Skip to comments.How an Icon Brought a Calvinist to Orthodoxy: A Journey to Orthodoxy
Posted on 08/30/2003 6:54:36 PM PDT by Destro
How an Icon Brought a Calvinist to Orthodoxy
By Robert K. Arakaki
A Journey to Orthodoxy
Conciliar Press - It was my first week at seminary. Walking down the hallway of the main dorm, I saw an icon of Christ on a students door. I thought: "An icon in an evangelical seminary?! Whats going on here?" Even more amazing was the fact that Jims background was the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. When I left Hawaii in 1990 to study at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, I went with the purpose of preparing to become an evangelical seminary professor in a liberal United Church of Christ seminary. The UCC is one of the most liberal denominations, and I wanted to help bring the denomination back to its biblical roots. The last thing I expected was that I would become Orthodox.
Called by an Icon
After my first semester, I flew back to Hawaii for the winter break. While there, I was invited to a Bible study at Ss. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church. At the Bible study I kept looking across the table to the icons that were for sale. My eyes kept going back to this one particular icon of Christ holding the Bible in His hand. For the next several days I could not get that icon out of my mind.
I went back and bought the icon. When I bought it, I wasnt thinking of becoming Orthodox. I bought it because I thought it was cool, and as a little gesture of rebellion against the heavily Reformed stance at Gordon-Conwell. However, I also felt a spiritual power in the icon that made me more aware of Christs presence in my life.
In my third year at seminary, I wrote a paper entitled, "The Icon and Evangelical Spirituality." In the paper I explored how the visual beauty of icons could enrich evangelical spirituality, which is often quite intellectual and austere. As I did my research, I knew that it was important that I understand the icon from the Orthodox standpoint and not impose a Protestant bias on my subject. Although I remained a Protestant evangelical after I had finished the paper, I now began to comprehend the Orthodox sacramental understanding of reality.
After I graduated from seminary, I went to Berkeley and began doctoral studies in comparative religion. While there, I attended Ss. Kyril and Methodios Bulgarian Orthodox Church, a small parish made up mostly of American converts. It was there that I saw Orthodoxy in action. I was deeply touched by the sight of fathers carrying their babies in their arms to take Holy Communion and fathers holding their children up so they could kiss the icons.
The Biblical Basis for Icons
After several years in Berkeley, I found myself back in Hawaii. Although I was quite interested in Orthodoxy, I also had some major reservations. One was the question: Is there a biblical basis for icons? And doesnt the Orthodox practice of venerating icons violate the Ten Commandments, which forbid the worship of graven images? The other issue was John Calvins opposition to icons. I considered myself to be a Calvinist, and I had a very high regard for Calvin as a theologian and a Bible scholar. I tackled these two problems in the typical fashion of a graduate student: I wrote research papers.
In my research I found that there is indeed a biblical basis for icons. In the Book of Exodus, we find God giving Moses the Ten Commandments, which contain the prohibition against graven images (Exodus 20:4). In that same book, we also find God instructing Moses on the construction of the Tabernacle, including placing the golden cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:1722). Furthermore, we find God instructing Moses to make images of the cherubim on the outer curtains of the Tabernacle and on the inner curtain leading into the Holy of Holies (Exodus 26:1, 3133).
I found similar biblical precedents for icons in Solomons Temple. Images of the cherubim were worked into the Holy of Holies, carved on the two doors leading into the Holy of Holies, as well as on the outer walls around Solomons Temple (2 Chronicles 3:14; 1 Kings 6:29, 30, 3135). What we see here stands in sharp contrast to the stark austerity of many Protestant churches today. Where many Protestant churches have four bare walls, the Old Testament place of worship was full of lavish visual details.
Toward the end of the Book of Ezekiel is a long, elaborate description of the new Temple. Like the Tabernacle of Moses and Solomons Temple, the new Temple has wall carvings of cherubim (Ezekiel 41:1526). More specifically, the carvings of the cherubim had either human faces or the faces of lions. The description of human faces on the temple walls bears a striking resemblance to the icons in Orthodox churches today.
Recent archaeological excavations uncovered a first-century Jewish synagogue with pictures of biblical scenes on its walls. This means that when Jesus and His disciples attended the synagogue on the Sabbath, they did not see four bare walls, but visual reminders of biblical truths.
I was also struck by the fact that the concept of the image of God is crucial for theology. It is important to the Creation account and critical in understanding human nature (Genesis 1:27). This concept is also critical for the understanding of salvation. God saves us by the restoration of His image within us (Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 15:49). These are just a few mentions of the image of God in the Bible. All this led me to the conclusion that there is indeed a biblical basis for icons!
What About Calvin?
But what about John Calvin? I had the greatest respect for Calvin, who is highly regarded among Protestants for his Bible commentaries and is one of the foundational theologians of the Protestant Reformation. I couldnt lightly dismiss Calvins iconoclasm. I needed good reasons, biblical and theological, for rejecting Calvins opposition to icons.
