. It is available to all, but only known by some.

There is a modern phenomenon described as “contextualizing the gospel.” It means paying attention to cultural patterns and to shape the gospel in a manner that can be understood in those terms. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea, and to be consonant with the ancient practice of the Church. But this concept is hampered in that it is employed by modernists. In the modern understanding, culture is neutral and all cultures are equal. In Orthodox practice, local culture has always been respected. It is frankly the reason behind “Greek,” “Russian,” “Romanian,” or “American,” Orthodoxy. Its most obvious application has been the practice of translating the Scriptures and the services into the language of a people. This has always been the Orthodox practice (versus the ancient practice of Rome requiring everything to be in Latin).

But there has always been a subtle “Hellenization” of every culture in which the Orthodox have successfully established the Church. Russians do not become Greeks, but Russian culture cannot be properly understood without seeing its roots in Christian Hellenism. The language of Scripture is Greek (and even the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT is seen as authoritative). All of the major doctrines of the Christian faith were articulated and explained in Greek. This is not a mere cultural artifact: it is normative for all Christianity.

If you are familiar with Orthodox Christianity and its many cultural expressions, then there is no denying the wide variety that can be found. But the core of what is similar can be seen for its Hellenism. As such, there can be no “modern” expression of the Christian faith, at least not in the sense that its terms and concepts will be those of modernity. Modernity represents an alien philosophy, or, rightly understood, a Christian heresy.

The faith not only has a language (with a decidedly Greek accent), but also offers the possibility of “fluency.” We sometimes speak of an Orthodox phronema (or “mind”). That phronema includes a fluency in the grammar of the faith. Not all will have the same sized vocabulary, but all will have one and the same “grammar.”

The translation of the gospel into a new culture (or a non-Orthodox culture), does not consist in changing the gospel to make it understandable. It consists in the more difficult task of embodying one and the same gospel in the flesh of a new language (and the fullness of its expression). With modern cultures, the task is made more difficult by the fact that modernity is post-Christian. It has many essential words drawn from Christian tradition, but it has changed their meaning to enflesh its own heterodox concepts. Thus there will be continuous battles over words in the work of re-evangelizing the modern world.

A number of key words occur to me that mean one thing in classical Christianity and another in modernity:


Of course, the full list is much longer. It is more than words – it is the very grammar of Christianity that must be embraced. Ultimately, the question will become, “Who is speaking whom?”

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.



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108 responses to “The Translation of the Faith”

  1. Eugene A. Koene Avatar
    Eugene A. Koene

    Have you seen the new translation of the New Testament by Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart? I haven’t, but it is receiving praise. Apparently he seeks to be as literal as possible, to the point of attempting to reproduce the uneven Greek style of the NT in English. If you’re familiar with it, would you care to share your impressions?

  2. Karen Avatar

    Did you mean to ask”…Who is speaking *to* whom?”

    (Delete this when you have seen it. Thanks!)

  3. Byron Avatar

    So insightful and very helpful in thinking about “classic” Christianity and the mind of Orthodoxy (which I’m told takes at least 10 years, if not a lifetime, to acquire)! Many thanks, Father!

  4. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    A very helpful article. Each profession has its own vocabulary, such as that of civil engineers, publishers, architects, theologians. Helpful too is the note on the “phronema”, that we all as Orthodox use the same one but have different levels of vocabulary usage. That’s a new idea for me. Whereas an engineer uses his vocabulary, we must be “immersed” in ours as Orthodox, since it must be lived 24/7. Much like learning a new language which has an, “ah ha” moment, I think one can acquire such a moment in Orthodoxy, not of ever having arrived, but feeling at home in the faith, dare I say “comfortable” in a good sense. We have lived in Mexico. Before leaving I remember starting to dream in Spanish. And yes, I have felt at times. when speaking Spanish, that I was somehow a “different” person, quite an odd but somewhat exhilarating experience at the same time.

  5. Drewster2000 Avatar

    I believe God both allows and uses this inability to truly communicate (ever since the Tower of Babel) for our salvation. If everything was easy to understand, His wisdom wouldn’t be hidden from the wise and we would become full of ourselves – just as we were led out of the Garden before we could make the damage permanent..

  6. Dino Avatar

    regrettably, even in Greek, that list of words mean one thing in classical Christianity and another in modernity.
    Thank you for your always illuminating insights.

  7. Eric Avatar

    I do believe that you’re into something by expressing Modernity as ‘Christian heresy’

    The inability of the faith to be translated into Modern terms is something hidden from we Moderns, so Modernity translates the Faith. This seems to be tied up with Modernity’s implicit yet hidden metaphysics and account of Ontology.

    I sometimes consider this in terms of those cultures which seem so impervious to the Faith, eg Japanese. We Modern ‘Christians’ perhaps fail to see that we too are similarly impervious

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s why we’re glad to have you here…someone has to keep the Greeks in line!

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If you study where modern Protestantism is successful in evangelism, it is almost always somewhere that is rapidly important the “American way of life.” Orthodoxy, on the other hand, speaks far better to non-modern, non-Western cultures. It’s a fight in modernity, precisely because modernity is a Christian heresy and must be corrected and converted.

  10. Eric Avatar

    A further thought occurs which is the insistence of Islam on reading the Koran in Arabic. In a sense there is a parallel??
    Islam is of course famously non Moderm and so does not accept the Modern assumptions regarding one for one ‘translation’.

  11. Matt Avatar

    I thought “Who is speaking whom?” was a wholly intentional turn of phrase in this context – the “whom” being not the addressee of the speech, but the people of the language spoken.

  12. tess Avatar

    Oh, wow, this article gave me major chills, Father. Or rather, cela me donne des frissons. 🙂

  13. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Excellent post Father. Very well stated. Thank you.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. It was quite intentional. My meaning was that if the culture has co-opted your language (and inserted its own meanings), then we are being “spoken” by the culture and become just a tolerable little subgroup of the culture at large. An interesting example: the word “person” has been co-opted by the culture in such a manner that it can deny “personhood” to a child in the womb, while granting it to a corporation (in American law). In the Orthodox Christian use of the term “person,” an unborn child must be “person” or not exist at all. There is only a “personal” existence.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Islam has lots of odd rules – a requirement when there are no reasonable arguments for the truth of their beliefs. They do not allow critical examination because it will fall apart.

  16. Matvey Avatar

    Thank you for this, Father!

    I have been working as a translator (Russian-English) for 2-3 years now, and when my Russian colleagues laugh when they ask how to say something in English. “Or are you just going to tell me, ‘We can’t say that in English’ like you always do?” They laugh, but they understand that certain things cannot be said the exact same way in English. The same goes for Russian.

    Once when my mother returned from visiting her siblings in Western Canada, I asked how everyone was doing. She gave a brief account of each of her brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. When I asked about Uncle Frank (known for his deadpan sense of humor and constant joking), she simply said, “Frank is still Franking.” I could try and create a verb in Russian out of the name “Frank,” but the subsequent phrase still wouldn’t have the same meaning.

    In terms of my Orthodox experience, I converted in Russia and didn’t have an Orthodox vocabulary in English for many years. I grew up in a mixed Calvinist-Catholic (and later, extremely syncretistic) household where we all knew the Bible relatively well, but most thought there was more value in Eastern religions. No one used words like “vigilance” or “fasting,” a “passion” was someone’s drive for life, and words like “sin” and “repentance” were perceived as extreme.

    What does it say about Western culture that in those moments (of increasing frequency now that I have stopped trying to force them to occur) that my dear mother wants to discuss Orthodoxy, her most often response is “I don’t know what those words mean.” My mother is an educated, well-read woman, but for a long time, it was easier for her to speak about sweat lodges, structural violence, and boddhisatva than to discuss what a “passion” is. What is this bizarre spiritual-linguistic bankruptcy? (There’s good news here, by the way — now she loves asking me, “Is it a passion that I want to …?” And my answer is usually, “Yes, that sounds like a passion.”)

