Interview: An Orthodox professor ponders the scriptures
by Peter T. Chattaway
Source: CanadianChristianity.com - Date: April 9th, 2007
FR. THOMAS Hopko may have retired as Dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary in
New York two years ago, but he still keeps quite busy. Last month, the
author of numerous books and articles on Eastern Orthodox Christianity
spent nearly three weeks on the road, during which time he visited
churches in Victoria and Vancouver and spoke at functions hosted by Regent
College, Trinity Western University and InterVarsity Christian
The indefatigable Fr. Hopko sat down to talk about Orthodox-evangelical
relations with CanadianChristianity.com at St. Herman of Alaska
Orthodox Church in Langley, B.C., after a day spent teaching children's Sunday
school, preaching a sermon, and chatting with parishioners for hours
during the fellowship afterwards about matters of the faith.
CC.com: A lot of people who are involved in evangelical-Orthodox
dialogue -- such as Fr. Peter Gillquist and Frederica Mathewes-Green -- seem
to be converts to Orthodoxy, but you are cradle Orthodox. What draws a
cradle Orthodox to that sort of discussion?
TH: Well, I think if a person's Orthodox, hopefully whether cradle or
convert, you're still very interested in Christian unity and you're very
interested in making your witness to what you believe Christianity is
-- which is, when all is said and done, exegesis of the Bible.
And then, of course, I love to go to those settings, because I know
these people do respect the scriptures and usually know it, at least
formally -- and they usually think that we don't! You know, they usually
think, "Well, if you're Orthodox, you have traditions and you follow monks
and elders and stuff, but you don't really know the scripture." So I
like to show them that we do.
There has been a tendency of Orthodox to get away from their biblical
roots, but none of the great saints and teachers ever accepted that. The
very first booklet that I ever published in my life, in 1963, in my
parish, was called 'Reading the Bible,' where I tried to prove to Orthodox
people that to read the Bible and know the Bible is not [exclusively]
Protestant. And I quoted every saint that I could who spoke about the
scriptures and reading the scriptures, how the Holy Fathers were doing
nothing but interpreting the scriptures. All the great theological
controversies were about what the Bible taught.
So it's wrong to say, "Well, the Protestants have the Bible, but we
have holy tradition" -- that's just ridiculous. Tradition is nothing other
than the Bible properly exegeted and properly applied. That's how we
would understand it. So I like to go among evangelicals to make that
CC.com: I've heard some Orthodox say that the Bible is part of
tradition. It could sound like you're saying that tradition is in some way
separate from the Bible, or comes after it.
TH: Well, I think what I would say, in three sentences, is that you
first have a canon of faith that is orally delivered and preached. And
that precedes whatever New Testament writings you have. But even that
canon of faith is interpreting the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets, so it
already has to be kata tas graphas [according to the scriptures].
I mean, St. Paul was converted by a vision, but he preached from the
scripture, and he even chided people not to preach from visions and
voices, in Colossians, and as soon as he had this conviction that Jesus was
raised, he even says, I think in Galatians, that he went and studied
the scripture and became convinced, and then he went around preaching
from the scripture that Jesus was the Christ.
But then, the canon of faith, we would hold, was defended in apostolic
scripture, and that would be the 27 writings of the New Testament. And
there were lots of other scriptures at that point -- Gnostic and so on
-- that our tradition would say were spurious, were just heretical,
were wrong. So certain scriptures were canonized, but they were the
scriptures that were in accordance with the canon of faith that was delivered
orally. So you have in Thessalonians already, Paul speaking about "what
I delivered to you both orally and in writing." So there isn't any
competition between the two.
But you've got to go the next step and say, once the New Testament
scriptures are canonized -- which took a couple hundred years! -- then they
become the criterion by which tradition is judged. You can't have
anything in church tradition that is contrary to the scriptures. You might
have other things that are not specifically written there -- St. Basil
speaks about oral traditions like, I don't know, using the sign of the
cross or facing the east -- but they could not be contrary to what is in
CC.com: What do you think evangelicals see in Orthodoxy that would draw
them to it?
