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Response to W. Bradford Littlejohn’s “Honouring Mary as Protestants”

Icon of the Annunciation

On August 15, 2011, W. Bradford Littlejohn uploaded an interesting posting: “Honouring Mary as Protestants” on his blog: The Sword and Ploughshare.  What is so striking about this blog posting is that it is by a young Reformed scholar reflecting on his recent worship experience on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

The posting is significant because it is evidence of a growing interest among young Reformed scholars in rediscovering the historic roots of the Christian faith.  Littlejohn is a protégé of Peter Leithart; he is currently doing his doctoral studies at University of Edinburgh.

The subject of the Virgin Mary is a huge stumbling block between Protestants and the historic Christian churches.  The divide is not just doctrinal but also emotional.  Littlejohn writes:

We Protestants certainly have a problem when it comes to Mary–so allergic are we to any sign of Marian devotion that we flip out and run the other way at any sign of it, including thoroughly orthodox phrases like “Mother of God” and “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

West vs. East

On the same day that Littlejohn found himself in an Anglo-Catholic parish in Scotland celebrating the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, I was at a Greek Orthodox parish in Hawaii celebrating the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos.  What Littlejohn experienced that day was influenced by Roman Catholicism which is quite different from Eastern Orthodoxy.  I plan to discuss Littlejohn’s blog posting from an Eastern Orthodox standpoint.

The term “Assumption” stem from the Roman Catholic belief that Mary did not die but was “assumed” or taken up bodily into heaven.  The Eastern Orthodox term “Dormition” stem from the belief that Mary “fell asleep,” that is, died a natural death.  This points to a major theological divide.  Roman Catholicism believes that Mary was immaculately conceived, meaning that she was completely untouched by Original Sin even from the moment of her conception.  Orthodoxy believes that Mary was affected by the Original Sin and subject to mortality like the rest of humanity.  Eastern Orthodoxy rejects the Catholic dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception and her bodily assumption into heaven as theological innovations.

The belief in Mary’s immaculate conception implies a parallel humanity that is ontologically separate from our fallen humanity.  If so, then the Roman Catholic position contains the disturbing implication that Christ does not really share the same human nature as ours which raises serious questions about the meaning of the Incarnation.  The Eastern Orthodox understanding is that while sharing in a human nature that was mortal and susceptible to corruption, Mary was preserved or protected from sinning by God’s grace.  For this reason the Orthodox Church refers to Mary as “Panagia” (all holy).  How this happens to be is a mystery rooted in God’s mercy.  While quite similar to the Catholic position, the Orthodox understanding of Mary safeguards the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Virgin vs. Theotokos

Both terms, “Virgin” and “Theotokos”, are accepted by Eastern Orthodoxy.  However, it becomes clear after listening to the Divine Liturgy that the Orthodox Church prefers to address Mary as “Theotokos” (God Bearer).  Alexander Schmemann notes:

It is significant that whereas in the West Mary is primarily the Virgin, a being almost totally different from us in her absolute and celestial purity and freedom from all carnal pollution, in the East she is always referred to and glorified as Theotokos, the Mother of God, and virtually all icons depict her with the Child in her arms.  (p. 83; emphasis in original)

Thus, the different titles ascribed to Mary in the Anglo-Catholic service attended by Littlejohn and the Greek Orthodox service I attended are far more than interesting trivia. They point to the quite different angles Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have taken in the way they view Mary.  I hope that in his quest to discover the ancient roots of the Christian faith Littlejohn will look into the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

The Ecumenical Councils on Mary

Littlejohn was mistaken when he said that the term “Theotokos” was coined to refute the heresy of Nestorius.  Actually, the controversy began when Nestorius rejected the term “Theotokos” which was already in use at the time.  What the third Ecumenical Council did was to formally endorse the title “Theotokos.”  I appreciate Littlejohn’s openness about his lack of familiarity with the early Ecumenical Councils, but still I am disconcerted by this gap in historical theology.  If someone with his educational background happened to be confused about the Nestorian controversy, to what extent have others in the Reformed tradition forgotten the historical roots of their Christology and belief in the Trinity?

Mary played no small role in the findings of the Ecumenical Councils.  This is because the Incarnation is key to Christology.  Mary’s role in the economy of salvation is touched upon in three councils: (1) Nicea I (325), (2) Ephesus (431), and (3) Chalcedon (451).  The first Council promulgated the Nicene Creed which is recited at every Sunday Liturgy in Eastern Orthodox churches.  The Nicene Creed states:

For us and our salvation he came down from heaven

and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and became man. (emphasis added)

In this pivotal sentence our salvation is directly linked to the Incarnation.  The Incarnation could not have happened apart from Mary’s free consent.  By this act of faith and obedience Mary became the New Eve who helped reverse the Fall of Adam and Eve.

At the third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus, the Church affirmed the application of the title “Theotokos” to Mary and condemned those who refused to call Mary the Theotokos (NPNF Vol. XIV p. 206).  The Chalcedonian Formula explicated the two natures of Christ stating that Christ received his full humanity from Mary the Theotokos.

Reformed Christians who affirm the Ecumenical Councils need to be aware of the high view of Mary articulated by the fathers who attended the Councils.

If anyone shall not confess that the Word of God has two nativities, the one from all eternity of the Father, without time and without body; the other in these last days, coming down from heaven and being made flesh of the holy and glorious Mary, Mother of God and always a virgin, and born of her: let him be anathema.  (NPNF Vol. XIV p. 312; emphasis added)

…begotten of his Father before all ages according to his Godhead, but in these last days for us men and for our salvation made man of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, strictly and properly the Mother of God according to the flesh…. (NPNF Vol. XIV p. 345; italics added)

Most Protestants would have no problem accepting the theological rationale behind giving Mary the title “Theotokos” or “Mother of God” in their intellect but would gag at the thought of saying that title out loud in a worship service.  Despite their claim to have accepted the Ecumenical Councils — most Reformed Christians profess to accept the first four Councils — their reluctance to honor Mary as “Theotokos” or “Mother of God” raises the possibility of their being de facto Nestorians.

Lex Orans, Lex Credens

The ancient principle: lex orans, lex credens (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith) teaches that the way we worship shapes what we believe and vice versa.  This means that by observing how a congregation addresses Mary in its liturgical services tells us much about what they believe about her.  Littlejohn recounts how at the end of the service the congregation rose facing the statue of the Virgin Mary and began reciting the Ave Maria:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you,

Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

This is not the practice of Eastern Orthodoxy.  The seventh Ecumenical Council allowed for flat two-dimensional icons but disallowed the use of statues in worship.  In Orthodox services Mary is honored through the veneration of the icon showing her holding the Christ child in her arms.

Where Roman Catholics recite the Ave Maria, Eastern Orthodox Christians sing the hymn Axios Estin (It is Truly Right):

It is truly right to bless you, the Theotokos,

ever blessed and most pure and mother of our God.

More honorable than the Cherubim, 

and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim,

incorruptibly you gave birth to God the Word.

We magnify you, the true Theotokos.

A thoughtful Protestant will readily recognize that both prayers are grounded in Scripture.  But even given the biblical basis for these prayers, many Protestants will struggle to say them out loud in a worship service.  Littlejohn observes:

For to honour Mary theologically in the way I described might seem like one thing; to honour her liturgically quite another.

Much of the difficulty here rests with the way Protestants have understood the nature of worship.  Kimberly Hahn, wife of Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian minister who converted to Roman Catholicism, made an illuminating observation.

Protestants defined worship as songs, prayers and a sermon.  So when Catholics sang songs to Mary, petitioned Mary in prayer and preached about her, Protestants concluded she was being worshiped.  But Catholics defined worship as the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Jesus, and Catholics would never have offered a sacrifice of Mary nor to Mary on the altar.  (p. 145)

This astute observation is one that an Eastern Orthodox Christian could also endorse.  Hahn’s observation underscores how much Protestantism has drifted away from an Eucharistic-centered understanding of Christian worship to a sermon focused understanding of worship.

Diagnosing the Protestant Allergic Reaction

The difficulty that Protestants have in honoring Mary is more than an emotional hang-up.  Underlying the visceral “allergic reaction” Protestant feel when they contemplate praying to her are a number of theological and world view issues.  To put it simply and bluntly: Protestantism is a modern, secular religion.  It contains assumptions and beliefs that depart from the historic Christian faith.  What are the assumptions that prevent Protestants from honoring Mary?

One, there is this unspoken belief that physical matter is spiritually neutral.  Littlejohn writes:

We claim to have a high doctrine of creation, but many Protestants–at least Reformed Presbyterians, don’t like creation to play much of a role in worship, purging our churches of any kind of imagery.  While of course part of this might be legitimate avoidance of idolatry, more of it seems to be part of the same old Puritan fear that to honour God through his creations is to dishounour him.

While Protestants reject Gnosticism’s heretical view that physical matter is evil, they also reject the historic Christian view that physical matter can become a channel for divine grace, i.e., become a sacrament.  They believe that physical objects can become signs and symbols that stimulate faith in our hearts and remind us of God’s grace in Christ.  But they are quite reluctant to believe that a physical object can acquire a sanctity that sets it apart from ordinary use and is reserved exclusively to God.  They have abandoned an ontological understanding of holiness for a functional understanding of holiness.  In the Protestant world view holiness resides in the intended purpose, not in the object itself.  This is evident in the way they handle the leftovers from a Communion service like leftovers from an ordinary meal.  This is evident in the practice of allowing the church sanctuary to be used for secular functions after hours.

The problem with the Protestant understanding of physical matter as spiritually neutral is that this is essentially a secular world view.  Missing in the secular world view is the notion of approaching creation with respect, gratitude, and restraint.  The secular world view opens the door for modern science’s manipulation of the physical universe to test scientific hypotheses, including thermonuclear explosions, genetic modifications, and the creation of exotic toxic chemicals.  It also opens the door for modern capitalism’s exploitation of the natural environment and the creation of a consumeristic culture.  This in turn has spurred a backlash in the form of the resacralizing of creation through quasi-religious belief systems like veganism and Rastafarianism.

This secular outlook seems to underlie modern Protestants disregard for Mary’s perpetual virginity.  Mary having other children besides Jesus is the closest thing to a dogma among Protestants.  Practically all Protestants today hold this view, despite the fact Luther and Calvin both affirmed Mary’s perpetual virginity.  It goes hand in hand with Protestantism’s rejection of celibacy and the monastic lifestyle.  Protestantism seems to want to anchor Mary solely within the present age and overlook her role as an historical-eschatological figure who links the present age with the age to come.  The secular world view has led to the rejection of marriage as a sacrament.  This has led to marriage being viewed as a civil right, sex as a recreational activity, and the family as a social unit bounded by social conventions.

Two, the Protestant world view assumes that those who have died are completely out of the picture.  This is not a formal teaching of Protestant churches but a widely held and unquestioned assumption.  Littlejohn notes:

...there is not necessarily any idolatry or heresy in the notion that we could call upon some deceased saint and ask them to pray for us, though we Protestants might well doubt whether there was any way they could hear us.…  (emphasis added)

The severance of ties with the afterlife results in a strong this-wordly orientation.  This is at odds with the biblical world view which views the faithful here on earth being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1).  In Revelation we are told that the deceased stand before the throne of God in heaven engaged in worship day and night (Revelation 7:9-15).  Revelation 6:10 tells how those recently martyred plead with God for justice.  A similar perspective can be seen in the Transfiguration narrative that appears in all three synoptic Gospels in which Moses and Elijah enter into a conversation with Jesus.  For the Orthodox the dead in Christ are very much alive in Christ.  In contrast, the Protestant view of the afterlife reduces Mary and heroic martyrs to a abstract historical figures.

Three, in reducing Mary to a distant historical figure or a piece of theological datum, Protestant theology have taken on an abstract and impersonal quality.  This is at odds with the line in the Apostles Creed which profess faith in “the communion of saints.” This line has been long understood to mean Christians enjoying fellowship with the living and the departed.

The Orthodox veneration of Mary is based upon the doctrine of the communion of saints.  It goes beyond thinking of Mary as a distant historical figure to a real personal presence.  Jim Forest in Praying With Icons recounts a conversation between a Dutch theology professor and an elderly Russian woman during the Cold War.

She began to cross-examine him.  “And you also are a believer?”  “Yes, in fact I teach theology at the university.”  “And people in Holland, they go to church on Sunday?”  “Yes, most people go to church.  We have churches in every town and village.”  “And they believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?”  She crossed herself as she said the words.  “Oh, yes,” Hannes assured her, but the doubt in her face increased — why had he not crossed himself?  Then she looked at the icon and asked, “And do you love the Mother of God?”  Now Hannes was at a loss and stood for a moment in silence.  Good Calvinist that he was, he could hardly say yes.  Then he said, “I have great respect for her.”  “Such a pity,” she replied in pained voice, “but I will pray for you.”  Immediately she crossed, kissed the icon, and stood before it in prayer.  (p. 109)

This anecdote vividly illustrates the differences in attitude Reformed and Orthodox Christians have towards Mary and the communion of saints.

Four, its independent stance to Mary gives Protestant spirituality a rugged individualism.  Having abandoned the notion of the communion of saints, Protestants, especially Reformed Christians, have become detached from Mary and the saints in their prayer life.  It has given rise to erroneous impression that asking the saints for their prayers is a form of necromancy.  This ludicrous notion shows how far they have departed from the historic faith.

The communion of saints provides the basis for the corporate approach to prayer.  For the Orthodox the corporate approach to prayer extends beyond the Sunday Liturgy to the daily Morning and Evening Prayers.

Having risen from sleep, we fall before you, O good One,

and sing to you, mighty One, the angelic hymn:

Holy, holy, holy are you, O God.

Through the prayers of the Theotokos, have mercy on us.  

(Morning Prayers in Daily Prayers; emphasis added)

Here we see the individual Orthodox Christian praying in unison with Mary.  Likewise, praying with Mary leads us to praying with the other departed saints in heaven.

Intercede for us, holy Apostles, and all you saints,

so that we may be saved from danger and sorrow.

We have received you as fervent defenders before the Savior.

(Prayers Before Sleep in Daily Prayers; emphasis added)

This approach to prayer takes us beyond individual and the local congregation into the vast corporate worship in heaven described in Hebrews 12 and Revelation 5-7.  This is the way Christians understood worship until the Protestant Reformation and especially the Puritan movement stripped away a rich spiritual heritage.

Protestants’ acute “allergic reaction” is rooted in the assumptions in the Protestant world view. Having broken with the historic Christian faith Protestantism has evolved into a modern, secular religion.  Protestants who witness the honoring of Mary in the historic churches — Anglo-Catholic, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox — find their theology and their world view being challenged on the deepest levels.  To overcome this “emotional hang-up” Reformed Christians will need to critically scrutinize the foundational premises of their belief system and their relation to the historic Christian faith.

Reforming Reformed Worship?

Littlejohn objects to the language used to honor the Virgin Mary deeming them “genuinely idolatrous language.”  Yet he also recognizes that Protestantism has suffered an impoverishment of their faith in their reaction to the extremes of Roman Catholicism.  He writes:

On the other hand, it certainly seems that Protestants have impoverished their faith by completely excising from it any real consideration of Mary, and the disregard this shows for the faith of the early Church does not boost our credibility when we claim to be recovering that faith.  Finding the appropriate balance is sure to prove a difficult task, but continuing to neglect that task is not a responsible option.

Much of the imbalance in the Protestant understanding of Mary can be traced to a reaction to Roman Catholicism and the Puritans’ desire to carry out the Reformation further than the original Reformers had intended.  It will be impossible to recover this balance unless there is a historical benchmark for doing theology and ordering worship.  I would urge W. Bradford Littlejohn and other like minded Reformed Christians to do three things: (1) examine what the early Church Fathers have to say about Mary, (2) examine what the Orthodox Church has to say about Mary in its liturgical prayers, and (3) reread Scriptures from the standpoint of the early Church.

