Of course, faithfulness to the truth of the Great Tradition, not organizational continuity, is what counts most. My point is simply that those who value classical faith will increasingly engage with Orthodox churches, which incarnate the Great Tradition day by day as a living tradition. I’m not arguing that the Great Tradition is the exclusive property of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is not. Early church fathers, mothers, ascetics, councils, creeds, art, music, and spirituality are the rightful heritage of all orthodox Christians—Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox alike. There is no room here for Orthodox triumphalism or romanticism. All orthodox believers share a common ecumenical heritage. But few historians would dispute the conclusion that in comparison to the 20,000 Protestant denominations in existence today, the Orthodox community can most justifiably claim to be the fullest heir apparent of the Great Tradition. ~Bradley Nassif

Via Rod Dreher

I think Prof. Nassif’s is right when he suggests that those inclined to study early Church history and the formative centuries of Christian doctrinal development are probably going to be drawn to Orthodoxy.  Certainly, there is a much greater likelihood that a thorough study of early doctrine will draw someone to Orthodoxy or Catholicism once he recognises that formal statements of doctrine do not conflict with Scripture and are, in fact, a reaffirmation of the same truths expressed  in the technical language of theological definitions.  He will be drawn to one or the other of these confessions when he becomes familiar with the truth that most of the literary production of the Fathers is made up of commentary on the meaning of Scripture and that most serious doctrinal disagreements arose out of vying interpretations of certain passages or the methods by which disputing parties were interpreting Scripture.  False oppositions between revelation and “the inventions of men” will break down and seem absurd to him, and he will no longer regard Tradition as some unfortunate growth that needs to be removed to get back to the “real” Faith.  As he discovers that the fourfold meaning of Scripture allows for a more complete, richer and more beautiful vision of God’s revelation, he will become disenchanted with the limited dimensions of both strict literalism and the sentence-chopping nightmare that is high criticism.  So I think it is very possible that those who learn these things will be led to engage with and eventually embrace Orthodoxy. 

But, as Prof. Nassif’s article already hints, the number of people for whom this is relevant or even possible is relatively small.  This approach was extremely important and meaningful for me, but it is necessarily a fairly bookish, academic and intellectual route that simply does not apply to most people.  It does not even apply all that often to evangelicals.  In my experience, many converts to Orthodoxy find such a route to be very much a “Western” kind of conversion–a thing of the mind and not of the heart, if you will–and they are often keen to talk about experience rather than doctrine.  Church history is not unimportant to them, but you might be surprised at how relatively little knowledge of it some of the most evangelical converts to Orthodoxy have (to which they will respond that the “cradle” Orthodox don’t know all that much, either, which is in many cases unfortunately true).  There is nothing really wrong with emphasising experience, since it is a living Faith we are supposed to be witnessing, but I would simply note that the approach Prof. Nassif describes is one that relies heavily on acquiring “the Great Tradition” through words and books rather than images, liturgy and in the silence of prayer.  Contrary to the conventional prejudice against dogma and book-learning, I think this is a very good way to enter into any tradition and I have a hard time understanding how you fully acquire a religious tradition without engaging with its core writings to some significant degree. 

This approach Prof. Nassif describes may lead to an explosion of Orthodox intellectuals and scholars, some of whom we already see in such prominent Anglophone converts as Jaroslav Pelikan, David Hart and, most recently, the great English patristics scholar Andrew Louth (and, if rumours are to be believed, Sir Steven Runciman before his death in 1999), but it will necessarily have limited reach.  At the risk of sounding rather passive and non-evangelistic, I would note that the Liturgy probably does more on a weekly basis to draw in the unchurched and the disenchanted than anything else the Orthodox are or could be doing, and it is not for nothing that virtually every introductory work on Orthodoxy makes use of the (almost certainly apocyphal) tale from the Russian Primary Chronicle that purports to relate the story of how the Rus’ became Orthodox.  As many reading this will probably already know, this is the story of the Grand Prince, Saint and Equal to the Apostles Vladimir sending emissaries to different lands to learn about the major religions of the time to determine which one St. Vladimir should accept.  The emissaries report on each in turn, and each time they come back with discouraging news (the Islamic prohibition on alcohol especially puts off the Rus’ian ruler) until they report of their journey to Constantinople and their experience of the Liturgy in Hagia Sophia, about which they famously said: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”  Anyone who has to been to a full hierarchical Orthodox Liturgy at a cathedral knows what they were talking about.  To my mind, that is the greatest means of Orthodox evangelism, because it is the most integrated and complete expression of the Faith that everyone experiences on a regular basis.      

None of this means that the Orthodox should necessarily eschew evangelising by other means.  There is truth in the charge that we tend to go along with the stereotype that says that evangelism means preaching hellfire and banging down people’s doors, which some of us use as an excuse for not making much of an effort, but in America in particular I suspect that the marginal position of Orthodoxy for much of the last century, the small number of adherents and its close associations with ethnic immigrant communities all worked to encourage Orthodox Christians here to keep a low profile and not be seen as meddlesome or aggressive in their proselytising.  The Orthodox in America remain such a small religious minority that I think there will continue to be resistance against any move towards a more “evangelical” Orthodoxy.  If this were to be the Orthodox century, it would be a great thing, but on this I’m afraid I will have to remain a skeptic for the time being.