TH: Two things. I think one is, evangelicals want a church that takes
the Bible seriously as the Word of God, but they don't want a church
where everybody can interpret it the way they want to, because I think
they were frustrated over how many churches there were claiming to really
follow the Bible. So they said there has to be some other criterion of
exegesis than just picking up the Bible and reading it, with your
Scofield commentary or something.
And then they discovered that the early Church and the Fathers were
interpreting the Bible. Then they discovered that there were consensuses
of interpretation. Then they discovered that there were whole councils
that had battled over exegesis and had come to a common mind, and that
there was like a history of exegesis from the time of the apostles that
those in a certain church agreed upon, namely the one holy Orthodox
So I think that they wanted the Bible -- they were convinced that the
Bible was basic -- but they had a problem of how do you interpret it,
and how do you maintain the proper interpretation. And then they found
that the patristic and Orthodox tradition was doing that, at least in
The other big thing is worship. You accept Jesus as your saviour, you
believe the Bible is the Word of God, but then what do you do? What
church do you go to? And I think for fellows like Gillquist, that was their
main problem -- they said, "We all love Jesus, we all know this is the
truth, but how do you worship? Where do you go? What church are you
Then they came to the conclusion, if scripture is true, there's got to
be a church around somewhere that's consonant with scripture, and then
they became convinced it was the Orthodox.
So I think two things: biblical exegesis, a common biblical mind, and
then the other was worship, a biblical worship that would be objective,
Christian, communal, and that you wouldn't have to make up yourself. I
think those were the two things that convinced them. And I think those
are the two main cards that Orthodox would have with evangelical
CC.com: Is there anything the Orthodox would find appealing about
evangelicalism? Does the attraction go both ways, or is it more of a one-way
TH: I think -- I would hope -- that it would go both ways. I don't know
if it often does. There was a joke that maybe contains kernels of
truth, where it said, "Evangelicals come to Orthodoxy, and we teach them how
to be orthodox, and they teach us how to be Christians." [laughs]
I don't know if you want to quote that. But in other words, their
commitment to Christ, their zeal for Christ, their missionary enthusiasm,
their enthusiasm for works of mercy -- helping the poor, the needy,
sacrificing their life to mission fields -- well, Orthodoxy is definitely
recharged by that, no doubt about it.
And that's incredibly admirable, because except for the Russian church,
all the other Orthodox were under Islam and they couldn't do those
things. The only philanthropy they could do was among their own people, and
they couldn't preach at all, and they had no schools, and they couldn't
even read, practically, so it's very attractive to see a very
committed, vibrant, informed, people-who-memorize-the-scriptures -- I mean, that
has to be inspiring.
And my own opinion is that the injection into American Orthodoxy from
the evangelicals and other converts who join was a very, very critical
element in the renewal of the entire Orthodoxy in America. Many, many
cradle Orthodox were renewed in their faith by their contact with the
CC.com: Are there any concerns among Orthodox about evangelicals trying
to "change" Orthodoxy?
TH: There are concerns. In fact, there were great fears in the
beginning that these people just wanted to bring their evangelicalism into
Orthodoxy and kind of teach the Orthodox how to be Christian and Orthodox
and all that, and would never "get it", and that's a human concern. But
I think that both faith and experience show that that was an
I was very much personally involved with Gillquist and that whole group
in '86, before they were Orthodox, and they definitely had that idea --
"Oh, you know, we'll show them" -- but man, once they came in, and once
they got into it, and once it went, it just worked itself out
beautifully. It never was a problem. I think that everything that was of God and
good, the treasures that they brought humanly speaking, were very
important to Orthodox churches, but they also changed in remarkable ways
themselves, probably in ways that they never would have imagined.
And I knew some people who joined the Orthodox church not liking it at
all. I knew people who were at only two or three liturgies before they
decided, "I have to join," and they didn't particularly like it, but
they became convinced that it was the truth, and once they got in and
began celebrating it organically, it kind of opened up for them. What they
ultimately discovered after 10 years was far beyond what they expected
that they were going to get when they first came.
