The Prophetic Role of Orthodoxy

by Andrew Walker

To be a prophet is to know and speak the mind and will of God. It was the Fall that hid this knowledge from us, just as it perverted our God-given kingly power, and weakened our natural propensity for mediation between the created order and God.

Throughout the Old Testament, we read of men and women who had flashes of insight — people able to re-connect with the original created human being who knew God’s mind, and who could speak the will of God. In the New Testament, it is the Lord Jesus who is supremely our prophet. As baptized disciples, we are called to follow in his footsteps. As St. Paul writes: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature, a new creation. Old things have passed away, behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor 5:17).

It is in the Gospel of St. Luke that Jesus identified himself as a prophet. Speaking in the synagogue at his home town of Nazareth, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised. To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry with the words, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Jesus, the Son of God made Son of Man, is revealing to us the mind of God. God’s will for us is that, like the prodigal son, we must turn from our failure and degradation and return to the Father who is always ready to reaffirm and cherish us. It is the Son who reveals this to us, who alone speaks the truth from the mind of God, who is the way home, life itself.

As we learn from St. John Chrysostom, Holy Tradition always needs to be applied to our contemporary condition. So having grounded the role of prophecy in the life of Christ himself, let me turn to the role of the prophet today, writing as a western member of the Orthodox Diaspora.

But first there is something that we must make clear, and it is something that I believe we Orthodox already know in our hearts. It is that we must try to avoid individualistic notions of the “prophet.” There may be individuals whose utterances are more prophetic than others. We know from the writings of St. Irenaeus that there were still institutional prophets in the late second century. However, what makes the prophet significant is not the novelty of individual insight, but the faithful recollection of Tradition. Tradition is the divinely inspired — though human, and hence fallible — mediation of the mind and will of God.

We distinguish individualism from personhood. Individuals are disconnected persons, separate islands of consciousness, lost selves; whereas persons are constituted by their relation to others in communality, and supremely through the Holy Spirit. While the Holy Trinity is the only perfect communion, where relationships are unbroken between the distinct, though never separate, divine persons, members of the Church are by definition joined one to another.

We are prophets precisely, and only, because together with our Lord we are the totus Christus . We are prophets because we are “little Christs.” We are prophets because we are adopted by the Spirit into a new personal creation — this newly constituted humanity of which Christ is the firstborn through the incarnation and resurrection. The Church cannot help but be prophetic. It is not really possible for the Church not to be prophetic.

Let us consider the prophetic significance of the Orthodox Diaspora in the modern world, seeing it not only in terms of war, civil strife, sociology and economics, but on the spiritual level, aware that God has called the Orthodox Church into the West. With all its faults and weaknesses, the Orthodox Church finds herself in a world both secular and religious that is becoming increasingly fragmented and polarized. In such a world, all that the Church is called to be is to be herself. To be herself is to be prophetic.

To give an example, an American colleague tells me that increasingly Protestant Christians are beginning to understand that the history of fragmentation within Christendom goes back at least to the Reformation — and we would say much earlier. While the Reformers genuinely desired to return to the catholicity of the creeds and councils, instead they gave us reformation ad nauseam . What my colleague sees when he looks at the Orthodox Church is a body of Christians who have maintained the apostolic faith, because the canonical structures have been maintained and kept secure.

My friend claims that one of the greatest failures of the Reformation was precisely that it did not recover or recapture the foundational canonical structures of Christianity that were laid down, not only in the New Testament, but also by the Fathers of the Church. In that sense, what the Church does by being itself is pointing to unity and showing something of the mind of God. It is certainly audacious, but it is also auspicious and prophetic in an age of disunity. It is not so much that unity is a question, as Roman Catholics might put it, of an unbroken apostolic succession, as if this were an entitlement to legitimate churchmanship, like a deed of property or a right to dominion. And it is certainly not a question of untrammeled holiness — God knows that have we sinned immeasurably.