    One other thing I’ve noticed attending the English-language Liturgy at OCA parishes in NY and VT when visiting family is that the word “Theotokos” is transcribed but not translated. This strikes me as significant (I could be wrong here). When Orthodoxy came to the Slavic lands, they translated Theotokos into Богородица (Bogoroditsa), a literal translation that can then be declined into all the wonderful cases in Slavonic and Russian. This is a word one usually hears pronounced with reverence, and most often in the vocative case Пресвятая Богородице, моли Бога о нас! (O) Most Holy Theotokos, pray to God for us!

    The word “Theotokos” wasn’t adopted as-is into Church Slavonic (to be honest, the “th” sound might have been a problem) and to me this signifies (again, I might be wrong here) to what level Slavic Christians were able to accept the reality of the Mary-as-the-God-Bearer. In English, by comparison, it is as if this concept is still foreign to us on some level. Please note that I am not advocating the use of God-Bearer instead of Theotokos, and certainly not from some idea of nationalistic-linguistic purity. Perhaps “it is truly meet” to call the Theotokos “Theotokos.”

  17. Mihai Avatar

    @Eric: I believe the reason is that- with all its claims for universality- Islam always gives itself away as just another “old law” religion, one fitted to the specific mentality of a single people. It tries to imitate Christianity, but it falls far short of it. That’s why Islam requires an “arabization” in order to accept it which is not in the same sense as the “hellenization” which Father talks about here.

    @Father Stephen: What you say about the success of (neo-)protestantism in countries which are rapidly adopting the “American/Western way” is very true. From the beginning of the 90s it has become very hip here in Romania.
    Speaking to such a neo-protestant girl recently I realized how hard it is to bring her to understand certain aspects of traditional Christianity, because much of what she believed are simply “obvious facts found in the Bible” are simply expressions of the ‘spirit of the (modern) times’. She was absolutely baffled that someone could see these things otherwise. Though Luther’s protestantism certainly retained some important aspects of the Tradition before him, these became increasingly diminished to the point of being almost completely eliminated. I believe that with the principles the Luther and the reformers set forth back in the day, it was inevitable that the Protestant spirit will intermingle ever more closely with the spirit of the times.

  18. Subdeacon Richard Downing Avatar

    One of my copies of ‘Everywhere present’ that has been circulating round the parish came back to me last Sunday, by the report it seems once again to have helped someone with their Christmas shopping. This article reminds me why I keep recommending your writing to my brethren.

    You show with your insight here how important it is for theologians (blogoslovi?) in every age and culture to re-explain our Tradition. We say ‘read the Holy Fathers!”, but in each age there must be new fathers, because we need help to discover the “phronema” of the Holy Church in our own language.

    I worked most of my life in the Computer Industry and spoke it’s unique language quite fluently. When I retired, some years ago now, I tried to keep in touch with it, and have been somewhat successful. Every year, however, I am conscious that my understanding is not so deep as last year, I am gradually losing my computing phronema, and my ‘children’ now speak a slightly different dialect.

    To be in communion we need to have one mind together.

    Many thanks and much love.

  19. Michelle Avatar

    You know what would be awesome? A rundown of the differences between the ancient and modern understanding of these words, and how such differences transpire into heresy.

    For instance, how does the concept of ‘freedom’ differ in ancient Hellenism as compared to the modern Western world? And how is this modern concept contributing to heresy?

    But maybe this would require a book rather than a lengthy blog post. Does anyone know if such a book exist?

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Orthodoxy and English has been an awkward relationship, at best. There is no single, authoritative translation. Indeed, in the OCA alone, I know of three or more in use. Many of the service books I started with were “samizdat.” I had to scrounge for things that should have been readily available. And there is no end in sight. ROCOR uses a different translation, as do the Antiochians, and the Greeks use yet another. Based on the quality of the English services that the Greeks use, I would do their services in Greek 🙂

    When the OCA’s 1967 book was first translated, the printer (a Lutheran), went through and corrected it. It used “Thee” and “Thou” but failed to make the verbs correspond – which would have been a linguistic train-wreck! And then there is the British translation. Fortunately, Fr. Ephrem Lash did most of their translation work which gives it a consistency. In general, his work flows better than the American ones, but it has some “Britishisms” that make it occasionally awkward in the US. Interestingly, I think he simply uses Mother of God for Theotokos.

    Theotokos is actually quite difficult to translate, isn’t it? I’ve seen it rendered as “Birth-giver of God” which is probably the most accurate in English. But with the weirdness of Protestant treatments, I could imagine it being perversely thought to mean nothing more than “the one through whom Jesus passed.” The word has to be more organic, somehow. I think that it was wrestling with this problem that simply let “Theotokos” stand.

    My frustration (in English) is that “Theotokos” has no “gut-feeling” attached to it. Over the years, it is growing for me, but when I compare it to terms such as “Panagia” in Greek (the “All Holy”), which they speak with such love and devotion – I feel somewhat bereft. Older English most often used the term “Lady” with great affection. Of course, English does not have a great tradition of “affection,” I think. In Catholic usage, the simple name “Mary” is used quite sweetly – but this doesn’t seem to be the case in Orthodox usage.

    When visiting in Essex, England, I first heard the Slavonic for “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” It was being prayed by a nun and its sweetness melted my heart. I frequently use it in my prayers (in Slavonic).

    In Slavonic or Russian, you not only have Bogoroditsa, but there are echoes of “Rodina” (the “Motherland”) that has such deep, deep affection and connection. These are the sorts of things that translation cannot do. Words fail us.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sadly, contemporary American Christianity, of the popular sort, is fast becoming nothing more than a cipher for the American way of life – with all of its shallowness. There is sentimentality at its worst and theology that turns Christianity into consumerism.

  22. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I rather suspect that such a task would result in a voluminous work. I know a little of what has changed but I am certain I am only getting a taste. I also hasten to add that even in the Early Church, many concepts had to be worked out and words found to express these fundamentally new concepts as both authentic Judaism and then Christianity totally reset the way mankind viewed the Divine and how true faith is worked out.
    One interesting case is the idea of person. We have come to see a person as much more than an individuals biological unit and yet even individuals other than the great kings were not counted as noteworthy. We can understand it somewhat through a statement of once you have seen a slave, you have seen them all. When Christ revealed the person hood of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit language had to go back to the drawing board to try to express what this really means. In the run up to Nicea this was a central issue in the struggles between various factions.
    The Hebrew word for person (Panime) means presence or face. In Greek the word was Prosepone and it meant face or presence but also mask. The Tragedy and Comedy masks we see are Prosepone. Can you see how the idea of Modalism might be constructed out of such a word? If we use the word Prosepone to describe the three Persons of the Trinity it is easy to misunderstand and think of masks and therefore roles. They had to invent a word for person (hypostasis) that had no other meaning. This and the other word they developed for essence (Homoousia) are what started the squabbles between the Oriental, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopean and Armenian Jurisdictions and led to the still unhealed schism.
    One would think that the Fathers had worked it all out and person hood would be clearly understood by all but that is far from the case. If we understood what persons are abortion would be unthinkable but because the concept has never been totally developed and fleshed it remains possible to deny an unborn baby is a person.
    I do agree that the project you suggest would be of great help especially when it comes time for a convert to swim the Bosporus and receive the renewing of the mind. We literaaly have to learn to think differently to really understand our Faith.

  23. Matvey Avatar

    Thank you for your response, Father.

    “These are the sorts of things that translation cannot do. Words fail us.”

    In other news, I think I’ve found a good quote to print and hang above my desk at work…

  24. Dean Avatar

    I was at a Protestant church recently for a funeral. Walking onto the site was exactly like walking down an outside shopping mall…speakers streaming “Christian” music, a large metal sign on one building saying it was a coffee lounge, shiny chrome outside tables and chairs in an outside patio, everything clean and pristine….talk about the mingling of western Christianity with consumerism. The man who had died was already buried. The memorial was in a large hall with a screen which was a celebration of his life. Now, to be honest, I’ve also seen a large bar (not coffee!) in an Orthodox church social hall. Syncretism can affect us all.

