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Doug Wilson on Eastern Orthodoxy

Doug Wilson is pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho.  He is a Reformed theologian and serves on the faculty of New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.

Podcasts 1 and 2 were uploaded June 3, 2010 by CanonWired, a ministry of Canon Press.

Ask Doug: Eastern Orthodoxy Part I

Gabe Rench: We have a question that came in regarding Eastern Orthodoxy.  What is the Reformed response to Eastern Orthodoxy?

Doug Wilson: It’s really interesting when you look at Reformed Christians and Roman Catholics. They’re both part of the Western church, and they have a great deal in common so it’s possible for them to have an argument.  It’s much more difficult for Westerners — not just Protestants — but for Westerners to get their minds around what’s going on in Eastern Orthodoxy.

To Protestants, Eastern Orthodoxy looks a lot like Roman Catholicism.  Their worship is more ornate and that sort of thing.  But despite these similarities, there are some very different emphases.  I think the divide between East and West is about as deep as that between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  So it would be easy to fall into the trap of simplistic analysis.

I recommend the book by Robert Letham: Through Western Eyes.  I got the book but I haven’t read the book yet.  ….  Letham is a Reformed Evangelical theologian.  And in his book on the Trinity which I have read, his treatment of the Eastern theologians is superb.  He understands what’s going on there.  He very fair minded, even handed, and staunchly Reformed.  So a good resource for someone dealing with Eastern Orthodoxy is Robert Letham’s Through Western Eyes.

Ask Doug: Eastern Orthodoxy Part II

Gabe Rench: What would say to a family … to a wife whose husband has decided to go Eastern Orthodox?

Doug Wilson: There are different layers to what you should do ranging from: Should I go with him, should I join the Eastern Church with him just because of my responsibility to be a submissive wife to the other end divorcing him tomorrow because this was not what I signed up for.  A husband falling into doctrinal sin — and that’s what it is, he’s backsliding, he’s falling away from the Reformed faith.  If a husband does that that’s not grounds for divorce.  Assuming everything else being equal, assuming that he’s not going on a bender in other areas.  Sometimes when people make a lurch that’s just one small piece of the puzzle.  So let’s say that’s the only thing and that in all other respect he’s a loving husband and father; he continues to provide and so forth.  A Reformed wife ought not to even think about divorce under such circumstance.  ….

My Response:

Pastor Wilson has two responses to the question about Eastern Orthodoxy: (1) a theological/doctrinal response, and (2) a pastoral/practical response.

Podcast #1 is a theological response.  He wisely points out the fact that the Reformed tradition, because it is rooted in the Western theological tradition, is much closer to Roman Catholicism than Eastern Orthodoxy.  Rather than attempt to give an answer in the Q&A, Wilson instead refers his listeners to Through Western Eyes which he admits he has not read.  He also refers his listeners to Letham’s The Holy Trinity which he has read.  On one level his answer is disappointing because he doesn’t really answer the question, but on another level he wisely avoids giving a simplistic answer that caricatures Orthodoxy.

Podcast #2 is a pastoral response.  Pastor Wilson notes that while converting to Eastern Orthodoxy constitutes “doctrinal sin” or “falling away from the Reformed faith,” that in itself is not sufficient grounds for divorce.  He counsels the bewildered wife to continue loving her husband but to “respectfully, sweetly, and submissively” say “no.”

It is in the second podcast Pastor Wilson describes Eastern Orthodoxy as “doctrinal sin” even though he does not spell out what these are.  Because he did not go into that in his first podcast, it is hoped that he has addressed the matter in some detail somewhere else.

But I have several questions for Doug Wilson.

OneYou say that embracing Orthodox involves falling away from the Reformed faith, would you admit though that this does not involve falling away from the historic Christian faith? I would assert that those who hold to the classical Christology defined by the Seven Ecumenical Councils are still within the historic Christian faith.  It appears that Pastor Wilson is confining Christians only to those who hold to the Westminster Confession.

Two, On what basis and what authority do you define “doctrinal sin”? Doctrinal “sin” is a much graver matter than doctrinal “error.”  Error implies differences in doctrinal opinion, whereas sin implies a breaking of a law.  In Orthodoxy it takes a breach of Church canon law to make something a doctrinal sin (an anathema).    For Orthodoxy, doctrinal teachings were defined by the Ecumenical Councils.  The councils’ decisions reflected the consensus of the early Church and were binding upon all Christians.

Three, If you say that Eastern Orthodoxy is “doctrinal sin,” are you then saying that the early Church as a whole were in “doctrinal sin”? Since Orthodoxy holds to the Ecumenical Councils and Reformed theologians do not, who is in sin?  It seems to me that if Reformed theologians are calling conversion to the Ancient Faith a sin, then that is a scare tactic, highly disrespectful and uncalled for.