Unity is an ontological fact. In the language of Metropolitan John of Pergamon, we are the Church instituted by Christ and constituted by the Spirit, and yet our unity is the mystery of our calling. Lest we should boast, we are reminded, paradoxically, that to be Orthodox is to be willing, if it is possible, as St. Paul says, to be castaways that all may be saved. Our unity, then, is not an expression of smugness but of mission. The Lord Jesus himself makes this clear in his prayer for the Church: “That they all may be one: as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” (John 17:21)

The Diaspora’s role in mission, however, has been mixed and not always prophetic. Orthodox missionary shortcomings in the West have been elegantly articulated by Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Church in America. He says that the Diaspora has arrived bodily in the West, but remains absent psychologically, living elsewhere in their hearts. The “old country” naturally exercises a strong pull on imagination and memory, but it can also lead to a perpetual daydream where Christian responsibility is negated by nostalgic longing for the past.

His argument has been that the Orthodox Church must cease to be a Diaspora Church in the sense of a museum or an ethnic enclave, and become a missionary Church. To be institutionally present in the West is not enough. It is not enough just to survive or even to grow. The Church must be a prophetic presence speaking the mind and will of God.

There is a more positive way to look at the role of the Diaspora over the last decades. First, let me look at this sociologically. I have been a member of the Russian Patriarchal Church in Great Britain since 1973. When I joined, I saw myself as a guest in the Russian Church. Being a guest, albeit a welcome one, did not distress me. I realized that when a new group arrives from one land to another, if it is going to maintain the structures and traditions of the Church, sometimes it has to be, as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh once said, “sniffy.” It wants to put its roots down and create something firm and deep before it grows, otherwise the plant will wither and die.

My own view is that the Diaspora has needed to be in the West for a while and bide its time before it reaches out in mission — although, like Metropolitan Philip, I think that time is now ripe. But there is an inbuilt strength of the Diaspora that feeds the prophetic role, and it is this. People who are refugees, who come from one land to another, are resident aliens. They are resident in the country, but they do not fully belong. Strictly speaking, that is what all Christians are, regardless of whether they are actually in an historical Diaspora or not, for we are citizens not of earth but of heaven.

To a certain extent, to be a resident alien means that you are open to the prophetic. That is why C.S. Lewis, always at odds with modernity — like the anti-hero of Dostoevski’s Letters from the Underworld — was the outstanding European Christian apologist in the twentieth century. We notice in literature and in the secular world that the outsider often has an interesting way of seeing things. He or she has a unique perspicacity that insiders do not possess, because things happen underneath the noses of insiders, but they cannot see the obvious staring them in the face. So I think there is a very positive sense in which the Diaspora, because of its marginality, its status as the outsider, is well positioned to be prophetic — as long as it remains attentive to the mind of God.

To be on the edge is a curious experience demanding discernment as well as faithfulness to the Tradition. Orthodox Christians who settle in the West discover a mystery. On the one hand, by being what we are, Orthodox, with all our weaknesses, we witness to the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. On the other hand, we discover, to our amazement, that there is more of a family resemblance with the heterodox than we had imagined. We find brothers and sisters in Christ in many countries. Even if they are estranged family members, the family resemblance is unmistakable.

This was one of the great shocks for Nicolas Zernov when he arrived in Europe from Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. He discovered that there were Christians everywhere and many of them were asking for Orthodox help and illumination for Western theological problems. He found, as do many Orthodox today, that there were heretics too. But he became convinced that the adage of Metropolitan Sergius Stragovodsky of Moscow is true: “We know where the Church is, but we do not say where the Church is not.”

In Britain, Metropolitan Anthony has long supported what little trickles of Orthodoxy he has been able to find bubbling up in other Churches, even if they never fully flow into the Orthodox Church. He has been encouraged by the many Christian people who have been committed to the sort of historic Christianity which allows real debate to take place between East and West.

The Diaspora still has a long way to go before it turns from a siege to a missionary mentality, but I believe that the Orthodox Church is turning outwards and is beginning to share some of its treasures with others. I think, for example, that the ecological dispute is one major area where the majority of Western theology really has little to say about the relationship between humankind and the material universe, because it does not seem to have a full, organic understanding of the relationship between priesthood, prophecy, kingship and the world. This is one major debate where we have something prophetic to say.