  25. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B

    Thank you Father for the post and the comments.

    When it comes to services in English, for us in the South of England, the Stavropegic (try translating that!) Monastery of St John the Baptist leads the way. Words matter a lot, and combined with faith and humility, they can transform lives. We read your blog here and attempt to live your words in real life. Browbeating others with perfect Ancient Greek interpretations won’t save us or them.

    Two stories come to mind:
    1) the parable of the three bearded men who were praying “erroneously ” saying “Lord do NOT have mercy on us”. Corrected by a priest, they went back to pray and forgot how. Then followed him to his boat walking on waves to beg him to remind them the correct way to pray.

    2) In Athens where I grew up I saw more churches per square metre than anywhere I’ve ever been. And heard sermons of real beauty and precision. Yet, their faith was no more leading to Christ as those who say Word instead of Logos or “present” instead of “parestikós” (cheers Dino for teaching me that).

    Fr Iakovos Tsalikis would have been deeply unimpressive as a speaker (forgive me), but a towering giant of faith and movement towards the true and only God.

    “I went to these places and they all spoke of God and God I didn’t see; then went to Mt Athos and no one spoke of God; and there He was, everywhere present”. Fr Sophrony, I think.

  26. Diana Welsch Avatar
    Diana Welsch

    Another great post Father. Just this week the word “waiting” came to me to describe where I am in my Orthodox life (wishing I knew more, but less than a decade as Orthodox conbert.) I love to look up the origins of words like you do and your post inspired me to look up the origins of the word wait, and I found: ‘lie in wait (for),’ ‘observe carefully,’ and ‘be watchful.’ For me, wonderful expressions to describe my journey at the present time.

  27. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    If it were only the outside symbols that speak of the melding of a faith with consumerism. I took a class in my Seminary called “Worship in the Church.” The first part of the course was historical and the second part covered the “how to’s” for “modern” services. It did not take me very long to see through the facade and see the manipulation and cynicism that under laid the approach. In my Under Graduate Studies I took a degree in Business-Finance. In it I studied Salesmanship. What I saw under the guise of worship was nothing more than salesmanship in a very manipulative and cynical manner. To be accurate, these views were part of the text used for class and not actually the position of our Seminary but we followed the same format anyway.
    What you saw was the marketing of Jesus as a commodity and the creation of desire for this commodity where none existed before. Again, I do not think most people who are pastoring a church think like this but they copy the successful styles of the mega churches that do. When I have been asked to explain why I chose to convert I find that the understanding of faith that I hold dear and the understanding that my friends have are totally alien to one another. They simply are not equipped to understand what I am saying. Remember, God wants you to win!!!!! He has planned out your life so that you will be rich, healthy and live a long and comfortable life. When I speak to people of this mindset and ask them why in the world were there ever Martyrs or Fools for Christ they either get a deer in the headlights look or go totally Vigger on me and chant the mantra: “Illogical, illogical, must sterilize….”

  28. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thomas B
    I will take a crack at translating Stavropegic…..It is a Direct Reporting Unit, not subject to intermediate levels of command and control. They report directly to the ruling Hierarch…this is a mixing of Church words within a military concept. I would make a smiley face here if I knew how as I am being facetious.

  29. Dean Avatar

    Yes. Nicholas,
    Going back to words. They do matter.
    In the past I have spoken to J.W.’s who’ve come to my door. We can use some of the same words, yet these words are infused with very different meanings. It is the same with Protestant friends. We can say identical words, yet talk past each other. Words such as: faith, tradition, belief, Mary, church, prayer, baptism, works, etc., all carry differing connotations. It can be quite frustrating. almost like speaking another language.

  30. Paula Avatar

    In reference to Nicholas’s response to you, especially the last paragraph “I do agree that the project you suggest would be of great help especially when it comes time for a convert to swim the Bosporus and receive the renewing of the mind.” , as a convert I had to start somewhere to begin to understand the history of words and their role in our perception of life and its purpose. The History of English Words by Owen Barfield was a very helpful introduction. I chose that particular book because Father Stephen described it as appropriate material for those without a background in such studies (philology).
    Here is a link, if you are interested. (prices a bit more reasonable at this site):

    Blessings, Michelle!

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m glad you mentioned Barfield’s History in English Words. It illustrates so well the nature of language and change.

    A great difficulty in teaching and understanding the faith is indeed because Orthodoxy is a “different language.” If we were talking about England of around 1600, there would have been a single culture and single understanding of the words used. Language is probably the most intimate aspect of culture. Today, though we live in a “modern” culture, it’s primary aspect is its diversity. There is, in fact, not one single culture, but a collection of sub-cultures that share in a greater, dominant meta-culture. There are subtle influences within all of that. For one, all sub-cultures are taught to be subservient to the majority culture, to hold themselves in a relative position. The dominant culture is what is found in the media. Now, even that is breaking down with the world of the internet and rivalry and independence in the media creates diversity there as well.

    Of course, when the Church used Greek, it was using a language that had much to offer, though, often, with different meanings than we needed. Thus, in the writings of the fathers, there is ample use of the wide variety of Greek words, but there was a constant new defining of those words to serve the purpose of the Church. That became more solidified when the Church became the dominant force in the culture.

    But there really can never be a “simple, plain” sense of anything – words carry meanings and meanings are rich, layered, etc. I could say, “Bring me my slippers.” But the meaning of those plain, simple words vary greatly depending on the tone of voice I use. That tone of voice can be obvious, if you are actually hearing it. But if you read the statement – the tone is gone. Unless it says, “Bring me my slippers,” he said sarcastically, you would not know that it was sarcasm.

    There was a deep lesson in language in my childhood as the Civil Rights Movement and the end of the Jim Crow Laws (Apartheid) in the South came about. There were words and expressions, deeply embedded in white English that simply had to change. Some people still bristle over such things, and think people are being too sensitive. But, usually, it is young people who never saw the raw injustice and evil of Jim Crow. Language changes – constantly. We are fools if we do not pay attention to it and think that every word means what it has always meant and is obvious.

    After becoming Orthodox and over a period of years, I have become extremely aware of just how “political” all English translations of the Bible are. All of them were translated with an agenda. The Geneva Bible (translated by Calvinists) rendered the word “episcopos” as “overseer” rather than “bishop” because they didn’t want a Church with bishops. So, overseer is a literal rendering of episcopos, but was misleading. I could go on and on. Almost all English translations are Protestant in their understanding and agenda – so much so – that its Protestant translators are actually ignorant of what they are doing. They simply cannot hear what the text says. The Scriptures of the NT were written by and for Orthodox Christians and, removed from that context, will always be misunderstood. We are reading someone else’s mail, and we must understand and know who it’s being written to if we want to understand it.

    Thus, there is, and always will be a need to teach. The Bible is not self-interpreting nor obvious in its meaning. God appointed teachers in the Church for a reason.

  32. Michelle Avatar

    Thanks Nicholas,
    I can see the difficulties and how extensive such an endeavor would be.

    Maybe for protestantism it would be helpful to go back to Nicea, so to speak. By this I mean maybe their fall into heresy is because they define their relationship to God not in trinitarian terms, but in terms of the five ‘Solas.’ This made way for their walking increasingly farther from the tradition. Because the ‘Solas’ don’t really suffer anything if the trinitarian relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is absent.

    Maybe by re-centering on the Trinity, and defining themselves by way of defining the three Persons of the Trinity and their relationship to each other (and therefore abandoning the Solas as their cornerstone) they can find their way back to the Church?

  33. Michelle Avatar

    I am very interested! Thank you, Paula!