Littlejohn closes his posting suggesting the need to recover a balance to counter the long standing neglect of Mary in Reformed worship.  I think he is overly optimistic in his belief that this balance can be brought to Reformed worship.  It would be fair warning to Littlejohn and others that the quest to recover a balanced view of Mary can lead to some disturbing questions about the basic premises of their Reformed theology.  However, realigning one’s faith and worship with the historic Christian Faith will bring the blessings of receiving “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”

Robert Arakaki


Michael Hyatt’s “Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us”  At The Intersection of East and West Series on Ancient Faith Radio podcast, April 4, 2009.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF).  Second Series Vol. XIV.

Daily Prayers.  Edited by N. Michael Vaporis.  (1986)

Little Compline With The Akathist Hymn.  By the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.  (1981)

“The Mystery of Love.”  In For the Life of the World.  By Alexander Schmemann.  (1988)

Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism.  By Scott and Kimberly Hahn. (1993)

Praying With Icons.  By Jim Forest.  (1997)

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  1. Maximus

    I have a question maybe you can help me with. You state: “The belief in Mary’s immaculate conception implies a parallel humanity that is ontologically separate from our fallen humanity.”

    If we believe that Christ was immaculately conceived and this does this not make Him ontologically separate from humanity then how we could say that about the Theotokos? We can’t make original sin an ontologically necessary quality of humanity, right? Also, St. Athanasius also held that St. John the Forerunner, the Prophet Jeremiah and “many others” were by grace spared from sin but not mortality like we hold the Theotokos to be. (Four Discourses Against the Arians Bk. III. 33) I would appreciate some help with this issue. Thanks brother!

    • robertar


      Your question is a very good one, and your theological reasoning sound. I think I overstated my objection to the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Thanks for making me think through the issue.

      • David

        Excellent, gracious exchange. I wondered about the same thing.

  2. Maximus

    I don’t believe in the Dogma of Imm. Concep.. I don’t think any of the Fathers did either. I just question an objection of those grounds.

  3. Karen

    Maximus or Robert,

    Most Evangelicals are familiar with the terms “saving grace” and “keeping grace” to describe how God works in our lives to keep or free us from sin. On the other side of St. Athanasius, we have St. John Chrysostem, who, I believe, taught that the Theotokos did sin (only very slightly) on the occasion of Christ’s first miracle (implied in Jesus’ reply to her in John 2:4).

    As one from a former Protestant background, I wondered how Orthodox have squared the teaching that some Saints were kept entirely from sin by grace with the teaching found in Romans 3:23 and Romans 5:12, for instance? My modern logical brain doesn’t quite know how to get around what seems a straightforward teaching in this epistle about the inclusiveness of sin.

    • robertar


      What you just mentioned is new to me. I’m not familiar with the teaching that some saints were kept entirely from sin. So I have the same question as you.

    • Maximus

      First, let me quote the Athanasius text:

      Who will not admire this? Or who will not agree that such a thing is truly divine? For if the works of the Word’s Godhead had not taken place through the body, man had not been deified; and again, had not the properties of the flesh been ascribed to the Word, man had not been thoroughly delivered from them ; but though they had ceased for a little while, as I said before, still sin had remained in him and corruption, as was the case with mankind before Him; and for this reason:— Many for instance have been made holy and clean from all sin; nay, Jeremiah was hallowed even from the womb, and John, while yet in the womb, leapt for joy at the voice of Mary Bearer of God ; nevertheless ‘death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression Romans 5:14;’ and thus man remained mortal and corruptible as before, liable to the affections proper to their nature. (Four Discourses Against the Arians Bk. III. 33)

      St. Athanasius seems to define the pervasive “sinning” with the corruption in our nature and not so much as an infraction against the law. He even quotes from Romans 5. In his anthropology even a sinless person needs a Savior to deliver them from mortality.

      Perhaps another key is “by grace”. This grace justifies and wipes out sin. The “all have sinned” could be referring to every human person apart from this grace. For instance, the Scriptures state that everyone must die (Heb. 9:27) yet by grace Enoch and Elijah did not and the Apostle Paul also says “1Co 15:51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep…(1 Cor. 15:51) The Scriptures also say that God alone is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16) yet we hold that angels and saints partake of this. Grace suspends what normally occurs in “all”. Thus, God is the “only sinless One” by nature but some are sinless “by grace”. Theosis bends the rules. When I was a Protestant I used to be perplexed by these verses:
      Gen. 6:9 Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.
      1 Sam. 2-21-24The LORD dealt with me according to my righteousness according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me… I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from guilt.
      Job 1:8 And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?
      Dan 6:22 My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him
      Php 3:6 …as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
      Act 11:22-24 Barnabas…for he was a good man…

      I certainly never spoke about anyone like these verses do. Surely, I wouldn’t have ever called myself blameless before God or even “good” like Barnabas because “no one is good except God alone”. By nature this is certainly true but grace allows for us to partake of the divine nature and take on godlike qualities. That’s just my take but with all that said “godliness is a great mystery” (1 Tim. 3:16) . Please forgive the length Robert.

      • Karen

        Thanks Robert and Maximus.

        Robert, I was referring primarily to the Orthodox belief that the Theotokos was kept by grace from all personal sin (some holding this from birth, others from her conception of Jesus–St. John Chrysostem being one exception to this). Thus, it seems even with the Theotokos, there is some variety of opinion among Orthodox teachers as to what it means that she is “all-holy.” Certainly, I accept the Orthodox teaching that it is possible because of grace to be cleansed from sin even in this life (even if this is rare for most of us), and that this certainly occurred with many of the Saints. Where I referred to Saints in the plural, I was responding to the St. Athanasius quote from Maximus.

        Maximus, your point about the OT’s description of various prophets, etc., is well taken. I have heard, however, that “blameless” does not refer to someone who never sinned, but who continued throughout life in repentance, by faith observing the Law, etc. These became “blameless,” “righteous,”etc., because they were granted the grace of repentance and were forgiven, justified, and deified because of their faith. According to what I was taught (admittedly, not as an Orthodox), it does not imply that they *never* sinned at all. But, you are right, the Scriptures do not focus on the faults of these Saints, but on the fruits of their faith. Their goodness came by grace, but it was true goodness and it was truly theirs as well as God’s (real participation in God). Enoch and Elijah are good examples of the fact that in certain statements of Scripture, “all” means all, except where grace has intervened. IOW, there may be by God’s grace exceptions to the general principle.

        • Maximus

          Karen, you said it better than I!

  4. David

    I’m wondering if our view of Theotokos/Virgin Mary is not fundamentally connected to our view of history and Oral Tradition…because it is largely (not all) extra-biblical. We Protestants are not altogether timid in appealing history (oral tradition) even Church Councils when getting to the heart of different issues — like say the Trinity. The place of history and oral Tradition struck me recently reading Peter Leithart’s excellent book _Defending Constantine_. In arguing against Mennonite John Howard Yoder view of early Church “Pacifism” so-calle, he makes this comment:

    “…this does not get to the heart of Yoder’s thought [on pacifism]. Still asking the historical questions is important since Yoder’s theology is so deeply bound up with an account of Christian History. If he got Christian history wrong, that sets a question mark over this theology.” (page 254)

    That last sentence is, as they say, pregnant with application. The Truth in history (especially as it relates to Apostolic and Patristic oral tradition) might be one central reason for the current Protestant interest in Orthodoxy. For example, while I struggle with the notion that viginity is somehow morally surperior to married sexuality, I’m also starting to struggle with what history teaches us about the oral tradition of the Church. Old family traditions can be fraught with myth (that fish I caught…) but do we Protestants so totally reject authority in the Oral Tradition of the Apostles and Fathers, that we easily dismiss it? IF it IS the oral Tradition of the Apostles that Joseph was far older (with children from a prior marriage) and God graced he and Mary (for whatever reason) NOT to have sex…why do we so incrediously dismiss it? Have we erected (bad choice) a subtle notion that sex is better than no sex, and frequent sex better than infrequent — thus marriage better than celibacy? (I’ve certainly thought this.) Yet does this make young actively-sexual marrieds in their 20s somehow more human/holy than old couples (less sex)? Obviously, I don’t have all this worked out (we have 8 children) but I’m increasingly uneasy with how we seem to flippantly dismiss history and what seems to be credible Apostolic/Patristic oral tradition…while we embrace other history with little quarrel. Seems so conveniently selective, no? Lots going on here and I suspect it’s more complicated than we’ve reduced it…not the least our assumption that Protestant notions about sex and sexuallity are right…making all others wrong. Thus some Protestant teachers openly mock the very idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity, and any authority in oral tradtition… at least the non-protestant parts of it. Anyone point me to something helpful here?

    • robertar


      I appreciate your thoughtful response. My guess is that the recent emphasis on sex may be rooted in Sigmund Freud and other ideological currents in modernity. I think Protestantism has been quite susceptible to these outside influences but I don’t think it necessarily taught that more sex is better than less sex.

      When I was in an Orthodox catechism class I heard the priest say that marriage is for our salvation. I found that remark very enlightening and encouraging. It teaches us that salvation in Christ is more than the forgiveness of sins and going to heaven. It also involves loving others and serving others. It means that marriage can teach us many deep spiritual lessons and lead us to spiritual maturity. However, it should also be kept in mind that the institution of marriage is only for the current age (Mark 12:25). The spiritual vocation of celibacy is rooted in an anticipation in the life of the age to come. I take this to mean that both marriage and celibacy are both valid spiritual paths in life. From what I have seen Orthodoxy honors both the marriage and singleness.

    • Anon

      First, we should be absolutely clear that everything the Orthodox teach about Mary is rooted in Scripture – the perpetual virginty of Mary is understood to be typologically foretold in Ezekial and her glorification in the Psalms (45 for example). It is true that the earliest “oral tradition” speaks of Mary as maintaining her virginity after birth – this is reflected in the Protoevangelion of James for example (150 ad). However the Protestant biblical scholar Richard Bauckham has convincingly shown that this is the New Testament record as well. There’s a reason not only the reformers but later “evangelicals” like Wesley professed the ever virginity of Mary: God dwelt in her womb. This is the Incarnation! I often think that if someone somehow convinced me that Mary had children with Joseph that I’d have to abandon Christianity altogether.

      I also think it is a mistake to think of the Ecumenical Fathers as reflecting oral tradition. The Orthodox teaching is that they rightly defended the Scriptural revelation. In some sense we might say these were continuous reformations. The problem comes in separating the Scriptures from the worshiping community of the Apostolic faith.

      • John

        Anon, you said:

        “I often think that if someone somehow convinced me that Mary had children with Joseph that I’d have to abandon Christianity altogether.”

        For the benefit of other bloggers here, this is precisely what the Arian heretic Helvidius tried to do contra the historic & Orthodox narrative. Jerome weighed in with an “equal but opposite” heresy that even St Joseph as well was continent, and fathered no children.

        Jerome’s position has been continued in the Roman Catholic Church.

        The Protestants, by and large have followed Helvidius.

        I can’t help but wonder why the Protestants, in their adopting the Renaissance “ad fontes” approach, did not go behind and before Helvidius and return to the historic Orthodox position.

        Some have put it to me that it is as a consequence of (1) their weak Trinitarian theology, and (2) their quasi-Arianism in so many of them where they posit a semi-subordinationism by Jesus to the Father during Jesus’ Incarnation, together with (3) their consistent (Nestorian) refusal to use the term “Mother of God” in both their preaching and in their liturgical texts.

        After some reflection on this suggestion, I can’t help thinking that it has more than a grain of truth to it.

        I trust that this assists.

  5. Bryan Cross

    Hello Robert,

    Earlier today I responded to your one paragraph above about the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception — my response is in comment #25 of “Mary’s Immaculate Conception.” I just wanted to let you know that I mentioned your post, and wrote a brief reply there.

    (I’m glad to see your comment above about possibly overstating your objection. I appreciate your humility and openness.)

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    • robertar


      Thanks for the link. It looks very detailed and informative. I have a lot to learn about the Roman Catholic understanding of Mary’s immaculate conception.

  6. Brad Littlejohn

    Thank you so much for the gracious and thoughtful interaction. I’m very gratified that my post should have provided the opportunity for your reflections.
    I’m afraid it is impossible from a time standpoint for me to reply to everything you’ve said, but I will make a few remarks.
    First let me say that I am in sympathy with much of what you have said. It does seem, from what you say, that the Orthodox approach to Mary is much healthier than the Catholic, and confirms my general sense that Protestantism has far less to react against vis-a-vis Orthodoxy than Catholicism. The gulf is perhaps just as wide, because the East is so foreign to us, but it is perhaps more easily bridged. Indeed, it is interesting that you say, “I hope that in his quest to discover the ancient roots of the Christian faith Littlejohn will look into the Eastern Orthodox tradition,” since I do just this in the fifth chapter of my book The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity; back when I was studying Mercersburg, I was very struck by the similarities with Orthodox thought, many of which I find quite appealing. However, although I have often appreciated the insights of Eastern theology (and Schmemann most of all), I’ve never felt at all called to “convert,” I’m afraid, and I’m as Protestant as I’ve ever been nowadays.

    Regarding Theotokos, my saying that it was “coined” in response to Nestorius was just a careless slip of phrasing; I am well aware that it was, as you say, a term in common use before Nestorius, and I have studied the debates of this period a good bit, though several years ago. Nonetheless, you are right in general that most Protestants–even theologically-aware ones–generally remain ignorant of the basics of Patristic Christology.

    I agree with your remarks about Protestantism’s dangerous tendency toward being word-centered, unsacramental, immaterial, and this is why I in so much sympathy with Richard Hooker’s attempt to forestall this in the late 16th century, and John Williamson Nevin’s attempt to reverse it in the mid 19th century. Protestantism has undoubtedly lost a sense of the “sacramental” quality of matter in general, and this betrays an inadequate theology of creation and of incarnation. I am deeply appreciative of Schmemann’s work on this front. Nonetheless, I think that Orthodox and Catholic have much to learn from Protestantism’s insistence on the provisionality of any creaturely mediations of grace, the fact that they must remain hypostatically different from God himself, and that we must always maintain the dynamic subjectivity of God in all his relations to us, instead of letting him become objectified in material forms.

    Regarding the rest of your section “Diagnosing the Protestant Allergic Reaction,” I must say that although you certainly make some accurate observations, the argument as a whole here is overreaching. Some of what you say here is nothing but post hoc, ergo propter hoc; other effects can be traced to Protestant causes, but as incidental, not essential effects, caused by aberrations of Protestantism. The argument “Protestantism equals modern secularism” should be no more compelling than the standard Protestant arguments that Orthodoxy and Catholicism have promoted autocracy and stagnation, while Protestantism has encouraged freedom and innovation. Indeed, prima facie, the evidence for this charge looks quite compelling, when you compare the records of Protestant and Catholic nations from the 1600s through 1800s, and look at the rather ugly history of the Russian monarchy and then Communist regime. The point is that each form of Christianity has carried with it certain propensities toward corruption, certain inherent or possible weaknesses, which have manifested themselves in harmful cultural trajectories. But those cultural trajectories cannot be simply reduced to the inevitable fruits of religious forms; history is much too complicated for that.

    In particular, you seem to be overreaching when you suggest that all these evil fruits of modernity are the product of very specific Protestant postures toward Mary. For instance, that Protestant societies are individualistic because we don’t pray to the saints, and so we don’t have any sense of community. Well, we would immediately retort that we do have a robust sense of community–the visible church all around us. By focusing on ministry to others who we can actually see, instead of indulging in private devotions to the unseen, we actually resisted the individualism that had crept into late medieval Catholicism. Likewise, the claim that Protestant theology is abstract because of how we’ve marginalised Mary. Protestant theology has certainly tended to become too abstract at times (though originally, it was a reaction against the hyper-abstract scholastic theology of medieval Catholicism), but it would be hard to peg this on such a specific cause.

