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Sola Scriptura and Protestantism’s Hermeneutical Chaos
Orthodox-Reformed Bridge ^ | Robert Arakaki

Posted on 01/07/2012 6:00:19 PM PST by rzman21

During the 1960s a book Double Helix came out that described Francis Crick and James Watson’s discovery of the double helix structure that made up DNA. This was a landmark discovery for it enabled scientists to understand how living organisms were able to replicate themselves from generation to generation. DNA functioned as a unique blueprint for each human being: a set of instructions about the color of our eyes, the shape of our nose etc. In the 1980s scientists discovered the presence of telomeres, little bits of DNA located at the end of the chromosome chain. Telomeres function to keep DNA intact each time a cell splits in half — very much in the same way that the little plastic ends of a shoe lace keeps the laces from unraveling (See Gorman 1998).

The same principle applies to social organizations. Organizations, like living organisms, need a set of core values in order to reproduce. The worldwide franchise of McDonald’s hamburgers is a good example of consistent social reproduction. The process of social reproduction is based upon the repetition of concepts and practices constitutive for the group. In sociology this has been referred to as “recipe knowledge” (Berger and Luckmann 1967:65). In classical theology these core beliefs are known as the regula fidei or Holy Tradition (#1). For the first thousand years Holy Tradition enabled the Church to be united in faith and worship.

In contrast to the early Church, what is so striking about Protestantism is its inability to consistently reproduce itself. The sheer number of mutations in Protestantism’s 450 years, in contrast with the stability and unity of the first 1000 years of Christianity, is staggering. It is as if over time Protestantism does not reproduce itself, but rather mutates into a confusing array of motley beliefs. Peter Berger observes:

Revisionism is possible in all traditions, but Protestantism has, as it were, a built-in revisionist tendency (1979:128).

It is as if McDonald’s franchisees began to argue over the menu, changing the menu from week to week, and then broke up into rival hamburger joints all competing against each other.

Using the analogy of DNA and the telomeres, Protestantism’s inability to consistently reproduce itself — its tendency to fragmentation and theological innovations — seems to mirror some kind of unraveling of its genetic code. In this paper I argue that it is sola scriptura that is the underlying cause of Protestantism’s hermeneutical chaos. In the early Church the Bible and Holy Tradition were seen as forming a unified whole. Holy Tradition safeguarded the Bible by providing a proper and consistent interpretation — very much in the same way telomeres ensured consistent reproduction by protecting the integrity of the DNA. In contrast to the patristic regula fidei, the Protestant Reformers proclaimed Scripture alone to be the “only rule of faith and practice” (Osterhaven 1984:962). Scripture became detached from Tradition. When it discarded Holy Tradition as binding and authoritative, Protestantism threw out the basis for a consistent and proper reading of Scripture (#2). Thus, Protestantism’s sola scriptura has resulted in its DNA code (the Bible) being stripped of its telomeres (Holy Tradition).

Methodologically, in this paper I take a sociology of knowledge approach to understanding sola scriptura. It complements my earlier critiques, one which addressed sola scriptura from a biblical exegesis approach and another which took a historical/genealogical approach.

Sola scriptura resulted in the rise of a host of rival interpretations of the Bible and no effective means of arbitrating these differences. It is this that constitutes Protestantism’s fatal genetic flaw. It is ‘fatal’ in the sense that Protestant Christianity, lacking the capacity to consistently replicate itself, mutates into ever more bizarre and aberrant forms that bear little if any resemblance to the original Reformation churches (to say nothing of the early Church). It is ‘fatal’ in the sense that Protestant Christianity being broken up into rival camps is unable to present a unified witness to the world. And, it is ‘fatal’ in the sense that being cut off from its past Protestantism has lost its sense of direction to guide it into the future.

The Faultlines of Protestantism

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms

Martin Luther’s defiant “Here I stand” at the Diet of Worms struck the Roman Catholic Church like a bolt of lightning. It shattered the religious unity that held together medieval European society and it gave rise to a very different social milieu. Luther’s defiance of the collective authority of the Church on the basis of Scripture constitutes a watershed event in the history of Christianity. Luther’s paradigm shift created a religious community whose hermeneutics was detached from Tradition, i.e., Tradition in the form of historical continuity and conciliar authority.

At the core of the Protestant Reformation are two principles: sola scriptura – Scripture alone; and ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda – the church reformed yet always reforming. The Reformers believed that sola scriptura would provide them with the means by which they would reach their goal of a church reformed. The “sola” in sola scriptura does not exclude all other authorities but considers them “helps and assistants, human and fallible, not as divine authorities” (Ramm 1970:1, see also Mathison 2001). The principle sola scriptura contained within it a certain paradoxical double-edged quality that the original Reformers had to struggle with. Nathan Hatch observes:

Protestants from Luther to Wesley had been forced to define very carefully what they meant by sola scriptura. They found it an effective banner to unfurl when attacking Catholics on the right, but always a bit troublesome when common people began to take the teaching seriously (1982:61).

Sola scriptura also created a hermeneutical dilemma for Protestants. Jaroslav Pelikan notes that the theology of conservative Protestants rests upon a somewhat paradoxical basis, being both radical and conservative at the same time.

The supporters of the sole authority of Scripture, arguing from radical hermeneutical premises to conservative dogmatic conclusions, overlooked the function of tradition in securing what they regarded as the correct exegesis of Scripture against heretical alternatives (1971:119).

Protestantism has long functioned on the basis of an implicit regula fidei which has helped it maintain a certain degree of stability and continuity. But at the same time the implicit nature of Protestantism’s regula fidei made it vulnerable to external pressures from society.

Luther vs. Zwingli

The dysfunctional character of sola scriptura became manifest almost from the start. One of the earliest schisms in Protestantism took place over the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli believed that the Lord’s Supper was just a memorial, whereas Luther believed in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. This controversy over the real presence between Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 was basically a split over hermeneutics. The failure of the two reformers to reach a shared understanding of Christ’s words, “This is my body,” presaged the hermeneutical chaos that would plague Protestantism.

The Protestant Reformers sought to reform the Catholic Church, but the unintended consequence was the shattering of church unity. The initial Protestant Reformation was split into four major camps: Lutheran, Reformed, Zwinglian, and Anabaptist. A short time later the Church of England with its unique Catholic/Protestant hybrid of via media emerged as a result of Henry VIII’s break from Rome. One of the tragic consequences of the Protestant Reformation was the religious division of Europe and the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics. The religious wars took a heavy toll on Europe until the adoption of the principle of cujus regio, ejus religio at the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 (#3). This arrangement had several consequences: (1) it gave recognition to the new religious pluralism in Germany, and (2) it continued the practice of linking the church with the state. This arrangement while supporting religious pluralism also gave it a measure of structural stability in Europe. Later when Christianity became disestablished in America one of the key factors that inhibited change in European churches was removed giving American churches their distinctive tendency for innovation and fragmentation.

The Rise of the American Church

Christianity in America was significantly influenced and shaped by the English Reformation, especially Puritanism, of the mid 1600s (Ahlstrom Vol. I 1975:169). The instability caused by the religious upheavals in England hindered the government’s regulation of migration to the New World. This resulted in large numbers of religious dissenters emigrating, giving rise to a social order based on a radical break from the past. While the Puritans affirmed sola scriptura, they radicalized it through the regulative principle which stipulated only what was mandated by Scripture was allowable for worship (Ahlstrom Vol. I. 1975:170). They also pursued moral purity, i.e., individual and general conformity to the ethical teachings of the Bible. Another way that Puritanism radicalized the Reformation was its emphasis on conversion narratives. Unlike Anglicanism and Catholicism, the Puritans did not believe that all who resided in a given parish should be full church members. Because the “pure” church was comprised of the elect only those who could bear witness to a personal experience of divine grace were allowed into full membership (Ahlstrom Vol. I 1975:194). This emphasis on subjective grace would give rise to the Half-way Covenant controversy in the late 1600s and the Great Awakenings of the mid 1700s and the early 1800s.

When the radical exegesis entailed in the Puritan regulative principle and the subjectivity of the conversion testimony are brought together, the foundation is laid for what Mathison labeled solo scriptura. Unlike the classic Reformation doctrine sola scriptura which allowed for creeds, ceremonials, and other extra-biblical practices even while the primacy of Scripture is affirmed, the innovative doctrine solo scriptura shunned extra-biblical practices. The radical subjectivity in Puritan spirituality also laid the groundwork for a highly individualistic approach to salvation that: (1) denigrated membership in established churches, (2) promoted an independent reading of the Bible without the aid of an educated clergy, and (3) allowed for the founding of churches free of the “traditions of men.” In short, the Reformers adherence to the normative principle of worship — what Scripture does not prohibit is permitted — allowed for the retention of historical memory. However, with the widespread acceptance of the regulative principle of worship — what Scripture does not enjoin is prohibited — combined with a radically subjective and individualistic understanding of conversion, the Protestant principle of sola scriptura underwent modification resulting in a genetic mutation: solo scriptura.

America in the 1800s was one vast laboratory for social and religious experimentation. With the winning of the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the Constitution there was a widespread sense of optimism as the new era began. The constitutional separation of church and state was a momentous development, marking a break from the traditional state-church pattern found in Europe. In this new situation the two fundamental tenets of the Protestant Reformation — sola scriptura and ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda – achieved a new level of intensity. Sola scriptura degenerated into an unmediated reading of Scripture to the exclusion of Tradition, the Papacy, or the Creeds. Under the influence of Restorationaism ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda led to radically new forms of church structures as people sought to recreate the idealized primitive church (#4).

Frontier Revival

Sola scriptura took on new meaning out on the frontier where the pioneers attempted to leave behind their past and start all over again from scratch (#5). Many endeavored to be Christian with only the Bible guiding them. Out on the frontier a revivalist and populist Christianity emerged with a strong streak of anti-traditionalism. The revivalists called upon people to flee from religious tradition and traditional learning. The Restorationists attempted to read the Bible alone apart from all other sources in the belief that by doing this they would be able to replicate the early church. This gave rise to Protestants who had no knowledge of John Calvin or any of the other great Protestant Reformers.

The American frontier also gave rise to the “believers’ church” — the church as a voluntary association of like-minded individuals. The believers’ church is very American and very modern. It is strongly influenced by Lockean liberalism which makes the individual the most important social unit. The believers’ church diverged significantly from the historic understanding of the catholicity (universality) of the Church. Unlike the state church in Europe which enjoyed a stable monopoly, the disestablished churches in America were forced to compete for adherents. This gave rise to a kind of religious entrepreneurialism (#6).

Another innovation was the rise of denominations. Denominations began as groups of people gathered around the interpretation of a particular preacher or bible teacher. As more conflicting interpretations arose, more new denominations were formed. The growing number of denominations mirrored the growing doctrinal chaos of American Protestantism. Denominational specialization can be seen as embodying not only particular interpretations of the Bible but also as creating adaptive niches in a competitive religious market. The rise of denominationalism shattered the classical parish system. The individual congregation no longer mirrored the whole spectrum of society, only a part of it (Ahlstrom Vol. II 1975:323).

As America became an urban society the local parish underwent a significant change in nature. Where before the local church had only two primary functions: worship and the regulation of the morality of its members, American Protestant churches underwent structural differentiation becoming “social congregations” with diverse goals and manifold activities (Cherry 1995:39). Urban churches began to sponsor Sunday schools, concerts, church socials, sewing circles, soup kitchens, employment bureaus, libraries etc. All this laid the groundwork for the rise of a spiritual marketplace in which the local church became the purveyor of spiritual goods and the individual Christians as the consumer. The church became a kind of department store that attempted to address a wide range of needs — educational, entertainment, rehabilitative — in addition to the spiritual.

Another major innovation was revivalism’s emphasis on the personal conversion experience which radically redefined how people understood faith. Where faith had been understood as assent to a certain body of doctrine, it now took on a more subjective and emotional sense. This new understanding of faith resulted in widespread indifference to doctrine. Ahlstrom writes:

Because revivalists so often addressed interdenominational audiences, moreover, nearly all doctrinal emphases tended to be suppressed, not only by famous spellbinders, but by the thousands upon thousands local ministers and now-forgotten regional itinerants. Gradually a kind of unwritten consensus emerged, its cardinal articles being the infallibility of the Scriptures, the divinity of Christ, and man’s duty to be converted from the ways of sin to a life guided by a pietistic code of morals. Revivalism, in other words, was a mighty engine of doctrinal destruction (Ahlstrom Vol. II 1975:321).

The radical emphasis on individual piety effectively undermined the notion of the Puritan Commonwealth and the basis for classic Calvinism’s predestination (Ahlstrom Vol. II 1975:320-321).

The 1800s was a formative period for the American Protestant church. It was during this time that many of the distinctive features of Evangelicalism have their origins. The altar call, the evangelistic rallies and revival meetings all originated in the 1800s. Dispensationalism with its emphasis on the Second Coming of Christ and a literal millennium became widely popular displacing the long-standing amillennial and postmillennial beliefs of Protestantism (#7). Also influential was the Holiness Revival with its emphasis on perfectionism (#8) and the separatistic “come-outism.” The temperance movement led many churches to use grape juice in the place of wine in Holy Communion (a practice with no historical precedent in church history).

Although Evangelicalism claims to be Protestant in origin, much of it roots can be traced to the 1800s. This was a period when numerous innovations were introduced that distanced Evangelicalism from its roots in the Protestant Reformation. The startling transformations in American Protestantism can be considered a case of ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda gone amok.

Protestantism Unravels

Even more radical changes were to enter American Protestantism towards the end of the nineteenth century. It was here that I found the roots of the tragic conflict between the Liberals and Evangelicals in my former denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC). This conflict mirrors Protestantism’s twofold interaction with modernity (#9). Using the analogy of the double-helix structure of DNA, I would argue that under the pressures of modern culture Protestantism’s internal genetic code began to split apart into two separate rival strands: Evangelicalism and Liberalism. Both are essentially syncretistic adaptations to modernity. Where Liberalism is the outcome of Protestantism’s interaction with high culture and the Enlightenment, Evangelicalism reflects Protestantism’s interaction with popular culture and capitalism (#10). This resulted in more historic forms of Protestantism becoming a forgotten remnant relegated to the margins of the religious market. Protestantism’s susceptibility to modernity is due to its being deeply rooted in modernity (#11).