  34. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I had to learn early in my conversion to ask what was really meant by expression my Protestant friends were using. The words were the same as my Orthodox words and many of the ones from my Pre Orthodox days but I found that each individual had a different definition for these words. I was tempted to think the Tower of Babble was being rebuilt.

  35. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you for the link. I ordered one as I cannot pass up a chanced to learn more.

  36. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    That would be an ideal scenario but it isn’t universal I am afraid. Those of us who converted basically have to do what you were saying but…. as my Dad always used to say: “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make them drink.” I have discovered that most of my Protestant friends are unwilling to drink, taste and see. Their narrow box of belief is comfortable and meets their needs. Fear of the unknown is very real and once one decides to even intellectually step outside their comfort zone, they are afraid as it is all unknown to them. They lose the control over God that their paradigm of faith gives to them and they are naked and defenseless in front of the Truth.

  37. Dean Avatar

    You keep reminding me of different things…I think this pertains.
    About one year after our conversion, a young seminary professor and a pastor were in our home. Our denomination had learned of us becoming Orthodox. They were at our house to ask that I return my ordination papers. I doubt they would have asked for them had we become Baptist. 🙂 But Orthodox…? Anyway, I had a shelf of Orthodox books in the living room. The professor knew of the Russian Orthodox and their terrible 70 years of suffering. He looked towards the book shelf and said to me, “You know, if I had read those books I might be on the same journey as you.” I appreciated his candor. However, he had a professorship and a young family to raise. I don’t think he ever chanced the read.

  38. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Recently we received into the Church a man who is a retired Pastor and had to overcome his family history (his father was a bishop in his denomination), his Seminary Colleagues (He was a Seminary Professor as well) and his wife was vehemently opposed to his conversion. His catechumenate was probably the longest on record at over 20 years. Some of his former associates did him the honor of attending his Chrismation but it was easy to tell they were uncomfortable and outright hostile to his conversion. They did not stay for Liturgy. Many of us have had to sacrifice much to convert, friends, family members and employment. All I can say, all of the sacrifice was worthwhile and I praise God for pushing me until I jumped.
    I had a many friends and professors from my Seminary who thought I had lost my mind. I will get the chance, Gd willing, to see them face to face when I attend the Clergy Conference in Clinton, MS. My former church that I was an Associate Pastor in was backed up to Holy Resurrection and my Seminary is in downtown Jackson, five miles away. We will see what happens when I wander over to see them.

  39. Paula Avatar

    Appreciate your response about Barfield, thank you.
    About the modern sub-cultures, we do indeed hear over and over again certain buzzwords such as diversity, inclusive, tolerance, global, universal (another word that may be added to your above list!)…where slowly but surely personhood is melting away into nothingness…non-personhood. There is no relation to the Divine standard anymore…only to the Ideals of the meta-culture. I am reminded of the 1970’s movie The Stepford Wives. Although an anti-establishment film of that era, it does a good job of depicting the loss of identity.
    Back when I was just about to break away from the Protestant church, I saw myself as a Stepford Christian….scared me to death! Looking back, I understand now what you mean when you refer to American Christianity. Scripture is exactly what the words say “by the Book”. Yet those words could mean anything “the Spirit tells you”….circular, confusing, to say the least. Because of their disdain for Catholicism all tradition is thrown out “with the bathwater”. I remember well the word “overseer” being stressed as proof that Christianity does not ordain Priests or Bishops.
    Anyway, thank you again Father for teaching us. I can not thank you enough! God bless always!

  40. Greg Avatar

    I take the main thrust of the post to be absolutely correct but I wonder about some of the commentary leading to it and the follows on. For example is this notion of absorbed Hellenism quite accurate in much of Orthodoxy? The reception of divine motherhood in Russia has roots in – I am not quite sure the right English word, but will settle for: – a kind of reverence for the soil, the dark and fertile Russian earth. The veneration of the Mother of God, the notion of the motherland (‘rodina’), etc are bound to this as much as they are to anything related to Hellenism. There is a resonance of ‘Bogoroditsa’ and Mother Russia, the Russian soil, and the Church that I think it inescapable (and to my mind a sweet thing) – but it is not primarily Hellenistic. Similarly I think the Latin churches were distinctly influenced by Hellenism but often quite different in their consciousness: think first millenium Celtic spirituality. All of those were Orthodox in the sense of union with the Imperial Church. And yet they were distinctly Christian followers of Christ and the Gospel.

    And what of Chrisitianity as it was absorbed in China and even perhaps Japan? Granted these missionaries were from the Church of the East, but can we really speak of the faith there in terms of Hellenism at all? Yet dare we say they that these monks and martyrs received the Gospel in a distorted way? I know many of the theological arguments one could make but I would be hard pressed to say yes.

  41. Paula Avatar

    Michelle and Nicholas,
    You are welcome! Enjoy the read!

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, Russian appropriation of the faith has some very Russian things about it – though true Hellenism is quite important in all that. You could describe Hellenism as the Nicene Faith and the gut reasoning of the Councils. Many segments of Christian denominations explain salvation in a manner not at all consonant with the Councils – needless to say the sacraments, rather than being integral have become afterthoughts. There is/was indeed much Hellenism in the West – though Latin Christianity tended to move away from the grounding in communion/participation/union/etc. and towards a fairly forensic understanding – again, not at all integrated with the thought of the Councils.

    Orthodox dogma and its mind is utterly the same and of a piece with the Councils and the great Fathers of that time. Not that you can’t find outliers. Regardless of where the faith is accepted (Far East, etc.), if it is true Nicene Christianity, then it has an unavoidable Hellenism at its core. Those that lack this Nicene basis, for whom the Councils are mere historical artifacts, are already on the road to becoming something other than truly Christian.

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    So what do we do when Hellenism becomes more important than the faith itself?

  44. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Head to the desert of your choice

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think I know what you mean – and that is a false Hellenism. Hellenism is not a proper descriptor for modern Greek culture.

  46. Brian Avatar

    Having participated in Greek, Russian, Romanian, Syrian, Bulgarian, and Serbian services in English with all their various translations, some of which vary by parish even within a given jurisdiction, I know of no better way of absorbing the meaning of words as understood by the Church than an extended period of praying them together with the Church, in the Church, regardless of how they are translated (although I admit that some translations seem rather impoverished) . There is something about praying the words, as opposed to merely reading them, in the manner that the Church weaves them together and teaches us to pray in the whole liturgical cycle that speaks in a meditative sense to the heart in a way that I never could grasp through study alone.

    My experience has been that in the liturgy the “universe of relationships between words” is revealed, and the “shades of meaning and associations that simply cannot be moved into another language” are overcome. But being a dense sort of fellow who is often trapped in the mind alone, it took a couple of years of participation before I began to realize it. It is a journey of the heart that deepens with every liturgical year.

  47. Michelle Avatar

    “Their narrow box of belief is comfortable and meets their needs.”

    Nicholas, you hit the nail on the head I suppose.

    This “comfort” that most Protestants find in their paradigms baffles me though. I suppose it must be the fear of leaving the only thing they’ve ever known, since most are born and raised within one denomination or another. Or the fact that they’ve been fed lies about the alternative all their lives (to leave Protestanism means to automatically fall into “works-righteousness,” which ultimately means to lose salvation). But there is oh so much to fear while standing right in the middle of Protestantism.

    For instance, every Protestant asks the question “why me and not them?” at some point or another in wake of the fact that God alone forces salvation upon individuals (i.e., monergism), and yet unrepentance is still somehow a possibility. And then comes the dreaded realization that if some are not saved it was God’s doing, which leads to any number of possible, yet unsatisfactory, justifications.

    I personally became Protestant by converting to Lutheranism from “nothing-ism” as a young adult. But after I really dove into the integral systems of thought I quickly became anything but comfortable. But I’m sure my acceptance of the obvious failures of Protestantism, and my subsequent uneasiness over it, was by virtue of the fact that nothing was really at stake for me. If my life had been more deeply invested in Lutheranism I, too, probably would have swallowed the jagged pill of “why me and not them?” for the sake of not losing my very foundation.