    However, for the most part, I do agree with you that a recovery of a more robust doctrine of the communion of the saints, and of the centrality of Mary, could be a helpful corrective to many of Protestantism’s weaknesses. However, I am afraid I am not at all convinced that this is impossible to do within the bounds of Reformed theology. If I understand Richard Hooker’s explication of Reformed theology correctly, the essentials of the Reformation should be no bar to a healthy liturgical spirituality that gives due (though restrained) honour to those who have died in Christ, so long as we do not make this sort of devotion part of the essence of the faith.

    Anyway, sorry I don’t have time for more…and I apologise in advance if I’m unable to participate in any follow-up discussion. Thanks again for the thoughtful interaction.

    • robertar


      I was originally planning to do a review of your book when I discovered your posting “Honouring Mary as Protestants.” I still intend to do the book review in the near future.

      I think what Orthodoxy can learn from Protestants is the habit of reading the Bible diligently and the passion to share the Good News of Christ with others. The Evangelicals’ stress on having a personal relationship with God is something that we need to be reminded of periodically especially as there is the danger of lapsing into ritualism. I’m not convinced by your insistence that we can benefit from Protestantism’s insistence on the provisionality of any creaturely mediations of grace. This is something you might want to follow up on in the future.

      As regards your criticisms of my “Diagnosing the Protestant Allergic Reaction,” the main point I wanted to make is that the Protestant worldview is at odds with that of the early church. That’s the main point. Your point about some of my comments taking the form of a post hoc, ergo propter hoc (cause and effect) argument is well taken. I was attempting to make a colorful statement relevant to the contemporary situation. For the sake of maintaining a clear focus in this blog site I think we should avoid spending too much time arguing about the social effects of Protestantism and focus on how Protestantism, especially the Reformed tradition, relates to the early church and the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I would be very interested in hearing from you in the future about your endeavor to bring a more balanced approach to Mary in your Reformed circle, especially outside of the Anglo-Catholic parish you are currently attending.

      There’s no need for you to apologizing for not interacting as much as you would like. I would remind you and other visitors to keep in mind that there are more important in life than blogging. God Bless!

    • Tim Enloe

      Brad wrote:

      The point is that each form of Christianity has carried with it certain propensities toward corruption, certain inherent or possible weaknesses, which have manifested themselves in harmful cultural trajectories. But those cultural trajectories cannot be simply reduced to the inevitable fruits of religious forms; history is much too complicated for that.

      Let converts who have ears to hear, hear. Excellent post, Brad.

      • robertar


        Thank you for bringing to my attention something I overlooked. The more I think about Brad’s sentence the more disturbed I become, especially with the epistemology that he seems to be advocating. If I read him right, Brad seems to be denying that the original Faith of the Apostles no longer exists among us and that all that we have today are fragments of the Gospel shaped (distorted?) by “cultural trajectories.” In short, Brad Littlejohn seems to be advocating an epistemological diverstiy that has much in common with postmodernism. If so, I have two questions for you Tim and especially for Brad: (1) Do you deny the presence of universal truth in the Christian religion today and (2) Where do you stand with regard to postmodernism? I think our differences here are not just theological but also one of epistemological philosophy.

        • Tim Enloe

          First of all, Robert, I don’t talk to anyone about allegations of “postmodernism.” Perhaps you actually do know what you are talking about when you use that term, but I’ve had too many bad encounters where people slung the term around as a universal defeater for an epistemology that merely recognizes the historical, and therefore, limited, character of knowledge claims.

          Second, though I can’t speak for Brad, I’m sure he doesn’t deny the presence of the original apostolic faith today. The problem here is going to be that you’ve bought into the notion that “the original apostolic faith” only exists in one place, Orthodoxy, and so everything else is merely error of one kind or another. You’re right – this is a fundamental difference. We’re realists about human knowledge; you converts are perfectionists. And therein lies almost the entirety of the problems with your ideas, attitudes, and approaches to other Christians. It’s like when Perry Robinson claims that Protestantism means “Truth is revisable.” That’s nonsense. All Protestantism says is that human perceptions of Truth are revisable. Those are two entirely different claims.

          • robertar


            I found your dismissive attitude towards my question about postmodernism disappointing. Yes, I do know something about postmodernism having been exposed to it in the course of my doctoral studies. I was serious when I posed the question to Brad. I sent an email to Brad to make sure that he knew about my query and hopefully I’ll hear from him on it. When I wrote my question to Brad about postmodernism and his philosophical orientation I took off the shelf my copy of Pauline Marie Rosenau’s “Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences.” When I used the phrase “epistemological nihilism” I was taking it from page 109 of Rosenau’s book. So I had no intention of using it as a “universal defeater” as you suggested, I was genuinely serious. The intent behind the question was to have Brad identify his epistemological orientation if he denies being a postmodernist.

            I also object to your labeling converts to Orthodoxy as “perfectionists.” I do not claim that Protestantism is devoid of the apostolic faith but I do believe that it has no common ground or unifying center. A major factor in my leaving Protestantism was the fact that I was disturbed by the theological chaos in mainline Protestantism and had no counterpoint to theological liberals except my personal interpretation of Scripture. What advice would you give to an Evangelical in a mainline denomination, especially when narrative theology and postmodern theology is all the rage? So even if I accepted your claim that the Protestant position is that it is “human perceptions of Truth are revisable,” I would find that statement very much compatible with the epistemological orientation I saw in the United Church of Christ. I would be interested to know if you think that Perry’s statement “human perceptions of Truth are revisable” can provide an effective means of withstanding the theological liberalism so pervasive in mainline Protestantism and as a means of constructing a unifying center for Protestant Christianity.

          • David


            Robert’s serious attempt to dialogue with Mattison of sola scriptura, Littlejohn on Mary, Phillips on Irenaus, Bonomo on Sacraments, Calvin on Icons..substantive issues they publically brought up — betrays the silliness of your insinuation that his blog is but a back-slapping affair for making shallow converts just like him! Indeed, these men are decidedly not like him…and you certainly know it…nor has Robert been the least bit shallow.

            Yet you persist in wearying us with your notions about the psychology which all coverts must certainly suffer. Some small circle of your friends might find this cute. We don’t. (I’d guess a larger circle of my friends find my notions of the psychology of young Reformed smartass know-it-alls cute too.) Neither notions have any place here.

            Kevin (and to a lessor decree) you have whined and scorned any characterization of the Reformed faith outside what you envison it to be…yet have been far less than straightforward as to what specific “Brand” of Reformed Robert shooouuuuld address. (At least Drake declared himself a Rutherford-Puritan.)

            Yet while crying foul, you reduce Robert’s view of Orthodoxy with comments like “The problem here is going to be that you’ve bought into the notion that “the original apostolic faith” only exists in one place, Orthodoxy, and so everything else is merely error of one kind or another. You’re right – this is a fundamental difference. We’re realists about human knowledge; you converts are perfectionists. And therein lies almost the entirety of the problems with your ideas, attitudes, and approaches to other Christians.”

            Yet Robert and others have been very clear they believe only that “the fullness of the Faith is found in Orthodoxy”…not its “exclusive perfection.” I suspect you would (should) say the same about your particular Refomed brand.

            So please give us some substance in your responses, as you are well able when off your psycho-soap box of condescention. Remember, there are likely many Protestant “lurkers” here wanting good reasons to remain Protestant. Are you really helping them…or driving them away?

          • Tim Enloe

            David, perhaps you didn’t read my post carefully. I said Robert has done better than a lot I have dealt with. I only exhorted him to keep up his better trend, not the psychologized convert trend that he does, in fact, engage in whenever he talks about his own personal reasons for leaving Protestantism as if they are things that all Protestants must feel pressure from.

            If you’re wearied by my responses, you don’t have to read them. I don’t have to defend myself when I claim that I’ve seen all of this stuff before on the Roman Catholic side, and that it never bothered my Protestantism then and doesn’t bother my Protestantism now. What bothers me is the continual assertion by converts that their personal experiences are somehow normative of Protestantism, and their refusal to heed people who come along, like myself and Kevin and Brad, who say, um, no, sorry, your experience isn’t normative, and I don’t have to feel what you felt or react like you reacted to discovering, geewhillikers!, that there was this guy named Ignatius who shook the Apostle John’s hand, and he talked about BISHOPS! People’s experiences are their experiences, but if anything is “wearying,” to use your term, it’s these converts who pretend that their experiences necessarily define the issues for everyone else.

            As for my orientation, I have been Presbyterian (CREC) for 15 years, and am definitely NOT of the stripe of folks like Drake. It is possible I will become Anglican in the near future, but that is not for certain – and it certainly will not be a “conversion” if I do.

          • Tim Enloe

            Robert, I’m dismissive of talk about “postmodernism” because it isn’t anything to be concerned about. In its popular variety that is continually bewailed by Evangelicals, it is nothing more than ancient sophistry retooled for a decadent Modern Age. It is a parasite on Modernity, a sort of absolutism that goofily claims all absolutisms are false, and there’s only relativity.

            The problem is that too many people accept THAT idea as ipso facto “postmodernism” and identify ALL ideas that human knowledge is limited as “postmodernism,” thereby dismissing, as you would say, a significant strain of philosophical thought that has nothing to do with relativism proper.

            We have more options than “Unrevisable Truth unrevisably known, or else endless relativism.” That’s a false dichotomy, but it is precisely what lies behind the convert epistemological dilemma, “How can I really KNOW anything unless I am in communion with ‘the Church’?” It’s a false dilemma, and if you think it’s a real dilemma, then yeah, we have incommensurable philosophical starting points. Myself, I believe that reality is knowable, that we are made in God’s image to know reality, and that by careful, painstaking, hard work we can and do know substantial truths about God and His world. I don’t start with skepticism, and it is not skepticism merely to say, “Yeah, but there are these cultural influences on your theology that you need to take into account.” The reason that is perceived by converts as “postmodernism” (relativism) is precisely because converts buy into the either / or notion of epistemology I outlined above. Get rid of that, and it simply isn’t problematic, let alone indicative of “postmodernism” to say that all human thought is colored by circumstances, and is never simply and one-to-one equivalent with divine knowledge.

            As for your objection to perfectionism, well, you just confirmed it with your words. You said your problem was that you had no touchstone for truth except your own personal interpretation of Scripture – well, I’m sorry for your immaturity at that point in your life, and I hope Orthodoxy has helped you grow past that immaturity. But immaturity it was, and not at all authentically Protestant and not all bothersome to me or to many others who hold to classical Protestant thought.

            No unifying center to Protestantism? Whatever are you talking about? Protestants of all stripes are united around a great many theological truths. Like most converts, you simply chose to focus on your anxiety about the disagreements instead of on positive work in terms of the far larger areas of agreement. Hey, whatever – your experience is your experience. But it’s not normative for me, and it’s certainly not normative for Protestantism. This is what Kevin keeps trying to get you to see: you’re full of caricatures, and you choose over and over again to remain with your caricatures rather than taking heed to other ways of thinking and modifying your thought accordingly.

            I said already that you’ve shown more integrity of argument than many converts, and you’ve given me some definite food for thought. All I’m doing is pointing out what you already know: your arguments aren’t perfect, and neither is your understanding. If you expect me and others to listen to your attempts to explain why Orthodoxy isn’t what a lot of Protestants think it is, it would be real nice if you’d show a reciprocal interest in listening to attempts to explain why Protestantism isn’t what YOU think it is. “Do unto others….”, and all that, you know.

          • robertar


            I’m not going to let you off the hook with your dismissive “your experience is your experience.” I brought up my personal experience as a test case for practical application. You still have not answered my practical question: What advice would you give to an Evangelical in a mainline denomination, especially when narrative theology and postmodern theology is all the rage? I’m looking forward to your practical answer. 🙂

            I suspect that you may not be acquainted with the theological diversity in mainline denominations like the United Church of Christ. The UCC is openly and avowedly non-confessional. It has no binding confession of faith. And we are talking about the church body that has roots going back to the New England Puritans. Also, many of the Evangelicals I know have only the foggiest notion about sola scriptura and sola fide. Many UCC ministers are de facto Arians in their denial of Christ’s divinity. I challenge you to present evidence of the theological truths that the liberal UCC and Episcopalians hold in common with the conservative Southern Baptists and Pentecostals if you want to assert that a theological common ground exists within Protestantism today. By common ground I understand that to mean something identifiable like Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, the Heidelberg Catechism, or Westminster Confession. I’d be very interested to hear your answer.

          • David

            Thanks Tim, nice to here of your CREC background — & possible “trek” to Anglicanism. (never had you & Drake on the same page! 🙂 )

            I also agree that experience isn’t normative, and “…continual assertion by converts that their personal experiences are somehow normative of Protestantism” could become wearisome.

            Nevertheless the bible (especially the book of Acts) is full of personal testimony/experience. Robert’s use has been minimal, with NO sense he believe it any sort of normative proof. As you said, experience/personal testimony is what it is — it might or might not resonate. Okay. Thanks again for your comments & I pray your approaching move & new job goes smoothly.

        • Tim Enloe

          And btw, Robert, I hope you will take Brad’s remarks about your post hoc, ergo propter hoc arguments and confusions about whether a thing is properly Protestant or just an aberration of Protestant principles much more seriously than you appear to have done so far. You’ve made it plain that your blog is aimed at a certain “popular level” of discourse about things Protestant, but I would challenge you to rise above this. Are you out to make converts – particularly ones just like yourself – or to promote understanding between two very different, but perhaps not entirely incommensurable, theological paradigms? I’ve seen you go round with Kevin Johnson on what “Protestantism” is, but so far I’ve not seen you take the arguments seriously. This is par for the course with converts, and unfortunately all it ultimately amounts to is the creation of a mutual back-slapping society for converts interested less in “Truth” than in justifying their own conversions. I really hope you can rise above this sort of thing – I *have* seen signs that you can in various posts and comments you’ve made.

          • robertar


            Yes, I acknowledged in another comment thread that my argument took on the tone of a “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” argument. My main point was that underlying Protestantism’s allergy to honoring Mary is a modern secular worldview that is radically at odds with the historic Christian faith. I believe that statement in a nutshell has none of the “post hoc, ergo proper hoc” argument that Brad rightfully criticized me for.

            As I stated in “My Posting Policy” posted on May 20th, this blog is intended for Reformed and Evangelical Christians who are interested in Orthodoxy and who have questions about Orthodoxy. I also noted that this is not an academic blog (although I do strive to do research for each posting). While I am biased, I also want to be fair and open minded to what others have to say. It is not my intention to bash Protestantism but rather to raise issues or concerns that I struggled with and which led me to give serious consideration to Orthodoxy. I believe that there people out there who are struggling with the same issues as I did. As far as what I regard as Protestantism; I take two approaches, in the narrow sense Protestantism consists of those who adhere to the tenets of sola scriptura and sola fide, and in a broad sense I include mainline Protestant denominations, Reformed, Wesleyan, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and fundamentalists.

            I don’t want this blog to be mutual compliment club for Orthodox but rather a place where Reformed and Evangelicals with questions can meet and dialogue with Orthodox Christians. Thank you for seeing potential in this blog!

        • Brad Littlejohn

          I’m sorry, Robert, that I have no time to reply to this as thoroughly as the matter requires. I hope that my reply to David below may perhaps shed some light on where I am coming from; I also hope that you, Tim, and David will be able to preserve a civil and charitable discussion below…it was getting a little dicey there for a bit.

          Suffice to say that I think Tim has answered helpfully for me. No I am not a “postmodernist”–I do not think that all we have are “fragments of the Gospel.” I believe that the Gospel once delivered to the saints is a rock upon which the Church is built, and from which it can never depart. I believe that the heart of that faith remains constant over the millennia, but as history moves forward, the Church grows (and occasionally backslides) in its understanding of that faith, and that, so profound is the truth to which we are called to witness that no single formulation of it can claim to have captured it fully; on the contrary, all we can claim is to have testified to an aspect of it, and must be ready to consider that other Christians, or other eras of the Church, may have testified to another aspect, which we should not immediately rule out simply because it doesn’t line up exactly with our own. I also believe that under the guidance of the Spirit, the Church is advancing, and that we can be confident that on the whole, our grasp of the truth of God in Christ will grow rather than shrink.

