Review of Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox

On Peter Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox (Conciliar Press, 1992)

This book presents an engaging story and defense of the transition of a group of evangelicals into the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Parts One and Three tell the story and Part Two presents a defense of Orthodox positions on issues sensitive to many evangelicals. The key point in their journey he says was letting history judge them instead of the other way around. This meant giving priority to the faith and practice of the ancient, undivided church.

The group of leaders that Peter represents did careful historical research, were open to what they found, and were willing to change if necessary.  Their guiding desire was to find the one, true church if possible. They ended up starting their own Evangelical Orthodox Church that eventually merged with (if that’s the right term) the Antiochian Orthodox Church.

He addresses several issues that are hot buttons for some evangelicals: tradition, liturgy, calling priests “father”, the Virgin Mary, and the cross. Their background is apparently the anti-liturgical wing of evangelicals who are suspicious of all tradition and liturgy because they are associated with dead ritualism. But there are many evangelicals in Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist communions, for example, who don’t have such attitudes. Though admittedly the high church “smells and bells” type of liturgy he defends is the liturgy of only a few evangelicals.

The only issue he addresses that comes close to a core evangelical issue concerns the Virgin Mary. Both Catholics and Orthodox consider Mary the first Christian and the model for all Christians. He calls her the greatest woman who ever lived, a model of obedience, purity and holiness, royalty and intercession, and the mother of God. He distinguishes Orthodox teaching from Catholic teachings of her Immaculate Conception and Assumption. And he criticizes Protestants for slighting her.

Let’s consider this in detail. Gillquist asserts that Mary is the “most blessed” (which he uses interchangeably with “greatest”) of all woman. With all due respect, being the most blessed sinner is still infinitely less than being the Sinless One. But it’s a point that one can accept without accepting his other assertions.

The importance of the identity of the first Christian is in what it means to be a Christian. He asserts that in her role as mother of our Savior she is the first to accept Christ as her Savior. He doesn’t elaborate but the argument seems to be that a good work may translate into salvation. A parallel might be Zaccaeus who gave half of his goods to the poor: “Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’” Was Zaccaeus the first to give away his goods? Probably not. Is that what it takes to become a Christian? Of course not.

In fact Scripture doesn’t support Gillquist’s assertion. It shows that Jesus’ family didn’t understand him any sooner than the apostles. When he was found in the temple at age twelve, Jesus said to his mother: “‘Why were you searching for me?” he asked. Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Luke 2.49-50. While getting flak in Nazareth, Jesus said: “Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” Mark 6.4

The first one to profess Jesus as the Christ was of course the apostle Peter. In the rest of the New Testament it is the profession of faith in Jesus as Lord and Christ that is the key act that makes one a Christian. Acts 2.36; 10.43; Rom. 10.9. Baptism is also part of becoming a Christian but the first Christian baptisms were not until the Acts of the Apostles.

Gillquist then asserts that Mary is our “supreme example, or prototype”. He says, “Everything we aspire to become in Christ she already is.” The only defense he offers is to assert that hers was the first ‘decision’ made for Christ. That’s quite a jump from first to ultimate! Does the first man on the moon know all there is to know about the moon? Is any sinner already perfected? The logic is impenetrable.

Gillquist goes on to assert that Mary is our model of obedience because of a few acts of obedience record in Scripture. What about Abraham, etc., etc.? He says she’s our model of purity and holiness but in defense merely asserts this isn’t unthinkable. He says she’s our model of royalty and intercession but his defense is only that we’re all kings (Rev. 1.6) and we’re all called to pray (Eph. 6.18).

In the next section he affirms Mary’s title as the mother of God (p.106). He starts by quoting Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary: “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk.1.:35, Gillquist’s emphasis) I’m left wondering why Elizabeth isn’t the first Christian.

Then he explains the Nestorian heresy. We needn’t go into the details except to note that dogmatizing the title (and anathematizing “mother of Jesus”) was an effort to protect the doctrine of the Incarnation. This was analogous to the Jews “building a hedge around Torah.” The logic of these protective dogmas is this: if God says X, we must say X + Y to make sure we’re not even close to denying or failing to do X. Such an approach led to Pharisaic dogmas that put heavy burdens on the people and were condemned by Jesus. (Mt. 23) The same motive led Catholics to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Once the Orthodox have accepted the logic of protective dogmas, they really have no grounds for disagreeing with the Catholics.

Next he says we must honor Mary and call her blessed. No Christian would deny that though he takes this to mean that she must be honored in the liturgy in certain ways. Other ways apparently don’t match some unspecified standard.

Then he asserts that Mary is ever-virgin. It’s not clear whether this is a dogma but as long as it’s not, evangelicals would have no problem with someone believing it. Otherwise, it lacks positive Scriptural support (explaining away problem verses isn’t enough).

Finally, he distinguishes Orthodox from Catholic doctrines. But they are very close. Both Catholics and Orthodox read much about Mary into a few Scriptural remarks. Such eisegesis may seem pious to some but does little to promote the faith.

May 2002