Liberalism’s orientation to high culture can be seen in the liberal seminaries’ attempt to adapt theology to “higher criticism” originating from European universities. It can also be seen in Liberalism’s close relationships with political liberalism. Evangelicalism’s orientation to low culture, or popular culture, can be seen their openness to adapting worship to popular styles of entertainment, the ease with which they applied modern marketing techniques to their evangelistic campaigns, as well as their often cozy relationship with political conservatives. This orientation to popular culture and modern capitalism can be found going back to D.L. Moody (Moore 1994:184 ff.). The commodification of religion affected not just the conservatives but the theological liberals as well (Moore 1994:209).

Liberalism and Evangelicalism held contrasting attitudes towards modernity. One openly embraced it while the other shunned it. Liberalism’s infatuation with modernity can be seen in the blatant motto adopted by the World Council of Churches in the 1960s: “The world sets the agenda for the church.” Evangelicalism and its Fundamentalist predecessors hold to a more suspicious view of modernity. Despite its denunciation of modernity Evangelicalism’s pragmatism has unwittingly allowed itself to be shaped by the marketing mentality of modern capitalism. Thus, although Evangelicals and Liberals view each other as enemies, both sides are actually closely related.

The Rise of Liberalism

The rise of Liberalism in America can be traced to the Industrial Revolution and to the German Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution wrought major changes in American society. A new economy emerged eclipsing the more traditional agricultural and crafts based economy. A new elite emerged (e.g., the Robber Barons) rivaling the older traditional elite situated on the Eastern Seaboard. Liberal Christianity emerged as an adaptive response to the shifting social landscape. Rather than take a defiant stance and beat a retreat (as did Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors), Protestantism in America embraced the new social reality. This syncretistic adaptation was designed to enable the mainline denominations to maintain their standing in society rather than be ostracized and marginalized.

In the early period of American history higher education was centered around the divinity school. Many of America’s premiere institutions of higher learning like Harvard and Yale were originally established for the training of an educated clergy. However, all that changed with the Industrial Revolution. Industrial capitalism required a new kind of university, one that was built upon the natural sciences and social sciences. American universities patterned themselves after the German model. They adopted the principle of academic freedom. The tenure system was adopted which enabled professors to openly criticize traditional beliefs. Autonomous departments were created and preference given to the natural sciences. The divinity schools fell by the wayside as America raced ahead to become the world’s leading economic and military power.

The Industrial Revolution did not change the seminaries directly but it created structural pressures making seminaries and churches more open to change. With the emergence of the modern university, the seminaries were in danger of becoming marginalized. Conrad Cherry’s Hurrying Toward Zion (1995) provides an insightful analysis of the Protestant seminaries struggle to find a place in the modern university. Prior to the Civil War clergymen made up ninety percent of the college presidents, however a hundred years later clergymen would be virtually absent among college presidents (Cherry 1995:130). Another indicator of the marginalization of the American clergy was the fact that increasing numbers of clergy were receiving their education in small denominational colleges rather than the more prestigious universities and divinity schools (Cherry 1995:130). To prevent their marginalization some seminaries began to insist on their students being grounded in the natural sciences than in the humanities. Others began to insist on hiring professors trained in the higher critical methods of German scholarship.

The second key factor to the rise of Liberal Christianity in America was the German “Enlightenment.” As influential as the Industrial Revolution was, it was the introduction of new theological ideas from Germany that would transform the doctrinal landscape of American Protestantism. Theological Liberalism was in large part a university based movement, not parish based. Many of the leading theological liberals held posts at major universities: Schleiermacher at the University of Halle and University of Berlin; Hegel at the University of Berlin (#12); Ritschl at Bonn and Göttingen; Baur at Tübingen; Strauss at University of Zurich (#13); and Wellhausen at Göttingen (#14); Troeltsch at Heidelberg then Berlin; and von Harnack at Berlin (see Latourette Vol. II 1953:1120 ff.). The prestige of German scholarship was such that many of the seminary faculty in America received their degrees from Germany (Cherry 1995:297, 358 no.1).

There were a number of sociological factors that contributed to the rise of Liberalism. Seminaries that became theologically liberal tended to be located near major urban centers — the major centers of power and higher education. The first seminaries that went liberal were those had strong ties with major universities (Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, Chicago Theological Seminary). Both the seminary and the university are educational institutions which means that there is a certain affinity between them that facilitates the transmission of new ideas. Economic class was also involved. The leading seminaries at the time produced clergy for denominations whose membership came from the middle and upper classes. Adapting seminary education to the modern university setting was a pragmatic move that enabled populist denominations like Methodism make the transition from the rustic hinterlands to the middle-class urban mainstream (Cherry 1995:268). It is no surprise then that the university-based seminaries would be the principle transmitter of Liberalism.

The Rise of Fundamentalism

By the late 1800s seminaries were divided between professors who supported the use of higher critical methods and those who held to the commonsense reading of the Bible (#15). The conservatives recognizing the inherent dangers of Liberalism’s naturalism refused to revise their theologies (#16). Tensions grew until churches and even whole denominations were engulfed in controversy.

Things came to a head in the 1920s when the conservatives lost control of many denominations and were ousted by the liberals (#17). This loss was a traumatic one. Fundamentalism acquired a shrill combativeness and anti-intellectual rigidity not found among its Protestant antecedents. Joel Carpenter writes of the origins of Fundamentalism:

Fundamentalism’s intellectual legacy is at least two-sided as well. On the one hand, the movement was heir to a campaign in the late nineteenth century to repopularize the gospel, which led many evangelical leaders of Moody’s day to neglect their intellectual responsibilities. The result was a near-abdication of any voice in academe at a time when the intellectual foundations of Judeo-Christian theism were being questioned as never before. Fundamentalist leaders were caught unprepared to respond to the critiques of scientific naturalism, whether applied to natural history or the study of the Bible. They fought with rusty intellectual weapons and very often resorted to anti-intellectual ridicule or the use of disreputable ideas and theories, such as those of the young-earth creationists. They left an enduring legacy of populist intolerance of ideas that cannot be explained in layman’s terms and impatience with disciplined thinking in general (Carpenter 1997:243-244).

The price that many Evangelical schools have had to pay was high. In their attempt to preserve their theology intact, they acquired an insularity that cut them off from mainstream American culture (#18). Mark Noll gives a more sophisticated analysis of Evangelicalism’s anti-intellectualism in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994).

Fundamentalism is basically a strategy of retreat from modern culture and a self-imposed ghettoization in order to maintain theological orthodoxy. Fundamentalism is probably best described as a sub-culture of Protestants who rejected much of modern science and modern culture in their attempt to maintain their belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. It is important to keep in mind that many theological conservatives did not leave their denominational homes. Having lost the battle for the “commanding heights” of their denominations, they laid low in the pews while remaining active in the local parish or channeled their energies into parachurch ministries (See Cherry 1995:171-172).

Among the prominent social institutions of Fundamentalism were bible colleges, bible camps, and bible conferences all of which inculcated the literal reading of the Bible and disdained critical scholarship. In their retreat from mainstream American culture, the Fundamentalists established bible colleges in an attempt to create a parallel educational system untainted by the heresies of modern science: Darwinism, literary source criticism, etc. Another significant social institution of Fundamentalism was the parachurch ministry. The effectiveness of parachurch organizations lay in their being based upon highly motivated volunteers, their broad non-denominational theology, and their single-minded mission. Through the parachurch organizations — Young Life, Youth for Christ, Billy Graham Crusades, Campus Crusade for Christ, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship — Evangelicalism exerted a powerful influence on the mainline denominations at the grassroot level (#19). The parachurch organizations provided safe havens for Evangelicals enabling them to retain membership in mainline denominations while affirming their more conservative theology and spirituality.

After World War II there emerged a new spirit among Fundamentalists who rejected the earlier world rejecting stance and who believed that it was possible to combine a strong commitment to Scripture with solid scholarship. This new Evangelicalism represents an attempt to establish a via media between Fundamentalism’s rejection of modern culture and Liberalism’s embrace of modern culture. Evangelicalism’s move to a more open stance to mainstream culture is probably best captured by Richard Quebedeaux’s The Young Evangelicals (1974) and The Worldly Evangelicals (1980). George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism uses the founding of Fuller Seminary for a detailed case study analysis of the transition from Fundamentalism to Evangelicalism. However this venture was a gamble that one can retain one’s Evangelical identity while engaging with modern culture. The mixed results of the new Evangelicals’ embrace of modernity can be seen in The Coming Evangelical Crisis (John Armstrong, ed., 1996).

Post-Modernity’s Threat to Protestantism

In recent years Western culture has made a shift from modernity to post-modernity. Modernity is based upon the assumptions of the superiority of scientific reason, the possibility of objective knowledge and the unity of knowledge. Post-modernism is hostile to claims of objective knowledge, universal truth, and moral absolutes (#20). The shift to post-modernity probably began in the 1960s and 70s as American society became deeply divided politically and culturally over the Vietnam War, Watergate, and rock-n-roll. An anti-authoritarian attitude emerged suspicious of political and cultural authorities. Popular confidence in the goodness of science was shaken by the threat of a nuclear holocaust or ecological disaster from pesticide poisoning. In the 1980s another shift towards post-modernity took place as people began to lose an unquestioning respect for modern science. People were unsettled by shifting and conflicting findings by scientists: e.g., Saccharine has been found to cause cancer, saccharine has been found not to cause cancer. Revelations about how the tobacco industry has sponsored “scientific” research to advance its corporate interests has made many cynical about the objectivity of scientific research.

It would be claiming too much to say that America has left behind modernity. It might be more accurate to say that American society has entered into a post-modern situation marked by an increasingly diverse and fragmented cultural landscape and the passing of a public sphere dominated by Protestantism (#21). The decline of denominationalism represented a clearing of the deck that allowed other kinds of restructuring of the religious sector to emerge (Wuthnow 1988:11). The anti-authoritarian atmosphere of the 1960s took a toll on the religious sector. Confidence in traditional religious values weakened and religious experimentation became more common. An American student would try on different religious personae — a Presbyterian one year, a Buddhist the next, then a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation (Cherry 1995:113). Protestant seminaries were finding increasing numbers of seminarians were uncertain about their vocational goal and in seminary to “find themselves” (Cherry 1995:113).

The transition to post-modernity can be seen in the shifts in the location of truth in public space. In the Puritan commonwealth the public truth was located in the pulpit, i.e., the minister’s preaching of Holy Scripture. With the Industrial Revolution the locus of truth shifted to modern science. Now public truth was located in the university, i.e., the university classroom or the scientist working in his laboratory. The modern “It has been scientifically proven ….” superseded the pre-modern “The Bible teaches us ….” More recently public truth has shifted to the television and mass media, i.e., to the celebrity. A recent Christianity Today article describes how Oprah Winfrey, one of America’s leading talk show celebrities, has come to be one of America’s spiritual leaders (see Taylor). In this post-modern situation, the celebrity outranks the Christian minister and the modern scientist as cultural authorities. The irony is that Evangelicalism has paved the way with its practice of using sports heroes and other celebrities to share the gospel message rather than the ordained minister. Post-modernism constitutes a major challenge against Protestantism — whether Liberal or Evangelical. The emergence of a post-modern and a post-Christian society threatens to render Protestantism culturally irrelevant.

The Demise of Liberalism

Liberalism functioned as well as it did largely because of its ability to adapt to the cultural assumptions of modernity. Yet Liberal Christianity paid a heavy price for its syncretistic embrace of modern culture. After enjoying a brief religious boom in the 1950s, mainline denominations suffered significant membership losses from the 1960s to 1990s. Membership losses have been attributed to several factors. One has been the attempts by liberal theologians in the 60s to transform the church into a vehicle for challenging social injustice. These attempts to politicize the local church alienated many lay people causing many to leave (Hadden 1969). The decline of mainline denominations has also been attributed to the loss of its youth who find it unappealing or irrelevant, preferring Evangelicalism instead (Hutcheson 1981:47 ff.).

The recent decades have been just as cruel to the mainline seminaries. Membership losses in the mainline denominations have had a serious impact on the funding of denominational programs. In the 1990s the financial base for seminaries shrank to the point of putting them at risk. Surprisingly many of the seminary leaders saw cultural relevancy as the greatest challenge they had to face, not finances (Cherry 1995:289-292).

The attempts by mainline seminaries to avoid marginalization by adapting itself to modernity has by and large been a failure. Under the auspices of modern scientific research, the modern universities sought to replace the traditional seminaries with departments of religious studies (#22). Some major seminaries even faced the danger of extinction. The Harvard Divinity School in the 1940s and 50s was in danger of being shut down and having its resources transferred to the department of religion (Cherry 1995:276). Thomas Oden, a professor at a liberal Methodist seminary, writes: “The seminary that weds itself to modernity is already a widow as we enter the era of post-modernity” (1994).

Liberalism’s attempts to avoid marginalization through conformity to modern thought has backfired. Liberal theology, for all its attempt to influence society, has remained an elite ideology. It never succeeded in its attempt to reshape the theological outlook of the laity. There is a certain irony in the fact that public opinion polls in the 1980s found the majority of Americans still holding to beliefs that Henry Emerson Fosdick would have found backward and unenlightened (Cherry 1995:172). Thomas Oden made a similar finding:

Finally my students got through to me. They do not want to hear a watered-down modern reinterpretation. They want nothing less than the substance of faith of the apostles and martyrs without too much interference from modern pablum-peddlers who doubt that they are tough enough to take it straight (1990:14-15).

With the emergence of post-modernity Liberalism may suffer a double tragedy of being out of touch with contemporary culture and out of touch with historic Christianity. In other words, liberal mainline denominations have become sidelined denominations — relegated to the fringe of society unmoored from their past and facing a very uncertain future.

The Coming Evangelical Crisis

Despite the recent rash of books predicting a bright future for Evangelicalism, a dark future lies ahead. Evangelicalism faces the triple threat of pluralism, relativism, and subjectivism.

Pluralism can be seen in the emergence of post-denominational Christianity. Post-denominationalism has brought about a blurring of confessional identity, cafeteria style Christianity, and frequent church hopping. Ironically, post-denominationalism can be attributed to Fundamentalism (see Carpenter 1997:240). When the Fundamentalists were forced out of the mainline denominations, they responded by forming rival denominations and parachurch agencies. Many Evangelicals became acclimated to organizational pluralism after being forced to leave a liberal denomination or through participation in several parachurch ministries. The vitality of parachurch ministries was such that the local church seemed stodgy and ineffective in comparison leading to a weakening of loyalty to the local church (#23).