          There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture. This is not postmodernism, because it presupposes that we all are actually looking at the same object, and seeing something real there outside ourselves. But it is not naive objectivism, which assumes that the object simply is what we have perceived–no more, no less.

          You may be right in being concerned that this seems to give no simple, straightforward basis of combating “liberalism.” I believe that the search for some kind of magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow, leaving only orthodox forms of the faith standing, is a fool’s errand. I believe that the kind of patient and humble submission to Scripture that I have described does give us the ability to identify and defeat inauthentic forms of the faith, false testimonies to Christ, but it will always have to be a patient and careful struggle. The magic weapons of the Magisterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are illusory–they are themselves embedded in the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history from which they claim to rescue us. The latter may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time, but new issues are always confronting the Church. The former may promise an authoritative answer to all of these new issues, but at the cost of its own consistency over the centuries, and without escaping the problem of interpretation–think of how many contradictory forms of Catholicism right now claim to be in submission to Vatican II.

          Well there, I’ve already said much more than I have time for. You’ll probably have lots of follow-up questions, but I seriously doubt I’ll have time to engage….nonetheless, now that we’re in email contact, I look forward to future dialogues.

    • David


      Thanks for your gracious and insightful comments. Like you I have been attracted to things I’ve found in Orthodoxy…but struggle with others. (Their view of Mary is far easier to swallow than Rome’s – though their realated veiw of marriage, celibacy, virginity and sex are a real challenge). Maybe you are right, and we should be content with a sort of continual smorgasbourg – micro-reformations where we select this or that from any number of theological dishes (Reformed, Rome, Anglican & Orthodoxy) as year suceeds to year – allthewhile resting comfortably in the Reformed camp? (Well, not too comfortably, some are ready to excommunicated us from the ‘Circle of Trust’.)

      There are problems, perhaps not unsurmountable, with this convenient selectivity. (Perhaps it’s why the Orthdox often see Protestantism as a continuation of Rome – selecting what we wish, when we wish, justifying what we like, autonomous to any Church history or Council?) Yet there is an early Church history, and a Faith once deliverd to the saints, passed on to their disciples by the Apostles, which shaped worship and life. There is also an elucidation of that history we have long negected. This basic (heresy-fighting, Trinity & Christ defining) unity through 1054 can be obfuscated into a sort of self-serving chaos, of course, to comfort and assuage our rejection of it. But I wonder at our insistance on piecing together the Church in our image and likeness – and whether our root objection underlaying it all (like Rome) is not really layers of pride? Perhaps I’m less detached and thus more stuck in the middle than you? Let’s do keep the conversation going.

      • Brad Littlejohn

        I don’t think that semper reformanda is about “continual smorgasbord” and “convenient selectivity.” Rather, it’s about a constant wrestling with the voice of Scripture, and the voice of its interpreters through all the ages of the Church, a willingness to never rest satisfied that we have all the answers, and instead to always allow ourselves to be interrogated by the Word. In this, we must always be open to the possibility that our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights, but in confidence that God does not change, and he has been faithful in leading his Church into truth in the past. Therefore, we may rest confidently upon the historic creeds of the Church, determined that even as our growing comprehension of the truth of the Gospel may shed new light on these foundations, it must never lead us to contradict them.

        It’s hard to see how you can call this “convenient.” To my mind, this posture is a far more difficult and uncomfortable one than that which seeks the comfort of some ossified and de-historicized tradition that will decide in advance all questions, so that we can simply rest on, say, the determinations of the first 700 years of the Church (or some idealised compendium of them), without having to wrestle with the Scriptures ourselves.

        You may respond that this makes us each into our own popes, listening to no authority but ourselves. I would suggest, on the contrary, that it requires us to listen to authority even more. Instead of simply taking one set of authorities from one period of the Church, we have to take seriously the authority of Augustine, of Athanasius, of Gregory Nazianzen, of Anselm, of Gregory Palamas, of Aquinas, of Luther, of Hooker, of Newman, of Schmemann, of John Paul II, of our own parents and pastors and all those that God has put into our lives. We have to do our best to listen respectfully to all these voices, instead of just one or two, and to submit our own judgments to their greater wisdom, seeking to find harmony when they disagree with one another, and when we cannot harmonise, making painful decisions about who to follow. And let me tell you, this is a hard thing to do. And it cannot rightly be done in an individualist, me-and-my-Bible way, but only in constant dialogue with other Christians, waiting patiently for the Spirit to guide us through the wisdom of our communities.

        I should add, moreover, that this should always be done from a standpoint of submission to a particular tradition in which one has been called, using the language and categories of that tradition as one’s starting point and interpretive grid. For me, that’s the Reformed tradition. I have all kinds of problems with that tradition, but that’s where God has put me, and I believe therefore that I am called to, as much as possible, critique and revise that tradition from within itself (while listening attentively, as I have said above, to other voices from Church history), not by constructing a personal postmodern smorgasbord that contains pieces of all traditions but the heart of none.

        I hope that’s helpful

  7. John


    May I congratulate you on a very good article made even better through subsequent interaction with bloggers. Can I offer a small morsel on the term “Theotokos”?

    It is my understanding that it arose in Alexandria around the same time as Arius – possibly just one of a number of Orthodox responses to him.

    It was ‘on-stage’ but in the shadows 325-381, and indirectly informed the Athanasian Creed. During that time, it gathered strength, and whilst not officially endorsed in 381, nevertheless was popular at that Council.

    When Nestorius came along with his Christology, it was recognied as a variation of Arianism, and so the term “Theotokos” once again returned ‘on-stage’.

    Both sides at the 431 Council could affirm “Christotokos” with respect to Mary – there was no quibble there. However only the Orthodox could go that one step further and proclain her “Theotokos”. And it is here that I think we need to recognise very clearly what the contrast between “Christotokos” and “Theotokos” is saying.

    “Christotokos” can happily be used by Arians as well as Nestorians because it can imply that there was a time when (to borrow later theological terminology from St Gregory Palamas – ie the distinction between essence and energies) the Divine Essence of the son “was not”. Hence it was incapable of bearing the full burden of affirming the Son’s pre-eternal existence “before all ages”.

    “Theotokos”, on the other hand, in unambiguously using the term “Theos” in this cognate word, was affirming in language incapable of twisting, no matter how skilled the sophist, the Son’s pre-eternal existence “before all ages”.

    This term was translated into Latin with two words as “Dei Genetrix” – with essentially the same meaning. Thus, in the Latin theology which stuck to this term, there was no essential difference with the East on this matter.

    It was only after the “Filioque” issue had arisen (with its essential ‘liberalism’ regarding conciliar theology) that differences with respect to teaching and catechesis had the possibility of emerging. Thus, when Augustinian soteriology (with its ontological harmarteriology) was brought to bear on “Dei Genetrix” that the need arose to define some form of “Immaculate Conception” to safeguard the soteriological work of Jesus. This, in turn created an infinite regression of “immaculate-ness” back to Adam, which was manifest nonsense, hence the need to confine this notion of ‘Immaculate Conception” to Mary alone, and not to Joachim and Anna as well. This is all avoided with the Eastern, and more Biblical soteriology.

    Meanwhile, this term “Dei Genetrix” was translated into English with three words: “Mother of God”. Whilst not perfect – the more cumbersome but more accurate “she who gave birth to God” could not be used, because the translation issue was simplicity and clarity. Thus, for weal or woe, the English speaking world is stuck for all time with the term “Mother of God.”

    Thus, while you correctly point out, while Calvinists happily accept the theology behind the term “Mother of God”, their inability to freely and publicly use it in both theological treatises and liturgical texts, and hence liturgical theology, whether they realise it or not, makes them at least partial Arians, and Nestorians.

    It gets worse for them when, in rejecting Rome’s doctrine of “Immaculate Conception” as well as the historic term “Theotokos”, and affirming Augustinian harmarteriology and soteriology, they perhaps unwittingly create the preconditions for the blasphemy of the idea that Jesus had a ‘sinful’ (human) nature!

    Given the weak Trinitarian theology amongst Evangelicals consequent upon the Filioque, and the contents of the above paragraph, taken together with their Iconoclasm contra the 7th & 8th Ecumenical Councils (787 & 879-80 respectively), we are entitled to ask probing and (for them) uncomfortable questions concerning the soundness of their Christology.

    Forget Mariology for a moment, we are dealing with the vastly higher issue of core Christology here. What we have here is the almost unavoidable consequences of defective Mariology impacting on core Christology.

    What we are saying here, is that if Evangelicals in general, and Calvinists specifically wish to proclaim a sound Christology (something that I personally think that ALL of them would want to do), they have no option but to very publicly, in their horatory proclamations, and in their liturgical theology, take on board AND USE the term “Theotokos” in its English incarnation as “Mother of God”, as well as use the Axios Estin of the East.

    Thus, their “allergic reaction” in this department, whilst understandable in the light of their reaction to the Roman doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception”, is not a valid excuse. If they wittingly persist, after being enlightened as to the history and theology of the matter, there are certain ecclesiological implications to this persistence.

    I trust that this assists,

    • anon

      The term “Theotokos” was already in the Alexandrian liturgy by the 200s.

      • John

        Thanks “anon” for this.

        I had my suspicions, but was hesitant to commit to writing. You have perhaps proven them correct. Perhaps you could enlighten the entire blog-community here with “chapter and verse” so to speak.

        In my earlier contribution, I was referring to its open connectivity with the Orthodox defence of the historic, Biblical Christology contra Arius.

        If what you are presumptively documenting is true, (as I suspect that you are) then the matter of this term “Theotokos” is, at least for Evangelicals and Calvinists drifting perilously close to the first generation Apostolic community.

        In Alexandrian terms, this is less than 200 years after the death of St Mark of Alexandria. Only three, or at the most four, tenuously overlapping generations are necessary between these two events. Given the sojourn of Joseph, Mary & Jesus in Egypt, this Alexandrian connection is credible.

        While the Copts are not fully Orthodox in their Christology, this 200’s dating renders Coptic material available for Orthodox documentation and support.

        I have my intuitive suspicions that intensive research on this usage may push the irruption of this term back even further. (This may well be a useful PhD thesis subject for someone out there, hint-hint.)

        Robert and “anon”, I don’t know about you but I am smelling something portentous happening here. It is seeming ever more likely that the term “Theotokos” (in Greek), and the doctrine of the Communion of Saints developed at the same time and hand-in-hand. And from the first century.

        What this does to Evangelical and Calvinist theology and ecclesiology, not to mention historigraphy is best left to others to tease out.

        I know the answer, but I will let others try for a while to see how it pans out.


        • Anon

          We have papryus fragments of the sub tuum presidium (“Under your protection, o Theotokos…”) from the 200s. One of the reasons Cyril freaked out so dramatically is that “Theotokos” was already an established part of the Alexandrian liturgical tradition when Nestorius raised his objections. Any modern book on Cyril should cover this.

          Incidentally, the Copts are taking a very fundamentalist stance on the writings of Cyril – I doubt it is accurate to describe their Christology as flawed, their objections to Chalcedon notwithstanding.

    • Larry Gray

      Not to be offensive, but this is what happens when the simple faith of Christianity is turned inside out by tongue-twisting nonsense and rationalizations. It is very simple. There is one “holiness” and it belongs to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, period. Mary and the saints are dead and gone and can no more transmit prayers through themselves as mediators to God than can a dog or cat.

      • robertar


        Your tone in this comment is rather strident. Please try to take a more calm and reasoned stance. The purpose of this site is to encourage reasoned and civil discourse, not heated arguments.


        • Larry Gray

          Well, evidently the “strident” and dismissive tone Is only accepted when regarding Protestants.

      • Karen

        Larry writes: “Mary and the saints are dead and gone and can no more transmit prayers through themselves as mediators to God than can a dog or cat.”

        Larry, the Scriptures themselves testify that you are mistaken:

        Mark 12:26-27 “But concerning the dead, that they rise, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the burning bush passage, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. You are therefore greatly mistaken.”

        2 Corinthians 5:1-8 “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

        “So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”

        The Scriptures also give us glimpses of some things that are occurring in Eternity in the Heavens:

        Matthew 17: 1 “Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; 2 and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.”

        Revelation 6:9-10 “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” (Sounds an awful lot like an awareness of what is happening on earth and intercessory prayer on the part of these martyrs for the faith to me!)

        So, are you saying that those lovers of God who have passed into the presence of God after their physical deaths no longer have any communication/communion or relationship with God and no longer any love or care for those suffering on earth? It seems to me Scripturally, rather, that prayer is the most essential aspect of a genuine relationship with God and compassion for others and intercession before God on their behalf the very hallmark of God’s Kingdom and the most essential aspect of the imitation of Christ to which all believers are called (John 13:34-35; 1 Corinthians 11:1). This loving communion of the saints with Christ and in Him with one another is consummated, not erased, in the Presence of God.

        • Larry Gray

          In my faith God doesn’t need “intercessors” between Him and I. Praying to anybody other than God, even as an “intercessor,” is simply saying that God is busy elsewhere and needs the help. You might want to reread the “Lord’s Prayer.”

          • Karen

            Larry, Orthodox don’t understand intercessors as go-betweens who go to God because we can’t go to God for ourselves. Are we to assume all the commands in the Scriptures given to Christians to pray for one another, the world, and their leaders are because, “God is busy elsewhere and needs the help”?! Please! This kind of thinking is neither reasonable nor biblical. The vast majority of Orthodox prayers, which we all pray, are addressed directly to God. It’s important to understand a faith in its own context, rather than just through the lens of the polemics of its adversaries. The ministry of intercessory prayer is just understood biblically and in the Orthodox Church as part of the definition of what it means to live in a loving communion of persons in and through Christ. The only thing that changes when our bodies die is that those who have completed their journey of faith and consummated their union with Christ no longer have their own personal or physical needs to impede their worship of Christ and prayer for others. They can be wholly focussed on Christ and His concerns (which are for the salvation of the world and the perfection of the members of His Church still running their race of faith on earth).

            It is not as if He needs us, but apparently God delights in making us His co-workers (1 Corinthians 3:9). Scripture says that salvation involves making God’s people “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

  8. David


    That’s a interesting word study and post. I am new to this, but do wonder if man’s anthropology (particularly after Adam’s Fall) is not critically germane to Incarnation and Christology. Calvinistic soteriology has man totally dead by nature, and unable to do good in any sense. Are we to think Christ inherited from Mary such a human nature? If so how did he remain sinless? I understand it’s here where the Orthodox claim Calvinistic/Refomed anthropology corrupts Christology — making Christ by default sinful.

    But does not a solution rest in the fact that Christ’s Divine Nature (2 natures in one person) overwhelms and sanctifies from conception the totally corrupt and fallen Calvinistic human nature inherited from Mary? (Also, have I not heard that “natures don’t sin…people do from the Orthodox?) Thus, Jesus could ahve been born with a totally corrupt Calvinistic-Fallen nature, inherited from Mary (just like mine) — but totally redeemed and sactified by His divine nature and the Holy Spirit from conception, to be without sin and the perfect sacrifice for humanity? I understand Orthodox starts with a not-to-totally-corrupt/depraved Fallen Adam/anthropology — which makes for a cleaner Christology. But why is the above Reformed/Calvinistic scheme not as valid…and Nestorian?

    The only glitch here seems to be, if the above is true…was Christ really “tempted in all point, like me” when His Fallen nature has already been overwhelmed and redeemed by His divine nature??? Still trying to work it out being fair to both without building stawmen to knock down. Can you help here? Thanks again for the post.

    • John


      Thanks for this.

      Whether you realise it or not, you have just entered the field of the contrast between East and West on both harmarteriology and soteriology. Whilst I do not claim to be a triple PhD in the area, I offer this as something for further study.

      It is my understanding that the reason Augustine of Hippo is called “Blessed” and not “Saint” in the East is precisely on account of both harmarteriology and soteriology. Put bluntly, the East accepts neither from Augustine. Further, the entire notion of sin requiring in some way a “judicial” solution at the personal level is equally foreign to the East.

