East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring 2003, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

What Lutherans and Other Protestants Can Learn from Orthodox Christians

J. Robert Jacobsen

Much of Lutheranism today places an exaggerated emphasis on the rational and propositional aspects of God's Word at the expense of the Word's emotive and wonder-inducing aspects. We admire the Christ who gives the clever answer to the Sadducees more than the Christ who calms the sea. It is easier for us to identify with Paul who develops a strong argument for justification by faith than Paul who sees visions and revelations, is caught up to the third heaven, and performs the signs of a true apostle with wonders and mighty works. We have tended to narrow the range of our openness to God's Word to the point that its verbal and propositional forms impress us far more than any other. This has brought us to the place where we are today, with much to relearn from other members of the Christian family, especially from those of the Orthodox tradition.

We miss opportunities to communicate the gospel
In the former Soviet Union the domes of many churches, including the crosses that crown them, bedazzle anyone who glances in their direction. They are covered with gold leaf and capture and intensify the brilliance of any available light. When I asked one elderly priest why believers would spend so much of their scarce money on something like that, he responded without hesitation, "It's the only way we can tell our rulers who our real God is."

By whatever means, our churches should be saying at least three things to all who pass by: "Here we are; you are welcome here; here is where God meets us and heaven touches earth." Church structures and settings that cheat one or more of those three visual messages, or worse still, that give the opposite message to any who see them, demand our urgent attention. We don't need churches that say, "Pay no attention to us," or "We dare you to figure out how to get in here," or "Is this a shopping mall, a theater, or a night club?" Visual forms of God's Word can be powerful. They can be on the front lines of communicating the gospel to people whose ears are not yet open enough to hear it.

We may not appreciate some of the visual messages encountered in an Orthodox Church but no worshipper is in danger of sensing 1) that heaven has collapsed, 2) or that there is some question as to whether or not Christ has risen and ascended, 3) or that worship is a spectator sport or a purely private affair, 4) or that anyone short of the ill and the dying can remain seated when being addressed by the living God. I especially appreciate the total absence of pews in Orthodox churches outside North America and the blend of reverence, order, and spontaneity that some have characterized as the "organized chaos" of Orthodox worship. Episodes of rapt attention centering on adoration, the Word, and Holy Communion are punctuated by episodes of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving that can take an individual worshipper from one end of the sanctuary to the other, depending on how crowded the church is at any given time.

We can be grateful that after centuries of exclusive domination by black robes and white ruffs or tabs, North American and Third World Lutherans are at least relearning the role of color in the vestments of worship leaders. It's not a matter of cost and extravagance, it's a matter of visual proclamation. A few years ago I discovered that all the colorful vestments in my sacristy closet cost less than the two lined academic gowns owned by a neighboring colleague. Just as on might be excused for doubting the sincerity of a messenger who proclaims victory but is dressed like a mourner, it makes sense to reinforce the verbal proclamation of the victory of Christ with garments and banners one might expect to see at a victory celebration.

We deprive ourselves and others of those parts of God's revelation that are better grasped visually than verbally
This is a major loss. Who can explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity and its significance for us? You have to have a very specialized mind or be in a very rare mood to be moved by the rational explanations offered by early Church Fathers and classical theologians. In contrast, the God- awareness and self-awareness of an entire people have been transformed through the Word made visible in the early fifteenth century Icon of the Holy Trinity painted by St. Andrei Rubliov. And today that icon speaks the gospel to millions of Christians outside the Russian Orthodox tradition. I am one of them.

Perhaps Henri Nouwen's meditation on this icon is the best way for the eyes of Western Christians to be opened to its message: Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons (Notre Dame: 1987). Here is gentleness with authority, the reciprocating love that is God, not the family of God but the Family that is God; and we are invited and enabled to be a part of that Household of Love. Words sometimes seem so clumsy, so artificial to make this holy truth real to me. But the icon never fails to reach my soul through the doorway of my eyes and return me to the truth revealed in Christ (Philippians 3:20-21; Colossians 3:1-4; John 14:23-25).

In Helsinki I was deeply moved to encounter a bank of lighted votive lamps under a crucifix near the entrance of a famous Lutheran church. No one needed to tell us that people came there to pray, not just to gawk. The candles said it all. Several dozen visitors moved through the awe- inspiring sanctuary with reverence and a number kneeled in prayer or sat in meditation. A small sign near the votive lamps invited everyone to light a candle as a testimony to Christ, our Intercessor at the throne of grace, the Light of the world. A suggested contribution for each lighted candle went to support the church in its mission to share the light of Christ with others. A local pastor told me they had adopted and adapted this practice from their Russian Orthodox neighbors and it is now widespread in Lutheran churches in major centers throughout Scandinavia. Do we need to consider the power such a visual witness has to help people realize our sanctuaries are houses of prayer for all nations?

We lose much of our God-given capacity to respond to what we see
I was with two Greek-Catholic friends in the restored Danilov Monastery in Moscow. We were led behind the iconostasis of a chapel not yet dedicated. The priest wanted to show us a new icon created by one of Russia's foremost icon painters. The moment my companions saw the icon they were transfixed by the power of its message. Tears came to their eyes and they broke out in song and prayer.

In Russia I could no longer escape this obvious fact: we children of Western civilization have pulled the shades down most of the way over the window of our souls and we are not even aware of our impoverishment. We assume the peephole we possess is all the window we really need. Other Christians, simple people using what God has given them, can help us roll up the shades and see what God wants to show us. It is not so much that we in the West are verbally overstimulated as that we are visually understimulated in our normal worship experiences. We are lopsided with souls nourished by adult ears, but infant eyes. A whole range of spiritual experience and entire dimensions of spiritual truth are inaccessible to us in this state. We are in real danger. Anytime we mistake the part for the whole we are in trouble. Not only are we deceiving ourselves when we try to function like this, but we usually end up despising those who are exercising the very capacity we have lost, proudly oblivious to how much we ourselves need it.

I sense so deeply how enriching it could be for our people to recover from the plague of Western rationalism and to reclaim some of their lost giftedness as children created in the image of God, that I can be positively evangelistic about this. If people tell me this or that visual expression of the gospel is offensive or meaningless to them, I quietly suggest to them that it should not be, and I invite them to take the risk of drawing apart the curtain and daring the Holy Spirit to say something to them through the window of their eyes. Doubtless, the church is responsible to ensure that God's Word is being communicated by whatever means. But it is the content of the message and the effectiveness of the form it takes in addressing the whole person that determine whether or not it is evangelical, God's Good News for us. One gift I believe Lutherans can offer others is our commitment to the stringent application of this standard. But we also can learn from others how to apply it so that our visual as well as verbal messages convey the gospel.

J. Robert Jacobsen, former Lutheran bishop of Alberta, Canada, is now a Roman Catholic layman residing in Bashaw, Alberta.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from J. Robert Jacobsen, "What God is Calling Lutherans to Learn from the Orthodox Tradition," Eastern Churches Journal l (Summer 1994): 89-106.

J. Robert Jacobsen, "What Lutherans and Other Protestants Can Learn from Orthodox Christians," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Spring 2003), 1.

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© 2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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