There are Orientalisms in Orthodoxy that are hard on people, when they
first come in, like doing prostrations in prayer, standing in prayer,
using things like the sign of the cross or kissing the picture. People
say, "Oh, what's that?" But it's more cultural than theological. But
they get used to it after a while.
CC.com: Do you think things like that could ever be modified, in terms
of church practise, when the church comes into cultures where people
don't, for example, kiss as frequently as people do in the Orient, for
TH: Yeah, it could, but I think what happens is you have a culture of
the Church itself, that is not bound to any human culture. The Church
itself is a cultural phenomenon -- I mean, it's basically christened
I happened to be at McGill University once when they were having one of
these discussions -- they had an Orthodox priest, a Jew, an
evangelical, a liberal Protestant, and a Roman Catholic, and they were talking and
talking, and finally somebody in the audience raised a hand and said,
"I'd like to ask that Orthodox priest a question. What religion are you
closest to anyway?" And just, I guess, for the fun of it, the guy
answered and said, "Judaism."
And they said, "What do you mean, aren't you Christian?" He said,
"Yeah, but in our way of hearing the Bible, worshipping the way we do, you
might say that we feel that sometimes we are closer to the Jews than we
are to other Christians because of the way they approach the Bible, the
way they approach authority, the way they approach worship," and I
think there is a certain truth there.
But the Church itself has a culture. It has songs and icons and hymns
and sounds. I think there is a kind of ethos, a culture of the Church
itself, that is not just reducible to Slavic or Hellenic or Semitic, that
people can relate to. And so a thing like giving a kiss, or making a
bow, or lighting a candle -- that's kind of Church culture, it's not just
CC.com: Your remark about the Jewish parallels reminds me, a couple
months ago I saw the Campus Crusade Jesus film for the first time in a
long, long time, and when Jesus reads from the scriptures in the
synagogue, at the end of that scene, he rolls up the scripture and kisses it --
venerates it, you could say -- and when I saw that, I wondered if the
evangelicals who made this film, who wanted to be as authentic to the
Jewish culture of that time as possible and showed Jesus himself doing
that, ever asked themselves, "When did we stop doing that?"
TH: Yeah, right, right.
CC.com: These days people talk about post-modern culture and how
thoughts and words are no longer enough -- we need experience now -- and the
Orthodox worship has a sort of appeal there because it engages all five
TH: Holistic, yeah.
CC.com: What would your response be to evangelicals who start using
candles and incense and chants and possibly even icons -- all the
accoutrements -- but without actually becoming Orthodox?
TH: It's interesting you should ask that, because the Evangelical
Orthodox [under Fr. Gillquist] were doing that before they joined up, and I
was there when they were doing it, and if you went, the ethos and
atmosphere was very Protestant, but they had the words of the liturgy, they
I think Fr. Nicholas in Santa Barbara stood up that week and said the
word that kind of did the trick. He said, "You can't imitate or mimic or
mock the Church. You're either in it, or you're not." And Orthodoxy
isn't a set of texts or a bunch of pictures -- it's a living, organic
community that has texts and icons, and it's that living community where
the power is that you need, and if you're not in that community, you can
have the accoutrements, but you don't have the power. That's what he
And I think that made them realize they had to join up -- for better or
worse, put up with all Orthodox ethnicisms and everything. You couldn't
just imitate it, you had to be in it. Because it was a historical
community, in history, that you had to enter into -- just like the Gentiles
had to be grafted to Israel.
CC.com: Otherwise it just becomes the latest fad, in other words. TH:
Yeah, and it isn't any less individualistically self-willed than
somebody who would get up in a polyester suit and necktie and bang the Bible
and preach -- it's just, you happen to like these kinds of prayers and
these kinds of pictures, but it's still not the Church that is doing it,
it's you that's doing it.
I wrote in that book, Speaking the Truth in Love, that that
individualism and self-will thing can even be very conservative. It's not always
liberal to do what I feel I like to do, except my predilections happen
to be for old things rather than new things, but it's still me. And the
Lord said, "out of his treasure, the man brings forth things new and
old," but it still has to be the Church, because it can't be mine.