      To translate this theology into practice, Adam is responsible for his own sin, and his descendants canot be held responsible for “inheriting” Adam’s sins. True, they inherited the consequences, but not the “guilt” (an entirely Western notion based on the Roman “jus”).

      To bring this forward to Mary, without the Augustinian/jus concept of sin, the Roman doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception” is unnecessary. In any case, the “barrier” for the prevention of Jesus “inheriting” sin was the overshadowing of her by the Holy Spirit so that the fetus which is Jesus – whilst inheriting the consequences of sin, namely hunger, tiredness etc. did not inherit what Calvinists would well understand as post-lapsarian Adamic “guilt”. In Jesus’ Incarnation, He inherited humanity in all its pre-lapsarian perfection, and so His Divine Nature did not need to “cancel-out” anything “bad” in His human nature – simply because His human nature had nothing bad from which to be purged.

      This also impacts on the “Penal Substitution” theory of the atonement dreamed up by Anselm – which is equally non Biblical. This is another fertile field for exploration in its own right, but which would be too much of a tangent to Robert’s original post.

      Your point about being “tempted in all points as we are, yet being without sin” does not refer to a parallel with post-lapsarian humanity, rather a parallel with Adam and Eve before they fell. Satan’s temptations of Jesus were thus a replay of those with which he confronted Adam & Eve at the tree.

      I also encourage you to do a study between Eve and Mary in patristic thought.

      I do not want to make this blog unnecessarily long by making it a thesis paper. Believe me, I could. Perhaps in subsequent articles, Robert might wish to enlarge on these issues that naturally arise from his original article and we can then take it from there.

      I trust that this assists.

      • anon

        There is no distinction between blessed and saint in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition: St Augustine is a Saint recognized in all Eastern Orthodox Churches without exception.

        • John


          I neither wish to be unduly picky, nor raise the temperature on this blog, as Robert would most sincerely want. Nor do I want to wax eloquent on a matter tangential to Robert’s original article.

          I simply refer you to the following book:

          Fr. Seraphim Rose, “The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church”, Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina CA, 1996.
          ISBN 0-938635-12-3

          In this book he consistently refers to Augustine as “Blessed”. He refers to others as “Saints’. It is evident that he knew the difference and where it lay.

          Fr. Seraphim is well known as a “Traditional” Orthodox.


          • Anon

            Our calendar calls many saints “blessed” – just page through the feast days of a Russian calendar. We don’t have the Roman distinction between stages of recognition of Sainthood- in other words, there is no difference.

    • Jonathan Bonomo


      You might be interested to know that there are some Reformed (at least broadly considered) theologians, like Nevin and Torrance, who have suggested that Christ assumed fallen human nature. For Torrance, this idea was essential to his whole scheme, as for him the atonement begins with the incarnation. I don’t necessarily agree with them, but it does show that the Eastern insight/concern here is not entirely foreign to the Reformed consciousness. (And, btw, the Westminster Larger Catechism does locate the first reason that the Mediator must be man in that he would “advance our nature”, citing 1 Pet. 1.4 as a proof text.)

      I wish I could involve myself more in this good discussion, but alas, I’m devoid of time as I’m in the midst of ordination exams so that I may spread heresy in my hopelessly rationalistic, sectarian, Nestorian, iconoclastic, filioque mongering denomination. 😉

      • robertar


        Thanks for your brief contribution. And I’m glad to see you are making wise use of your time. May you honor Christ wherever you go.

  9. Canadian

    Not to speak for John, just piping in 🙂

    You said: “Calvinistic soteriology has man totally dead by nature, and unable to do good in any sense. Are we to think Christ inherited from Mary such a human nature?”

    No. But first lets clear up your reference to a dead nature “unable to do”, with what you later alluded to: Natures do not “do”. Persons “do”. Natures don’t sin. Persons sin. Natures are not sinful. Persons are. Human nature is corrupted, fallen, damaged but not sinful. The NIV is wrong to translate the greek sarx (flesh) as sinful nature. Christ assumed human nature that needed healing, not forgiveness.

    “If so how did he remain sinless?”

    He is a divine Person, not a human person, and his divine person (logos) uses and appropriates both the divine and human natures, wills, and energies. Sin is to act against nature, and we PERSONALLY use our NATURAL free will in a way which Christ did not. He always properly wills as man because his divine person is the agent of this willing and he always knows what is good and right. We do not always know the good and even when we do, we often use our free natural will in personal way against God and against nature (sin).

    “But does not a solution rest in the fact that Christ’s Divine Nature (2 natures in one person) overwhelms and sanctifies from conception”

    No. This is mon-energism and tends to monothelitism. The Divine nature does not overwhelm (natures don’t act) nor does the Divine Person of the Logos. The sixth Council in condemning mon-energism and monothelitism affirms that Christ’s human will and energy “freely follows the divine will not resisting or reluctant.” Calvinism requires the Divine will and energy to compell, subsume, overwhelm our human will and energy in relation to God, specifically in salvation. If this is true for us then it MUST be for Christ–which would be heresy.

    “the totally corrupt and fallen Calvinistic human nature inherited from Mary?”

    First, all nature is sinless not just Mary’s, so the Immaculate conception is not required to keep sin from Christ. Total depravity would require Christ to change the nature he assumed from the Theotokos from a state of being depraved and inoperative to alive and operative. Chalcedon explicitly rejects this by stating, “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation.”
    What the Calvinist needs at this point is monergistic regeneration, to be brought from death to life, enlivened, born again. But this is against the unanimous agreement of the church and scripture that regeneration occurs at baptism (regeneration is personal, not natural). Christ assumes a nature with all of its created powers and faculties, but personally and divinely and freely acts as man with man’s own faculties in tact. We are said to be “consubstantial” with Christ according to his humanity—OF THE SAME SUBSTANCE! This is critical to the Council’s Christology.

    “But why is the above Reformed/Calvinistic scheme not as valid…and Nestorian?”

    If you accept the Calvinistic view of nature, you make monergism (divinity acting alone) prerequisite for humanity to participate in God. You will make grace either replace or overwhelm, rather than build on and restore nature. You will introduce opposition between the human and divine in Christ and in us.

    Grace and peace.
    “CAPS” are for accent, not volume 🙂

  10. Jonathan Bonomo

    Btw, as to the ridiculous and insulting notion that the Reformed are “partial Arians, and Nestorians”–ask yourself this: Whose word on the matter is more trust worthy, John the anonymous Blog commenter, or Jaroslav Pelikan, who presents the Reformed as being nothing but Chalcedonian in their Christology.

    Guys… somebody needs to say this, so I will: “Blessed are the peace makers.” Stop being mean and looking for things for which to hate other orthodox believing Christians. Stop assuming you can speak for an entire communion of believers with centuries upon centuries of history and with a wave of the hand and a little rhetorical dance, brand them all with heretical labels and blasphemous opinions because you’ve read some books and ingeniously parsed out in your own brain what they do and must and necessarily have to believe because it’s oh so obvious and clear that it could never in any possible world ever be any other way than how you imagine it to be.

    • David


      I was just before thanking John & Canadian for their help…but then you came along and messed it up (thanks!) with Jaroslav Pelikan (a new hero of mine! Read much of Vol. II & just finished my father’s day _The Vindication of Tradition_). 🙂

      Perhaps you could (despite no one ever having time to blog!) interact with Canadian’s comment “Total depravity would require Christ to change the nature he assumed from the Theotokos from a state of being depraved and inoperative to alive and operative. Chalcedon explicitly rejects this by stating, “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation.” and the point “mon-energism and tends to monothelitism”? Pelikan nothwithstanding…John/Canadian are FAR from the only Orthodox I’ve heard saying parts of Calvinistic anthropology/soteriology is Nestorian or leads thereunto?

      • Jonathan Bonomo


        I understand that such claims are all the rage. My point wasn’t that they’re unique or new, just that they’re patently false, and the result of confessional prejudice and blanket generalization rather than charitable reflection and careful reading of the Reformed sources.

        If you read standard Calvinist works, you’ll find pretty easily that the Reformed understanding of man’s corruption does not by any means imply that man’s nature is dead in the sense of “inoperative.” A look at Bavinck is enough to settle the issue, particularly RD 3.121-123. Man’s inability to the good is not natural but rather unnatural. Further, it is not metaphysical, but ethical. Christ assumed human nature, whole and entire, but without sin–without the unnatural bent of his will against God. This did not necessitate anything like a change in human *nature* in the incarnation.

        • David

          Ah yes. But does this not get terribly clouded when we hear dozens of sermons about “man’s deadness placeing him altogether passive and helpless at the bottom of a well…dead men don’t grab ropes to help themselves…indeed, natural man so hates Christ if he were able to see the rope thrown for his rescue…he would despise it and scorn the notion that he needed a rope!” His human nature is the cause of his hatred for Christ and good works…his nature only allows him to do evil…”

          When “this” is seen as the Calvinist view of natural fallen humanity…then we see why the Orthodox might question Christ assuming “this” nature in whole.

          • Jonathan Bonomo


            Well, yeah. But is it good theological form to judge an entire communion’s official doctrine by unofficial statements of popular preachers, many of whom labor *outside* of any recognized confessional church? Or would it be better to go to confessional documents, with understanding of the languge, historical context, and issues involved in their composition, and seeing how they are interpreted through the standard theological texts of that communion’s recognized theological authorites? The former practice will only breed a chimera, which in turn breeds prejudice and disdain. The latter breeds a much truer vision of reality, a more charitable (Christian) disposition toward the other, and the possibility of actual understanding.

          • Jonathan Bonomo

            Also, when such statements are made by preachers in confessional churches, it should be understood that they’re metaphorical statements desribing the bent of man’s will against God, and not metaphysical statements about an inoperative nature.

          • David

            Jonathan, I completely agree with you that the official/confessional documents are more appropriate sources than popular preachers — and a more charitable/accurate way to understand theology rightly. But in all my Protestant theological readings I’ve never once heard a Protestant theologian interact with the Nestorian charge ‘gainst our Christology — much less hear a popular preacher’s view of total depravity and human nature be carefully corrected. Given the place we afford “the preaching of the Word” and subsequent Sermon Series, it might be all but impossible for Protestants to keep the record clear. Of course, until about a year ago, I’d never read the first syllable of Orthodoxy, much less attempt to parsed out the nuiances of Christological and anthropological distinctives…something I suspect is very rare for any modern Protestant –or Orthodox. Understanding each other rightly & charitably is I suspect, one objective of this Blog.

  11. Jonathan Bonomo

    Further, let’s get real here and take our head out of the clouds. The Reformed view of the incarnation is this: The second person of the Trinity took into union with himself human nature whole and entire–a true body and reasonable soul–and so was and continues to be God and man in two distinct natures united in one divine person, without division or confusion, forever. The Second Person of the Trinity came, was born, grew up, ate, drank, performed miracles, suffered, died, was buried, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, as a human being. This is the doctrine of every single one of our confessional stadanrds, and it may be found in every one of our representative theologians. This is orthodox Chalcedonian Chistology, whole and entire. It is clear, public, and there for everyone to see. Our witness in this matter has been united, continuous, and without hesitation or reserve. We may not burn incense, or bow before icons, or sing songs to the Theotokos. But our official Christological doctrine is clearly and unashamedly Chalcedonian. And there *really is* no reason other than prejudice for anyone to ever suggest otherwise.

    • Canadian

      You said “And there *really is* no reason other than prejudice for anyone to ever suggest otherwise.”

      It seems some of your own (and others) are in fact doing just that.

      • Jonathan Bonomo

        McCormack is wrong. The person of Christ is not, for the Reformed, the product of the union. I even tried to reason with Perry to that effect in the comments of this thread: http://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2009/02/11/shibboleth/.

        That little interaction is when I became convinced that the Nestorian charge against the Reformed is based on little other than prejudice. “Ah… nevermind what Turretin, The Westminster Standards, Bavinck, Charles Hodge, and A.A. Hodge have to say. (Not even to bring into the picture some of our more East-leaning theologians like Nevin and Torrance!) They’re Nestorians, so obviously they couldn’t be saying something that’s *not* Nestorian.”

        • David

          Thanks Jonathan, this is helpful. If not too much trouble, could you give us the reference where (when) Jaroslav Pelikan concluded that Protestant Christology is NOT Nestorian? Like the Protestant “heresay-reaction” to Icons, the Orthodox might be more careful before concluding Protestants “Nestorian-heritics”! 🙂 Let us make sure we understand, as charitably as possible, one another…before we start throwing out charges. 🙂 If we desire “The Judgement of Charity” let us be sure to give other the same.

          • Jonathan Bonomo

            Credo, 204-205 (last quarter of the paragraph)–he includes both Lutheran and Reformed as having a valid claim to Chalcedon.

    • David

      Well said Jonathan. It is so easy to read other groups too quickly as enemies and heritics. Per our conversation below, we might say there really is no reason for the Orthodox to understand us Protestants wrongly except prejudice…and the hundreds (thousands) of Protestant minsiters preaching on total depravity and fallen human nature — who also “get it wrong” in thousands of sermons and writings. Much the same, I suspect could be said of why the Orthodox, “burn incense, or bow before icons, or sing songs to the Theotokos.” Until I read Robert’s careful interaction with Calvin’s Institutes on Icons…I just assumed such practices were clearly Idolatry. It take time and honest effort, over time, to understand each other well, no?

      • Jonathan Bonomo


        I did try to imply this above, but I should clarify and make it a bit more explicit: I’m not saying that all Reformed preachers “get it wrong” when they speak in metaphorical terms about the deadness of humanity in sin. What I’m saying is that they don’t necessarily have in mind fine metaphysical distinctions such as people like to parse out philosophically on theological blogs. For such distinctions we need to go to standard theological texts. And when we do we find that Reformed speach about the “deadness” of human nature is not a way to talk about the obliteration of the imago Dei, the *inoperativeness* of human nature, or sin as a substance mingled in with human nature (all of which have been falsely imputed to Reformed theology). Rather, it is a way to speak (in biblical terms, mind you) of the irreparable bent of fallen man’s will against God, apart from divine grace.

        • robertar


          You wrote: “And when we do we find that Reformed speach about the “deadness” of human nature is not a way to talk about the obliteration of the imago Dei

          I took a look at the Scots Confession Chapter 3 “Original Sin” and found this statement: By this transgression, generally known as original sin, the image of God was utterly defaced in man….” This is not some obscure confession but part of the PC USA’s “The Book of Confessions.” So I think David point about Protestant preaching may have some validity. Or did I misread you?


          • Jonathan Bonomo


            “Utterly defaced” is different that “entirely annihilated.” There the Scots have in view corruption, not destruction. A defacement of property is marred property, but it is still property. As far as I’m aware, Luther was the one Protestant who did claim the imago was done away with after the fall. But you won’t find that in the Reformed.

        • Canadian

          WCF 6:2
          “By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.”

          So nature is wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body? Christ then assumed a wholly defiled human nature, will and energy?

          WCF 6:4
          “From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.”

          So Christ’s humanity on this view was utterly indisposed, disabled (inoperative in relation to God) and made opposite to all good, for He assumed our fallen humanity from Mary and we are consubstantial with him according to his humanity.
          Natural opposition between the human and divine is a classic monothelite argument.

          Then what is taken from us with one hand is somehow given to Christ with the other in WCF 8:2 “two whole, perfect….natures.” Chalcedon’s without change repudiates the idea that what Christ assumed was changed in any way in order for him to assume it.

          He deified human nature which is elevation and glorification and is the proper end of our nature, but did not change it. Also, your scheme seems to have Christ consubstantial with the elect only, rather than all humanity and tasting death only for the elect rather than for every man.

          • Jonathan Bonomo

            This should go without saying, but for Westminster and the Reformed tradition, as for the majority of the West, Christ did not assume fallen human nature, but human nature without the stain of original sin. So, your point is a non sequitor. If you want to combat the idea that Christ assumed non-fallen human nature, that’s fine. But then you’ve moved out of Reformed distinctives and into the Western majority, which transcends and is not in any necessary way tied to the distinctive Reformed articulation of total depravity.