What is interesting about Pastor Wilson’s answer is the assumption is that it is the male head of the household, the husband and father, who is embracing Orthodoxy.  It has been noted elsewhere that there is something about Orthodoxy that men find appealing.  Wilson also implies that husbands who have embraced Orthodoxy have been pressuring their wives to pray to icons.  I haven’t heard of that happening and I hope that is not the case.  The frequent counsel given to husbands who have embraced Orthodoxy in their heart is for them to be patient and loving with their wives and their family.  Furthermore, Orthodoxy does not believe in coercion.  The goal is for a family as whole to enter into Orthodoxy even if it means the head of the household delaying his entering into Orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy like the Reformed tradition is concerned about the integrity and spiritual health of our families.

Robert Arakaki

Coming Soon: Review of Robert Letham’s Through Western Eyes.

Note: This is a rough transcription of Doug Wilson’s Q&A with Gabe Rench.  I cleaned up Wilson’s spoken response and focused on the more pertinent points relating Reformed theology and Eastern Orthodoxy.  Links to the YouTube podcasts will enable readers to hear Wilson’s actual spoken response:

Podcast #1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1rDCpGjb-k

Podcast #2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAe-F-pxTOM&NR=1

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  1. David

    Per your 2nd question above: I suspect Pastor Wilson (who was graciously measured in his comments) would say the “doctrinal sin” of Orthodoxy is worshipping images…which the Reformed world (tradition) has historically held to be a direct violation of the 2nd commandment’s prohibition. Doesn’t Orthodoxy hold that the fact of the physical Incarnation of Christ on earth in history, and Christ’s bodily ressurection and Ascension after death “changed” this command’s prohibition? But Reformed people have rarely been exposed to a good explication of this view?

  2. John


    Not trying to speak for Robert here, but you’re right on both accounts. It would violate the 2nd commandment for the Reformed Tradition. Also, they may not have had a thorough explanation of the Orthodox point of view.

    I hope Robert takes time to discuss those sorts of things here. It would make for a pleasant conversation.


    • robertar

      Icons will definitely be discussed in future postings. I plan to address the concerns Calvinists have about icons. I’m looking forward to a fresh and lively conversation with our Reformed friends.

  3. Jacob

    Per David’s question,
    Reformed guys usually say that the divine nature cannot be depicted. The problem (confusion?) with this is that Reformed are usually confusing person and nature. Icons do not intend to depict the divine nature qua nature, which seems to be the Reformed objection.

    • robertar

      Jacob, your point is a good one. We must take care not to confuse person and nature. When we behold an icon of Christ we see the one person Jesus Christ who possesses two natures: divine and human. Iconographers depict Christ’s humanity by drawing his hands and his facial features but point to Christ’s divinity by writing the Greek phrase “ho on”, “the One who is” in the halo around his head. This Greek phrase comes from Revelation 4:8 and is also based upon the Sinaitic revelation, “I AM WHO I AM.” in Exodus3:14. Therefore, when we look at an Orthodox icon we behold the one person of Jesus Christ who possesses two natures: divine and human which is good Chalcedonian Christology. It is important to keep in mind that not all religious pictures are icons; Orthodox icons, because they teach the dogmas of the Church, must follow certain guidelines.

  4. John

    Without trying to pre-empt Robertar in any way on Icons, I would suspect that Wilson in his assumption of “sin” in accepting Icons, may well have at deep structure the Iconoclast theology that emerged in the Iconoclast false-Council of 754. This theology was rejected at Nicea in 787, and anathematised at Constantinople in 879-880.

    I also have a strong suspicion where this Iconoclasm infiltrated into Calvinism: in both Geneva and Edinburgh (via Kilwinning). Both these have Templar antecedents: Scotland with its battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and Switzerland with its battle of Morgarten in 1315. Both of these were won by the locals with Templar assistance, and in the case of the latter, actually created the foundation of the Swiss Confederation.

    Both Scottish and Swiss forms of Templar Catholicism, whilst paying lip-service to Rome, kept themselves as far away from Rome as was possible without going into formal schism for as long as was possible. The Council of Constance 1414-1418 was a shot across Rome’s bows by the Swiss Templars within the Swiss Catholic Church. Whilst enjoying much local Swiss support, it was soon repudiated by Rome. Thus, Constance laid the ecclesiological foundation on which the Swiss Reformers, such as Calvin and Zwingli were to build.