Relativism was an unintended consequence of Evangelicalism’s growing pluralism. The proliferation of counter-denominations and parachurch groups weakened denominational loyalties to the point where denominational distinctives became irrelevant for many. Being task-oriented and interdenominational parachurch organizations tended to frame their doctrines broadly. This resulted in a minimalist approach to core doctrines, blurring of denominational differences, and the avoidance of any discussion about ecclesiology: sacraments, liturgy, creeds, and polity (#24). In No Place for Truth, David Wells laments what he calls the “disappearance of theology” within Evangelicalism. Wells writes, “The anti-theological mood that now grips the evangelical world is changing its internal configuration, its effectiveness, and its relation to the past” (1993:96). This anti-theological mood can be seen in the following anecdote:

…I heard of a modern pastor who visited a neighboring pastor, and in the course of their conversation, he bemoaned the shameful divisions that exist within Christendom. The neighboring pastor replied that such had not always been the case. ….. He proceeded to suggest that the pastors of the area get together and address the critical issues that divided them.

“Oh!” said his visitor. “It would not be good to discuss doctrine among ourselves. Doctrine divides! We need to stay away from controversy and just get to know each other through prayer.” (Hardenbrook 1996:1978).

Although many Evangelical will deny the charges of theological relativism, many find it hard to articulate the essential core doctrines of Christianity or the Protestant Reformation.

Subjectivism is a third threat facing Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism’s drift into relativism and subjectivism has been facilitated by the whole scale abandonment of confessional standards. Or as sociologist Peter Berger put it more vividly, under the shock of pietism Protestantism underwent a meltdown of its dogmatic structures (1967:157). What matters is not so much what you believe but whether you had a “born again” experience. It was also abetted by a spiritual pragmatism found in attitudes like: “What helps you grow spiritually” or “Go where you feel God is leading you” or “I have a peace in my heart about this.” Among charismatic preachers it is quite common to hear them say: “The Lord spoke to me….” or “The Holy Spirit laid it on my heart to….” Faith has shifted away from doctrine to subjective experiences.

Evangelicalism, unlike Liberalism, can be expected to enjoy numerical growth in the near future. This is because, unlike Liberalism, Evangelicalism is more in tune with popular culture. However, that may prove to be a hollow victory. For by that time Evangelicalism may have mutated to the point where it will bear little resemblance to its Protestant roots. This is a warning given by George Barna, Evangelicalism’s leading pollster. In The Second Coming of the Church, he writes:

Evangelism will suffer in the first decade of the new millennium as Christians shrink from the aggressive questioning of the nonbelieving public. Without a visible witness to the contrary, the mass media will continue to portray churches and Christianity negatively, while giving positive affirmation to the new strains of religions and religious leaders competing for America’s souls. Christian doctrine will be sliced and diced beyond recognition–and few will know, even fewer will care (1998:208, emphasis added).

Barna’s alarm at Evangelicalism’s plight is shared by John Armstrong who edited The Coming Evangelical Crisis (1996) which describes the faultlines fracturing Evangelicalism in the 1990s: doctrine (e.g., biblical inerrancy, process theology, annihlationism), methodology (e.g., postmodern approaches to knowledge), worship (e.g., seeker friendly services), eschatology (progressive dispensationalism), ethics (e.g., homosexuality, abortion, divorce), and ministry (women’s ordination). These findings confirm the warning given by James Davidson Hunter in his Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Hunter’s survey research in the 1980s showed significant opinion shifts already well underway among Evangelicalism’s upcoming generation. Hunter talks of the “loss of binding address” among Evangelicals (1987:210 ff.) which is a very apt way of describing Evangelicalism’s dire straits.

In conclusion, Evangelicalism’s threefold crisis of pluralism, relativism, and subjectivism is not due to an unfortunate accident of history but is deeply rooted in Protestantism. The damning indictment for Evangelicals is that they are just as modern and syncretistic as the Liberals. This is the warning given by Peter Toon in The End of Liberal Theology: “American Evangelicals have tended to be blind to the effects and dangers of modernity because their own identity is actually tied to modernity.” (1995:211 ff.). The recent Evangelical crisis shows the powerful cultural forces of post-modernity pulling the Evangelical strand of the Protestant genetic code in all directions rendering it theologically incoherent.

The Crisis of Sola Scriptura

Sola scriptura won’t work because it can’t work. It can’t work because Scripture was never intended to be understood by itself but in the context of Holy Tradition. Furthermore, sola scriptura can’t work because it is not biblical — nowhere does the Bible teach sola scriptura. Furthermore, church history shows that sola scriptura hasn’t worked in practice. The historical consequence of sola scriptura has been Protestant denominations numbering in the hundreds and thousands. Another historical consequence of sola scriptura has been the bewildering array of doctrines on just about any topic. Protestantism’s hermeneutical chaos has rendered it theologically incoherent. This incoherence has made Protestantism unable to present a unified witness to the world. Thus, sola scriptura, rather than being the foundation for Protestantism, is actually its fatal genetic flaw that results in innumerable doctrinal and ecclesiastical mutations.

In recent years sola scriptura has become the source of a major theological crisis for Protestants. Alister McGrath provides an apt description of the conundrum embedded within sola scriptura:

If the intellectual origins of the Reformation are to be explained in terms of the return to scripture as the source of Christian theology, the considerable divergence within the movement over the question of hermeneutics raises serious questions concerning the viability of this approach (1987:172).

McGrath remains a Protestant but many have grappled with sola scriptura with devastating consequences. Scott Hahn, a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Presbyterian seminary professor, was dumbfounded when a student asked him: “Professor, where does the Bible teach that ‘Scripture alone’ is our sole authority?” This question eventually led him to Roman Catholicism (Hahn 1993:51). It is only recently that Evangelicalism has begun to address this crisis. Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura (2001) marks a serious attempt by a Protestant to address this problem. (See my review of Mathison’s book here.)

The tragedy of Protestantism’s hermeneutical chaos has been further compounded by the widespread tendency to ahistoricism. Modernism’s belief in progress has resulted in a kind of chronological arrogance — the attitude that the modern present is superior to the primitive backward past. Respect for the Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils is practically nonexistent among Protestants, whether Evangelical or Liberal. Indifference to church history has had a terrible effect on Evangelicals and Liberals alike. It has resulted in their obliviousness to how far they have drifted from the historic Christian faith. The loss of historical memory among Protestants is analogous to a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or attention deficit disorder. This has resulted in groups, even whole denominations, embracing bizarre doctrines, or committing themselves uncritically to the latest fads with dire consequences to their theological integrity.

The Impossibility of Evangelical Renewal

The crisis surrounding sola scriptura has serious implications for Evangelical renewal movements. The goal of these renewal movements is to help mainline denominations move away from the precipice of theological Liberalism back to the historic center (see Hamilton and McKinney 2003). But if Evangelicalism is collapsing into heterodoxy at the same time we are trying to move the mainline denomination back to the doctrinal center then something is seriously wrong. If sola scriptura is fundamentally flawed then Evangelical renewal groups are chasing an impossible dream.

I was a member of the Biblical Witness Fellowship (BWF), an evangelical renewal group in the United Church of Christ (UCC). The more I wrestled with questions about the fundamental premises of the Protestant Reformation, the more I had questions about the prospect of Evangelical renewal in the UCC. The crisis of sola scriptura became apparent to me in the Dubuque Declaration. The Dubuque Declaration — BWF’s theological charter — is a fine statement crafted by one of Evangelicalism’s leading theologians, Donald Bloesch. I had no quarrel with it theologically, but what was the basis for its authority? Why should we privilege the Dubuque Declaration over the UCC’s 1957 Basis of Union? or the Heidelberg Catechism? or the Westminster Confession? or the Cambridge Platform? The Dubuque Declaration like any other confessional statements are interpretations of the Bible. Without establishing the proper basis for the authority for a particular confession, we are forced into a kind of arbitrary subjectivism. Why were we in the BWF reinventing the wheel, when we could be using the classic confessions of the Protestant Reformation?

Another question had to do with the ultimate goal of Evangelical renewal in the UCC. I was stumped because as a church history major I knew of numerous possibilities. Were we aiming for the UCC in the late 1950s when the historic merger took place? the Evangelical and Reformed tradition of the 1800s? the Mercersburg Movement in the 1860s? Congregationalism in the 1700s? or Calvin’s Geneva? These are not two separate questions but represent two sides of the same coin. Sola scriptura has produced in Protestantism hermeneutical chaos as well as organizational chaos. And in this situation the Reformation’s goal ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda broke down under the weight of sola scriptura.

My Protestant Theology Falls Apart

Much of the collapse of my Protestant theology stemmed from my social location as a theologically conservative Evangelical in the liberal United Church of Christ. I found myself being confronted by theological pluralism from the left as well as from the right. On the one hand I found myself part of Evangelicalism which affirmed the authority of Scripture and yet allowed denominational diversity to flourish, and on the other hand I found myself belonging to a liberal denomination that denied the authority of Scripture and encouraged theological diversity to the point of tolerating outright heresy. The tragedy of the UCC is that it is the oldest Reformed body in America having roots in Puritan New England. I found myself in a quandary when it came to asserting the biblical faith in the face of rampant theological Liberalism. My solution to this dilemma was to combine biblical studies with church history — I argued that the biblical Evangelical position was the same as the historic Christian faith. However, this backfired when my studies as a church history major led me to the discovery that much of Evangelicalism is based upon recent innovations dating back to the 1800s.

Frustrated and disillusioned by Protestantism’s hermeneutical chaos, I became attracted to the early Church. In my research I was struck by the theological unity shared by all Christians in the first millennium. Irenaeus of Lyons, a second century bishop, wrote:

Having received this preaching and this faith, as I have said, the Church, although scattered in the whole world, carefully preserves it, as if living in one house. She believes these things [everywhere] alike, as if she had but one heart and one soul, and preaches them harmoniously, teaches them, and hands them down, as if she had but one mouth (Richardson 1970:360).

The fact that Irenaeus could assert that in his time the Church, from one end of the Roman Empire to the other, held a common faith, stood in stark contrast to modern day Protestantism where a dozen rival denominations could easily be found in the same neighborhood. Moreover, the unity of the Church in the first thousand years stands against the divisions and denominations produced by Protestants in just a few centuries time. As I continued to read Irenaeus, I became even more disturbed. Irenaeus argues that the truthfulness of the Christian faith is validated by its catholicity, i.e., its universality. He writes,

But as I said before, the real Church has one and the same faith everywhere in the world (Richardson 1970:362; emphasis added).

For Irenaeus the unity of the Church and the veracity of the Christian Faith are integral to each other; the two cannot be separated. As a Protestant Evangelical accustomed to denominational differences, I found this statement to be a shocker. It is shocking because I came to realize that the question is not: “Do I believe in the right doctrine? (which is a Protestant question)” but: “Do I belong to the true Church?” Applying Irenaeus’ theological framework meant that if I did not belong to the true Church then I was a member of a schismatic or worse a heretical body.

Finding Save Haven

Becoming Orthodox was like finding a safe haven after a long difficult journey through stormy seas. Being an Evangelical in the UCC was at times a lonely and alienating experience. I could never be sure when I met a UCC minister for the first time if we shared the same beliefs. It was only after asking a few discreet questions that I could determine whether we were on the same side of the fence or opponents. After a while it takes a toll on one’s spirit to be constantly keeping up one’s guard or phrasing one’s beliefs carefully in order to avoid conflict. It was also upsetting to be told to my face by Liberals that it would be better for me to leave the UCC. (I have also met denominational leaders who were open and accepting of Evangelicals, who worked to maintain unity between the Liberals and Evangelicals.) Just as upsetting was finding out about recent decisions made at the national UCC Synods, or the local Aha Pae’ainas or Aha Mokupunis that contradicted the teachings of Scripture (#25).

When I became Orthodox, I found it comforting to know that I shared the same faith with my priest or any other priest or bishop that I would meet. What I found in Orthodoxy — to use that delightful phrase by Bellah et al. — was a “community of memory.” It is a community that ties us to the past and turns us towards the future through its “practices of commitment” (1985:152 ff.). Orthodoxy throughout the world is bound together by a common Liturgy, the Nicene Creed, and the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Moreover, I found the doctrine and worship of the Orthodox Church to be saturated with Scripture references. Because Orthodoxy sees Scripture as an integral part of Holy Tradition, it is far more able to safeguard Scripture than Protestantism with its sola scriptura. Like the telomeres that safeguard the integrity of DNA, so Holy Tradition safeguards Scripture from false readings and ensures doctrinal unity.

My attraction to Orthodoxy is more than an interest in antiquarianism and rituals. Rather, it lies in the quest for the true faith. Orthodoxy, being grounded in the eternal truths of the Kingdom of God, will endure and outlast the challenge of a post-modern and post-Christian culture. In Facing East Frederica Matthewes-Green describes her first visit to an Orthodox service:

The truth part was this: the ancient words of this vesperal service had been chanted for more than a millennium. Lex orandi, lex credendi; what people pray shapes what they believe. This was a church that had never, could never, apostatize (1997:xiii).

