—by Christopher Neuendorf
It’s happened again: a Missouri Synod pastor has jumped ship, defecting to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Joshua Genig, formerly a pastor in Atlanta, Georgia, left his Lutheran parish and in December of last year received the sacrament (in Orthodox belief) of chrismation, together with his household. Of course, as is standard practice in these sorts of situations, Genig has gone public with an article explaining his decision. This one was published in First Things and is movingly entitled “My Journey into the Orthodox Church: We Travel Together Still.” What’s different this time is Genig’s characterization of the Lutheran Church. He argues that to be Lutheran is to be putative Orthodox, that his reception into the Orthodox Church is the culmination of the natural process of life as a Lutheran.
I beg to differ. What I see is a radical discontinuity. Genig’s transition to Eastern Orthodoxy is not the culmination of a process but the renunciation of a confession.
Several considerations compelled Genig to leave the Lutheran Church for Eastern Orthodoxy. Discontent with the liturgical state of things in the Missouri Synod, which many of us would agree is a serious problem, and a desire for his children (including infants, I presume) to be able to receive the Lord’s Supper were a couple of those considerations. Both topics have been and will continue to be hashed out elsewhere. If Genig, right or wrong, found his conscience unable to bear Missouri’s liturgical disarray and our refusal to commune those who cannot examine themselves (1 Cor 11:28), then it is certainly understandable that he would go his own way. Better to live according to the conscience than serve as a pastor in a confession in which one no longer believes.
In my view, however, the chief reason for Genig’s departure for Orthodoxy, or at least its chief result, seems ultimately to have been a change in doctrine. “In Orthodoxy,” he writes, “God is mercy. God is not an angry judge, nor is he wrathful. . . . No need for belated commentary on various theories of the atonement, for no single theory accurately conveys the reality.” The implication is that in Lutheranism, God is wrath, or at least wrathful, and any theory of the atonement seeking to reconcile God’s justice and wrath with His mercy and love, such as that espoused by St. Paul in Romans 3:21–26 and 5:6–21, is a sad doctrinal construct that lacks the vitality and vigor of Orthodoxy, which, as we are told, is not a system of doctrine but a way of life. Though not phrased as boldly, this is the same leap as John Fenton, who explained his departure for Orthodoxy in terms of a doctrinal change: “I am convinced that the Book of Concord contains defective or deficient doctrines not in accord with the faith of the apostles. In simple terms, these deficiencies include . . . the notion that Jesus died to appease His Father’s wrath.” In these statements we learn from two different converts to Orthodoxy that Lutheranism’s problem is not merely deficient practice, but fundamental doctrinal error.
But that “error” defines us as Lutherans: the belief that in Christ God is both just and merciful, just by punishing the sin of the world through the death of His innocent Son and merciful by freely bestowing His Son’s innocence upon a world that had merited death and hell. Take this away and you’ve taken away Lutheranism, at least in any sort of confessional sense. Genig has not ceased to be Lutheran by severing his connection with a fellowship struggling to live up to its own ideals; he has ceased to be Lutheran by ceasing to believe what Lutherans by definition believe.
It is this more than anything else that gives the lie to Genig’s contention that Eastern Orthodoxy is the natural culmination of Lutheranism, the true “home” for those of us who claim theological descent from Luther’s Reformation. As Genig writes, “Not only do I believe that the fullness of life is found in Holy Orthodoxy, but I also believe that, in a unique way, this is, in part, the life the Lutheran reformers were after.” In other words, Luther and his colleagues were not struggling to cleanse the Roman church of her errors or to unearth the apostolic faith that had become encrusted with centuries of superstition and false doctrine. They were, in fact, struggling to become Eastern Orthodox whether they knew it or not! Genig finds this reflected in the fact that second-generation Lutheran theologians wrote to the Patriarch of Constantinople seeking a rapprochement. “From the earliest days of the Reformation,” he writes, “the Lutherans sought theological affirmation from the Orthodox Church (and not vice versa), in no small part because they viewed the Orthodox Church as holding unswervingly to the faith of the apostles. The Orthodox were, very simply, the Church.”
One wonders, then, why there is still a Lutheran Church. Surely if the first Lutherans had intended to find shelter under the wings of the Orthodox Church, if they had viewed the Orthodox as “very simply, the Church,” then they would have asked Patriarch Jeremiah II what was necessary for them to do and believe in order to become Orthodox, then changed their teaching and practice accordingly. The Lutheran Church would have been absorbed into the Orthodox Church, her confession renounced.