    Templar Catholicism in both Geneva and Edinburgh was as stripped-back as was possible with respect to Christian decoration. A typical Templar “Catholic” Chapel was an austere affair. Frequently in a stone building, its altar had two lonely candles plus a small crucifix uopn it. And nothing more – not even a decorated altar-cloth. Few, if any statues were found therein. Calvinist reformers in both Switzerland and Scotland found that most of their Iconoclasm had been already done for them by the Templars. It is a matter of record that Templar Chapels required the least “stripping” to make themselves acceptable for Calvinist/Reformed worship.

    As for their theological input, it is difficult to determine where Templar Iconoclasm ends and Calvinist/Reformed Iconoclasm begins. It seems that the Templars saw in Calvinism their long-awaited vehicle to oppose Rome from without, with sufficient arms-length “deniability” by Templars still within Rome. And they “guided” the Calvinists accordingly in their direction.

    After 50 years of caution and cautious optimism, Templars slowly infiltrated the top-most echelons of Reformed denominations, with the situation so advanced that the religious driving force in the British Isles both sides of the Tweed supporting the 1707 Union was Templar organised and executed. The Synod of Dordrecht, the Westminster Confession and the entire House of Orange show pronounced Templar influence – away from Rome and all Ecumenical Councils.

    As far as Calvinist “success” countries and regions were concerned, there is an extrtaordinary overlap with northern Templar strongholds – that is, north of the Pyrenees and the Alps. It is no coincidence that these northern Templar areas had the greatest infiltration of first-millennium Iconoclasm at the hands of the Templars.

    And that well into the twentieth century, the strongest Iconoclasts in the Reformed tradition were Templars themselves – hiding within Scottish-rite Freemasonry, or, after 1717 in England – Templars hiding within UGL York-rite Freemasonry.

    Whilst I suspect that Robert Wilson would be rightly dismayed to learn of this theological and ecclesiological “ancestry” of Iconoclasm in the Reformed tradition, I would love him to disprove the Templar antecedents in using one form of interpretation of the 2nd Commandment to support Iconoclasm.

    Which brings us to the issue of the KJV itself in presenting this Commandment in this way. It is universally known that the KJV is the preferred Bible version of both the Templars and Freemasonry. And that one of their reasons for this is the way they “translated” this commandment this way in the first place. King James himself was a Scottish-rite Freemason and a Templar. All his labourers for the KJV were either high-level Rosicrucians or Templars (sometimes hiding within Freemasonry) – or both. They rendered it “graven image” to enable it to carry a maximum Iconoclast meaning and baggage – to use it as a stick to beat Rome. And to inflict collateral damage upon Orthodoxy.

    A more correct and non-Templar rendition of the Hebrew would be “carved images” (i.e. explicitly meaning the three-dimensional variety), with nothing to say about the two-dimensional variety (that is, Icons).

    As for Wilson’s “sin” definition, I think that his dismay would be multiplied when he learns that this Calvinist/Reformed use was also Templar. Well before 1517, they adapted this ecclesiological definition from Cyprian of Carthage to operate independent from both Rome and all Ecumenical Councils, and applied it to themselves. With this understanding flowing from Bernard of Clairvaux. Thus, the Templars were already operating as a well-established ecclesiola in ecclesia by the time both Luther and Calvin appeared on the scene. Thus, both Luther and Calvin had this “ecclesiola” ecclesiology at hand, and used it to great effect in their own ways.

    All of the most egregious departures by Calvinism and the Reformed Tradition from the Tradition of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church can be traced to Templar influence or direct input. Once this is recognised, and factored in, Reformed-Orthodox dialogue can be far more fruitful and productive.

  5. drake


    “He is a Reformed theologian ”

    No he is a confused Anglican.

    DW: “I recommend the book by Robert Letham: Through Western Eyes. I got the book but I haven’t read the book yet. …. Letham is a Reformed Evangelical theologian. And in his book on the Trinity which I have read, his treatment of the Eastern theologians is superb”
    >>>Actually it’s pretty weak. Neither Letham nor Bray were able to understand that the procession through the Son is economical.
    Robert: “Pastor Wilson notes that while converting to Eastern Orthodoxy constitutes “doctrinal sin” or “falling away from the Reformed faith,” ”
    >>>Wilson is not in the Reformed Faith. His Church is filled with innovations and his followers I know many don’t even believe in the Regulative Principle though Wilson gives lip service to it.
    “Two, On what basis and what authority do you define “doctrinal sin”?”
    >>>These posers don’t have an answer for you because they never achieved a nationally established Church. The Scot Puritans did. The Reformed Presbytery under the direction of Scotland and the Solemn League and Covenant wrote these terms of communion: http://www.reformedpresbytery.org/toc.html
    The basis is the original Westminster Confession, and Catechisms.
    “Three, If you say that Eastern Orthodoxy is “doctrinal sin,” are you then saying that the early Church as a whole were in “doctrinal sin”? ”
    >>>I would say so. The intellectual cause: The Pagan Doctrine of Angelic Celibacy
    Jacob, “Reformed guys usually say that the divine nature cannot be depicted.”
    >>>>Wrong: The Divine Persons cannot be depicted. Westminster Larger Catechism 109,
    “Question 109: What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?
    Answer: The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, OF ALL OR OF ANY OF THE THREE PERSONS, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature: Whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense: Whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God has appointed.”
    Now you cannot separate the persons from the nature but technically your statement was incorrect.