Robert Arakaki


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NOTES I would like to thank Dr. Michael Bressem for his careful reading and constructive criticism of my earlier draft. (#1) The expression regula fidei “rule of faith” was first used towards the end of the second century. Two of the earliest advocates of this method were Irenaeus of Lyons and Tertullian. (#2) It should be noted that the Protestant Reformers were rejecting the traditions of medieval Catholicism, not the Holy Tradition of the early Church. For example, medieval Catholicism introduced theological innovations such as the supreme authority of the Papacy, purgatory, and the Filioque which has never been part of the historic Christian Faith and which Orthodoxy rejects. (#3) Basically, this was the principle that if the ruler was Protestant, the religion of the land would be Protestant and visa versa. (#4) See The Primitive Church in the Modern World (Richard T. Hughes, ed., 1995) for an account of how the dream of restoring primitive Christianity played a powerful role in American Protestantism. The book also provides an insightful discussion of how the restorationist impulse is a response to modernity. (#5) See Nathan Hatch’s “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seculorum” for an analysis of how sola scriptura took on new meanings as it was interpreted through the lenses of democracy and individualism. (#6) This is the argument made in R. Laurence Moore’s Selling God (1994:7). Moore notes that sola fide if pushed to the extreme made churches and ministers unnecessary and for that reason Protestant countries in Europe made church attendance mandatory (1994:14). (#7) It is interesting to note that the same millennial impulse also gave rise to the Jehovah Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists. this makes Evangelicalism part of the same sociological family as the Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, the Mormons (Latter Day Saints) and other nineteenth century sects. This uncanny family resemblance can be seen in a Christianity Today editor’s account of his visit to his Mormon relatives (see Maudlin 1998). (#8) The Holiness Movement stressed the need for two distinct work of grace in the Christian’s life. The first being the initial conversion experience where one receives justification and the second being the “second blessing” in which one becomes totally sanctified. It should be noted that this emphasis on two pivotal experiences in the Christian life is alien to the Eastern Orthodox and to classical spirituality. (#9) David Wells has made a similar argument in his God In The Wasteland (1994:174). (#10) A similar observation has been made by Conrad Cherry who sees the Modernist/Fundamentalist conflict as a clash between elite and folk cultures (Cherry 1995:173). (#11) Protestantism is inseparable from modernity. It was Protestantism that gave rise to modernity in the West (see Stanley Tambiah’s Magic, science, religion, and the scope of rationality 1990:12 ff.). Bernard Lewis attributes the freeing of thought from ecclesiastical authority by the Reformation as one of the causes for the intellectual explosion in Europe (1982:301). (#12) Latourette notes that although not primarily a theologian, Hegel had a powerful influence on theologians (1953:1125). (#13) Strauss held that post for a short time until clerical opposition resulted in his ouster. Subsequent to that he became a free lance writer. (#14) At the outset a professor of theology, Wellhausesn later devoted himself to the study of oriental languages at the same university. (#15) Mark Noll describes the influence of the Scottish Commonsense philosophy on American Evangelicalism in his article “Commonsense Tradition and American Evangelical Theology” (1985). (#16) Fundamentalism’s rejection of modern science is not as simple as it appears. See Mark Noll’s chapter “The Evangelical Love Affair with Enlightenment Science” (Noll 1991:122 ff.). (#17) See Mark Noll’s chapter “The Rise of Fundamentalism, 1870-1930″ for a description of the events and trends that led to the Liberal/Fundamentalist confrontation (1991:9 ff.). (#18) Michael Hamilton notes that in the 1960s Francis Schaeffer electrified Evangelical students with his willingness to talk about contemporary film makers like Berman and Fellini at a time when Wheaton College banned the popular movie “Bambi” from the school campus. (#19) In his Mainline churches and the evangelicals Richard Hutcheson gives an amusing anecdote of a gathering of high level denomination officials talking shop while their children were attending a local Youth For Christ rally. (#20) The suffix -ism indicates post-modernism as an ideological stance, as opposed to post-modernity which refers to a particular social situation. For a good overview of post-modernism, see Pauline Rosenau’s Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences (1992). (#21) Wade Clark Roof refers to the emergence of a “quest culture” among Baby Boomers in his Spiritual Marketplace (1999). (#22) Conrad Cherry recounts how strong tensions resulted when Yale Divinity School faculty were denied positions on the graduate faculty of the newly formed Department of Religious Studies, and students in the new department were no longer required to register in the Divinity School (1995:121). (#23) See Stephen Board’s article “The Great Evangelical Power Shift: How has the mushrooming of parachurch organizations changed the church?” (1979). (#24) This can be seen in the widespread practice of open communion among Protestants. Open communion — allowing Christians from other denominations to take communion — is a very recent practice dating back to the 1960s! (See Wuthnow 1988:92) (#25) In the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ the annual statewide gathering of UCC churches is known as the Aha Paeaina and the biannual gatherings of island associations are known as the Aha Mokupuni. The UCC is the oldest and largest Protestant denomination in Hawaii. The Congregationalist missionaries brought the Good News of Christ to the Hawaiian Islands in the early 1800s. Return to Top. Home. Posted in Sola Scriptura | 3 Comments On Break Posted on December 29, 2011 by robertar

Afternoon at Kapiolani Park, Hawaii

Dear Folks,

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas. Thank you for making the OrthodoxBridge a great place where people from the Orthodox, Reformed, and other traditions meet and dialogue with each other.

The OrthodoxBridge will be taking a break until New Year’s Day. I will resume posting new materials shortly after that.

In the Pipe Line

I am currently working on new materials: Contra Sola Scriptura #4 — Protestantism’s Fatal Genetic Flaw, Semi-Pelagianism, Peter Leithart’s book on Constantine, Michael Horton, Steven Wedgeworth etc.

Robert Arakaki

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments Christmas Reflection – Remembering Our Ancestors Posted on December 16, 2011 by robertar

Icon - Tree of Jesse

The Sunday before Christmas is known to the Orthodox as the Sunday of the Holy Genealogy. On this day the Church commemorates the ancestors of Christ from Adam to Joseph the Betrothed. Christ’s full humanity meant not just that he possessed a human nature but that he had blood relatives, and that he came from a long family line. One of the shortcomings of modern culture is the tendency to leave the past behind and focus on the now. This has resulted in people feeling rootless and incomplete.

In Orthodoxy we remember our ancestors because they are part of us. To remember our family and our family roots is to affirm our humanity; likewise, to overlook our family connections is to diminish our humanity. To remember is an act of love and faithfulness. We all came from somewhere. Our family heritage is a source of blessing and sometimes a source of pain. As Christians we have both a biological and a spiritual family lineage. Salvation in Christ extends to both family lines. St. Paul writes in Ephesians 3:14-15:

For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and on earth is named….

Here Paul is looking to the future when all of humanity and creation become one family under the fatherhood of God.

The Matins Service, which precedes the Divine Liturgy, has been likened to Orthodoxy’s equivalent of Sunday School for adults. It is liturgical in structure being made up of fixed prayers and hymns. It also contains didactic teachings. The passages below are taken from the Synaxarion of the Matins Service.

On this day, the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, we have been enjoined by our holy and God-bearing Fathers to make commemoration of all them that from the beginning of time have been well-pleasing unto God, from Adam even unto Joseph the Betrothed of the Most Holy Theotokos, according to genealogy, as Luke the Evangelist hath recounted historically; and likewise for the Prophets and Prophetesses, especially of Daniel the Prophet and the three holy youths.

It is also known as the Sunday of the Holy Genealogy. We remember the aforementioned names, those in the Old Testament who were related to Christ by blood, and those who spoke of His Birth as a man. In the Divine Liturgy, we shall read of Jesus Christ’s lineage from the Gospel of Saint Matthew. In this way, the Church shows us that Christ truly became a man, taking on human nature. He was not a ghost, an apparition, a myth, a distant imagined god, or the abstract god of philosophers; such a god does not have a family tree. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has flesh and blood, human ancestors—many of whom sinned greatly, but like David, also repented greatly. Yet, all of these righteous ones in every age had been well-pleasing to God because they loved Him. By taking on human nature, the Son of God became like us in all ways, in flesh and blood, in mind and soul, and in heart and will. He differed from us in only one way: He could not sin. Since we know that Christ’s human nature remained sinless, He is also fully divine, and He shows us the way in which we can avoid sin, and so improve and transform our human nature.

By their holy intercessions, O God, have mercy upon us and save us. Amen.

The first paragraph teaches us that it is part of the Orthodox Tradition to remember our ancestors in the faith. The Sunday before Christmas is an appropriate time to remember the ancestors of Christ. It provides us an opportunity to reflect on the way God works mysteriously and sometimes obscurely in our family history. It also reminds to have faith that God is working redemptively in human history. Sin might be present but God’s grace even more so (Romans 5:15).

The second paragraph affirms Jesus’ blood relatives. The second paragraph asserts that Jesus was a real historical person and not some mythical figure. This means that Christian theology is ultimately grounded in the empirical events of the birth of Jesus Christ, his life and ministry, his crucifixion under Pilate and his third day resurrection. The truth claims of Orthodox Christianity rests ultimately on a historical chain of testimony pointing to the historical events of Christ’s life and teaching.

There is a hunger among many Protestants and Evangelicals for a historically grounded Christianity. This is evidenced by a recent upsurge of interest in the early Church Fathers and ancient liturgical practices. It is also evidenced by many Evangelicals becoming enamored with the writings of the original Reformers like John Calvin. But it will take more than reading ancient theological writings and incorporating long forgotten practices to fill this hunger. The Sunday of the Holy Genealogy is a reminder that the Orthodox Church has a historical lineage that reaches back to the original Apostles. Those who are hungering for the historic Christian faith would do well to consider the Orthodox Church.

Robert Arakaki

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments Orthodox Christmas — Reflection No. 2 Posted on December 13, 2011 by robertar

Icon - Nativity of Christ

The hymns of the Orthodox church are rich in meaning and symbolism. Unlike many Protestant churches that have hymnals that the pastor can pick and choose which hymns will be sung this coming Sunday, in Orthodoxy the priest and the church follows the prescribed order of worship down the songs and prayers. What may seem to be a stifling approach to worship allows Orthodox parishes to draw on the rich liturgical and theological heritage of the broader church.

Thou dost bear the form of Adam, yet Thou are all-perfect, being in the form of God. Of Thine own will Thou are held in human hands, who in Thy might upholdest all things with Thine hand. To Thee the pure and undefiled Virgin spake aloud: ‘How shall I wrap Thee in swaddling clothes like a child, how shall I give Thee suck who givest nourishment to all the world? How shall I not wonder in amazement at Thy poverty beyond understanding! How shall I, who am Thy handmaiden, all Thee my Son? I sing Thy praises and I bless Thee, who dost grant the world great mercy.’

Icon - Vladimir Mother of God

The undefiled Virgin, beholding the pre-eternal God as a child that had taken flesh from her, held Him in her arms and without ceasing she kissed Him. Filled with joy, she said aloud to Him: ‘O Most High God, O King unseen, how is it that I look upon Thee? I cannot understand the mystery of Thy poverty without measure. For the smallest of caves, a strange dwelling for Thee, finds room for Thee within itself. Thou hast been born without destroying my virginity, but Thou hast kept my womb as it was before childbirth; and Thou dost grant the world great mercy.’

Icon - Gifts of the Three Magis

The pure Virgin spoke in wonder, as she heard the Magi standing together before the cave, and she said to them: ‘Whom do ye seek? for I see that ye have come from a far country. Ye have the appear-ance, but not the thoughts, of Persians; strange has your journey been, and strange your arrival. Ye have come with zeal to worship Him who, journeying as a stranger from on high, has strangely, in ways known to Himself, come to dwell in me, granting the world great mercy.’

“Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ – Vespers service” — Festal Menaion, page 200.

The first stanza consists of the Virgin Mary’s contemplation of her child being the eternal Son of God. The reference to “form of Adam” echoes Romans 5:14 where St. Paul describes how the first Adam who sinned foreshadowed the second Adam (Christ) who would redeem humanity.

Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. (emphasis added; NKJV)

The references to the “form of God” echoes Philippians 2:6-7 where St. Paul describes Christ’s great humility in emptying himself for our salvation.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. (NKJV)

The second stanza describes how the Virgin Mary accepted Christ into her life (to use the Evangelical lingo). In receiving Him she gives praise and worship to Him. This stanza gives us an insight into the icons that show her kissing her Son and her Savior.

The third stanza has missionary undertones. The coming of the Magi represent the ingathering of the nations around Christ.

Behold, these come from afar, these from the north and these from the sea, and the others from the land of the Persians. Be glad, O heavens, and rejoice exceedingly, O earth. Let the mountains break out in gladness, and the hills in righteousness. For the Lord had mercy on His people, and comforted the humble of His people. (Isaiah 49:12-13; emphasis added, NKJV)

The Christmas hymns teach important lessons about the Orthodox Faith: Christ the Second Adam who recapitulates human nature for our salvation, Mary’s joyful and loving embrace of Jesus Christ, and the missionary implications of Christ birth.

Let us like Mary the God-Bearer joyfully receive Jesus Christ into our hearts. Let us also help others discover the joy that Christ came to bring to the nations.

Robert Arakaki

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment Remembering St. Nicholas, Recovering a Christian Heritage Posted on December 7, 2011 by robertar

Icon - St. Nicholas

One of the unexpected blessings of becoming Orthodox is discovering a Christian heritage forgotten in the West. One example of this is St. Nicholas of Myra, the original Santa Claus. He is well known in the Orthodox Church. Every December 6 the Orthodox celebrates the life of St. Nicholas of Myra. When I was a Protestant Evangelical I was barely aware of the historical St. Nicholas, but soon after I became Orthodox I became quite familiar with this popular saint.

St. Nicholas lived in the fourth century on the southwestern coast of Asia Minor (present day Turkey). He lost his parents when he was young and was raised by uncle also named Nicholas who was bishop of the town of Patara. In time he was ordained to the priesthood and became a bishop. He was present at the Council of Nicea and was reputed to have been so incensed by Arius’ blasphemy against Christ that he went up and slapped Arius in the face. One well known story tells how St. Nicholas would secretly throw a purse of gold into the home of a poor man with three daughters. The gold provided the dowry that enabled them to marry and prevent them from resorting to prostitution.

In modern American society everyone knows about “Santa Claus” the jolly old man who lives in the North Pole and comes out every Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good children everywhere. Virtually every American child today has paid a visit to Santa at the mall where they are gently questioned whether they have been good this past year. After a gentle scolding and encouragement to do better the child is sent back with an implied promise of something good coming their way.

This raises the question how did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus? And how did Western Christianity come to have such a divergent view of this great Christian saint?

From Dutch “Sinterklaas” to American “Santa Claus”

Sinterklaas in the Netherlands

Sinterklaas was part of the Dutch culture. Every year on December 6 in the Netherlands a town resident would dress as Sinterklaas – elegantly garbed with a bishop’s miter, red cape, shiny ring, and a jeweled staff. During the night Sinterklaas would ride his white horse through the town knocking on doors bringing goodies for the good children. He had a sidekick, Black Peter, the Grumpus – a wild looking half man, half beast – who threatened to take away the naughtiest children in his black bag, and for those not so naughty he had birch switches as lesser punishments. Here we can see the resemblance between the Dutch Sinterklaas and the Eastern Orthodox St. Nicholas. The Dutch remembered him as a bishop just as the Orthodox do. The name Nicholas became altered into “Klaas.”

When the Dutch migrated to the New World they brought many of their traditions and customs with them. They first settled on the island of Manhattan and so it became known as New Amsterdam. When the British took control of the island, it was renamed New York. The British adopted the customs popular among the Dutch residents and often merged it with their own English customs like Winter Solstice and the jolly Father Christmas.

