Louis Markos, an evangelical Protestant who grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church, has written a provocative article in the latest Clarion Review: “The Threefold Witness of the Church” (PDF, Markos’ article begins on p. 43). I think I want to classify it as a form of Christian midrash. It is not by any means a work of scientific exegesis (this was surely never the writer’s intention), but rather a scriptural reflection on what divides Christians, and how we might come to see these divisions in terms of a greater ecumenical unity.
He does this by pointing out the affinities each of the three main groups of Christians (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) has with one of the three principal apostles of the New Testament era (Peter, John, and Paul). For each group, he explores how their particular strengths and weaknesses parallel those of their ideological forebear/prototype. In this way, he opens a door to seeing the three groups as complementary to one another rather than competitors who each claim a monopoly on doctrinal or ecclesiastical correctness. We need what the others have to correct our own deficiencies.
You really need to read the whole (9-page) article to see where Markos is going, but let me give you the condensed version:
The Catholic Peter: Passionate Extremes
According to Markos, the strength of the Catholic tradition is its passionate engagement in ministry to the world. Its weakness, like Peter himself, is its tendency to be stubborn and stiff-necked: not yet freed from the temptations of the world. He describes Catholicism in these words:
Throughout her long and bumpy history, the Roman Catholic Church has been the church that has most fully engaged the world around her. While Orthodoxy withdraws and Protestantism divides, The Catholic Church wrestles and grapples and gets her hands dirty. She makes mistakes (lots of them) but presses on nevertheless—ever struggling and yet ever maintaining her integrity and her identity. Like Peter, she grows and learns without ever quite losing that rashness and impulsiveness that defines her. (45)
It strives to perfect society and culture, while at the same time dismissing the earthly in its monastic aspiration for the kingdom yet to come. Its principal virtue is hope.
The Orthodox John: Glory in Isolation
Markos tags John, “the apostle of love,” as Orthodoxy’s guiding light. Their central Christian virtue is love, and Markos attributes the beauty and mystery of the Orthodox liturgy to that tradition’s love of the Incarnation. Like John (whom Markos identifies with the Beloved Disciple in the Fourth Gospel), Orthodox spirituality is at home resting on Jesus’ breast and running enthusiastically to the tomb, where it pauses “in a state of quiet rapture while the more headstrong, physically passionate Peter rushes in (John 20:3-9)” (47). The weakness of Orthodoxy, Markos claims, is also that of John, the “Son of Thunder,” who silenced the unauthorized person who healed in Jesus’ name and wished to called down fire on hostile Samaritans—and was rebuked by Jesus on both occasions! (Mk 9:38; Lk 9:54). It is isolationism from other Christians. Nevertheless, Markos contends,
[F]or all their ethnocentrism, we of the Universal Church desperately need the witness of the Johannine Orthodox. We need their acceptance and celebration of mystery as well as their two-thousand-year-old love affair with the Incarnation that is embodied not only in their rich liturgical theology but also in their incarnational iconography. Like John, the Orthodox are the mouthpiece through which Christ invites us to come to the Marriage Feast of the Lamb (Rev 22:17), to that great incarnational event where Christ and his Church become one. (48)
Ironically, John himself spent his time in isolation on the island of Patmos just as Orthodoxy has spent centuries suffering under the hostile regimes of Islam and Communism.
The Protestant Paul: Purity and Division
Without question, the main apostolic inspiration for Protestantism is Paul. He was the fountainhead for the theological systems of both Calvin and Luther, with few others besides Augustine in between who “got it right.” Like the Reformers, Paul often wrote in the context of polemics and apologetics. His passion for doctrinal purity (think of his tirade against the Galatians and his willingness to stand up to Peter himself) is certainly a major part of his legacy to the Protestant churches—as, unfortunately, is his tendency to write off those who failed to live up to his own high doctrinal standards! Markos writes,
Whenever the Universal Church strays from its grounding in the written testimonies of the apostles, whenever the Catholics venture too far into the ways of the world or the Orthodox rest too smugly on their historical and ethnic prerogatives, Protestantism is there to restore, re-purify, and reconnect. And in fulfilling this ministry, the Protestant church embodies fully the legacy of St. Paul.
Of course there was a down side to Paul, the same we find in the Protestant Church, of which he is the true founder. Just as those who constantly seek purity in their church, home, career, or discipline tend often to become irascible and to attack anyone they perceive as an enemy, so Paul (the apostle of faith) very often lashed out in a particularly unloving spirit whenever he felt that his fellow Christians were not staying true to his program. (48-49)
The Fourth Branch: The Charismatic Marys
Markos appends the charismatic movement as a fourth main branch of Christianity, typified in the lives of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany. As women in patriarchal first-century society, the two Marys moved outside the established order to show their devotion to Christ‚ much as the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions operate at some degree of friction with the more mainline groups. The strength of this tradition, Markos says, is its intuitive, exuberant, “feminine” devotion:
What scene could be more wonderfully Charismatic than that of the sinful woman, traditionally identified with Mary Magdalene, bursting into a staid dinner of Pharisees and weeping all over the feet of Jesus (Luke 7:36-50)? Or Mary of Bethany breaking open and thus wasting a jar of expensive perfume in order to anoint Jesus for his coming burial (John 12:1-8)? In the first story, Jesus defends Mary’s ‘disorderly’ conduct by explaining that the greatness of her love was inspired by the greatness of her forgiveness. In the second, Jesus justifies the extravagance of the wasted perfume by emphasizing the special status of the recipient of that extravagance. By so doing Jesus thus silences two of the main objections to Pentecostalism: that it is disorderly and/or chaotic; and that it takes focus away from weightier matters. (50)
The weakness of Pentecostalism, according to Markos, can also be found in the life of Mary Magdalene in the scene at the tomb of the risen Christ. Recognizing Jesus, Mary falls to his feet and clings to him. Then Jesus tells her, “Do not hold on to me” (Jn 20:7). Markos interprets this as indicative of “the desire to keep holding on to and reliving the same experience” and applies it to the “greedy desperation in Charismatic worship and theology that grabs and grabs, both at the things of the Spirit and the things of the world; a grabbing that too often gets in the way of God’s greater plans” (53).
That is my brief summary of Markos’ article. I have tried to write in such a way that my personal agreements and disagreements have not detracted from readers grasping the overall theme. In my next post (probably early next week), I’ll follow up with some observations of my own.
In the meantime, what to you think?