            But even for those broadly Reformed theologians (Nevin, Barth, Torrance, et al) who did hold that Chist assumed fallen human nature: While they would say that Christ in the union of that nature with his divine nature sanctified it, advanced it, took it to the cross, and brought it up from the dead, it is not the case that this constitutes a “change” of nature, because the fall didn’t “change” nature nature in the first place. There was no change in substance, because sin is not a substance, and human nature remained after the fall. As I took pains to say above, the depravity of man involves the bent of his will against God, not a metaphysical change of substance. Likewise, in redemption human nature is not “changed” in the sense of made into a different substance. Rather, it is raised, sanctified, and glorified–perfected.

          • Canadian

            That which he assumed, he assumed from Mary–as it was in her. Nature which was fallen (he could die, death is not natural).
            The will being a faculty of nature is not naturally bent because of the fall, but freely follows however it is Personally used. Our personal use of our natural free will is sinful when we employ it for that which is against God and against nature (Rom 1:26). Adam’s will was not bent toward sin and yet he personally employed his natural free will toward sin. Christ assumed the same nature as us in the same state as us (no stain or guilt) yet healed it from corruption because he employed his (our) natural will as a divine person, never darkened or confused about what was good and according to nature.

          • Jonathan Bonomo


            I assure you I’m quite familiar with the regular arguments for Christ’s assumption of fallen human nature. As should have been clear, my point wasn’t to discuss that particular issue, but rather to say that when it comes to that, we’re not talking about a Reformed v. non-Reformed issue, but more fundamentally an East v. West issue, and as such the doctrine of total depravity is quite secondary and incidental to the actual question in dispute. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the Reformed stand in line with the Western tradition.

          • Prometheus

            Jonathan, you say that the Logos took on human nature, but unfallen human nature. How then did he heal fallen nature. Did he heal it the moment he touched it or through his life, death, and resurrection?

            What it sounds like in some of your arguments is that Christ didn’t have contact with our human nature. The mystery of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection seems to be bound up in the fact that the immortal on became mortal so that he could defeat mortality. How could this happen if he was born into a body that was not subject to the effects of the fall? Perhaps this is where the substitutionary atonement comes in? He didn’t need to be like us in being affected by the fall because all that needed to happen was that he be a real human being who, though not liable to death since he did not sin, paid the price for a humanity that did sin.

            I personally do believe that Christ died in our place and for our sins, but also that the mystery of the incarnation points to him taking on humanity in its fallen condition. He defeated death by death. I have a hard time understanding the purpose of his death and resurrection if the healing of the human condition could have been accomplished (and in fact was in his case) through his divine nature coming together with his human nature. Why suffer and die if such a union was sufficient.

            If one says that in the fall man’s will was utterly bent, then one has to assume that either a) the will of the man Jesus was bent, b) that it was somehow fixed at the incarnation, c) that Jesus humanity was not identical with ours (i.e. that “without sin” means not only actual sin, but without inheriting the effects of ancestral sin). If a), salvation was accomplished despite the man Jesus being unwilling. In other words, it bifurcates the person of Jesus who had both a human and divine will. If b), then it is hard to see why Christ’s death and resurrection were necessary. If c), how could Jesus not inherit from Mary the same diseased nature of man (i.e. humanity subject to death) – and if to c) you answer that it was because of God’s sanctifying power by the Holy Spirit, we are brought back to b) – why were Christ’s death and resurrection necessary.

    • Jnorm

      I disagree, it’s not prejudice to say what we say about the issue. You guys are not Cyrillian in your Christology and the 3rd, 4th, 5th and to an extinct the 6th councils were heavily influenced by a Cyrillian view of things. You saying that the Reformed don’t have Nestorian tendencies is like an Assrian Church of the East individual saying they don’t have Theodore Mopsuestia tendencies.

      • Jnorm

        Not only was Nestorius condemned, but his teacher (Theodore of Mopsuestia), would eventually be condemned as well. And so prejudice is not the reason why we say what we say.

  12. Jonathan Bonomo


    Those are some nice assertions, sans any intelligent interaction with standard Reformed sources considered in their historical-theological context. Thanks for proving the point.

    • Canadian

      But I gave you the WCF as a source which explicitly articulates natural opposition, natural defilement, a nature indisposed, and clearly implies consubstantiality with the elect only. What you do to us naturally, you do to Christ incarnationally. I would have hoped for a more profitable discussion of these things, but your dismissive tone and complaints about not picking the right Reformed theologian at the right time on the right issue (when they disagree or challenge your position, you pick the one that agrees with your own position and say we are not reading the “standard”, standard, standard Reformed writers) sounds like you have been having beers with Kevin too often. Your western, so be it. All were saying is that it won’t hold up to the Ecumenical Christology of the universal church when pressed. If you don’t want to press it, fine.

      • Jonathan Bonomo


        What you assume to be “clear” in the WCF is simply not so. It’s working from different fundamental presuppositions than you are–and those presuppositions are the presuppositions of Western Christianity, not unique to the Reformed. That’s the only point I was making.

        If you want to impugn all of Western Christendom of Nestorianism on that account, then go right ahead and do so. But don’t tell me that Total Depravity is what is Nestorian, and then let the rest of the West go. If you’re going to slap the heresy label onto folks, then go all the way with it. Singling out the Reformed for your attacks only reinforces my suspicion that what infuses such charges is prejudice, and not careful consideration.

        I didn’t comment here in order to give people a detailed history lesson, which is really what would be required to parse out all the issues relevant to the point you’ve been trying to make. I don’t have time for it. But I did comment in order to encourage you all to not throw around heretical labels based on surface level interaction and uncharitable notions and what you *assume* must be the case. Sadly, I’ve failed.

        Also, your point about me complaining that you didn’t pick the right sources is obnoxious. I never said that. I said that your interpetation of the WCF, and your transplanting its articulation of depravity to the area of Christology in order to make it Nestorian, doesn’t account for the presuppositions (Western ones) with which it’s operating. You’re zealous for the Reformed to be heretics, and you think you’ve found an area where they are. But you haven’t. Before making your judgment, did you do any reading or study on the Westminster Assembly and its work, or the history of Western Christological reflection generally, and Reformed Christology specifically (not written by sources attempted to show that they’re heretics)? Did you compare the intellectual context of Reformed Christology with that of Chalcedon? Did you seek possible antecedents to Reformed Christology among the Chalcedonian Fathers (like, say, Leo the Great)? If you’re going to accuse people of heresy, then don’t act all surprised when they demand that you’re familiar–yes, very familiar–their sources, not simply in the sense of being acquainted with them, but in the sense of having true understanding of them, of having appreciated the actual meaning of their words in within their historical-theological context, *without* reading them in the *worst possible* light, and considering the possibility that those who penned such sources, and the people who you currently disclaim as heretics, may just be your brothers after all.

        You call me dismissive. But has it occured to you that what you call my “dismissive tone” could have something to do with reading/hearing converts slandering me and my brothers with heretical positions because you spent an evening reading the WCF through your own epistemological lenses and came to the conclusion that we’re raving heretics and infidels? I didn’t come on here accusing you and your comminion of heresy–you accused me and my brothers. Now who is really the one who is being dismissive?

        This will be my final time commenting on this blog. As with all others, it’s pointless. When will I ever learn. I thought that Robert’s charitable framing of the issues would lead to more charitable discussion which has mutual understanding as its goal, without all the Reformed bashing and heresy shouting. Unfortunately, I was sadly mistaken. Hopefully I’ve learned this lesson about such blogs for the last time.

        • Canadian

          I greeted you personally in friendly fashion on another thread of this blog. I have fond memories of our past interaction. You did not respond. Your accusations are false.
          This is not a Catholic blog and you are not Catholic. Other discussions on other blogs would bear witness to the Orthodox challenging Rome on her departures from the Councils, why would we bring that up here?
          I am not looking to make you a heretic. And why do you presume I think you’re an infidel? None of this is to push the Reformed away, but to challenge the underlying Christological currents. If I have offended you, forgive me. My remark about beers with Kevin, I retract and ask you would ignore it. Grace, peace and joy in Christ, Jonathan.

        • Karen


          I’m mostly a lurker here just because I really like to learn and understand these issues. Your comments and questions are very helpful to this end. I second Canadian’s response re: inferring the heresy/infidel charge because of Orthodox challenges to some aspects of Reformed theology. There is actual articulation of theology, which can be technically heresy, and then there is intent, which for most who comment here (if not all) we would assume is one and the same, i.e., to love and honor God/Christ (which necessarily includes loving one another) by attempting to better understand and clarify the truth about Him and His work in the world. In this second sense, I think we Orthodox for our part consider that our sincere Christian Protestant (and Roman Catholic) counterparts are truly brethren. If our relationship to God were wholly a function of the accuracy of our understanding and articulation of the truth about Him, we would all be lost (I know I would be!). Thankfully, He sees and honors the intent of our hearts and grants greater insight as we humble ourselves and seek Him.

          This quote might be helpful (I offered it also to Kevin also on another thread):

          If there are some Orthodox who reflect a different attitude, you should consider the source–not all Orthodox (even hierarchs/clergy) are Saints (capital S, i.e., exemplary), needless to say, but Met. Philaret has been recognized as such by the Orthodox Church, so his application of Orthodox teaching in our modern context has great weight.

          • Larry Gray

            I read Met. Philaret’s statement and found it insightful and ecumenical.

        • David


          I’ve enjoyed your dialogue with Canadian and think it’s been fruitful, and despite your sharp disagreements — helpful. I don’t know who’s right yet, so I will reserve judgement and grant the judgement of charity of “non-heritic” to my Reformed heritage and commitments (as I suspect most other Reformed Lurkers will) until it is more clear to me.

          I’d also exhort you to note that just because you’ve not persuaded Canadian, does NOT mean your not perusading others…much less that this blog is full of “Reformed bashing and heresy shouting.” It is no such thing. Y’all disagree…have not persuaded each other. For now, cooler heads and thicker skins might just take a break and surmise…”I’ve just not yet been able to persuade my brother he’s wrong.” It happens. But it ain’t over until you quit trying at another time when you are sharper…and less offended. 🙂

      • Larry Gray

        “Ecumenical Christology of the universal church…?”

    • Jnorm

      How familiar are you with the councils in question? Also how familiar are you with the theology behind the councils in question?

      The Theology of those councils is our theology. How would you feel if an Arminian from the Assembly of God told you that they held to the Westminster Confession of Faith and that their interpretation of it was a valid one? How would you feel about that?

      The 5th Ecumenical council gives the proper and official interpretation of the 4th Ecumenical council and so there is really no room for a non Cyrillian view.

  13. Caleb Roberts

    Hi Robert,

    Thank you for writing this great stuff. Orthodoxy has been of immense help to me in my Anglicanism (two Schmemann books down!) and, while I don’t have anything substantive to comment on your actual topic, I wanted to note that your statement…

    “They [Protestants] have abandoned an ontological understanding of holiness for a functional understanding of holiness. In the Protestant world view holiness resides in the intended purpose, not in the object itself. This is evident in the way they handle the leftovers from a Communion service like leftovers from an ordinary meal.”

    …resonated much with me. It turns out, this was the very issue that became one of the last nails in the coffin of my membership in the PCA as the church I was attending had the odd practice of snacking on the leftover communion bread after the service (to be fair, I don’t think this is commonplace in the PCA generally). While I initially began to compile my thoughts about it to bring before the session (for it bothered me so much that I had to just turn my head), I eventually realized that none of my theological objections carried any weight within Presbyterian categories. While I could perhaps call it “overly casual” and maybe a bit “irreverent”, akin to a parent warning a child not to run in the church hallways, there was simply nothing in their sacramental theology upon which I could build a consistent objection. A month later, I began attending a traditional Anglican parish where my wife and I worship today.

    Again, good post!

    • robertar


      Thanks for sharing your story with us! I look forward to hearing from you again.


    • Larry Gray

      “This is evident in the way they handle the leftovers from a Communion service like leftovers from an ordinary meal.”

      The Communion service is just that, “Take it and eat, it is my body,” and “take it and drink, it is my blood.” “Do this in remembrance of Me.” It is done in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. It does not make the bread and wine (or grape juice) somehow “holy.” To say that is to believe that it actually becomes Christ’s body and blood. As a Presbyterian I understand the symbolism of the Communion, it is symbolic, not actual. But I understand that others may think about it somewhat differently.

      • Karen

        Larry, that’s a nice articulation of a Protestant Western Scholastic and rationalistic approach to understanding the nature of the Eucharist. Do you have any interest in understanding why the Orthodox do believe, based on Holy Scripture and on the teachings of the early Church, that the consecrated bread and wine of Communion do actually *also* become for us the true Body and Blood of Christ, no longer ordinary bread and wine, but “holy things for the holy” and why we treat the leftovers accordingly? Or, are you just here to try to “enlighten” us? For the record, most if not all of the Orthodox who write or comment here are former Protestants well-educated in the various beliefs our former faiths.

        • Larry Gray

          Not trying to “enlighten” anyone. But I draw the line at divine “cannibalism.”

          • Larry Gray

            I agree with your statement. As a Protestant, I do follow a “Protestant Western Scholastic and rationalistic approach to understanding the nature of the Eucharist.” I don’t see the problem with a “rational” belief versus a “magico-religious” one. To believe that the bread and wine actually become the actual “true Body and Blood of Christ,” enters the realm of the irrational. As I said before, as Protestants we understand the symbolism of the Eucharist without attaching supernatural phenomena to it. But I am not saying that to insult you, just to clarify my Protestant viewpoint. You seem to have a hostile view of Protestants and our faith. We are just as sincere in our beliefs as you and yours.

        • Larry Gray

          And I have never in my entire life ever seen anyone in my Presbyterian church “snacking” or otherwise treating the leftovers disrespectfully or as simple garbage. Such a belief is simply evidence of Orthodox/Catholic dismissive hostility to Protestantism and its practices and beliefs.

        • Karen

          Well, Larry, to listen to your line of reasoning, I should find it ludicrous and “magical” that God, the Creator of the entire universe, wholly Other than and infinitely beyond His Creation, could actually be fully contained in something as lowly, finite, and crassly material as a human body (and in the womb of another!)–that sweats, hungers, thirsts, tires, eliminates, bleeds, and even dies (only to rise again and transfigure this material Body so that it no longer conforms to the limitations of our temporal earthly human physical existence, but is deified thus rendered incorruptible and immortal). And most people do in fact find this belief ludicrous and magical (see John 6:42). On the other hand, it is the whole basis for a genuinely fully Christian faith and for the Christian understanding of the nature of the Church herself as the mystical Body of Christ indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:32). This also is exactly the basis of a genuinely orthodox Christian belief in Christ’s “Real Presence” by the action of the Holy Spirit, within the consecrated material elements of the Eucharist as well (lowly and humble as they are, in and of themselves).

          If mentally bringing to mind the historic events of His death and resurrection is what Christ meant in John 6:41-69 as well, why didn’t he say so, since it is clear His disciples understood this in a much more literal way to the point most of them were greatly offended by His words and departed from following Him. He could easily have cleared up such a misunderstanding by offering the kind of rationalistic explanation that conforms to merely human philosophical principles that Presbyterians and Baptists do, but He didn’t. After clarifying that it is the Spirit that gives life and not flesh (in context, in and of itself), He claimed His words “are spirit and life.”

          Orthodox don’t believe “magical/cannibalistic” and “mental/conceptual” are the only two options for understanding Christ’s and the early Church’s teaching about the nature of the Eucharist. The Orthodox (and orthodox) position, as I understand it, is neither of these, but would be better characterized as “embodied spiritual reality–Christ present in matter by the action of the Holy Spirit of God.”

          For me as a Baptist, partaking of the grape juice and wafer was an exercise which, by Baptist definition, depended entirely on my own capacity to properly conceptualize Christ’s death and resurrection and its meaning for me and the world. I can’t say this was altogether meaningless, but it certainly didn’t pack the kind of power and meaning and realization of intimate connection with and dependence upon Christ that both Scripture and the predominant approach of Christians to this rite throughout history suggests it should have had.