In the New World a kind of cultural assimilation and syncretism took place over several generations. The writer Washington Irving created a jolly Sinterklaas for his Knickerbocker Tales in 1809. Then in 1822, an Episcopalian priest named Clement Moore wrote a lighthearted poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” which soon became known by the opening line: “Twas the night before Christmas.” It is here that we find the origins of the Santa Claus familiar to modern day Americans. Moore’s poem depicts St. Nicholas as a jolly old elf with a long white beard and a pipe in his mouth. He drives a sleigh pulled by eight reindeers, flies through the air from house to house, and magically jumps down the chimneys to deliver presents to the children. What we see here is a dramatic mutation of a familiar Christian figure. This may seem harmless to Protestants who view extra-biblical traditions as non-essential to their faith but it also points to the untethering of American culture from its historic Christian heritage.

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Modern Santa Claus

Following the Great Depression and World War II, the US entered into a period of unprecedented economic affluence. The 1950s marked the emergence of a consumer society where mass consumption would be the engine of economic growth. It was during this period that Christmas underwent a significant secularization. Retailers began to look to the Christmas season as a time when sizable customer purchases would help them close out the year in the black. To ensure high sales volume manufacturers and retailers began to rely heavily on mass advertising in the print media, radio, and television. The message soon centered on Christmas as a season to be jolly and the giving of gifts to loved ones. Sometimes the message of giving to those less fortunate was also mentioned. There also came the message that if one got just the right present one would find happiness. But it soon became evident that Christmas had undergone a shift in meaning away from its historic Christian roots. Part of the reason for the blurring of the Christmas season’s religious content was the fear of alienating any segment of the market which would result in loss of potential sales.

Santa Claus as a Culture Myth

I wondered why Santa Claus was so much an integral part of American culture. More specifically, I wondered why grownups would purposefully lie to children about a fictional character who flies once a year delivering gifts to children everywhere. Why is this deception so embedded in modern American culture? Does it serve any particular function?

I believe the answer lies in viewing the modern Santa Claus as a culture myth. Every culture relies on stories to explain how the world works. The Santa Claus myth operates on two levels. For children he teaches them the need to be good even when there’s nobody around and he teaches them the joy of getting presents. Children also learn the lesson of self-restraint — one had to wait for the right moment before opening the presents.

Santa Isn't Real! by Norman Rockwell

For adults the Santa Claus myth teaches that as children we inhabit the world of faith and make believe but when we grow up we become conscious of the world as it really is. That is why the moment of realization that Santa is really Daddy is so important to the Santa Claus myth. The Santa Claus myth reenacts the emergence of modernity. Pre-moderns live in an enchanted world based upon blind faith; moderns live in a world based upon facts, scientific research, and rational calculation. The day the child realizes that Santa is Daddy marks a step towards adulthood with the subsequent loss of innocence and pure faith. It is fun to be a child but we must all grow up and face the facts. This classic scene captured by Norman Rockwell shows a “saucered-eyed” look on the boy’s face which Johns Hopkins University Professor Richard Halpern described as a “flash of youthful disillusionment. At this moment the question is planted in the boy’s mind, “What else are they lying about?” This question can create an attitude of skepticism which can lead to scientific investigation. It can also lead to an attitude that challenges authoritarian claims to truth. When they have children, many grownups reenact the Santa Claus myth, not only because it is part of popular culture, but also because doing so enables them to recapture the innocence and magic of childhood.

Counter-Cultural Orthodoxy

As Christmas became increasingly depleted of its religious and Christian content, many Christians, especially conservative Evangelicals, became uneasy. They would counter with slogans like: “Putting Christ Back into Christmas” and “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” This led me to wonder why Evangelicals are so concerned about this.

I suspect that unlike high church traditions that have a strong sense of the visible church, Evangelicalism’s low church ecclesiology has resulted in the public space functioning as the equivalent of the visible church. The church is not just a weekly sermon, songs, and a building; it is a way of life, that is, a culture. For a long time Evangelicals in America relied on popular culture for the visible expression of their faith. This would explain their often shrill insistence: “America was founded as a Christian country!” It would also explain Evangelicals’ obsession with crossover hits in music and movies. The dream for many Evangelicals is a bestselling novel, record, or movie among both the born again Christians and general population. By means of these bestsellers they witness to America about Jesus and help millions make a decision for Christ. The dream of many Evangelicals is a spiritual revival or awakening that sweeps the nation restoring America as a Christian nation.

Lacking a historically grounded theological framework Evangelicalism finds itself drifting and shifting in multiple directions in recent days. Trevin Wax in his blog Kingdom People recently published a four part series “What Is An Evangelical?” The recent discussions shows that Evangelicals have no unified stance towards popular society, some take a defensive stance while others take a more open and embracing stance.

Unlike Evangelicalism which assumed the public space to be its birthright, Orthodoxy’s experience in America has been that of an obscure religion. While Orthodoxy enjoys official standing in the old countries, it also has memories of the time when it was a persecuted and illegal religion under Roman rule. With its well defined structures and sense of Tradition, Orthodoxy is in a much better position to deal with the drift to a post-Christian America than the Evangelicals. The Orthodox Church has the resources to maintain a culture within culture much more effectively than many Evangelical churches.

Remembering St. Nicholas in Grand Rapids, Michigan

St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church - 2009

The Grand Rapids Press published an article written by Andrew Ogg which describes how the members of St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church celebrated the life of their patron saint.

GRAND RAPIDS — Children tagged behind brightly dressed clergymen as they carried an illustration of Saint Nicholas and one of his bone fragments in a box.

Parishioners crossed themselves as the celebratory procession wound around pews, with the smell of incense filling Saint Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, 2250 E. Paris Ave. SE last Sunday.

No reindeer. No toy-filled sleigh. No jolly old elf with a sweet tooth. This kindly gift giver was — kids, cover your eyes — real.

“The typical department store Santa, he’s quite a long way from the historical saint,” said Father Daniel Daly, pastor at Saint Nicholas.

Still, Daly doesn’t begrudge youngsters their Christmas wish lists.

“It’s a fun time for the kids,” he said. “I don’t see it as particularly bad or dangerous or anything. As long as people get to the real celebration of what is truly the center of Christmas, of course, and that’s the mystery of the incarnation.”

For more about how this particular parish maintains an Orthodox perspective on Christmas click here.

The lesson here is that while counter-cultural, Orthodoxy is not necessarily hostile to American culture as a whole. We take what is good and beneficial in our culture and try to correct what is lacking or misleading. We do this because we see culture as a gift from God.

Celebrating the Life of St. Nicholas

For those concerned about the post-Christian drift Orthodoxy provides resources for resisting this drift. One important means is the Christmas fast (I’ll write about this another time), another is the celebration of the life of St. Nicholas. On December 6 the Orthodox Church commemorates the life of St. Nicholas. For the Orthodox this is not an option but part of our liturgical calendar. We do this because it is part of the Tradition of the Church to remember its saints.

The historical memory of the Church is embedded not so much in books as in its liturgical life. Through these liturgical celebrations the Orthodox learn about the heroes of the faith. An examination of the Akathist (hymn/prayer) to St. Nicholas shows the Orthodox approach to commemorating the life of a saint. Thus singing in the choir is a great way to learn the Orthodox faith.

Kontakion 1

O champion wonderworker and superb servant of Christ thou who pourest out for all the world the most precious myrrh of mercy and an inexhaustible sea of miracles I praise thee with love, O Saint Nicholas; and as thou art one having boldness toward the Lord, from all dangers do thou deliver us, that we may cry to thee: Rejoice, O Nicholas, Great Wonderworker!

In the first kontakion (hymn in verse form) St. Nicholas is remembered as a servant of Christ who went about doing good to others. It also shows how Orthodoxy understands the communion of saints. St. Nicholas is understood to be very much alive and in the presence of God. He is part of the invisible company of saints in heaven who are praying for us.

Ekos 2

Teaching incomprehensible knowledge about the Holy Trinity, thou wast with the holy fathers in Nicea a champion of the confession of the Orthodox Faith; for thou didst confess the Son equal to the Father, co-everlasting and co-enthroned, and thou didst convict the foolish Arius. Therefore the faithful have learned to sing to thee:

Rejoice, great pillar of piety!

Rejoice, city of refuge for the faithful!

Rejoice, firm stronghold of Orthodoxy!

Rejoice, venerable vessel and praise of the Holy Trinity!

Rejoice, thou who didst preach the Son of equal honour with the Father!

Rejoice, thou who didst expel the demonized Arius from the council of the saints!

Rejoice, father, glorious beauty of the fathers!

Rejoice, wise goodness of all the divinely wise!

Rejoice, thou who utterest fiery words!

Rejoice, thou who guidest so well thy flock!

Rejoice, for through thee faith is strengthened!

Rejoice, for through thee heresy is overthrown!

Rejoice, O Nicholas, Great Wonderworker!

In Ekos 2 (earnest request) St. Nicholas is remembered for being at the Council of Nicea which resulted in the affirmation of Christ’s divinity. Where Kontakion 1 remembers St. Nicholas for his deeds of charity, Ekos 2 remembers his defense of right doctrine. Here the Orthodox faithful are given both a history lesson and a lesson in Christology.


The liturgical life of the Orthodox Church helps the Orthodox faithful to resist being conformed to the ways of the world. If we are faithful in our participation in the liturgical life of the Church and attentive to what is being sung we will be rooted in the Orthodox Faith. There is a stability and rootedness in Orthodoxy that Evangelicals and Protestants can learn from.

Let us remember the real St. Nicholas and let us seek to be imitators of great saints like St. Nicholas of Myra in this Christmas season.

Robert Arakaki

Posted in Uncategorized | 45 Comments Orthodox Christmas — Reflection No. 1 Posted on December 5, 2011 by robertar

Icon - Nativity of Christ

As we are now in the Christmas season I plan to take a more reflective approach over the next several weeks. Excerpts from the various Orthodox service texts will be posted accompanied by a brief commentary.

One of the major sources of Orthodox doctrine are the hymns of the church. These songs are often biblical commentary put to music or they may commemorate an important event or person in church history.

The hymns are also important for Orthodox discipleship. In Orthodoxy our theology is shaped by our worship. This follows the ancient principle lex orans, lex credens (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith). Under this principle liturgical worship frames and defines our theology. This is radically different from Protestantism where much of theology is expressed in terms of an elaborate system of propositions and definitions. In Orthodoxy theology becomes doxology. Doxology ultimately leads us to union with Christ and to life in the Trinity.

Many of these hymns are chanted during the Saturday evening Vespers or Sunday morning Matins services. Together they provide the context of Orthodox worship. Many people have the mistaken notion that the Liturgy is Orthodox worship. While the Liturgy constitutes the high point and the core of Orthodox worship, it cannot be separated from the other services. To do so would risk distorting the worship we offer to the Trinity.

Here is one such hymn sung every year on the Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ:

Let us sound the cymbals: let us shout aloud in songs. The revelation of Christ is now made manifest: the preachings of the prophets have received their fulfilment. For He of whom they spoke, foretelling His appearance in the flesh to mortal men, is born in a holy cave and is laid as a babe in a manger, and as a child He is wrapped in swaddling clothes.

With uprightness of mind let us lift up our voice in song, celebrating the Forefeast of Christ’s Nativity. For He who is equal in honour with the Father and the Spirit, has from compassion clothed Himself in our substance, and makes ready to be born in the city of Bethlehem. The praises of His Nativity past speech the shepherds and the angels sing.

The Virgin was amazed, as she beheld a conception past telling and a birth past utterance. Rejoicing at once and weeping, she raised her voice and said: ‘Shall I give my breast to Thee, who givest nourishment to all the world, or shall I sing Thy praise as my Son and my God? What manner of name shall I find to call Thee, O Lord whom none can name?’

“Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ – Vespers service” — Festal Menaion, page 199.

The first stanza tells how the Old Testament prophecies find their fulfillment in the Incarnation. It also presents the Incarnation as a revelatory event when God who revealed himself through the prophetic word now reveals himself in human flesh.

The second stanza tells how the Christ child is one of the Holy Trinity. The Incarnation is explained as Christ assuming the substance of our humanity. He who is consubstantial with the Trinity is consubstantial with humanity.

The third stanza describes the Virgin Mary’s response. She is overwhelmed by the seeming contradiction of her being pregnant with the Creator of the universe. He who sustains all of creation with his providential care now comes under her motherly care. As her son he is under her but as God he is over her.

The hymns of the church teach important lessons to the Orthodox faithful. Here we learn about the Old Testament prophets, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Mary’s love for Christ.

Let us like Mary be overwhelmed by God’s grace revealed in the birth of Christ.

Robert Arakaki

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments Evangelicals Rediscover Their Family History Posted on November 30, 2011 by robertar

Icon - St. Mark

On 23 November 2011, Christianity Today published “Our Secret African Heritage” by David Neff. Neff discusses Thomas Oden’s book about The African Memory of Mark (IVP). John Mark was born in Libya then migrated to Jerusalem where he became one of Jesus’ earliest followers. He later became a key evangelist in the early church establishing churches in North Africa, including the Church of Alexandria which continues until today.

It is a pleasant surprise to read Neff’s description of Mark’s role in the apostolic succession.

Mark didn’t die before he appointed successors in Libya and Egypt, just as Paul mentored leaders to follow him in places he evangelized. Mark’s first convert, a shoemaker named Anianus, succeeded him. He heads the list of bishops, beginning in A.D. 68. In this era before New Testament Scripture was canonized, knowing the spiritual “begats” of your fellowship of believers was important for validating your church’s teaching. This genealogical approach to authority was never in tension with Scripture.

The above paragraph describes some of the fundamental elements of Orthodoxy: Scripture, the episcopacy, apostolic succession, and the traditioning process. What caught my attention was the last sentence about the genealogical approach which is one that I can affirm as an Orthodox Christian. Tradition and Scripture are not inimical to each other but properly understood mutually reinforcing: Scripture bears witness to Tradition, and Tradition bears witness to Scripture.

It is encouraging to see Evangelicalism’s leading magazine becoming receptive to church history and to the idea of Holy Tradition.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment Discipleship: Orthodox & Protestant Posted on November 23, 2011 by robertar

Icon - The Great Commission

by Robert Arakaki & ‘Nicodemus’


While it is true that compared to broader Evangelicalism, neither Orthodox nor Reformed traditions have been known to be champions for Discipleship programs, both are bound to the Great Commission mandate to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). So the subject of Discipleship offers an excellent opportunity to highlight some similarities and differences between the two traditions.

But what is a Disciple of Christ? What does he or she look like? How do they live and act? And, what is his or her goal and vision for living a faithful Christian life? For example, if God’s purpose and the Christian’s focus is all wrapped up in saving as many souls from hell fire as possible – then we can expect a high priority to be put on mass evangelism and “getting people saved” from hell. In contrast, if our vision of the Christian life is focused more on living a disciplined and holy Christian life, then priorities beyond evangelism and salvation must be taken into consideration.