CC.com: Yesterday you said Orthodoxy was not just one denomination
among many. What is the dialogue with evangelicals trying to accomplish, or
how do you make that point to evangelicals who do see Orthodoxy as one
of many denominations?
TH: I deal with that issue in Speaking the Truth in Love also, because
dialogical is the way that it's done. You encounter, you speak, you
have to listen in order to relate, so there's always a missionary
dimension to dialogue. But it's also a dimension of testimony, it's also a
willingness to have yourself tested. Okay, you think that we're wrong --
say why. Let's talk about it.
If we're all Christians, we all love Jesus, we all want the truth, and
we don't agree about what that is, we'd better talk about it, and try
to have enough dialogue so that we know what we actually disagree about!
John Courtney Murray once said, "We don't know enough about each other
even to disagree accurately." We've been separated from the Latin West
for 900 years!
However, there are all these dangers. The danger could be exactly
toward denominationalism. Even at Trinity Western the other night, when an
evangelical who doesn't have a concept of the historical church and the
sacramental church says, "I agree with everything you said," sometimes
I'm tempted to say, "No you don't!" Because if you're inventing worship
every week, and you don't believe that there's a church in history or
that it all started in reality in the 16th century, you don't believe
what we believe!
Now, the fact that we quote the Bible and talk about how Jesus saves
us, you might relate to and believe in it, but the minute you come to how
you access it, how it becomes yours, how you live it out -- I still
think that there are incredible differences between evangelicals and
Eastern Orthodox. Because for us, the Church is part of the gospel. Let me
put it this way: The gospel implies the Church.
Fr. Florovsky used to talk about ecumenism in time, as well as in
space. Who are you with in the past? You name any century, and we'll tell
you who our guys were, and we'll tell you where we think the Church was,
and we'll tell you where we think it wasn't, at least not in its
fullness, where it became defective. In the early Church, we're with the
so-called Catholics and not with the Gnostics and the Montanists. After the
4th century, we're with Athanasius, Basil, Gregory and the Nicene
communities. In the 5th century, we're with the Chalcedonian communities,
and in the later centuries, we're with Photius as against the papacy.
We have a history that we deeply identify with. We speak about Gregory
and Basil as if they were our contemporaries, because mystically they
are -- they are! And that's one thing that I think evangelicals, at
least in their organic traditions, don't relate to.
In fact, a lot of times, as a matter of fact, they don't even know
about it. They don't have the foggiest idea who these people even are. I've
met United Church of Canada people who didn't know what the Nicene
Creed was, and they were at a [World Council of Churches] Faith and Order
Commission meeting representing their church! Seriously.
Then they say, "Why do you need it, it's Greek philosophy, it's
old-fashioned, no modern person can relate to it." I remember in Russia once,
I was there at a meeting exactly on the Nicene Creed, with Catholics
and Protestants from all over the world -- it was an international
meeting, sponsored by the Faith and Order Commission -- and the
English-speaking Protestants were always on my case every day, because I could speak
English, about, "Why do you do this, this is irrelevant, la la la."
And then we went to St. Sergius monastery outside Moscow, and there
were all these people -- it was under Communism still -- the blind, the
lame, all these people were out there in the middle of the night singing
and singing, and these Protestants were out there looking at them and
they're crying and saying, "I never saw such a piety," and then they
said, "By the way, what are they singing?" and I said, "Well, they're just
singing the outdated Nicene Creed that no one knows anything about."
They were singing the Nicene Creed! And these people were just arguing
that it's irrelevant, nobody cares about it, nobody knows what it is --
well, the one thing you had to do if you were Orthodox was to memorize
the Nicene Creed and to know how to sing it. So that's the kind of
thing that people find shocking.
I remember Desmond Tutu and his wife were at one service, and I heard
her lean over to him and say, "I didn't know white folks could sing like
this." So that's what the meetings can hopefully overcome and produce,
some kind of new understanding of things, not caricatures.