          As an Orthodox, when I partake of that which I must affirm is “truly” (i.e., meaningfully/really) Christ’s own Body and Blood (i.e., His full holy and incorruptible Personal presence together with the life that is found in Him alone), it is a ritual, physical expression of the most radical kind of personal dependence upon the Person of Christ possible. This kind of radical dependence upon and intimacy with the Person of Christ is what I understand a genuine Christian faith in essence to be. It seems only proper that what Christians have always considered to be the consummate liturgical and ritual expression of the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ should so directly express that.

      • robertar


        To say that Holy Communion is symbolic, not actual is wrong. Even John Calvin says it’s wrong. Calvin stated: “Besides we hold as an error not to be tolerated in the Church that it is naked and bare signs that Christ sets forth in his blessed Supper, or not to believe that here the very body and the very blood of the Lord is received, that is the Lord himself true God and man.” This sentence can be found in “Calvin: Theological Treatises” edited by J.K.S. Reid, p. 169. If you are a Presbyterian, you might want to read Keith Mathison’s “Given For You” then reconsider your comment.


        • Larry Gray


          First, I don’t know who Keith Mathison is but I don’t believe that he is among the writers of the Bible. And just because I am a Presbyterian does not mean I defer to the wisdom, of John Calvin in all circumstances.
          Second, and most importantly, I will simply ask you to supply me with the Biblical verse or passage that unambiguously states that the Communion bread and wine actually, and miraculously, turn into the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.


          • George Kleinert


            I do not want to reply for Robert, but I would turn your second question back to you, and simply ask you to supply us with the Biblical verse or passage that unambiguously states which writings, books, or portions of books are to be the sufficient and complete rule of faith and practice for the Christian today, and secondly, that anything not unambiguously stated in those writings is to be rejected?


          • robertar


            The problem with your request that I provide you a Bible passage that unambiguously affirm the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist is that Scripture is not always that clear. In 1527, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli met at the Marburg Colloquy to resolve this very question. Luther took the phrase “Hoc est corpus meum” (This is my body) quite literally, but Zwingli sought take a more symbolic interpretation. Their failure to come to a common understanding of this Bible passage resulted in one of the earliest divisions in Protestantism. What would you have done if you were in the same room with Luther and Zwingli? Could you have brought the two great Reformers together? What would your solution have been? And if you did not succeed in doing so who would you have walked with?

            When I was studying at a Reformed seminary I was troubled by the implications of the failure at the Marburg Colloquy. I didn’t see how scientific exegesis could solve this major issue so I decided to tackle the problem from the standpoint of historical theology, that is, I traced the historic understanding of the early Church. What I found was that the early Church affirmed the real presence without going into great detail like the later Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation. I recommended Keith Mathison’s book because he comes from the Reformed perspective and I thought you might find his reasoning more accessible.

            I do sense a strong independent streak in your comment and it seems that you are not open to being under the teaching authority of your church/denomination. We cannot be Christians as autonomous individuals, we need the church. I hope you will not be asserting your autonomy as a Christian but that you will admit your need for the church to guide you in your reading of Scripture. But if you so casually dismiss John Calvin, do you do the same for the other Reformed confessions? If you profess only the Bible and nothing else, I would say your theology is more in line with popular Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism but quite far from historic Reformed Christianity. There is in the historic Reformed tradition an appreciation for the early church fathers, the Eucharist, and the Church that makes for dialogue with Orthodoxy.


  14. Wesley

    I’m Protestant and Reformed, and I don’t at all see how the doctrine of total depravity makes us Nestorian. Our Christology is decidedly not Nestorian, as Jonathan pointed out so well. I’ve read over Canadian’s posts a couple times, and I just don’t see it. Maybe someone could explain it to me again? lol

    • Jnorm

      1.) Are you really Reformed? Do you accept or reject Infant Baptism?
      2.) Do you accept or reject the idea of a state church with magistrates and everything else that came with it?
      3.) Do you accept or reject what the Reformed movement did in regards to Roman Catholic worship?

      I am asking because alot of Calvinistic(particular) Baptists throw around the term Reformed when really what they mean is T.U.L.I.P. + the 5 Solas. To be Reformed means more than just T.U.L.I.P. and the 5 Solas.

      In regards to the issue of Nestorianism:
      Read the 3rd, the 4th, the 5th, the 6th and 7th Ecumenical councils. Then read the main theological influence behind them. Such as the works of Saint Cyril, the theological works of the Emperor Justinian, and the Theological works of Saint Maximus as well as good secondary sources about Saint Maximus’s theology, also read the works of the Iconophiles/Iconodules.

      Then you will see it. Wesley, I don’t do it anymore(well, I shouldn’t really say anymore. Just not as much as I use to), but I use to argue with nonchalcedonian miaphysites and Theodore of Mopsuestia(The Assyrian church of the east) Dyophysites, and so I can see it in Reformed Christology. You guys have more in common with the Assyrian church of the east. Did you know that the modern Assyrian church of the East embraces the 4th Ecumenical council(but not it’s decrees)? It accepts the 1st, the 2nd, and now the 4th(but not necessarily it’s decrees). But it still rejects the 3rd, and it rejects the 5th, 6th, and 7th councils.

      If you didn’t know, Nestorians can hide behind the 4th council. This is why the 5th council had to make it clear what the proper interpretation of the 4th council was. Those with Nestorian tendencies were eventually weeded out.

  15. Jnorm


    You will see where Canadian is coming from if you read Saint Maximus. But read all the stuff I listed up above and you will see it.

  16. Wesley

    Thanks Jnorm. I have a seminar course in Patristic theology beginning this month at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with Dr. Donald Fairbairn. We will be digging in deep to the theology of the Ecumenical Councils. I will be sure to look into these things you mentioned. The main theologians assigned for us to read are Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Cyril of Alexandria. In addition we’ll be looking at many excerpts from other fathers as well. I’m looking forward to it. Perhaps in three months I’ll be able to interact sharper and more deeply with my Orthodox brothers here.

    Grace to you and peace,

    • Canadian

      We know you believe in two natures in Christ, what I am trying to show, albeit weakly and with stumbling and stammering, is that the Reformed require grace (divinity) to operate, overwhelm, bring to life etc human nature because it is totally depraved and inoperative in relation to God. If this is true for us then it must be for Christ because he took on our humanity as it was in the Mother of God (fallen, not sinful). We are consubstantial with him according to his humanity. Sin does not destroy nature, but corrupted it and made it subject to sin and death. Grace does not cause our nature to come to life or replace our inability with it’s ability (mon-energism) but grace builds on and restores nature. Pelagianism and Calvinism are both monergistic, one thinks nature alone operates the other grace alone operates, or “jump-starts” human nature from it’s dead state. Sin is personal not natural. The 6th Council which condemned mon-energism/monothelitism teaches Christ’s humanity freely and without reluctance obeyed the Father, not BECAUSE Christ was without sin, but because his free natural human will (same one as us) was employed by the divine Logos, the Person of Christ. Our sin does not make our will unfree but our personal use of our free faculty of will is deceived and clouded and selfish and acts against God and against nature. Where I may misspeak, my Orthodox brothers are free to correct.

    • Canadian

      That should be an interesting course.
      When you read those fathers, resist the temptation to assume the reformed meaning of terms. They are not thinking legally and forensically. And leave them in thier ecclesial context with all of it’s liturgical and sacramental participation in Christ our God. Watch for language of deification and “theosis”, the real participation of man in God by grace. As McGuckin mentioned about Cyril, watch for the father’s distrust of man’s logic alone in Nestorius’ scriptural interpretation and it’s disconnect from Tradition. Watch for the rejection of the inherent opposition between divinity and humanity as so prominent in the Reformers. Notice that the created can contain, convey, and participate in the uncreated. Notice all sacramental and liturgical and dogmatic issues are measured by what they do to Christ—-Christology!
      Watch for the recapitulation of Israel, Adam, and all humanity itself in Christ, but even the whole creation will be renewed because of the union of the human and divine in Christ. Try not to stand in judgement over them with your present interpretation of the scriptures as a rule of faith. Most of all, enjoy them and enjoy the one they loved supremely.
      As Robert has said many times on this blog, find an Orthodox church and just go, stand, listen and see how those you are reading worshipped.
      Grace and peace.

      • Wesley

        Thank you very much for that helpful guidance. One question though: should I also resist the temptation to assume the Orthodox meaning of terms? lol 😉

        I’m just going to try to read them on their own terms openly and honestly, and let them be whoever they were and say whatever they said. I’m looking forward to it. I have already begun reading selections on biblical interpretation in the early church for class. I’m about to begin Irenaeus in a few days. First we’re reading On the Apostolic Preaching, then Against Heresies, Books 3-5.

        Fun times ahead!

        • Canadian

          “should I also resist the temptation to assume the Orthodox meaning of terms? lol ”

          Ya, fair is fair 🙂

          • Karen


            Robert would probably say that one cannot genuinely be “fair” in that sense, one has to stand within some tradition to make a judgment (in the context of his comments–about what a historical narrative says).

            I have in mind his answer to Robin Phillips’ question 4.2 here:

            I think perhaps what Robert points out there may generalize to the issue you are discussing with Wesley here as well, i.e., attempting to understand what the Fathers are saying in their own contexts.

            One suggestion is that Wesley make a fair attempt to read these Fathers accepting that he and the Reformers have/had their own biases. Then, perhaps as a kind of experiment, he could attempt to give them an alternate tentative reading through an Orthodox lens and see which perspective seems to cohere more completely with the teachings of these Fathers taken as a whole.

            My own experience as a Protestant was that shifting between the various traditions within Protestantism of how to read the Scriptures, depending on whose paradigm I chose, (e.g., Calvinist vs. Wesleyan/Arminian traditions, Cessationist/Dispensational vs. holiness/Pentacostal/Covenantal, Reformed vs. free Church traditions, etc.), parts and passages of Scripture never quite seemed to fit. Something was always seeming contradictory, and frequently a paradigm’s way explaining away certain verses/passages that didn’t quite fit its interpretations of what other Scriptures meant or inferred seemed frankly quite forced. After I accepted the Orthodox paradigm, I found it was much easier to read the Scriptures and just accept them in their own natural context at face value. Finally, everything just seemed to fit together properly.

          • Canadian

            Thanks for your comment.
            I agree that we don’t come to the sources (scripture, history, the father’s) tabula rasa without bias.
            When I say “fair is fair” I don’t think that Wesley can simply stand in our Tradition and look through “an Orthodox lens”. In fact, I don’t think anyone can just test an Orthodox mindset from the outside, it is developed over years of living liturgically and sacramentally. None of us are neutral, but a straight up reading of the father’s will immediately cry out against Protestant assumptions. He need not know any distinctives of Orthodoxy before reading the father’s to discover the Tradition of the Orthodox church there. What he does with it is the crucial part. If he accepts the Reformed paradigm of right of private judgement in assessing tradition and scripture, he will feel empowered to pick and choose freely what he agrees with. If, however he follows the Tradition itself and the church’s authoritative claims spelled out in those writings of the father’s and the Ecumenical Councils, he will be compelled to repent of his schism, obey those that have the rule over him and join himself to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church. I think I basically agree with what you are saying about accepting an Orthodox paradigm, but for me the reading of the father’s and Councils lead to and confirmed the Orthodox to be the paradigm that preserved the Tradition that I saw there.

          • Wesley

            “Repent of my schism.” —I’m not in sin by the mere fact of being Protestant.
            “Obey those who have the rule over me.” —I do. I submit to my senior pastor.
            “Join the [Orthodox] Church.” —My senior pastor told me not to.

            I completely appreciate your perspective, admire your convictions, and respect your opinion. But of course I disagree with you on all counts here. Moreover, my professor is a patristic scholar and is still a very committed, convicted, and convinced Evangelical Protestant. So clearly reading and understanding the Fathers rightly and accurately doesn’t necessarily compel one to become either Orthodox or Roman Catholic.

            Anyways, I’ve begun the reading. I just finished 1 Clement (a letter I’ve read in its entirety twice now, and many portions of which I have read several times over), and I, as a solid Protestant, love that letter. I probably agreed with at least 95% of it, if not more. Lot’s more reading to go. So far, do good 🙂

  17. Jnorm


    I have a book written by your professor. It’s called:
    Grace and Christology in the Early Church

    If you can’t buy the hard-copy then invest in the Kindle version. It’s a book you should have in your library.

  18. Wesley


    Yeah, I know the book. Even though it isn’t assigned, I would like to find the time to read it this semester. For one of my other classes (a theology class) we’re reading another book of his called Life in the Trinity. Dr. Fairbairn is an Evangelical Patristics scholar. That’s why I’m taking the class with him. Sounds like my kind of guy. I’m also taking his early church history class in conjunction with the Patristic theology course. I tried to pick classes that would all complement each other. I’m satisfied with the result.

  19. Thomas Chacko

    When I affirm my belief in the communion of saints, I mean those whom God has elevated to His presence, not those who have been declared saints by ANY HUMAN AGENCY. For any such agency, a church or Papal committee on beatification or whatever, to declare a human being a saint is an act of usurpation of God’s exclusive privilege. I don’t need to understand the identity, nationality, or biography of the saints in God’s presence before I believe in them as figures who deserve to be honoured. All protestants believe that Virgin Mary is a saint in this sense, that she was selected by God for a special mission, viz., to be the vehicle of His incarnation on earth. We believe, along with generations that have gone by and are yet to come, that she is blessed beyond compare, but belief in her blessedness or saintliness is quite different from deifying her, kneeling in front of her statue, and praying to her. God and God alone is worthy of worship, and that is the essence of the First Commandment.

    • robertar


      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! I appreciate your forthright presentation of your views. First of all, the Orthodox Church does not deify the Virgin Mary, nor do we kneel in front of a statue of her. Roman Catholicism has statues, but Orthodoxy following the Seventh Ecumenical Council does not allow for statues. This confusion leads me to believe that you have very limited exposure to Orthodox worship. I encourage you to visit a local Orthodox church and observe how our honoring Mary for her service to God is biblical and very restrained. We honor her openly and publicly for her service to God. When I was a Protestant there was very little mention of her role in the Incarnation. It seems to me that Protestants believe in the communion of saints theoretically but don’t express this belief in their weekly worship services.

      I also encourage you to read my article: “Why Evangelicals Need Mary.”

      Keep looking into Orthodoxy. And be sure to visit our church services! Many have been surprised by their first experience of the Liturgy.


    • Anastasios

      Um, you do remember the Scriptures were written by human agency, too? (Yes, I know they were inspired by the Holy Spirit as well, the point is they are of both divine and human authorship, just as Christ was both fully human and fully divine).

      Unfortunately many conservative Protestants tend to have an essentially Eutychian view of the Scriptures (viewing them purely as God’s word while ignoring their human-ness, the same way Muslims view the Qur’an). That’s the attitude that lies at the root of the “inerrancy” debate. Liberal Protestants have the opposite problem (they see the Bible through the historical-critical lens, as purely human and not divine).

      Also, the teachings of the Church are likewise both divine and human (unless you deny that the Church is Christ’s body, and view it as merely a human institution, but that is once again heterodox).

      Protestants who say “I trust God, not man” have no choice but to simultaneously trust and distrust Jesus.

  20. Larry Gray

    The idea of praying to Mary or the saints is simply unsupported heresy. The only “persons” worthy of prayers are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Mary was the mother of Jesus, and as such deserves respect and reverence as such, but Mary was mortal, as are all humans. The idea of Mary as “mediatrix” is simply blasphemy and suggests that God somehow needs mortal “mediators” between Him and the persons making the prayers. Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus as a miracle of God. But Mary and Joseph had other children who were absolutely human and mortal. Jesus never refers to His mother as having any role in salvation, or to be considered worthy to receive and transmit prayers between the person praying and the Holy Trinity. Much Catholic dogma derives from Roman religious traditions and the worship of a “Mother Goddess” or “Queen of Heaven.” Protestants hold Mary in very high esteem as the mother of Christ, but attribute no divinity to her. The whole concept of “Mariology” was an ongoing “revelation” to the princes of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. She slowly took on more and more of a “holy” role in salvation and such dogmas as the Immaculate Conception or Assumption are simply later add-ons to her growing cult within these churches. In the Protestant church saints are also to be respected and reverenced for their lives and works, but the idea of praying to a dead saint to intercede with God is truly necromancy and nothing more. The only holiness belongs to God, as the Holy Trinity and nothing else.