Here the difference in goal and vision of Orthodoxy and Reformed Protestantism is not so stark or pronounced as some might think. The glory of God and a zeal to see Him worshiped in all creation appear to be central to both. Or, perhaps better said, the vision and goals might be better revealed in the how or the doing of discipleship. Here the contrasts are a bit more stark.

Bleeding Scripture

Holy Bible

As is true of much of Evangelicalism, the central component to Reformed Discipleship is the word of God given in Holy Scripture. This is natural as one of the foundational, if not central tenets of all Protestantism is Sola Scriptura. Simply stated, the word of God, inscripturated in the written text of the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Note that this does not completely rule out other authorities, like the Church and Tradition. They can and certainly are very useful additional sources of instruction. Yet Scripture alone is the only infallible source of Truth, and thus naturally becomes dominant in all aspects of Reformed or Protestant discipleship.

Therefore, a new Christian must be continuously trained and exhorted to learn and know his Bible. Knowing and obeying the Scriptures as God’s infallible word to him is his primary task. And what is true of the disciple, is more especially true of the Pastor/Elder, who is called to become a master teacher and preacher of the text of Scripture. I remember one Pastor’s quip to me years ago after I had marveled at his recall of an Old Testament passage, saying, “My business is the Word of God, and I take my business very seriously.”

This premium upon the infallible Word naturally translates into a host of study guides, memorizations and catechisms so that the Christian Disciple is progressively, to use the words of another Pastor, “saturated with Bible.” A great compliment said of more than one highly esteemed Pastor is:“He’s so saturated with the Scriptures that when you cut him, he bleeds Scripture!”

Yet we might ask IF the knowledge of Scripture is enough? Is a perfect score on any Bible exam enough? As impressive and proud one may be to attain such Bible mastery, it would be rare to find a Reformed or Evangelical Protestant Pastor who believed mere Bible mastery enough, or that all we want in a Christian Disciple is Bible knowledge. No, Bible saturation, as important as it is, is only a means to the higher ends of understanding Truth and living a holy life of repentance and worship. Worship and holiness are the ultimate goals, and Bible mastery, which leads to theological understanding is a critical prelude to these.

The Christian disciple is not merely one who knows and understands the word of God well. He is one who believes and thus obeys and practices what he knows to be true. He faithfully connects himself to a Church that champions the teaching, understanding and obedience to the Word of God. Thus, we see why so many Protestant Preacher become so skilled and exceptional, as the premium upon clear and effective teaching and preaching of the Word is so central. This could all, no doubt, be better said and fleshed out in more detail. But we must ask where the Orthodox finds himself in all this?

The Church & Tradition

Though there are many similarities we might point to in basic Christian beliefs, Orthodoxy has a somewhat different vision for discipleship. First of all, in contrast to sola scriptura, the Orthodox find their focus upon The Church. As the Apostle Paul taught in I Timothy 3:15, the Church is the pillar and ground of Truth. And it is to this Church that the Apostles entrusted the Faith, once and for all delivered to the saint as its guardian and protector (Jude v. 3). Thus, Her services, Liturgies, Prayers and Sacraments, Fasts, Confessions, Feast – The Tradition – are essential to Orthodox Discipleship.

The Orthodox convert sees himself a part of the Liturgical and Sacramental community of the Holy Spirit. Rather than changing or reforming her into a new-and-improved Church, the Orthodox disciple is changed by Her, in the ancient Liturgies and Traditions. Here, the ancient Church calendar is prominent as the life of the Christian is transformed in and by the practiced repetition of Her Divine Liturgies, prayers, Sacramental mysteries, sacred fasts and Holy Communion. By these, the world is changed (discipled) in union with the Church, as the cultivation of humility, submission leads to what Orthodoxy call Theosis – union with God.

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (II Peter 1:3-4, NIV; emphasis added)

It is likely a strange notion for Protestants to imagine that a Liturgical and Sacrament life full or Ritual and repetition could by itself transform anything. Nevertheless, the Orthodox do not believe they are practicing or following mere human inventions. Indeed, they believe their Sacraments, Prayers, Liturgies and Traditions are all divinely received revelations from the Apostles, via the Holy Spirit who transcends them all. Thus, the praxis of Orthodoxy is a multi-layered sanctifying pedagogy, received from the Holy Spirit, via the Apostles and Fathers (much like Protestants assume the same about the New Testament).

Granted, there is certainly a danger should the sacred Tradition become cold and sterile ritual. Orthodox will admit that the Church has too often fallen into this. The remedy for this is renewed fervor through repentance, not changing the service format. The Liturgy and Traditions demand the sincerity of heart, and prayer for the same Holy Spirit that gave them to the Church for Her sanctification and glory, will bless their use and practice in the Church. A similar danger can admitted to exist for Protestantism. Without the presence and blessing of the Holy Spirit, all the learning of Scripture and knowledge can turn into a haughty pride, if not ugly arrogance.

For the Orthodox, this is the liturgical and sacramental Tradition that is essential not only for the life Church to grow and mature in, but in their pious practice there is increased understanding and strengthening grace for the life of the world. For it is in these sacred Traditions where the potent power of the Gospel really lies. Thus, we do not neutralize the Spiritual power in Baptism, Bread and Wine, Prayers – the Tradition delivered by the Apostles God has ordained to disciple the nations. Let us look at a few of these in particular.

Uniting With Christ – Baptism

Orthodox Converts

Becoming Orthodox is often described as a journey. Because of our sins we are far from God but we have this hunger for God, a desire to be reunited with God. Like Protestants, Orthodoxy teaches that we are saved through faith in Christ. Yet it seems the two traditions often have different understandings of what it means to have faith in Christ. Some Protestants seem to understand faith in Christ in terms of intellectual assent to our sinful state and Christ dying on the Cross for our salvation.

The beginning point for discipleship in Orthodoxy is the sacrament of baptism. In early Christianity salvation was understood not merely or even primarily as appeasing God’s anger against sin, but a radical transfer of allegiance from Satan to Christ. In Orthodox baptism the candidate is called upon to repudiate Satan and to spit on him. Then the candidate is asked three times: “Doest thou unite thyself unto Christ?” Later the candidate is called on to bow down before the Trinity saying: “I bow down before the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in Essence and undivided.” For the Orthodox becoming a follower of Christ is much like acquiring a new citizenship. One comes under the lordship of Jesus Christ and becomes a member of a new commonwealth, the Church.

Worship as Formation — The Divine Liturgy

Orthodox worship differs from most Protestant churches. Protestant worship usually centered upon the sermon and creative expression. Orthodoxy discipleship is overwhelmingly focused on formation over information, being over knowledge.

Liturgy at St. Seraphim Cathedral

The Liturgy is the core of Orthodox discipleship. What may appear to first time visitors as elaborate rituals and ceremonies really functions as teaching tools for being Orthodox. Traditionally, Orthodox Christians stand throughout the entire Liturgy. Standing is symbolic of our being raised with Christ. One sits for a lecture or watching a performance. What do Orthodox Christians do when they stand? We listen and pray the prayers in our hearts. Over time as we become familiar with the prayers, their words begin to shape our understanding of who God is. We also respond either through spoken responses like: “Lord, Have mercy” or by making the sign of the cross.

Attending an Orthodox Liturgy on a regular basis one quickly acquires a sacred sense of mystery and holiness. Making the ancient and historic sign of the cross, likely from the Apostolic era, one becomes conscious of how central the Trinity is to Orthodox worship. Initially, Orthodox Liturgy might seem only an elaborate ritual full of ornate prayers all but an incomprehensible mess. But after several months one begins to perceive an underlying pattern and the biblical teachings behind ritual bodily actions. The Small Entrance where the priest comes out carrying the Gospels symbolizes God sending forth his messengers, the prophets and apostles, to the human race. The Great Entrance where the priest comes out carrying the bread and the wine is rich in symbolism. The priest can be seen as symbolizing the humble donkey carrying Christ into Jerusalem and the congregation symbolizes the crowd of onlookers who shouted “Hosanna!” and some later crying “Crucify him!” The Small Entrance symbolizes the coming of the inscripturated word of God and the Great Entrance the coming of the incarnated Word of God.

The altar area resembles the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament Tabernacle in which the Ark of the Covenant was located. It also symbolizes heaven where the angels and the departed saints reside. So when the priest celebrates the Eucharist and brings out the Body and Blood of Christ we are invited to partake in the Messianic Banquet foretold in the Old Testament. It is as if the Old Testament prophecies and the Book of Revelation is played out for us in 3-D.

In most Reformed churches the high point of the Sunday service is the sermon or the Word preached. But in the Orthodox Church the high point of worship is the Eucharist in which we receive, by eating and drinking, the body and blood of Christ. Just before we go up to receive Communion, we say this ancient prayer:

I believe, Lord, and I confess, that You are truly the Christ, Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the greatest. I also believe that this is truly Your spotless Body, and that this is truly Your precious Blood. Wherefore I pray You: have mercy on me and forgive my offenses, whether or not intended, whether committed in word or deed, knowingly or unwittingly; and count me worthy to share without judgment in Your pure Mysteries, for remission of sins and for everlasting life. Amen.

Before going up for Communion the Orthodox disciple must prepare himself through fasting and confession. To be unprepared to receive Communion can imperil our relationship with God. But proper preparation can also enhance our receptivity to the spiritual benefits in the Eucharist. The early Christians referred to the Eucharist as the “medicine of immortality.”

Discipleship and Spiritual Healing

Orthodoxy gives greater emphasis to understanding salvation as spiritual healing for life, in contrast to Western Christianity’s strong judicial emphasis. While it is true that when we sin we violate God’s law, it is important to view sin as a form of spiritual injury. Our failure to love God and our neighbors distorts the image of God within us. Sin and the passions of the flesh also dull our awareness of God’s presence. Unlike certain Protestant groups that seem to understand salvation as an instantaneous event, Orthodox views salvation as a gradual day by day journey like the Prodigal Son to the welcoming arms of his loving father. As Christians we sin and fall down, then we get up again and take another step of faith. The spiritual disciplines taught by the Orthodox Church are designed to help prepare us for life in the age to come.

Carrying the Cross

Just as Jesus Christ had a cross to carry so do we likewise have a cross to carry. Jesus said:

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, NIV)

Orthodox discipleship means that we follow Christ and like Christ we die to ourselves. The underlying premise of Orthodoxy is not: If we follow Christ we will have a rich, happy, fulfilling life, but that: If we follow Christ we will become like him and that we will become sharers in his resurrection.

The Discipline of Prayer

Orthodox Prayer Rope

Orthodox Christians are called to live a life of prayer. In addition to the Liturgy we are called to pray on a daily basis. Many Protestants were taught a devotional practice called the “quiet time.” This consists of reading the Bible, reflecting on the passage, and praying for others. The Morning Prayers is liturgical in structure and format. The benefit of the Orthodox Morning Prayers is that it is Trinitarian in focus and much of it is focused on giving glory to God and to seeking the kingdom of God on earth.

One well known Orthodox spiritual discipline is the Jesus Prayer and the prayer rope. The prayer rope consists of a loop of thirty three, fifty or one hundred black woolen knots. Each time one says: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” one moves to the next knot. After a while the Jesus Prayer becomes ingrained in one’s memory and subconscious. By this practice the Orthodox carry out Paul’s instruction in I Thessalonians 5:17: “pray continually.”

Confession and Spiritual Direction

Unlike Protestantism which believes in the instantaneous forgiveness of all sins when we believe in Christ, Orthodoxy believes that the forgiveness of sins is an incremental process. God forgives all our sins but only those sins we actually committed; not future hypothetical sins. The emphasis here is on our being with God in a love relationship rather than an abstract judicial one. When we fall into sin we become like the Prodigal Son running away from the Father’s house. When we repent we are making our way back home. Orthodox discipleship is much like the Prodigal Son slowly making his way back home step by step. There are times when he slips up but he gets up again and resumes his journey back home.

Confession is a sacrament of the church. When we confess our sins we allow God’s light into the dark places of our souls. When we confess our sins we are also renouncing Satan’s hold on us. With the help of the priest we gain self awareness of who we are. Confession can be approached superficially through the listing of the bad things we’ve done but it can become a powerful means of spiritual growth when we prepare for it by examining our lives for the good things we could have done but failed to do or by examining the underlying motives behind our sinful habits. Confession is also a time when the priest gives us advice and counsel about how we can strengthen our spiritual life.

The Discipline of Obedience

There is a strong independent streak in Protestant Christianity. In many instances the Protestant attitude is: Show me where it says so in the Bible first and if I agree with your interpretation I will do it. In Orthodoxy when one becomes Orthodox comes under the authority of the Church and its leaders. Submission to church leaders is taught in the Bible.

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17, NIV)

One of the radical differences between Protestantism and Orthodoxy is the role of submission to the authority of the bishop. To become Orthodox is to come under the authority of the local bishop. Lev Gillet said:

An Orthodox is one who accepts the Apostolic Tradition and who lives in communion with the bishops who are the appointed teachers of the Tradition (in Kallistos Ware’s The Inner Kingdom, p. 14; italics in original).

The authority of the bishop and the priest is not arbitrary but exercised within the context of Tradition. Many times what the priest does is to remind his parishioners of their commitment to follow the spiritual disciplines like fasting and almsgiving. Obedience is an important component in spiritual direction. When the priest directs a parishioner to cease a sinful practice, he is acting very much like a doctor advising a diabetic to change his diet.

The Discipline of Fasting

When I was a Protestant Evangelical, I never heard about fasting during a Sunday sermon. The one time I learned about fasting as a spiritual discipline was when my Sunday School class was going through Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. In the Evangelical circles I was part of fasting was an exotic practice, not an essential part of discipleship.

Fasting is an integral part of being Orthodox. In addition to Lent and the other fasting seasons, there were the weekly Wednesday and Friday fasts. The rationale behind fasting is controlling one’s desires, saying no one’s self, i.e., self denial. There is a tremendous healing power in fasting. When one learns to control one’s physical appetite one will be in a better position to deal with other inner desires or demons like lust, pride, selfishness, covetousness etc. The Orthodox discipline of fasting takes one back to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve succumbed to their appetites and self centeredness resulting in sin. It also helped me to identify with Christ who spent forty days in the wilderness fasting. It also helped me relate to Christ’s instruction about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:16-18).