    The only thing that really made me think twice about leaving Protestantism was the indoctrination that a damning “works-righteousness” was the only alternative. But once convinced and reassured that a much sturdier foundation than Protestantism actually did exist, and that I would not be damned for leaving, I could spit that jagged little pill out. And it was such a relief.

  48. Daniel Avatar

    Thomas B,
    I laughed as I read your first anecdote:

    “the parable of the three bearded men who were praying “erroneously ” saying “Lord do NOT have mercy on us”. Corrected by a priest, they went back to pray and forgot how. Then followed him to his boat walking on waves to beg him to remind them the correct way to pray.”

    It strikes me as a fundamental truth about the Christian life. Words are indeed important, but living the Christian life (especially guided by someone experienced) is more important. I think that if we truly live the Christian life, then we begin to understand the limitations of the words we use (in any language) and find that the less we say the better. I don’t envy those who have been given the burden of expressing the inexpressible – it’s way above my pay grade.

  49. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    It is very common for people to stay where they are familiar with their surroundings. People stay in abusive relationships because they are afraid of the alternative. I have known many a fighter pilot who rode a crippled jet into the ground because of the fear of what happens when one ejects (it is a dramatic severing of the condition of comfort of a snug cockpit). We hang on to the familiar because we know it. Besides, most people never peek inside the belief structures of denominations to see the contradictions and absurdities. What matters to most is that the square of “Blessed Assurance” has been filled (they prayed the prayer at altar call and all is well with their souls.) Now they can go back to their regularly scheduled sinning with no worries.
    You are the rarity that thought about things and began to question. This has to be a move of God for most ignore the call. I was forced to examine how the faith worked because I studied it in Seminary and I quickly saw how things did not add up correctly. I think I always knew there was a lot of eyewash in Protestantism which is why I was absent from church from the moment I went off to College to later in life. I never sought a deeper faith, I just saw it something that did not add up.

  50. Mario Naziris Avatar
    Mario Naziris

    I agree with much of what has been said and once again find Father Stephen’s article very beneficial.

    As Father stated, most of the translations of the Scriptures into English and other foreign languages have been for the benefit of denominations that want to read their versions of their brand of christianity.

    I think the worst bible with the most acute mis-translations has got to be the New World Translation, created specifically for jehovahs witnesses. Of course this version contains many deliberate errors in order to hide any mention, notion and revelation of Christ’s Divinity. Although an extreme example, this heresy, as many of us know was an old heresy (arianism) which the Church had already dealt with in the 4thC (and later). Words were very carefully chosen for the very first time so that there would be no movement in the Church’s understanding of the Faith.

    Even we cannot always understand some of the original Greek, let alone a translation, which is why we constantly refer to the Church Fathers, especially for interpreting the Scriptures. Liturgical texts are also very important. I will mention one example which Father talks about: Theotokos. This is indeed a difficult word to translate, and many do translate it as Mother of God, which is not blatantly wrong, however in the Greek there are other words used for Mother of God. In the Liturgy in the hymn to the Theotokos – Axion Estin (It is truly meet), both words ie Theotokos and Mitera tou Theou (literally, Mother of God) are used separately. Clearly there is a distinction here.

    On another note modernity translates to the masses what scripture and christianity ought to be, we are carried away by the traps of the theology of selfishness. We forget to be ‘in the world but not of the world’. A Christian in Christ is not of this world. Never the less we pray that God’s saving Grace is transmitted through the Church into the world.

    Saints Cyril and Methodios are another great resource, since we can see the creation of a new language directly from the Greek – Slavonic. The Church has experienced the fruits of their labour. Naturally, in this case we can say a great translation took place, and the Holy Spirit worked through these two Saints for the salvation of the Slavs, in fact the world.

    We also have to recognise that a great deal of education is needed – catechesis in our own communities which will benefit all. Words when inspired have life and the power to transform, especially when they are from the scriptures, but in translation must convey the right meaning.

  51. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    You might find it interesting that in their Interlinear Bible that the New World Translation is based on, they actually translated the Greek text fairly accurately (They have the Greek, the raw translation and then the NWT text in parallel.) It is then massaged to fit their world view. Interestingly as well, they often fail to obliterate such passages as John 20:28 where Thomas says: “My Lord and my God.”

  52. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B


    Keep your mind in hell and do not despair. And at the point of despair replace, stop and instead of drinking tea, have a Hellenic coffee 😉

    Over to Father Stephen for the theological comment.

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I agree. Regardless of the translations I have experienced, there has always been a far larger feast than I could digest. Many times I’m aware of plays on words that lie behind the English – such as in the Troparion of St. Basil when it calls him a “kingly priest” – a play on the name Basil which means king. That one is merely playful. There are others that are still deeper. I suspect it is simply true that we will have more than enough regardless.

  54. Mario Naziris Avatar
    Mario Naziris


    Yes, I have noticed their inconsistencies which contradict their own heresy! And yes, I do find that interesting and a little odd too. They have enticed so many people.

  55. Michelle Avatar


    “I have known many a fighter pilot who rode a crippled jet into the ground because of the fear of what happens when one ejects (it is a dramatic severing of the condition of comfort of a snug cockpit). We hang on to the familiar because we know it.”

    So, in other words, even if our modern Western mindset and bankrupt translations are figured out by all, the Church still has the challenging task of reaching people inside of their comfortable safe-zones and convincing them it’s better to step outside. Blog posts like this one of Father Stephen’s are indeed helpful, but probably mostly to those already seriously considering pushing the eject button. The hardest part, I suppose, is getting people to acknowledge the button in the first place. Because if imminent death from a spiraling jet isn’t enough to make people courageous, then coming to the realization of a spiraling modernism probably isn’t enough for most either.

    Not to knock what Father Stephen is doing here. His blog has been one of the most helpful things for me in my conversion and understanding of Orthodoxy. And I know many others here feel the same way. We’re all very grateful.

  56. Arnold Karr Avatar
    Arnold Karr

    My mother was a lifelong Southern Baptist. My father was Pentecostal Holiness in his early adult life and became Baptist when he moved to D. C. where they met. I was baptized at 8 but after a period of agnosticism fell in with the Young Life crowd and the Jesus Movement of the 70’s. Fr. Stephen and I became friends and brothers through the coffee house /charismatic house church manifestation of what was going on in the attempt to rediscover the Christ that had been lost in the making of American church. I can’t say we succeeded at that, but we spoke a language rooted in our common experience, our life together. I am now a Friend/Quaker, but I must say I have never experienced the intuitiveness of language, bogoslovicly, that I did as a 70s Jesus Freak, before or since. One can never learn to use a language to rival the creation of a language together.

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think it was under the teaching of Rick Doughty and others that I first saw that there was anything “beneath” the letter of the Scriptures – and gave me my first excitement about the faith. I think it was Jimbo who gave me a copy of Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Orthodox Church when we were at Furman, that opened up the world of the Fathers for me…and helped me when I needed a different path than we had known in the House Church.

    I have to say that my life as an Orthodox priest over the last near 20 years has been the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever known – and a life within a “shared vocabulary” that extends back to the beginning. It is more than I ever imagined. But, I don’t think I would ever have gotten here had it not been for those days we shared in our youth. They were not wasted.

  58. Helen Avatar

    Woven into each word is the life of the speaker and perhaps a different life for the hearer. I am finding the wisdom in sometimes keeping my mouth shut ☺.
    On a different note, it’s something to ponder that another name for Christ is the Word.