My research yielded several surprises. One was the astonishing discovery that nowhere in his Institutes did Calvin deal with verses that describe the use of images in the Old Testament Tabernacle and the new Temple. This is a very significant omission.
Another significant weakness is Calvins understanding of church history. Calvin assumed that for the first five hundred years of Christianity, the churches were devoid of images, and that it was only with the decline of doctrinal purity that images began to appear in churches. However, Calvin ignored Eusebiuss History of the Church, written in the fourth century, which mentions colored portraits of Christ and the Apostles (7:18). This, despite the fact that Calvin knew of and even cited Eusebius in his Institutes!
Another weakness is the fact that Calvin nowhere countered the classic theological defense put forward by John of Damascus: The biblical injunction against images was based on the fact that God the Father cannot be depicted in visual form. However, because God the Son took on human nature in His Incarnation, it is possible to depict the Son in icons.
I was surprised to find that Calvins arguments were nowhere as strong as I had thought. Calvin did not take into account all the biblical evidence, he got his church history wrong, and he failed to respond to the classical theological defense. In other words, Calvins iconoclasm was flawed on biblical, theological, and historical grounds.
In my journey to Orthodoxy, there were other issues I needed to address, but the issue of the icon was the tip of the iceberg. I focused on the icon because I thought that it was the most vulnerable point of Orthodoxy. To my surprise, it was much stronger than I had ever anticipated. My questions about icons were like the Titanic hitting the iceberg. What looked like a tiny piece of ice was much bigger under the surface and quite capable of sinking the big ship. In time my Protestant theology fell apart and I became convinced that the Orthodox Church was right when it claimed to have the fullness of the Faith.
I was received into the Orthodox Church on the Sunday of Orthodoxy in 1999. On this Sunday the Orthodox Church celebrates the restoration of the icons and the defeat of the iconoclasts at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in AD 787. On this day, the faithful proclaim, "This is the faith that has established the universe." It certainly established the faith of this Calvinist, as the result of the powerful witness of one small icon!
Robert Arakaki is currently writing his dissertation on religion and politics in Southeast Asia at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He attends Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.
I suppose he was thinking of the Hagia Sophia, built in 537 I believe. But my Godmother has visited Georgia and seen icons there older than this date.
I think it is more properly considered a story of conversion, of which there are thousands from any church to the next, available on the internet and in books.
Gerry Matatics becoming Catholic is a story, this is not.
If you care about Catholics, perhaps. I have never heard of this Gerry Matatics so it means nothing to me.
I didn't read any place where Destro said this was supposed to be media-worthy news or anything, it's just a personal story.
You can choose to be offended by it, but methinks your protesting is overly loud.
I never take personal offense when people choose to not convert to the Orthodox church, rather I am surprised when they do, as I was in this case.
I would say the larger barriers are western "Augustinian" issues which we Orthodox reject.
The particular icon you find offense with was in place at the dome of the Hagia Sophia in 537 AD. Still a favorite of mine, I think it has probably been around long enough to influence more people than simple humans such as you and I.
FYI, Gerry Matatics was an ABD doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary who became a Catholic and is a leading Catholic apologist. As a graduate of the program Gerry was in at WTS I can tell you it is decidedly Calvinistic and grouds it's students well in the issues of the Reformation. Matatics switch was a dramatic 180 degree turn.
I question the legitimacy of the title of this article. The guy doesn't evidence a previous commitment to Calvinism.
Editors Note: John Whiteford is a former Nazarene Associate Pastor who converted to the Orthodox Faith soon after completing his B.A. in Religion at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma. He first encountered Orthodoxy as a result of his involvement in the local Pro-Life (Rescue) movement together with Diaspora Ministry International, which also included Father Anthony Nelson and several of his parishioners. After over a year of searching the Scriptures and the writings of the early Church; and through the love, prayers and patience of Father Anthony and the Parishioners of St. Benedicts, John Whiteford was received into the Holy Orthodox Church.When he wrote this article he was serving as a Reader at St. Vladimirs in Houston, Texas and is continuing his studies. He has since been ordained a Deacon.
Frank Schaeffer, son of the late renowned Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer, holds a photo of his son, John, a Marine.
"Although Schaeffer uses "converted" to describe the experience, he said he only does so for lack of a better word.
"(Converted) has some judgmental qualities," Schaeffer said in a recent interview from his home near Boston. "'Born-again,' 'I'm saved; you're lost,' but it's nothing like that. (Orthodoxy is) where I find the fullness of experience in Christianity to be for myself. That doesn't mean I feel other people outside that are lost."
What is amusing is that you impute this to Catholicism also, even though the Catholic Church does not follow St. Augustine on some of the very points you adamantly think we do, such as original sin and free will and the necessity of faith to perform good works.
Even more amusing, is that the Church's failure to follow St. Augustine on these issues is one of the major causes of the Reformation, in that men like Luther and Calvin returned to St. Augustine to purify the Church of what they viewed as the detritus of the Scholastics, especially St. Thomas Aquinas.
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