Lent — A Spiritual Marathon

Every spring Orthodox Christians embark on a spiritual marathon known as “Great Lent.” Great Lent has three major components: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. For more than a month Orthodox Christians become vegans giving up meat (beef, chicken, pork, fish, eggs) and dairy products (milk, cheese, half and half for coffee, ice cream, yogurt, butter). During Lent I become very aware of how many food commercials there are on television and how much the commercials appeal to our satisfying our bodily appetites. Modern consumerism based on narcissism and hedonism is very often the antithesis the Orthodox world view.

During Lent, there are two or three additional services scheduled during the week. The focus of these services is repentance, faith in Christ, and spiritual warfare. Lent reaches a climax with Holy Week when there are church services everyday culminating in the Pascha (Easter) service. At Pascha the entire Orthodox world celebrates Christ’s victory over death. The intensity of attending these services has no parallel in Protestantism. During Lent we die to ourselves in so many different ways and we experience spiritual growth in small ways.

Becoming Orthodox is much like becoming part of a family of athletes who work out on a regular basis and who do several marathons in the course of the year. There is no place for spiritual couch potatoes in Orthodoxy! If one skips the spiritual disciplines and lives a self indulgent lifestyle one is living in willful disobedience to the teachings of the Church. A football player who skips the practices and workout sessions runs the risk of being kicked off the team by the coach.

There is much wisdom in the Lenten disciplines. Fasting teaches us self control and strengthens our ability to say no to temptation and bodily passions. Almsgiving is a way of combating materialism, consumerism, and covetousness. The additional services during the week are especially hard for workaholics. We like to squeeze whatever extra hours we can to get more done! Because Lent is so demanding new converts are advised to incorporate the Lenten disciplines gradually over time. Another important principle for Lent and the Orthodox approach to discipleship is that while Orthodoxy has a lot of rules it is not legalistic. The purpose of the disciplines is to help us grow in our love for God and others. If we do not grow in love and faith then the time and energy invested in the disciplines are wasted.

Icons of the Saints

Orthodox churches have icons of Christ and the saints in front on the icon screen (iconostasis) and on the walls. The icons can be understood as Orthodoxy’s hall of fame. The Church remembers the saints’ all out commitment to Christ and holds them up as models for us to emulate and as inspiration for when we face tough times. Remembering the saints and seeking their intercessions can be an important spiritual discipline.

Desert Fathers and Monasteries

There is in Orthodoxy a strand of teaching that encourages us to go out into the desert to draw closer to God. This strand of teaching can be found in the Desert Fathers. This helps us from being seduced and overwhelmed by the comfort and affluence of material society. Another way of growing in the faith is by visiting monasteries. I’ve found it helpful to spend a few days at a monastery. By going to a monastery I withdraw from the busyness of the world and enter into a place where life is centered around prayer and worship. It is also a time when I can reassess where I am in my spiritual journey and discern what God is trying to say to me.

The quiet and prayer centeredness of the monastery stands in contrast to the Protestant camps and conferences that are jammed pack with activities, talks, and rousing worship services. One can learn a lot at these conferences and come away feeling charged up but there is a unique value to learning to be centered in prayer in a monastic setting.

The Goal of Orthodox Discipleship — Theosis

The aim of the Orthodox life is theosis — becoming sharers in the divine nature. All too often Protestants seem to present the goal of the Christian life as gaining entrance into a wonderful place called Heaven. But the goal of the Christian life is more than a place but union with Jesus Christ the Son of God. When we are joined with Christ, our personalities and our entire being will be transformed (see II Peter 1:3-4).

Icon - The Transfiguration

A good picture of our present state and our future state can be found in the Transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). The Transfiguration is a major feast day in the Orthodox Church. The Transfiguration icon shows Jesus standing on the top of Mount Horeb surrounded by the mandorla — an almond-shaped area of light. The disciples — Peter, James, and John — are shown in various postures indicating their spiritual immaturity. They comprise the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples and yet they were in the state of sleepiness (Luke 10:32). Moses and Elijah are shown standing and conversing with Christ. They have entered into the state of perfection (maturity) being able to discuss with Christ the things of God. This is the promise that while in this present life we are stumbling and fumbling like Peter and his companions, one day we will undergo a profound transformation like that experienced by Moses and Elijah. The Apostle John wrote:

But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (I John 3:2; NIV)

So while we struggle to be faithful disciples day in and day out, we persevere in the disciplines of the Orthodox Faith knowing that one day we will become transformed and transfigured beings bringing glory to God.

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Posted in Uncategorized | 38 Comments Do Protestants Take the Incarnation Seriously? Posted on November 10, 2011 by robertar

Nativity Icon

On November 4th, Russ Warren wrote a “short” comment in response to my posting “Icons and the Veneration of the Saints” that raised a number of interesting points. Rather than bury it in the comments section I decided to turn my responses into a separate blog posting. Russ Warren’s comments are italicized.

Re. Do Protestants Take the Incarnation Seriously?

I do get tired, and please forgive my audacity here, of hearing from various Orthodox — both on the lay and clerical levels — that because we don’t have icons we don’t believe in the Incarnation; it simply isn’t true.

You may get tired of the Orthodox criticism that Protestants don’t really believe in the Incarnation but please keep in mind that the Reformed and Orthodox traditions have quite different understandings of what it mean to believe in the Incarnation. For the Reformed Christian to believe in the Incarnation is primarily intellectual assent to the biblical accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth by Mary, and the doctrine of Christ having two natures: human and divine. For the Orthodox Christian believing in the Incarnation means: (1) accepting the biblical accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth by Mary, (2) his two natures as defined by Chalcedon, (3) the climactic revelation of God through the person of Jesus which far surpasses all other forms of revelation, (4) Jesus as the Second Adam, the new Man into whom we are united through baptism, (3) Mary becoming the Theotokos (God Bearer), the Throne of God, the Ark of the Covenant; (4) the Church as the Body of Christ, (5) the invisible God becoming visible not only to the first Christians but also to later Christians through icons, (6) the transcendent God becoming accessible through the Church the Body of Christ, and (7) the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.

For the Orthodox, if one takes the Incarnation seriously one will: (1) celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25th) every year, (2) publicly honor Mary by addressing her as the Theotokos, (3) confess the Incarnation in every Sunday worship, (4) celebrate the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) every Sunday, (6) affirm the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, and (7) display pictures of Jesus in his incarnated state. For the Orthodox faith and action go together. It is not enough to have a strong mental affirmation of the Incarnation or to have systematic theology texts with well articulated exposition of the Incarnation. For the Orthodox theological belief is expressed not in theology books but in liturgical worship. If we don’t see something in your worship we will think that it is not that important to your faith. To use an analogy, it would be like a husband who likes to tell his wife he loves her and writes to her that he loves her but skips giving her kisses and hugs, and eschews pictures of her and taking her out on their wedding anniversary because these are unnecessary to their marriage.

To conclude, when Orthodox Christians complain that Protestants don’t believe in the Incarnation, they probably have in mind the broader sense that goes beyond the Protestant intellectual/doctrinal approach. My advice to you and other Protestants is to affirm that you do believe in the Incarnation but not in the broader sense that the Orthodox do. Start from what both sides have in common then seek to discuss the differences in a charitable manner seeking to learn from each other.

Icons and Scripture

…we don’t necessarily see any justification in the New Testament itself that the 2nd commandment has been substantially changed (even John, whom I see as the most “Orthodox” apostle, reminds us at the end of his first epistle to “Little children, keep yourselves from idols”).

In light of the Preamble in which Yahweh declare himself to be Israel’s God and the First Commandment in which Yahweh forbids allegiance to any other deity, the most natural sense of the Second Commandment is to read it as a prohibition against imitating the worship practices of the pagans. This makes the most natural sense for I John 5:21 which was most likely written in the pagan setting of Asia Minor. For your iconoclastic reading to be persuasive you would need to provide evidence of the use of images in worship as the focus of controversy during the time John wrote his first epistle.

Re. Roadblocks in Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue

In the end, and this may be the roadblock that we hit again and again in our dialogues, the question is what role Scripture has within Tradition (I think it is a bit myopic for some, certainly not all, Reformed to still speak as if Tradition is an escapable reality)….

One of the major roadblocks in the Reformed and Orthodox dialogue here stems from the way we do theology. Reformed Christians do theology from the standpoint of sola scriptura, and Orthodox Christians do theology from the standpoint of Holy Tradition. While the Orthodox and Reformed traditions share Scripture, they have different interpretations of the same verses. The way I deal with the conflicting interpretations is to look for the exegetical tradition that is marked by antiquity and catholicity, i.e., mirrors that of the early church fathers. Where the Reformed tradition disagrees with the Orthodox tradition it has adopted interpretations and positions that are novel and at odds with the church fathers. Let me put it this way, where the Reformed tradition is in agreement with Orthodoxy, it can claim a theological heritage two thousand years old. Where the Reformed tradition is not in agreement with Orthodoxy, it is part of five hundred year old tradition and for that reason cannot claim antiquity. The Reformed iconoclasm is part of a five hundred year old tradition. Iconoclasm has not been shown to have antiquity nor catholicity.

One of the limitations of a theological debate confined to Bible alone is the problem of multiple readings from identical texts. That is why much of my arguments on this blog is not based on the claim that I have a superior interpretation of the Bible but rather that the position I uphold has a Scriptural basis and is part of an exegetical tradition that goes back to the Apostles. A Reformed Christian can put forward a logically consistent interpretation of a Scripture text that is at odds with the historic Christian faith. There is a certain logical consistency to Reformed theology, but it must be recognized that this consistency arises from the selectivity that shapes the premises for Reformed theology. I respect the reasoning behind the Reformed reading of the Second Commandment but it is not part of the historic Christian faith; it is a Protestant novelty. I am of course open to your presenting evidence of the antiquity and catholicity of your understanding of the Second Commandment.

So as far as the roadblocks are concerned, I am not surprised if we do run into roadblocks on this blog. There are some issues that we cannot find common ground and which we will simply have to agree to disagree in a spirit of charity and humility. The only way full agreement can be reached will be for the person to reassess and revise their theological methods. For me to become Orthodox entailed not just the acceptance of certain doctrines but also a different way of doing theology. I made these changes reluctantly after concluding that Protestant theology was untenable on biblical, patristic, historical, and sociological grounds. What especially pained me was reaching the conclusion that Protestantism represented a faith tradition separate from the early Church and that to be a Protestant was to be out of communion with the early church fathers and the Ecumenical Councils.

Re. Can Scripture Challenge Tradition?

…can Scriptural exegesis (whether Christological, historical-critical, grammatical-historical, redemptive-historical, or whatever mode you please) challenge and readjust the liturgical and ecclesiastical traditions? Even ones that go back millennia?

I am going to start with a quick answer: (1) if your answer is ‘yes’ then you are taking the Protestant position, and (2) if your answer is ‘no’ then you are taking the Orthodox position. The real question is not “can” but what position does the preponderance of evidence point to? One can start out with an open ended question but eventually one will need to arrive at some conclusion. For the sake of clarity, it is important to keep in mind that for Orthodoxy there is Tradition with a capital “T” which is universal and binding on all Christians and tradition with a small “t” which is local.

I would urge you to read A.N.S. Lane’s fine essay “Scripture, Tradition, and Church: A Historical Survey.” If your answer is ‘yes’ then you are taking the Protestant ancillary view which assumes that the Church can and has erred in matters of doctrine and assumes that the Christian church suffered a major break in historical continuity. If your answer is that Scripture, Tradition, and the teachings of the Church coincide then you are taking the coincidence view and the answer is ‘no.’ This views assume that there exists a church group that has maintained a continuity in faith and practice going back to the original Apostles, this is the Orthodox view.

So, to answer your question: Can Scripture be at odds with Tradition? The Orthodox answer is that because Tradition consists of a written apostolic tradition (Scripture) and an oral tradition, and because the two derive from a common source (the Apostles), they cannot contradict each other. The possibility of an oral tradition at odds with Scripture arises if a novel or alien practice enters from without (e.g., Gnosticism). Another possibility is a misunderstanding of the received tradition, e.g., heresies like patripassianism, Apollinarianism, modalism, Arianism, Nestorianism etc. The early Church settled these Christological and Trinitarian issues through the Ecumenical Councils. The key means of rebutting heresy is through an appeal to apostolicity, antiquity, and catholicity. This is the criteria used by Irenaeus of Lyons and the other church fathers.

Re. John of Damascus

One quick point: no matter how many times John of Damascus is brought up, it isn’t going to get any hard core Reformed person to change their mind about icons. Why? He isn’t biblical.

I agree with you that John of Damascus is not on the same level as the Apostles. He is a teacher of the Faith and an expositor of Scripture. As a church father he stands in a hermeneutical tradition that goes back to the Apostles. And for the Orthodox he formulated one of the most articulate apologia for icons. We invoke John of Damascus much in the same way Protestants invoke Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley. If you are a Protestant, I am not expecting you to automatically yield to him but I do hope you will engage in his reasoning. Show where you find his reasoning problematic and unpersuasive.

Re. Nominalism Among Ethnic Orthodox

What is the Orthodox Tradition (which, of course, was not a main concern of the Reformers) doing to make sure that your understanding of icons (nicely nuanced as it is) is being held to by the rank-and-file, especially amongst the ethnic enclaves which are (stereotypically at least) fairly nominal in their actual engagement of the Church’s official dogmas and explanations?

Regarding your questions about the attitudes towards icons by nominal Orthodox Christians, especially those in ethnic enclaves, I would first say that this is a very tangled question. First of all, nominalism is a problem everywhere, in Orthodoxy, mainline liberalism, and Evangelicalism. Second, it is somewhat arrogant and judgmental to insinuate that nominalism is problem especially among “ethnic enclave” (ethnic Orthodox parishes). It can be a temptation for a convert to Orthodoxy to assume an attitude of spiritual superiority over nominal ‘ethnic’ Orthodox. Furthermore, almost all Protestant groups can be labeled ‘ethnic enclaves’ associated with particular cultures or sub-cultures: Ivy League universities, the deep South, British culture, surfing culture, the Gen X culture etc. So let me just say that your question is a spiritually dangerous one to ask. While I respect the reasons for ethnic parishes, I have come to the conclusion that we need more Orthodox parishes for whom America is their home and English the language of worship.

So what is the Orthodox Church doing to deal with the problem of nominalism? The first step is to begin with your own spiritual state through repentance and an intensification of one’s devotion to God. We can seek to become consistent in our daily Prayers, in the reading of Scripture, and listening to the teachings presented in the liturgies and prayer services. Great Lent is a good means of personal spiritual renewal. Below is the Prayer of St. Ephraim of Syria. The Orthodox consider this prayer as the most succinct summary of the spirit of Great Lent.