  59. Ken Kannady Avatar
    Ken Kannady

    Father Freeman : Another outstanding exposition ! Until I met my good friend from Moscow, my understanding of “modern Christianity” was learned through the twenty or so translations of scripture in my posession and the occasional charismatic evangelist . (“Give that old time religion . . .”) Our Lord chose twelve Apostles, not ten thousand, and He gave them authority and they alone passed the authority on, even as they do today. 1John: 2, 27 shows us how Pentecost united us all in the same language and it is not english . When I knew the Bread and the Wine are the body & blood of our Savior . . .I had to have it . I had no need for someone to teach me, but they do : “27 Meanwhile, the influence of his anointing lives on in you, so that you have no need of teaching; no lesson his influence gives you can be a lie, they are all true. Follow those lessons, and dwell in him.” Follow indeed ! Merry Christ’s Mass and happy new year, Ken

  60. Karen Avatar

    Helen, would that I were more like you! 🙂 I tend to belatedly rediscover such wisdom only after I have already said (or written) far more than I should have!

  61. Helen Avatar

    Karen, unfortunately I see the wisdom in hindsight far too often😶

  62. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I know many personally and some have been very close friends. They are attracted because they reject much of denominational Western Christianity as they see the hypocrisy not only in the Roman Catholic Church but also in Protestantism. The Watch Tower Society are great propagandists and they delude many. The people I know where simply trying to find a deeper moral life and a belief system that did not change direction every few years. Like many Westerners, they hold their ears closed when it comes to Eastern Christianity as they have been told all sorts of tales about us. My friends are really good people trying to do right but being played by a cynical system.

  63. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    You said it well. Denial is strong in our culture and we all live with a Pink Elephant in the living room and talk around him. The brand of “Christianity” as seen on TV is all about comfort and the lulling to sleep of people. In one corner is Charles Stanley (who I think is a very nice man, but…) telling people that they do not need to repent and that God has already forgiven them of their sins. He makes people feel god about themselves.
    Another brand is the folks from Word Faith teaching people how to have power over God and how to make Him give you the blessings that you desire. Our Mega churches sell a similar product.
    Who is it that would jettison all that comfort and power over God to enter a faith that requires, nay, demands repentance and amendment of our ways with no power over God, simply the opportunity to beg for mercy? America and the West is about comfort and prosperity, not about sacrifice, bearing shame and being small. It is hard to convince people, in fact impossible, unless they have already reached a point when they see they are at the bottom spiritually. It is very similar to dealing with addiction as I think people are addicted to the comfort messages.

  64. Mario Naziris Avatar
    Mario Naziris


    I agree, many people are genuine in their search for a better way of life.

    I hope not to judge people but the system. At the end of the day, we cannot tell who will be saved, maybe they will be judged according to their conscience.

    The fact that there are so many converts to our faith all over the world, especially the USA is amazing and a great testimony of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

    There are an awful lot of Greeks in our Church, who still havn’t been converted, even though we were baptised as babies, and I was one of them. Please pray for us.

  65. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    The good news is that there is not a theology exam at Judgment. I rather suspect that our Judgment is an essay. It has only two questions on it. The First is: “How did you show that you loved Me with all your heart, all your soul and all your might?” The second question is like unto the first: “How did you show that you loved your neighbor as yourself.” Unlike school exams, it is a take home and your answer is the story of your life.

  66. Mario Naziris Avatar
    Mario Naziris


    Yes indeed.
    The parable of the goats and the sheep come to mind.

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suspect that no one is clambering to turn their work in early… 🙂

  68. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I have a neighbor who was just placed on hospice. He’s 79. I have established a good relationship with him. His wife told me I’m the only person he respects. He’s lived a hard life, married 5 times. But at one time he attended a Church of Christ and was baptized. I have shared Christ with him before. Any helpful counsel for me as I continue to reach out to him and wife? Oh, and his lucidity is on and off. Thank you for any word since I know you spent 2 years in hospice chaplaincy.

  69. Brian Avatar

    “Of course, the full list is much longer. It is more than words – it is the very grammar of Christianity that must be embraced.”

    Re-reading and digesting this post brings to mind two more English words that can be problematic in terms of grasping Christian grammar. They are the words “worthy” and “just” (or “justice”). As translations, the words themselves are correct, as far as I know; but the meaning they convey in our culture is generally at variance with what the Scriptures, the Fathers, or the liturgy intend to communicate..

  70. Greg Avatar

    Just noodling on this out loud, but I don’t think we can say “receiving the councils” is de facto “receiving Hellenism” as this seems to be as tied to the problematics of translation as working with a text itself. I have a friend who is an evangelical (and smart, so its hard for me to understand his affiliation). He also attended seminary, though he is not active in ministry. He will claim to agree with the Ecumenical Councils, but what he means in his understanding of the Councils is very different from the Orthodox understanding. It’s not just a matter of ascent. I really does seem that Orthodoxy exists as a kind of tapestry with threads interweaving to form a complete picture: the Councils are one thread. In some countries, there seems to be a slightly different tapestry, thought he essential “threads” are present, more or less.

    A different take may be that modernity represents not only a kind of “heresy” but also a kind of negation. Pagan countries may receive and in some sense augment what they receive in Christianity in a way that remains entirely compatible and perhaps even provides a deepening of insights into the mystery of the Christian faith (I am thinking here specifically of the Russian religious experience: there is no question in my mind that the Russian reception of the Christianity differs from the Greek; the example of the Mother of God is particularly striking: I don’t think the native Russian “echoes” have a direct parallel in Greek; but I also think they are wonderful). But I don’t think modernity – especially today in its fully realized and therefore exhausted form – has anything to offer beyond negation of the essentials. Modern Christianity exists as if the tapestry is unwound and essential threads are missing or torn.

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well, Greg,
    It all depends on what is meant by “receive the councils.” I certainly don’t mean a mere assent to the doctrines by title but in their language and reasoning. In that case, probably only the Orthodox “receive” them. But the councils are inherently Hellenistic. I think you’d get a lot of argument about the relationship between the Russian reception of Christianity and the Greek.

  72. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    If you would like to have me ask you this on your church email, please let me know and you can delete this. My question is sincere about my neighbor. I know my neighbor will not become Orthodox, will not come to an understanding of the sacramental life. However, knowing this do I simply speak to him about forgiveness/repentance in Christ, asking him to receive him at the last moment of his life, like the penitent thief on the cross, or they that worked just the one hour in the heat yet received the same reward ? Like Nicholas, as an evangelical I led many to make a profession for Christ. In a case like this do I do as I used to? I feel I’m in a quandary. Thank you Father.

  73. Nikolaos Avatar

    Father Stephen are there parts of the Orthodox Services ( Matins, Vespers, Minaion, Triodion, Pentikostarion etc) that are written originally in a language other than Greek, which are used by non-Greek Churches ?

  74. Matthew Avatar

    Not every denomination is proclaiming the prosperity gospel. One of my Pastor’s true heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and he preaches passionately about the idea of costly grace. But within the context of a forensic soteriology, there’s always this tension between pharisee-ism and libertine-ism, and the picture of sinners who really don’t know what they need to do in the hands of a very angry god.

    When I quit going to church for many years, my dad would call me and say that he was worried about me and wanted to be sure he’d see me in heaven. I’d had enough through the years, and told him flatly that I didn’t care about heaven. What he heard was that I was an unbeliever, What I was trying to say was that I was beginning to think that there was something wrong with our quest for heaven at the exclusion of all else. I also told him that if God wanted me, I would not deny him (there’s a particular doctrine in our denomination that that comment particularly addresses). He seemed to not get what I was saying. It took at probably 10 years after that to find a doctrine that was compatible with my own need in some Orthodox materials that I stumbled across.

    I’ve always been drawn to myth, and myth language. The earliest Grail accounts were pre-schism. Before Orthodoxy (and the rich world of Near East literature), I went as far back as I could in Western Literature. The Medieval Mind was a fascinating and lovely thing.