    I have yet to find an EO that gets this stuff right. Your view drives a wedge between the Logos and his human nature in a Nestorian attempt to make icons of his humanity without considering that the humanity is the humanity of a divine person.

  6. Travis

    This topic has hit home. Last weekend my wife, out of the blue, asked to go to Liturgy with me. I had asked her prior to this weekend if she would at least go once to see what it is and make the determination after. She appreciates a lot of the asthetics but says she will not go back. She is definetly reformed and understandably we spen 7 years in the reformed tradition and she feels like that 7 years of her faith would meen nothing. I would disagree with that, due to the fact that God lures us in by Love, and allows us to walk a path that may not be straight, or I should say without stumbling blocks. As men who go towards Orthodoxy or are in Orthodoxy and have wifes that are not, we must be gentle and kind, like God is and was towards us.

    Has anyone sent these quesitons directly to Mr. Wilson. (He was one of the men I studied under, through podcasts and videos) If anyone is interested he does a great video with a well known Atheist, I think everyone here can appreciate.

    • robertar


      I have notified Pastor Wilson about my blog posts so I’m sure he is well aware of what is being said about his teachings.

      I wouldn’t say that your wife’s time as a Reformed Christian is a waste of time. There’s a lot I learned when I was a Reformed Christian that was valuable and that I still value today. Becoming Orthodox doesn’t mean that you throw out everything out the window but it means that you readjust your beliefs and practices according to the teachings of the Church. Besides, can you imaging the Apostle Paul or Nicodemus using the same argument: All my years in Judaism would be a waste of time if I were to become a Christian? Becoming a Christian is not a repudiation of Judaism but rather its fulfillment. The same thing applies to Reformed Christianity, Orthodoxy represents the fulfillment of all that it aspires to.

      BTW, you might be interested in a guest article “Called Together” by Fr. Isaiah Gillette.


  7. Evan Lygeros

    Well, it’s almost 2 years later. I’m guessing that Doug hasn’t been able to get back to you.
    I remember watching another youtube vid of him answering an inquirers question about Orthodoxy. His reply did show that he was out of his depth and used what little he knew though skewed it.
    I guess just like alot of us, if you know you’re talking to someone who also doesn’t know much, you could give false information and nobody will know.

    I don’t know Doug Wilson but i would hope that when people really don’t know much about a subject, they keep quiet and humbly say that they don’t have an answer that would be fair.

    • robertar


      I would love to hear from Doug Wilson. But you might be interested to learn that he posted a response to a guest article by “Nicodemus” titled: “Answer to Doug Wilson 13 June 2011 YouTube Video.”

      My advice to any inquiring readers is that they should take the time to become familiar with Scripture, church history, and the teachings of the church fathers for themselves, and not rely on what they hear from another person.


      • Charismatic Covenanter

        I remember when I first saw this video when I was intersted in Orthodoxy. Now, I used to be annoyed by anything Wilson said, and the video was no exception. That said, however, I also had to confess that he didn’t say anything beyond what someone would expect him to say. And Wilson is correct to point out the difference between a “blunder” and a “disagreement.” Saying he believe icons are wrong is not a blunder.

        Now to some specifics Wilson said:

        *** My sole point is that if you are going to argue on the basis of antiquity, more than one entity can argue that. If you are going to argue, as both RC and EO do, that they are indefectible, then I can point to at least one of them as making a false claim.****

        This is a fair point. Even if I were to decide in favor of Orthodoxy, I would have to use my rational faculties in order to *know* what Orthodoxy is saying and *why* Rome is wrong. And it’s not easy.

        Robert wrote:
        ***My advice to any inquiring readers is that they should take the time to become familiar with Scripture, church history, and the teachings of the church fathers for themselves, and not rely on what they hear from another person. ***

        And, I would add, ancient philosophy. Studying Plato’s Republic, 549b on what Plato (and the Orthodox tradition) say about “Being” being hyperousia, along with persons and energies also being (shades of Heidegger!) hyperousia really helped me sort out some issues.

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