Some Orthodox argue that it is not our job to help Western Christians solve their problems, a view I oppose not only because it is exclusivist but because it is Pharisaical. I believe the right attitude is much more that we are here, and that if we can offer help, then we will. One of the ways we can do this is by displaying for others what our theology is, what our spirituality is, not in a proselytizing, declamatory way that always makes people feel uncomfortable, but by spelling out some of the problems we all face as Christians in the modern world.

The World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission, with all its faults, is better than it might have been precisely because of the contribution that the Orthodox Church has made to it. For example, notice how the Trinity, baptism and a high Christology are back on the WCC agenda.

A number of leading Reformed theologians are of the opinion that the Orthodox delegation at the WCC Conference at Canberra in 1991 saved the council from disaster, when its participants were urged by Chung Hyun-Kyung, the Chinese feminist theologian, to embrace a syncretistic understanding of faith far beyond the boundaries of revealed religion. The Orthodox response to Professor Chung, and by implication to all those who would turn the Holy Spirit into Sophia , or a deistic immanence, was to say: “Our Tradition is rich in respect for local and national cultures, but we find it impossible to evoke the spirits of ‘earth, air, water, and sea creatures.’ Pneumatology is inseparable from Christology or from the doctrine of the Holy Spirit confessed by the church on the basis of divine revelation.”

Here the Orthodox Church — heartlands and Diaspora as one — faced with a theological crisis as deep as the paganism of early centuries, was unequivocal. Without a hint of the Erastian and pragmatic spirit that has sometimes bedeviled our witness, we spoke the mind of God.

Not all Orthodox prophecy has been so dramatic. Sometimes it has been a case of a gradual opening up of the Church’s Tradition to the outside world. Metropolitan John’s book, for example, Being As Communion , is now standard reading in many Evangelical colleges as well as Reformed seminaries. The Orthodox adherence to the Cappadocian understanding of the Trinity has had great influence in recent years, moving people away from a sterile modalism or impersonalism to a dynamic model of personal communion. Not enough has been made of it, but the accord between the Reformed tradition and the Orthodox Church on the filioque and the doctrine of the Trinity has been a major breakthrough in ecumenical dialogue.

Those Orthodox who say that Protestants and Catholics can never understand the Eastern Church are sometimes guilty of failing to learn the theological jargon of the West, or of seeing how far Orthodox concepts can translate into Western forms. Tell a Pentecostal that icons are images of the holy and he will turn away in disgust. But talk to him of the synergy of God and man and tell him that icons are paintings of the Holy Spirit and he will prick up his ears. Or try telling a radical feminist, without due care and attention, that the Orthodox Church will not reconstruct Father, Son and Holy Ghost into a functional triunity of Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, and she may lose interest or take offence. But make the effort to explain to her that there is no gender in the Trinity, and that the Father is not male (nor the Spirit female) and one hopes she will listen with respect. Sarah Coakley of Harvard University, an Anglican, will even argue that it is the Holy Trinity, properly understood, that is the best antidote to patriarchy — in the oppressive sense in which feminists use the term.

These examples remind us of the most neglected dimension to being prophetic. It is not enough to know the mind of God; one also has to speak it in the language and cultural context in which we find ourselves. This should also remind us that prophecy is not the obverse of ascesis. Just as the charism of discernment operates through the spiritual fruit of sobriety, so too does prophecy speak from the familiarity of ascetic attention to the mind of God on the one hand, and the culture in which we live on the other. Prophecy, in short, is hard work both in listening to and speaking from the mind of God.

But now I want to be less self-congratulatory about what Orthodoxy may be able to do for the West. This is because I think we Orthodox Christians face what might be called an “attitude problem” in our dealings with those outside our community. To be prophetic is to speak the truth from the mind of God to the Church and the world, but St. Paul reminds us that we should speak the truth in love. Love can be stern or severe as well as gentle, but it is never a stick with which to beat others who see things differently from us.