    An organic Christianity that feels well worn and seamless, like a fabric is an excellent image for Orthodoxy. Everything else today feels like a badly engineered machine that needs to be fixed and repaired a lot. Maybe that’s what “progress” is – fixing, repairing, and trying to “improve” the machine…

  75. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    You are absolutely correct in your statement that not every pastor is preaching the prosperity gospel. I came back to faith after a life time of doing my own thing through an Independent Church that was more Wesleyan than the denomination. They preached and tried to live the ideals put for by John Wesley and it was through this church that I attended the Seminary I did and continued the journey all the way home to Orthodoxy. I am profoundly grateful to that church, the pastors that serve there and the message that they preach.
    However, in any protestant congregation they all have TVs and they all watch those on it and their ears are tickled by it, some more than others. In the Evangelical church I came from the Senior Pastor has many ideas such as prostrations and fasting that are nearly Orthodox. However, the head Sunday School teacher teaches the Seven Spiritual Laws that even God has to obey and talks about how to manipulate God to get what you demand. The thing that impresses me is the inability to have spiritual discipline in an environment where the individual reigns supreme. This individualism is the seed of destruction that is tearing down Western Christianity.
    I grieve for those who are trying to walk the narrow path of Salvation and are buffeted by these contrary winds. I wish I could sweep them all into the Faith Once Delivered and isolate them from the ear tickling but…. I can only invite them. Few have accepted my invitation and fewer have stayed.

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    That I don’t know. Ephrem of Syria and Isaac of Syria both composed hymns – but I’ve only seen them in the Greek. The actual service books are largely those compiled at the Monastery of Mar Saba in the Judaean desert – or in the Great Church in Constantinople. But I’m getting into an area here where my knowledge runs out.

  77. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think you should follow your heart with him with every kindness. There is value in a profession of Christ as Savior – every word counts.

  78. Aric Avatar

    Have you read After Virtue by Alisdair Macintyre? Very much the same premise.

  79. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I have seen service books in Syriac that date to the 4th Century and of course there is the Peshitta that dates from the 2nd Century written in Syriac (a related language to Aramaic).

  80. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. MacIntyre’s work is quite good.

  81. Chris M Avatar
    Chris M

    “…modernity is post-Christian. It has many essential words drawn from Christian tradition, but it has changed their meaning to enflesh its own heterodox concepts.”

    This reminded me of something an orthodox friend of mine said to me recently about liberalism and liberal beliefs (I realize liberalism and modernity aren’t exactly synonymous, but still…):

    “My liberal beliefs are a direct reflection of my Christian identity, BUT I can’t allow them to become an idol to worship.”

    Fr. Stephen’s statement reminded me of what my friend said because both of them stated, it seems to me, that many of our modern ideas and ideals are treasured BECAUSE of Christianity’s influence, but those ideas and ideals are misunderstood and misused outside of Christian Tradition. I hope I’ve understood both men correctly.

    Now, the difficulty I face is learning how to re-interpret those terms (or, how to stop worshiping idols, if that is indeed what I’m doing). And, yes, it feels like learning a new language. It certainly feels similar to the way studying French felt for this poor student – a long, slow struggle! 😀 My orthodox friend advised me to pray for patience. I think I’ll do exactly that.

  82. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I echo what Karen has written about the value of the blog.
    It took me years to see how opaque my thinking was concerning Scripture. I was taught that only a rational approach to Scripture had any value, that the didactic passages were what we should focus on and that we shun any kind of allegorical interpretation. This was all part of our hermeneutic. I would spend hours at times attempting to “diagram” a certain passage. So for a person who has had a little traning, not much, I can see how one could say with all sincerity that he is only a Bible believing Christian and disdain any other method of interpretation that he/she doesn’t see as literal. As Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts ma’am, only the facts, ” not knowing that instead they were buying into the whole cultural milieu of the modern project. Becoming Orthodox was like having a refreshing autumn breeze carry away the dusty pages of my old self interpretations, as I embraced instead a wondrously woven tapestry of a lived interpretation, having been formed through centuries of unbroken tradition and holiness.

  83. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I am only one writer. I hope that those who read me will read a variety of other things – books, blogs, etc. I have things that I’m “driving at” – points that I think are helpful, or that have been helpful to me. If others find them of use, that is all to the good. Others, maybe, not so much. And that is the nature of things.

  84. Karen Avatar

    As is probably typical of Western educated conservative Christians, I read rather copiously to begin to try to wrap my mind around what I was learning of the historic Tradition on my journey, starting a few years before I became Orthodox. Your blog was one of several I read with regularity and to my benefit. There are several Orthodox podcasters I like to listen to as well. This conversation about clarifying the nature of “mystery” in the Tradition has reminded me of a dialogue I read years ago on another Orthodox blog where the issue of Reformed teaching on the nature of our partaking of Christ in the Eucharist was raised in comments by a Reformed apologist. Only this time the word that had a different meaning for the Orthodox vs. the Reformed was “spiritual”. Again it meant “not really there” for the Reformed in that context (and also perhaps “only in the mental conception of the faithful” or something like that).

  85. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suppose the origin of the notion of “spiritual,” “mystical,” “symbolic,” etc. meaning “only in the mind” and “not really real,” can be traced back to Nominalism. Formally, it is credited to William of Ockham but there are earlier precursors. The Carolingian’s, in their criticism of the 7th Council (which they did not understand because of translation problems), described the value of icons as in “the mind’s eye.” I think there was a process of thought, endemic somehow in the West, that was moving away from the participatory/mystical understandings of the East. Already in Augustine, things that would have a sort of “realism” about them in the East, begin to take on more of a psychological cast.

    There’s never any single individual that we can credit with such things – it’s a larger cultural drift. Of course, the realism of sacrament, icon, mystery, etc., are at the very heart of what I write about in the One-Storey Universe. It is, I think, at the very heart of Orthodoxy – and it is, perhaps, the most anti-modern thing within the faith.

  86. Karen Avatar

    I think the value of the book I mentioned by Dr. Bajis (Common Ground) was the careful systematic way he laid out the basic overview of the historic Orthodox mindset and teaching on the one hand and the philosophical developments in the West–Nominalism was a big one–that moved the West in a much different direction in doctrine and practice over time, on the other. It was helpful to see how the various developments and questions that came up, especially during the Medieval period, really impacted one another and shaped what came next while Orthodoxy remained rooted in a much earlier and more fully biblical world view. I must have read that book pretty much cover-to-cover at least three times before I was received into the Church!

  87. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I loaned it out years ago, and never got around to reading it. Need to check it out.

  88. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father much of the drift, ir at least part of it, lies in the difference in language and culture between Latin and Greek. Latin is a much more linear language than Greek. The Roman culture gave us engineering Marvel’s while Greek bequeathed us philosophy and theology.

    Could be wrong and I don’t want to make too much of it but I think it needs to be considered.

    Also I think that the area in which Protestantism arose was largely evangelized by Arians has a part in it as well.

  89. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar

    bishop (n.)

    Old English bisceop “bishop, high priest (Jewish or pagan),” from Late Latin episcopus, from Greek episkopos “watcher, (spiritual) overseer,” a title for various government officials, later taken over in a Church sense, from epi- “over” (see epi-) + skopos “one that watches, one that looks after; a guardian, protector” (from PIE root *spek- “to observe”). Given a specific sense in the Church, but the word also was used in the New Testament as a descriptive title for elders, and continues as such in some non-hierarchical Christian sects.

    Father, I absolutely agree with your statement that “just how “political” all English translations of the Bible are. All of them were translated with an agenda.” Though the Geneva Bible uses “overseer” instead of “bishop” the KJV does use “bishop” and that for reasons political.

    The collection of NT text which we now call canonical were certainly delivered to us via the Church of the 4th century. However, what makes “bishop” more accurate a rendering than “overseer”, especially considering in my view that Paul had no ecclesiastical structure (“offices”) in mind when he appropriated words like episcopos, but rather was describing functions? In 1 Tim. 3:1 “office” is not found in the text, rather “work” (εργου). Apart from the Timothy texts, which I doubt were actually written by Paul because they don’t flow linguistically and demonstrate much later ecclesial development, “episcopos” are only mentioned in the Philipian letter. It would appear that Paul’s normal usage in describing leaders was “προισταμενους”, those who “preside over” or “stand in front”.)

