As Orthodox Christians commemorate Metropolitan Archbishop Kallistos Ware, who fell asleep in the Lord early Wednesday morning in England at age 88, evangelicals also have a loss to mourn and reason to pray—as Orthodox funerals do—“May his memory be eternal.”
Born Timothy Ware in 1934 and raised in an Anglican family, he converted at age 24 and became one of the most influential Eastern Orthodox theologians in the English-speaking world in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Bishop Kallistos’ most famous books were The Orthodox Church, the standard introductory textbook for nearly 60 years; The Orthodox Way; and The Philokalia, a classic text of Orthodox spirituality which he co-translated. He served as the Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at Oxford University for 35 years until his retirement in 2001, and many of his doctoral students acquired influential posts.
After Oxford, he continued to publish but focused the remaining years of his life on strengthening the internal life of the Orthodox Church and on building bridges with non-Orthodox Christians, including Catholics, Anglicans, and evangelicals. A person like him only comes around once in a century.
Bishop Kallistos’ work changed the landscape between Orthodoxy and evangelicalism, and his contributions can best be understood by situating them at a time when evangelicals first developed interest in the ancient faith.
This interest began indirectly in the 1970s with Robert Webber, a theology professor at Wheaton College. His writings made the early church attractive to evangelicals by stressing the positive role of church tradition and liturgical forms of worship. He also documented a sizable movement of evangelicals into Anglicanism in his book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals are Attracted to the Liturgical Church. From there, it was a small step for some evangelicals to move from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy.
Near that time, Billy Graham held evangelistic campaigns in communist Orthodox lands such as Russia and Romania. The Orthodox patriarchs welcomed Graham because his policy of “cooperative evangelism” allowed those who came forward in his meetings to be given over to their own clergy for discipleship. Then in 1988, a former Campus Crusade for Christ leader, Peter Gillquist, led his 1,800-member denomination into the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Over the next 15 years, entire evangelical and charismatic churches joined local Orthodox parishes throughout America.
Methodist theologian Thomas Oden began writing earnestly on classical Christianity in the faith’s first thousand years. His monumental series, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, cultivated in evangelicals a theological passion for the early Church Fathers that has grown over the years. In 2005, the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies was inaugurated with funding from an Orthodox donor. And in 2013, the Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative (LOI) launched the most ambitious international conference ever between Orthodox and evangelical leaders. Its first conference, entitled “On the Mission of God,” brought together in Albania over 60 Orthodox and evangelical leaders from across the world. LOI has since held regular international conferences and remains the epicenter of Orthodox-evangelical dialogue today.
It was in the context of this flowering interest in early Christianity that Bishop Kallistos impacted Orthodox-evangelical relations, more powerfully than almost anyone else could. The weight of his influence came not only from his renowned reputation as a teacher and scholar at Oxford University, nor only from his official position as a bishop in the Orthodox Church. These, no doubt, played a significant role; however, place those attributes in a scholar whose spiritual life was so stunningly integrated with theology and the results were nothing short of transformational for Orthodox and evangelicals alike.
A short tribute like this cannot possibly communicate in words what could only be experienced in person. Bishop Kallistos was much like the great monk, St. Anthony of Egypt (AD 251–356). A famous story was told about three brothers who came to Anthony every year to discuss the state of their souls. One, however, never asked him anything. Anthony finally spoke up: “You come to see me every year here in the desert, but you ask me nothing. Why is that?” The brother answered, “It is enough for me to see you, Abba (father).” Words were not needed. The sheer force of Anthony’s presence was enough to bring about a spiritual transformation in the brother.
The same was true for those of us who spent time with Bishop Kallistos. His holy life gave his words a transforming power that could change the hearts of those with whom he talked, whether Orthodox or evangelical. His very presence reshaped the relationship.
His first written support of Orthodox-evangelical dialogue came in 1991 when he endorsed the work of the newly formed Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism . This was a groundbreaking organization of Orthodox and evangelical theologians which met annually at the Billy Graham Center with the support of James Stamoolis, dean of the Wheaton College Graduate School. Bishop Kallistos expanded his involvement with evangelicalism in 1997 when he gave a keynote address at the European Pentecostal/Charismatic Research Center in Prague on the “Personal Experience of the Holy Spirit in the Greek Fathers.”
I had the good fortune of hosting Bishop Kallistos in our home on two occasions before his death. In 2011, I arranged for the metropolitan to give a lecture at Wheaton College and at North Park University entitled “Orthodox and Evangelical Dialogue: What Have We To Learn From Each Other?” In that lecture, he stressed the need to love one another; but before that, we first need to understand each other. He believed in a dialogue of truth, not a dialogue of evasion or compromise. To be human, we need each other because humans are, by nature, dialogical just as the Trinity is dialogical.
Bishop Kallistos believed Orthodox and evangelicals seem on the surface to be widely different, but in fact we share far more in common than most realize. Our differences are not as great as we might suppose. He believed Orthodox and evangelicals share a common faith in the holy Scriptures as entirely truthful, in the Trinity, in Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, and in the virgin birth, miracles, Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, his bodily resurrection, and his second coming. The bishop believed we also share a common faith in the divine ordering of marriage and a common approach to the problems of homosexuality, bioethics, and euthanasia.
On that 2011 trip, Bishop Kallistos also conducted one of the best interviews on Orthodoxy and evangelicalism with the editor in chief of Christianity Today (CT) magazine. Entitled “The Fullness and the Center,” the topics centered on the gospel, evangelism, social justice, and tradition.
He told CT:
“We Orthodox are still certainly too inward looking; we should realize that we have a message that many people will listen to gladly. … To me, the most important missionary witness that we have is the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharistic worship of the Orthodox Church. This is the life-giving source from which everything else proceeds. And therefore, to those who show an interest in Orthodoxy, I say, ‘Come and see. Come to the liturgy.’ The first thing is that they should have an experience of Orthodoxy—or for that matter, of Christianity—as a worshiping community. We start from prayer, not from an abstract ideology, not from moral rules, but from a living link with Christ expressed through prayer.”
The sum of Bishop Kallistos’ impact on both Orthodox and evangelical Christians was game-changing. He built a bridge for a united Christian witness, to the extent possible on each side; his Orthodox engagement with the evangelical community legitimized a dialogue that was previously absent; and he encouraged the Orthodox community to view evangelicals as genuine brothers and sisters in Christ. Even though our unity is imperfect, we still need and belong to each other as members of the body of Christ. His respect for the intellectual heritage of evangelicalism gave the movement a credibility that was not always evident among the Orthodox.
He also introduced evangelicals to a generous Orthodoxy that was time-tested and rooted in centuries of apostolic tradition. When asked by CT what keeps the Orthodox Church from going off the rails, Bishop Kallistos answered: “Holy Scripture as it has been understood in the church and by the church through the centuries. … But tradition lives on. The age of the fathers didn’t stop in the fifth century or the seventh century. We could have holy fathers now in the 21st century equal to the ancient fathers.”
To me, Kallistos Ware was a living Church Father in the 21st century. May his memory be eternal.
Bradley Nassif is author of The Evangelical Theology of the Orthodox Church (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2021).