But that is very different from what in fact happened. Yes, from the beginning the Lutherans acknowledged and respected the Orthodox. Philipp Melancththon in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession appealed to the practice of the Greek Church in his argument for both kinds in the Sacrament (XXII.4), against private masses (XXIV.6), and against a sacrificial understanding of the Lord’s Supper (XXIV.93). Martin Luther in the Smalcald Articles pointed to the Greek Christians as evidence that the Christian Church can exist without a pope (II.IV.4). But this hardly constitutes a recognition of the Orthodox Church as being “very simply, the Church.” Furthermore, when communication was struck up between the Lutheran West and the Greek East, the first move was made by Patriarch Joasaph II, who out of curiosity sent an emissary in 1558–60 to investigate the Lutherans. Melanchthon, having developed a friendship with this emissary, prepared a Greek translation of the Augsburg Confession and attempted to send it to Constantinople, but a correspondence never materialized. It was not until the next generation that communication with Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople was successfully spearheaded by Jacob Andreae, a major contributor to the Formula of Concord.1 The correspondence was cordial, but when both sides realized that they had fundamental disagreements, they politely declined to continue discussion.
So why didn’t the Lutherans just become Orthodox? According to Genig, the Reformers wrote to Constantinople seeking the affirmation of Patriarch Jeremiah II. In fact, however, they wrote to him in hopes that he would prove to be a Lutheran! They were looking for the Orthodox to accept and subscribe the Augsburg Confession. This is hardly the posture of a fellowship seeking affirmation from those who are “very simply, the Church.”
The Lutherans insisted upon Scripture as the sole judge in disagreements, and subjected the Orthodox to the same rule: “There is, indeed, no more sure, nor truer, nor better standard rule for judging all dogmas, all institutes, and usages of faith and human traditions and works, than the Word of the Almighty God of All; the Word, which has been revealed to the human race by the Prophets and Christ and the Apostles and written in the Old and New Testaments for the benefit and the salvation of the entire Church.”2 The Lutheran insistence upon judging all teachers by Scripture led Jeremiah to end the correspondence, writing to the Lutherans, “We request that from henceforth you do not cause us more grief, nor write to us on the same subject if you should wish to treat these luminaries and theologians of the Church in a different manner. You honor and exalt them in words, but you reject them in deeds. For you try to prove our weapons which are their holy and divine discourses as unsuitable.”3 For agreement between Lutherans and Orthodox to take place, either the Lutherans will have to forfeit Scripture as sole rule and norm for Christian teaching, or the Orthodox will have to acknowledge the authority of Scripture over and above the other authorities of their Sacred Tradition. Until that happens, the Lutheran Church is perfectly content to continue submitting to the Word of God, whether the Orthodox join them in that submission or not. We would welcome the Orthodox “home” to the Scriptures, but we do not feel compelled to seek out a home that depends on any authority outside the written Word of God.
What, then, of Genig’s claim that he has “done what the earliest Lutherans had hoped to do”? The earliest Lutherans did not hope to become Orthodox. They were confident in their own orthodoxy, ready to give an account of their teaching before the dread judgment seat of Christ. If anything, they hoped the Orthodox would become Lutheran, that is to say, recognize the Lutheran Confession as right and true, in agreement with Holy Scripture.
Has Genig fulfilled that hope? Certainly not. Instead, he changed his confession to match the Orthodox Church, irrespective of that confession’s agreement or disagreement with Scripture. Whatever Genig may claim, whatever his conscience has compelled him to do, he may not claim solidarity with “the earliest Lutherans.” They did not “come home” to the Orthodox Church because, by virtue of their total submission to the Holy Scriptures, they were already home in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. And we who share in their confession are home in Christ’s Church as well.
I bear no personal animosity toward Joshua Genig. I believe he has followed his conscience, and for that he ought not be condemned. I too followed my conscience years ago, leaving the fellowship of the Orthodox Church and joining myself to a communion that is deeply flawed, constantly struggling, often faithless, but bound together by the one confession that Holy Scripture compels me to claim as my own. I am thankful to be home in the Church of the apostles, the Church that Christ is building upon the rock of the good confession that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God, that for our sake He was made sin who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. And if you’re a Lutheran, you can be glad of that too.
Rev. Christopher Neuendorf serves Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa.
As an extension of LOGIA, BLOGIA understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed on BLOGIA are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.
- George Mastrontonis, Augsburg and Constantinople: The Correspondence between the Tübingen Theologians and Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople on the Augsburg Confession (Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1982), 8–10, 13–15. ↩
- Augsburg and Constantinople, 110. ↩
- Augsburg and Constantinople, 306. ↩