It is not necessary and it is sometimes inaccurate to insist on using the language of heterodoxy or heresy to describe various religious beliefs and practices in the West. To believe that there has been no richness of Christian Tradition outside Eastern Orthodoxy since the Great Schism is either ignorance or myopia, as if Calvin never once rang true, or as if Charles Wesley didn’t write magnificent trinitarian hymns. What allies the Orthodox would find if they scoured the West for fellow travelers, whether it be Edward Irving on the humanity of Christ, Ives Congar on the Church, or Jurgen Moltmann on creation.

The question I am raising here is not to doubt the richness of Orthodox heritage, but to ask whether the Orthodox are willing in their critical judgment of Western traditions also to look at themselves a little more closely. I am not talking about importing Enlightenment rationalism into Church Tradition, with its concomitant cynicism and superior intellectual airs, nor am I suggesting a lessening of respect for the Patristic tradition. l am talking about ensuring that the Church speaks with a prophetic voice.

This needs nothing less than spiritual discernment: remembering to distinguish Tradition from customs; noting the gradations between dogmas, theological opinions, and pious opinions; knowing when either irenic or polemical theology is called for; having the discipline not to quote canon law or the Fathers as indiscriminately as fundamentalists quote texts of Holy Scripture; not falling into the trap of liturgical legalism while (quite properly) distancing Orthodox Tradition from moral legalism.

It may be true, as my friend said, that Orthodoxy has preserved the form of the Church in its canons and in its theology, but in practice Orthodox Christians have often failed normatively to be the Church. That is to say, that the outward form of religion has been sustained in terms of rites and practices, but sometimes there has been very little inner reality of knowing the mind of God.

Let me show you, if I may, what led to this critical train of thought. It begins in the passage from St. Luke: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor…”

We later read that Jesus makes it clear that prophets usually have no honor in their own country. St. John Chrysostom points out that Jesus is talking about his own brethren here. It is we ourselves who often fail to hear the prophetic voice. A similar point was made by the late Fr. Lev Gillet. Fr. Lev wondered why it was that the Orthodox of today, who know so much and have had so much given them, were so steeped in unbelief and sin.

Self-important and self-serving prophecy is prophecy without cost, without pain, without repentance. For to point the finger outside — at the West, at the heterodox — prevents us from having to look inside ourselves. When we do that, when we berate others for their shortcomings and neglect our own, we cease to be prophetic altogether and become stiff-necked Pharisees unable to bend our heads in supplication and prayer, and hence unable to know the mind and will of God. It was not for nothing that the Fathers rightly saw that the repentant publican was the true model of Orthodox spirituality.

There is no spirituality in Orthodoxy without repentance. It is repentance that gives to spirituality its route to the mind and will of God, not some vague cultural essence that we have somehow picked up and kept going over the years. Spirituality is something that we have to rediscover in every generation, in order that we remain prophets in fact and not merely in principle; that we are renewers of Tradition, and renewed by it, and not merely rehearsers of it.

I would like to give if I can some concrete examples of this.

A journalist once asked me, “As an Orthodox Christian, are you embarrassed at what is happening in Bosnia?” What struck me most about his question was the word “embarrassed.” But it is not a question of embarrassment. It is a question of having to admit that even in the heartlands of Orthodoxy, sin abounds. There is no other word for it. We cannot dress it up.

Orthodox scholars and apologists might properly object that the Bosnian Serbs are not in fact from the traditional heartlands of Orthodoxy, nor are they a good example of a people who have been successfully socialized into the Orthodox Faith. This is a matter of historical fact. If Catholic Croatia was deeply influenced by fascism in between the two World Wars, Orthodox Serbs in Bosnia were subject to a surfeit of secularization under Marxist Socialism during and immediately after the Second World War. We could also properly object that the mass media has not been objective in reporting the war. Serbs, too, have been on the receiving end of “ethnic cleansing,” and they suffered as a people in the Second World War in their tens of thousands at the hands of Croatian fascists. Many of us know this, but it still does not make Serbian conduct acceptable.