    Are we not both being interpretive? Sometimes I get the same feeling from the Orthodox that I’ve experienced from some in the Evangelical Circus– highly politicized interpretation from politicized translation.

    That being said, I do greatly appreciate your teaching and wisdom.

  90. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suppose you could get the feeling that the Orthodox behave in a politicized manner – we’re certainly guilty of that in its negative sense. However, with the Scriptures, the Orthodox reading is undoubtedly the least “politicized” in the sense of distorted. They are our Scriptures. It was bishops who assembled the canon, etc. Why would we think of reading them in a way that is inconsistent with the inner life of the Church who received them, preserved them, etc.

    The 16th and 17th centuries in England were easily the most politicized era within ecclesial life. It was inevitable that the translations would reflect that. Of course, the Orthodox do not really have an official translation (we’ve only been speaking English for such a short time). There are some recent efforts of note – but they are largely not what is used in the Church.

    Of course, in the Church, “episkopos” and “proistamenos” are still the correct terms (in the Greek which is still the definitive language for us). Hard to politicize when you’re not translating. 🙂 Thanks for the note of encouragement.

  91. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar

    Father, thank you for the kind reply.

    However, I think you side-stepped my point; to translate/render episcopos as “bishop” is to politicize.

  92. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar

    Father, perhaps if we could meet half way between Oak Ridge and Kingsport I would buy your lunch. ;o)

  93. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Do you think so? Perhaps in the present denominational context. But, for the fifteen hundred years of Christianity, it would have been the only translation (or its equivalent) that made sense. But do you mean that to render it with a word only used in Churches of a traditional hierarchy is politicizing the translation?

  94. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Didn’t know you were so close. Perhaps in the New Year?

  95. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar

    But, for the fifteen hundred years of Christianity, it would have been the only translation (or its equivalent) that made sense. But do you mean that to render it with a word only used in Churches of a traditional hierarchy is politicizing the translation?

    The Koine text did not “render”, but used the word “ἐπίσκοπος”.

    Jerome’s Vulgate, late 4th century, appears to have transliterated episkopos as “episcopus” — “In the civil law. An overseer; an inspector. A municipal officer who had the charge and oversight of the bread and other provisions which served the citizens for their daily food.”

    Admittedly, at least by Jerome’s time the term had taken on religious connotations in addition to its civil meaning.

    The point I’m attempting to make is that rendering episkopos as “bishop” is a political/cultural rendering derived from Anglo-Saxon;

    the rank of an Anglo-Saxon bishop was equal to that of the Ealdorman, or highest nobleman, being only inferior to the Æðeling or prince, for they had equal power as judges in civil courts of law,-and their burh-brice and wér-gyld were the same…Bisceope gebyreþ ǽlc rihting, ge on godcundan þingan ge on woruldcundan (to a bishop belongs every direction [righting] both in divine and worldly things,)

    I doubt that until after 321 CE episkopos/episkopus would have had any religious meaning outside of the minority Christian population. Even the English literal rendering as “over-seer” only carries religious meaning within certain small subsets of Christian sects. The word we now use — bishop — came to us through Anglo-Saxon, not Latin or Greek. The early English translations represent a religio-politicization of the term. I have strong doubts that St. Paul intended to establish a religio-political “office” known as Bishop, rather, he was describing a functionality/work (έργου) within the community of Faith and he did so by using a common term of his day.

  96. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar

    Yes, let’s plan something in the new year.
    I had lived in NW Arkansas since 1972 but we moved to Kingsport in October of last year to be near children and GRAND KIDS. I have connections to western Tennessee through my maternal grand parents, but the beauty of eastern TN trumps the western parts.

  97. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    If you are discussing developments in the Western church, you would be correct. In the areas of Europe under the control of the Bishop of Rome, the Bishops did take on secular authority from the Pope down. This began with the collapse of the civil government in the West. However, in reading the works of the Venerable Bede one does not get the sense that the Episkopos were treated as Earls. It wasn’t until much later in the Roman Catholic Church where this is seen. Quite often Bishops in the Roman Catholic Church also held Feudal Titles as well as their Bishopric. Even the Pope was a crowned secular King until the 1920’s.

    This does not mean, however, that the Eastern Church followed this pattern. The civil government lasted until the fall of Byzantium in 1453 and afterwards the Episkopos were far from any sort of political power. The point that Father Stephen is making refers to the Eastern Church that has a totally different history in terms of civil involvement than the Western Church. You are correct that some of the Bishops in the Church of England are accorded Titles and seats in the House of Lords. The Arch Bishops of Canterbury and York are entitled “Your Grace” the honors of a Duke and sit in the House of Lords as equals to non Royal Dukes. However, they are not Orthodox nor does an Anglo Saxon word control what the Eastern Church considers its Episkopos. Yes, we use modern English words in the West to address our Episkopos as Bishop and we address our Presbyters as Priests, but that is not necessarily a political thing.

    What Father is referring to as far as agenda in translation is the morphing of the text by translators to fit their theological agenda. As an example of a blatant morphing of the text consider Ephesians 5-22. It is almost always separated from the previous section as a separate sentence and falling after a section title. It is rendered as “Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” It actually is part of a larger sentence in the Greek text and is a Dependent Clause, having no verb at all. It literally means “Wives, to your husbands as to the Lord.” I have heard some of the most draconian sermons preached at wives using this verse in Fundamentalist circles.

    In translating the Greek to English long sentences are generally broken up and verbs supplied to suit the translator when isolating clauses. As an example, the Book of Colossians in Greek has 38 sentences whereas the English texts have between 76 and 79. Translators also render the translation of the Aorist Tense as a Punctiliar Past when it is nothing of the sort. One can then render the text to say that a person is “saved” ie got a ticket to the Wedding Feast that is irrevocable. This translation/interpretation completely ignores the Aspect and the sense of the Aorist tense in Greek and warps the understanding of what “to save” really means in Greek. This is “political” tinkering with the meaning of the text.

    I hope this is of value as to enlighten us on the can of worms that I opened on this subject in the recent past.

  98. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Let me beat the horse a little more. At least by the end of the first century – cf. Ignatius of Antioch – “episkopos” clearly refers to an “office” in the Church (“office” itself is from the Latin Translation of “Ergon” – “something done”). That various secular tasks (judge) was assigned to bishops at different times and places over the centuries is not germane. Such assignments were given to them precisely because the Kingdoms involved were wholly Christian – i.e. not a lot of distinction being made between Church and the culture itself – only modernity and the Reformation would create that notion.

    St. Paul had scolded Christians for going to the law courts with one another and suggested that they should rather go to the Church to be judged. That is the origin of these delegated roles. This is the Christian ruler, recognizing the legitimate role of a bishop deciding a matter rather than the state – there were still state courts for differing issues. The bishops, as far as I know, were never involved in criminal cases – only civil – and then, not always.

  99. Dean Avatar

    I think this point has been mentioned before. As an example of great bias against classical Christianity, look at what the NIV does with the word “tradition.” Every time tradition is used in a pejorative sense, it retains the word. The times it is used positively, such as 2Thess.2:15, it changes the word to “teachings.” I would like to read Greek. At one time I could read all of Mark in Greek, but that was 40 years back. Now I stumble with English! Thank God for interlinear translations and technological aids. I think I would attempt it again if it were not for eyesight issues. This blog is one of the few things I do read, apart from our daily readings. Because of its contribution to my spiritual balance, I cling to it tenaciously.

  100. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Try the website Its text is big enough for me to see (I have eyesight issues as well as to read the printed text I need a magnifying glass to see the accents) and it gives definitions and parses/declines for you.

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