O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, idle curiosity (meddling), lust for power and idle talk.

But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity (integrity), humility, patience and love.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother. For blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Then we can encourage others in our parish to deepen their relationship with God. We can pray for others and we can encourage our priests, but ultimately the priest is responsible for the spiritual health of the parishioners.

Another way to counteract nominalism is through a love for Scripture. This is one thing I learned from my Evangelical days and which I took with me into Orthodoxy. I try to show how Orthodoxy is very much grounded in Scripture. My recent rebuttal of soli deo gratia was not knee jerk reaction but a careful analysis of the Bible from both the Old and New Testament. To do this analysis I drew on my Evangelical training. I would say that as more Evangelicals and Protestants convert to Orthodoxy and as they bring their love of Scripture, preaching, and evangelism the Orthodox Church will become a stronger church.

Robert Arakaki

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Posted in Uncategorized | 173 Comments Early Evidence for the Veneration of the Saints Posted on November 5, 2011 by robertar

Three Youths in Furnace

On November 2nd, John the “Lurker” wrote a brief comment noting that it was incumbent on both the Orthodox and the Reformed Christians to present evidence in support of their respective positions. Given the brevity of his comment, I will be presenting John’s comment in italics with my responses following.

If Wesley needs to “how the Protestant soli deo gloria is not a theological novelty but part of the historic Christian faith in the first millennium” isn’t it just as important for the Orthodox to do so as well? There aren’t very many pieces of evidence from the first century about prayer to the saints or the veneration of the Theotokos. And reference to the ambiguous phrase “communion of the saints” doesn’t seem to be adequate evidence in favor of the particular interpretation that you, Robert, are arguing for. I read the post already, though not immediately before posting this, so I don’t recall any supporting evidence besides “communion of the saints” that is referenced from, say a document from an ECF. If I’m just blind, please correct me where in the above post you mention it. While an Orthodox Christian might nod his head in agreement with your interpretation of that phrase, is it possible that a Reformed Christian could affirm an alternate interpretation.

My Response:

Early Veneration of the Saints

Regarding your assertion: there aren’t many pieces of evidence from the first century about prayer to the saints or the veneration of the Theotokos, I would say that while not abundant, there is evidence from the very early period, possibly as early as the first century. It is important to keep in mind that the Apostolic Tradition, while it has roots going back to the first century, developed over time taking on a more elaborated form from its simpler precedents. It is also important to keep in mind that we are talking about a grass roots devotional practice, not a theological system like Gnosticism which generates a significant paper trail. Still there are multiple sources that support the Orthodox understanding of the veneration the saints.

Philip Schaff in History of the Christian Church Vol. II §27 noted that the early catacombs contained inscriptions where the departed are asked to pray for their living relatives (p. 83). What is interesting is a letter from the Church of Smyrna dated AD 155:

Him indeed we adore (προσκυνουμεν) as the Son of God; but the martyrs we love as they deserve (αγαπωμεν αξιως), for their surpassing love to their King and Master, as we wish also to be their companions and fellow-disciples (pp. 82-83).

The distinction between the worship of Christ and the veneration of the saints is very much the same distinction Orthodox Christians use today. This shows the remarkable continuity of Orthodoxy with early Christianity. It can also be taken as evidence that the distinction between adoration and veneration was not concocted by the Seventh Ecumenical Council but has very early roots.

Mary with Jesus

The Christian catacombs with religious images and symbols in Rome have been dated back to the late second century. One of them contains a fresco that depicts the Virgin with the Child on her knees and a picture of a prophet pointing at them. This is not a simple mother and child picture but rather a powerful witness to the Incarnation as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and Mary as the Second Eve.

Gregory Dix in his magisterial The Shape of the Liturgy noted that it was the practice of the early Christians’ to seek the intercession of the saints:

…but invocations of christian saints who had been Hippolytus’ contemporaries in life have been found on the walls of S. Callistus, which there is good reason to think were scratched there very soon after their burial (p. 346)

Another evidence for the early Christians asking the intercession can be found in Hippolytucs’ commentary on the prayer addressed to the Three Youths mentioned in Daniel:

O Ananias, Azarias, and Misael, bless ye the Lord; O ye apostles, prophets, and martyrs of the Lord, Bless ye the Lord: praise Him, and exalt Him above all, forever. (Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. V p. 190)

An interesting journal article was written by David Frankfurter: “The Cult of the Martyrs in Egypt Before Constantine: The Evidence of the Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah” in Vigilaeae Christianae 48 (1994): 25-47. This suggests not only the antiquity but also the catholicity of this practice.

Gregory Dix also noted the eagerness with which the early Christians gathered Polycarp’s relics right after his martyrdom. Then he notes:

Nothing could better illustrate the unprimitive character of much in protestant polemic against the cultus of the saints and their relics which was sincerely put forward in the sixteenth century as a return to genuine ‘apostolic’ christianity than the unaffected religious reverence with which his disciples forthwith treated the body and the memory of this last survivor of the apostolic age (pp. 343-3444).

This comment about Protestantism’s “unprimitive character” is Dix’s indirect way of criticizing the novel character of Protestant theology.

Communion of Saints

Regarding your suggesting that the phrase “communion of saints” is ambiguous and subject to multiple readings, I would say that the scholarly consensus does not support your position. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology has this:

The traditional, and probably the best, interpretation refers the phrase to the union of all believers, living or dead, in Christ, stressing their common life in Christ and their sharing of all the blessings of God.

This is further supported by JND Kelly in Early Christian Doctrines (p. 490) and JND Kelly in Early Christian Creeds (pp. 391-2).


You made a good point when you asserted that it was important for both sides to present evidence that shows that their position on the veneration of saints is supported by the practice and teachings of the early church. I’ve presented here the evidence in support of the Orthodox position, I look forward to what the Protestants can find from the early church.

Robert Arakaki

TOPICS: Catholic; Evangelical Christian; Mainline Protestant; Orthodox Christian
KEYWORDS: catholicism; christianity; flamebait; lds; protestantism; theology
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1 posted on 01/07/2012 6:00:23 PM PST by rzman21
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To: rzman21

Back trying to start a fight again eh

2 posted on 01/07/2012 6:08:28 PM PST by driftdiver (I could eat it raw, but why do that when I have a fire.)
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To: rzman21

Great post, A lot to read but will do!

3 posted on 01/07/2012 6:10:27 PM PST by jafojeffsurf (Return to the Constitution)
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To: rzman21

Brevity is the soul of wit.

4 posted on 01/07/2012 6:17:54 PM PST by tbpiper
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To: rzman21

Yep, there’s variety, but most of it is in regard to the peripherals.

You think a monolith in teaching is good? See how much trouble Rome has brought us with that thinking.

5 posted on 01/07/2012 6:24:50 PM PST by lurk
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To: lurk

Truth is objective and singular. It’s not subjective and relative.

The author is Eastern Orthodox and not a Roman Catholic.

Catholics and Orthodox agree about far more in spite of 1,000 years of separation than Lutherans and Baptists do.

6 posted on 01/07/2012 6:36:06 PM PST by rzman21
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To: AdmSmith; AnonymousConservative; Berosus; bigheadfred; Bockscar; ColdOne; Convert from ECUSA; ...

1st Quarter FReepathon!

7 posted on 01/07/2012 6:37:03 PM PST by SunkenCiv (Merry Christmas, Happy New Year! May 2013 be even Happier!)
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To: driftdiver; D-fendr; johngrace; BenKenobi; annalex; one Lord one faith one baptism; Salvation; ...

It’s called having a dialog. Perhaps, Protestants should do more listening and less fighting.

Besides, this is an ecumenical thread, so fighting is not allowed.

8 posted on 01/07/2012 6:42:58 PM PST by rzman21
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To: rzman21
Protestant churches agree on fundamentals more than Catholics and Orthodox understand. Try reading the credal statements of major denominations. The rest is administrative nonsense. A small denomination is also part of the Church under the Headship of Christ.
9 posted on 01/07/2012 6:46:03 PM PST by GAB-1955 (I write books, serve my country, love my wife and daughter, and believe in the Resurrection.)
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To: GAB-1955

Protestant churches agree on fundamentals more than Catholics and Orthodox understand.

>>I have read many of the creedal statements of the major Protestant denominations. Are you referring to the confessions of faith or to their use of the ancient creeds like the Nicene, Apostles’, or Athanasian Creeds.

If you are referring to the confessions of faith like the Augsburg or Westminster confessions, they are all over the map.

10 posted on 01/07/2012 6:51:50 PM PST by rzman21
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To: rzman21
Merry Christmas.

Now, carrying the biological metaphor one step further, epigenetics tells us we can take that set of genes and short circuit some, duplicate others, delete yet others and lo and behold we end up with entirely new functions and processes that still contribute mightily to the existence and success of the organism.

Alas, it's relatively new science ~ maybe 5 years old ~ maybe less ~ but it knocks the stuffings out of all the DNA metaphors!

God in His infinite wisdom knows what He's doing!

11 posted on 01/07/2012 6:53:00 PM PST by muawiyah
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To: rzman21
In reality, except for the administrative practices, there are Protestant Churches that have MORE in common with the Orthodox than do the Roman Catholics.

You just don't know about them. You should study up on this.

12 posted on 01/07/2012 6:56:20 PM PST by muawiyah
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To: muawiyah
...there are Protestant Churches that have MORE in common with the Orthodox than do the Roman Catholics.
Really? Apostolic Succession, the Seven Sacraments?
13 posted on 01/07/2012 7:00:11 PM PST by narses
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To: rzman21

tl;dr but I’ll respond to the criticisms - since there are criticisms.

Southern Baptists (not to be confused with the SBC) keep it simple. Book says don’t add... we didn’t add. Book says don’t take away... we didn’t take away.

That ^ answers every criticism you can throw at Baptists and most protestants in general while simultaneously containing a criticism of nearly every aspect of Catholicism.

Have a nice day.

14 posted on 01/07/2012 7:04:45 PM PST by TheZMan (
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To: muawiyah

there are Protestant Churches that have MORE in common with the Orthodox than do the Roman Catholics.

>>Perhaps this is true of some in Lutheranism or remnants of orthodox Anglicanism. But Protestantism is built on the same Augustinian and Scholastic foundation as Latin Catholicism.

I know enough about Protestant and Eastern Orthodoxy to know that the two are miles apart as the author of this article makes plain.

Orthodox soteriology and sacramental teachings are closer to Rome’s than to Evangelicalism’s.

I’d say it’s a bit of a stretch to say that Protestantism in general is closer to Orthodoxy than to Latin Catholicism.

Evangelicalism would have just as many problems with the Orthodox beliefs about the prayers for the dead, prayers to the saints, iconography, Tradition as taught among the Orthodox as they do with Roman Catholic teaching.

But I’d concede that its approach to Mariology is far more Christological than Latin Catholicism. Perhaps this is why I as a former Lutheran have gravitated toward Byzantine Christianity more than to Latin Scholasticism.

15 posted on 01/07/2012 7:05:21 PM PST by rzman21
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To: narses

Things that are of concern only to the hierarchy are administrative in nature.

16 posted on 01/07/2012 7:06:58 PM PST by muawiyah
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To: rzman21; driftdiver; jafojeffsurf; tbpiper; lurk; SunkenCiv; D-fendr; johngrace; BenKenobi; ...

The core of the argument doesn’t run to sola scriptura but rather to the split between liberalism and evangelicals— which is something different. But but the author can’t seem to get himself to say that the core of the problem created by liberalism’s higher criticism is that liberalism —in effect — embraced the arian heresy. that is a low view of christ. that is, that Jesus is just a man.

higher criticism took over the divinity schools in europe in the 1850’s at about the same time that atheism took over the philosphy departments there. The higher criticism school made the jump back over the atlantic about the end of the 19th century to american liberal divinity schools and by 1940’s had taken over all the liberal protestant divinity schools.

The premises of the higher criticism school is not sola scriptura but rather a notion passed from the greek tradition by descartes that man is the measure of all things—including God. You can see it in his tree of knowledge that starts with (greek)metaphisics as the root, with philosophy as the trunk and religion/witchcraft in the branches. The higher criticism school treated the bible as a myth like greek or norse myths. (The problem here is that theology is on a whole different root and tree than philosphy. Why? Because theology begins with the premise that God is the measure of all things. And two, God is outside of Man and outside of nature.)

If the problem were with sola scriptura then the problems posed by the Greek philosophy would be limited to the liberal protestant churches where membership is naturally on the fast track to extinction. (Why? Because you have a freaking creepy human sacrifice as the main mystery at the alter.)

Again, the author conflates two different points. One is differences in interpretations of the bible and the other is collapsing membership. The two are not related. If collapsing membership was caused by sola scriptura then the problems posed by the Greek philosophy —that is the collapse of their membership—would be limited to the liberal protestant churches—. However, its not. The catholic church membership as well in steep decline —especially in south america and Europe.,1518,805075,00.html

And much of the reason for this can be laid at the feet of the arian heresy. More than one pope in recent decades has railed against the arian heresy which is passed through liberal catholic seminaries and bishops.

fwiw the USA & latin american evangelical and charismatic churchs are all increasing their membership. there are different interpretations of the bible for example differences between arminians and calvinists. but they are all considered to be within the pale of orthodoxy as are the catholic church and the eastern orthodox church.

however, the arian churches are not within the pale of orthodoxy. this stuff can get really grievous too. three or four generations after the liberal protestant churches embraced higher criticism and the low view of christ—their denominations embraced homosexuality in the priesthood. Among catholics, you can bet that seminaries where the young novices were hit on — also took soto voce the low view of christ.

17 posted on 01/07/2012 7:07:32 PM PST by ckilmer
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To: TheZMan

When it comes to matters that are non-dogmatic such as corruption in the hierarchy, believe me I am every bit as critical of the Roman Catholic hierarchy as the next person.

But when it comes to basic matters of Christian dogma, Protestantism left the boat 500 years ago..

18 posted on 01/07/2012 7:08:02 PM PST by rzman21
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To: rzman21
My own church has so many divorced Catholics that they organized a perpetual novena.

We have no particular reason to reject that form of prayer.

19 posted on 01/07/2012 7:08:59 PM PST by muawiyah
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To: muawiyah

Things that are of concern only to the hierarchy are administrative in nature.

>>Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy view the episcopate as being a matter of Church dogma dating back to the beginnings.

20 posted on 01/07/2012 7:10:18 PM PST by rzman21
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