Of course, the Church is not institutionally responsible for atrocities, which have been rightly and courageously condemned by some of the hierarchs, most notably by Patriarch Pavle. But the fact remains that ordinary men from Orthodox churches have been involved in crimes against humanity. Sometimes the genuine light of Christian community throws shadows of ethnic exclusivity and tribal allegiance which can overcome that light, unless it burns brightly in the hearts and minds of ordinary men and women.

Russia provides us with another scenario for self-examination. When Russia was in the grip of Soviet rule, many Orthodox around the world were not slow to criticize the Church in the USSR at that time. But now, as Communism loosens its grip, will we also feel able to stand up to the present dangers: for there is a threat of a Slavophile neo-fascism within the Church itself, with many Orthodox Christians broadcasting their hatred of Jews and Freemasons. One detects a national fanaticism hatching in some seminaries and parishes and a hatred of all things Western.

This danger is all the greater because much of what has been imported to Russia from the West is indeed evil: consumer hedonism, pornography, greed, and pragmatic triumphalism. All the more reason that the Church should remain true to herself. When, however, a hierarch of the Russian Church can encourage publication of a right-wing newspaper of a virulent kind, saturate church bookstalls with thousands of unacceptable pamphlets, and watch while that old forgery much loved by the Nazis — The Protocols of the Elders of Zion — rears its head again, it is time for the Church to speak out with clarion certainty.

Here the prophetic voice is unambiguous. There is Orthodoxy, the Church, and there is a counterfeit religion looking much the same. It has identical symbols and liturgical practices to the true Church, but its spirit is not the Spirit of adoption whereby we cry “Abba Father” in repentance and reconciliation, but the spirit of discord.

This is not to attack the Church, but it is to recognize that within the ecclesia , within the fold of God, we can and do find wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Orthodox problems in the Diaspora are mundane compared to those in Eastern Europe, but they are nonetheless serious for all that. Cardinal Suenens once told me that Catholics in Belgium and France could no longer survive in the Western world without true Christian commitment, because there was no longer a benign Christian culture to encourage their faith. Nominal Christianity is a particular temptation for Orthodox living in Europe or North America, cut off from their Orthodox homelands, with their tacit cultural support for the Church.

Perhaps our missionary work needs to begin with our own people. So many Orthodox Christians have been secularized by the forces of modernity or have married outside the Church. In the process, Orthodoxy has been diluted almost to the point of sterility.

For Orthodoxy to be prophetic, it constantly has to remind itself that this is impossible without knowing the mind and will of God. To know and speak the mind and will of God is beyond human reasoning unless we are grafted by the Holy Spirit into the living Christ and his Church. In order to ensure that the graft is not rejected, we have to be daily renewed through repentance in the very life of the risen Christ.

Orthodoxy does not mean “right belief” if by that we mean no more than correctly reciting dogmas. Orthodoxy is better understood as true worship which is the overflowing of God’s personal love into the Church. This overflowing is like abundant wine brimming in the cup from which we must drink deeply if we want new life, and drinking is both a physical act of opening our mouths and a spiritual act of surrender, of opening our hearts.

By the grace of God, the Orthodox Church came to the West. I believe it really is the true Church, spotless and holy in the mystery of its sanctuary but also teeming in its empirical life with Judases and Pharisees as well as publicans and sinners. Orthodox prophecy is the voice of the mind of God to the world, but also to the Church. That same voice warns us that when Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” it is quite dear that branches can wither and die if they are not grafted firmly onto the vine. There is no life in a dead branch, no Spirit-bearing sap, and the prophetic voice is silenced.

Dr. Andrew Walker is Professor of Theology, Kings College, London. His books include Different Gospels: Christian Orthodoxy and Modern Theologies and Telling the Story: Gospel, Mission & Culture. This text is a shortened version of a chapter in Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World, which he co-edited with Costa Carras.