    • robertar


      I sense a lot of antagonism against Roman Catholicism in your comment, but Orthodoxy is quite different from Roman Catholicism. I suggest you take the time to carefully re-read Scripture and study how the early Christians related to the Virgin Mary. The early Church never taught that Mary answers our prayers, only God can answer our prayers. The early Church did have the sense that we are part of a great communion or gathering of saints and that we should pray for each other. I see in Orthodoxy a balance between the extremes of Roman Catholicism which tends to over value Mary and Protestantism which tends to under value her.


      • Larry Gray

        It is not antagonism, it is simply disagreement with the theology. I read your “Why Evangelicals (I, myself, am a Presbyterian) need Mary.” I was especially struck by the insistence on Mary’s “perpetual virginity.” I only got as far as the statement; “Another reading of the passage is that they (Mary’s other children) were Joseph’s sons from a previous marriage, before Joseph was betrothed to marriage.” The theological gymnastics required to come to this conclusion is wholly and completely non-Biblical. We Protestants find no support for the “perpetual virginity” of Mary in the Biblical text. We shy away from making suppositions as the basis of our faith.

        • Eric Todd


          Why do you limit the your source for deposit of the faith to that which was recorded in Scripture? Did Jesus leave us with a book or a Church? Have you ventured to read the witness of the Early Church Fathers who defined the very New Testament Canon which you so clearly espouse?

          • Larry Gray

            “Limit (my) source for deposit of faith to that which was recorded in Scripture?”

            Are you saying that God did not put into Scripture all that we need to learn and know from Scripture, and that because of that we need “Early Church Fathers” to fill in the missing pieces? I asked for Scriptural sources for the “perpetual virginity” of Mary…none was supplied. I asked for Scriptural sources for the doctrine that the Communion bread and wine become ‘the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ…none was supplied. So who exactly was it that proclaimed these, and many others, as official and accepted “doctrines” of the “True and Universal Church?”

          • Eric Todd


            You suggest that:

            “God …put into Scripture all that we need to learn and know” and that we do not “need “Early Church Fathers” to fill in the missing pieces”.

            Please show me where this statement is found in Scripture. Your statement may be true, but if it is not in Scripture, than by its own logic it is not something we need to learn and know and thus, would be self defeating.

            Also, there were many different canons of Scripture during the first few centuries of the Church. One thing thus the Church needed to “learn and know” is what was the right Canon. What New Testament books constitute Scripture? Please show me from Scripture and without reference to tradition or your own systematic theology that the existing New Testament Canon is the “right” Canon.

      • Larry Gray


        You said that “in Orthodoxy a balance between the extremes of Roman Catholicism which tends to over value Mary and Protestantism which tends to under value her.” I’m not sure where you got the idea that we Protestants “under value” Mary. How are we to “value” her? Protestants revere (which means “respect tinged with awe”) Mary as the mother of Jesus Christ. As the virgin chosen by God for this purpose. However, we do not see a role for her as an almost deified personage with the power to intercede for humans with God Himself. Protestants direct no prayers to Mary, or any other Saint or personage other than God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Period.
        You say the Roman Catholics “tend over value Mary.” But when I was reading the page by Met. Philaret there was a column of Orthodox icons that began with the first two. The first was Jesus Christ, listed as “Our Lord.” The second was of Mary, listed as “Our Lady.” How would anyone believe otherwise than that the first two persons of “Our Lord” and “Our Lady” are on an equal spiritual plane? What makes the Orthodox view of Mary any less “extreme” than the “over valuation” by the Roman Catholics, who also venerate “notre Dame?”


        • Larry Gray

          Which New Testament “Canon” is the “right” Canon?

          The one that I read in my New King James Version of the Holy Bible.

          Which “Canon” do you believe is the “right” one?

          • Karen

            Larry, think about that. How did the translators for the NKJV pick out those books as their NT canon? From whom did they get that information? This is the question Orthodox are trying to get you to consider. The answer cannot logically be found as explicit teaching in the Scriptures themselves. And, yes, we use the same NT canon as you.

  21. Eric Todd


    My Orthodox Study Bible uses the NKJV, so we have that in common:)

    Where in Scripture do you see a definition for what books constitute Scripture?

    You suggest that “God …put into Scripture all that we need to learn and know” and that we do not “need “Early Church Fathers” to fill in the missing pieces”. Knowing what constitutes Scripture would seem fundamental for your understanding of truth. Thus, if Scripture does not define what is the canon of Scripture, then your proposition is not true and thus God did not put into Scripture all that we need to know about Scripture.

    In fact, we both rely on the Early Church Fathers to fill in the missing pieces about what constitutes Scripture, whether we recognise it or not.

    The Bible, with the canon we both cherish, was not defined until several centuries after Christ. Some books that initially were considered Scripture by Christians were later rejected, including the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas and the letters of Clement of Rome.

    Eusebius, in his early 4th century Church History, wrote “among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognized by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James and that of Jude, also the second epistle of Peter, and those that are called the second and third of John, whether they belong to the evangelist or to another person of the same name”.

    So even by the early 4th century, what we call “Scripture” wasn’t fully recognised by Christians. It wasn’t until the later 4th century that Athanasius clearly defined what is our modern canon. Even this was not fully accepted throughout the Church until into the 5th century.

    Like it or not, the Church Fathers, by the power of the Holy Spirit, played a critical role in recognising the canon of Scripture. By accepting the canon found in the NKJV of the Bible, (unless you have coincidently come to accept the same books ex novo by some independent methodology), Gary, you are implicitly affirming the judgement of the Fathers to understand what constitutes Scripture, a judgement no doubt influenced by their understanding of what constitutes orthodox Christianity.

    If the concensus of the Church Fathers was wrong in their understanding of the faith, then we have little reason to trust their selection of the canon.

    You seem to be struggling with the dogma of the ever-virginity of Mary. However, you should note that the same Church that gave us the canon of the New Testament also universally believed in the ever-virginity of Mary, as evidenced by their affirming this belief at the 5th Ecumenical Council. If you believe the Church in the 5th century was sufficiently orthodox to recognise the canon Scripture, why would you doubt it’s judgement about an issue of arguably less importance such as the ever-virginity.

    • Larry Gray

      First of all, my name is not Gary.

      Second, I didn’t say anything about how the New Testament Canon was adopted, I was talking about what is in the scripture of the Canon that was adopted by the “Early Church fathers.” Not how that “Canon” came about. Of course the Scripture is not going to mention how it was adopted by later church authorities.

      Third, Just because the “Early Church fathers” gave us the New Testament Canon does not mean that it is automatic that since they “affirmed” the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, it also is beyond question. I simply want someone to point me to the verse in the New Testament Canon that says that Mary was perpetually Virgin? Your question suggests an equivalence between the adoption of the Canon and that the idea that the Ecumenical Council was “sufficiently orthodox to recognize the canon Scripture,” and therefore was in a position to declare the perpetual Virginity of Mary. I disagree. As a Presbyterian I follow what it says in the Scripture, not about what any “council” decided that the Scripture really “meant” to say. Is it there or not?

      • Eric Todd

        “As a Presbyterian I follow what it says in the Scripture, not about what any “council” decided that the Scripture really “meant” to say. Is it there or not?”

        Larry (sorry)

        Your faith derives from what you believe Scripture says, except when it comes to defining what is Scripture, in which case you throw out your narrow form of Sola Scriptura and follow the teachings of the Church.

        Why do you look to the Church just for the canon?

  22. Larry Gray


    “Your faith derives from what you believe the Scripture says, except when it comes to defining what is Scripture, in which case you throw out your narrow form of Sola Scriptura and follow the teachings of the Church.”

    “Why do you look to the Church just for the canon?”

    First, the canon is the canon, there is no dispute about what it is. How it came about is a historical exercise. The Bible that I use is the New King James Version. I like the NKJV because it is a better and more modern translation but it keeps much of the beauty of language that characterized the King James Version.

    I was dumbfounded by your other statement. My faith DOES derive from what Scripture says, not what I believe Scripture says. How does one “define” Scripture? And who is the proper person or church to “define” what Scripture is? The last thing that I would ever do is “throw out (my) ‘narrow’ form of Sola Scriptura.” I don’t consider “by Scripture alone” a “narrow” belief, it is the bedrock of my faith. And I surely would not “throw” it out in order follow the “teachings of the Church.” If the “Church” has another “version” of what Scripture “is,” than the Scripture itself, then the “Church” is in error. I don’t need the “Church” to tell me what my Bible says, I can read it for myself.

    Why would anyone call Sola Scriptura narrow? Is Scripture somehow lacking, needing “interpretation” or “definition” by other “authorities?” Or is Sola Scriptura called “narrow” because it does not address certain core beliefs of the Orthodox Church such as the “perpetual Virginity of Mary” or the teaching that the Communion bread and wine become the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ?”

    My family is of Scottish origin and My great-great-great-great Grandfather, Thomas Gray, came to America from Skibo, Scotland in 1792 with his wife Mary and their four sons. They settled in Western Pennsylvania, which they called the “New Westmoreland,” and that is where I was born in 1951. The only two items that Thomas insisted on bringing from Scotland was the family “Gude Book,” printed in Edinburgh and a brass clock from Edinburgh that was made in the sixteenth century.

    As a Presbyterian, I was taught to believe that the Bible contains all the knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness. And that is sufficient for me.

  23. Eric Todd


    You say: “First, the canon is the canon, there is no dispute about what it is. How it came about is a historical exercise”.

    Yet, there was tremendous dispute about that in the early Church, much more than the question about the ever-virginity of Mary, which is also a historical exercise. Since Scripture does not define the Canon, the way you define the Canon is to accept the formal authority of the Church, which defined it in the 4th and 5th century. I agree here with your trust in the authority of the Church.

    On the question of the ever-virginity of Mary, I could more easily say “the ever-virginity is the ever-virginity, there is no dispute about what it is”, since there was very little (Tertullian being an exception) until the Reformation.

    You say: “My faith DOES derive from what Scripture says, not what I believe Scripture says….And who is the proper person or church to “define” what Scripture is? The last thing that I would ever do is “throw out (my) ‘narrow’ form of Sola Scriptura.”

    There are many forms of Sola Scriptura, some which are broader and respect the consensus of the Fathers. Yet you do throw out your narrow form of Sola Scriptura–which one might call “Solo Scriptura, since it depends on your private judgements being supremely normative for you–when you accept the judgement of the Church regarding the canon.

    Moreover, unless you can show that Scripture teaches that your private judgement about Scripture is ultimately normative rather than what the Church, Christ’s bride, says about Scripture, than you are also throwing out your narrow form of Sola Scriptura by embracing Sola Scriptura, since it does not come from Scripture itself but from you.

    “Is Scripture somehow lacking, needing “interpretation” or “definition” by other “authorities?”

    Yes. Scripture is a material authority like the Constitution that has to be interpreted, since it does not interpret itself generally. Private interpretation, which you advance, is one formal authority and the Church is another. The Bible may contain “all the knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness”, but it still needs to be interpreted, either by you or by some other formal authority. There are many threads here that discuss this, so you might review some of them.

    Yet it is clear in your view of the Canon that you do not apply your view of Sola Scriptura in a consistent manner. You accept the Church’s view regarding the Canon, a highly contentious matter at the time, yet reject its clear guidance regarding the ever-virginity. So it seems your judgment trumps the Church, except for the issue of the Canon.

  24. Larry Gray


    There may have been a “tremendous dispute about that in the early Church.” But the canon is no longer in dispute. Or is it? I didn’t put my faith in the canon in the “Church,” but in the “church fathers” who decided the matter. They did not act in the name of a specific “church.” Just as now the “church” can mean any church in the world of any denomination.
    The question of the “ever virginity of Mary” was also in dispute. But evidently the backers of this “teaching” lost because the Scripture says nothing about her “ever-virginity.”
    Your claim that there was NO dispute about the “ever-virginity” of Mary until the Reformation is contraindicated when you admit to “very little, including Tertullian.” And the doctrine of the “ever-virginity” is not found in Scripture. That is why Protestants reject it.
    “Many forms of Sola Scriptura?” Really? Exactly “how many” forms are there? Outside of the entire Sola Scriptura, what else is there? I make no “private judgments” concerning Scripture. It is in black and white and speaks for itself. Why would I allow a church to teach me something that is not in the Scripture itself?
    What “Christ’s Bride” the “Church” says about Scripture? So I suppose that since the “Church” is “Christ’s Bride,” it must know better than Scripture alone? I don’t allow “churches” to tell me how to interpret Scripture.
    You say “Scripture..like the Constitution…needs interpretation.” Really? “Interpret” what? By me or “some other formal authority?” Which “formal authority” should I ask, Orthodox? Roman Catholic, Fundamentalists, etc.? I use the NKJKV and it speaks in a clear and precise voice and any discrepancies with the translation are addressed in the center column. Why should I look to any “authority” to tell me what it means?
    Oh, I see, I “don’t apply” my “Sola Scriptura in a consistent manner.” I accept the “Church’s view” of the canon…” What “church” are you talking about. The entire body of Christ, or the “Orthodox” church? It may have been “highly contentious at the time” but it isn’t anymore. What Christian does NOT accept the canon of the “Early Church Fathers?” Or does the “Orthodox” church hold the patent on the canon and therefore is qualified to make whatever judgments or interpretations it wants because of that ownership? And I need to respect and follow THEIR views?
    And you say that I “reject (the church’s) “clear guidance” regarding the ever-virginity.” You are right, I do. Where did the “church” come up with this “clear” teaching? Because it sure is not mentioned anywhere in the Scripture.
    My judgment does trump the “Church” in the matter of what Scripture says and what it does not say. I am assuming that when you say the “Church” you are talking about the Orthodox.
    As I said, I can read very well, understand what the Scripture says and therefore why would I need the “Church” to tell me that there are doctrines that are not “exactly” specified in Scripture, but they are there nonetheless, and you need to trust OUR judgment about those “hidden truths” because WE made the Canon, and that shows how “authoritative” we are?
    No, thank you.


    • Eric Todd


      I have difficulties following the logic of your post. I am afraid I have little more to add.

      • Larry Gray


        It is disappointing to answer your questions and try to explain my beliefs then have you opt out of answering mine. Your “I have difficulties following the logic of your post. I am afraid I have little more to add,” seems like a theological cop-out and kind of a backhanded rhetorical slap at me. But, I respect your decision not to respond.


        • Larry Gray

          I’m not big into being under anyone’s authority. I am from an old frontier family of Scots, who settled the “New Westmoreland” of Western Pennsylvania in 1792. The family tradition is in the reading of the “Gude-book,” (KJV 1611) and getting everything we need from it. I now use the New King James Bible for its modern English and precise translations. We Scots are a rugged lot and treasure our independence. Hence the motto: “NEMO NE IMPUNE LACESSIT!” “NO ONE TOUCHES ME WITH IMPUNITY.”


        • Eric Todd

          Many blessings to you Larry in your journey of faith!

          • Larry Gray

            Thank you, Eric, I appreciate that. I wish you the same.

    • Prometheus


      If you are still watching this post, I think you should consider a few things.

      1) Both Luther and Calvin accepted the perpetual virginity of Mary. Even at the time of the reformation this teaching was not challenged. So, that said, it is odd to say “the backers of this “teaching” lost”. They eventually lost in most Protestant circles, but they didn’t lose in Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

      2) Your reliance on the NKJV and the central column where the text is unclear is a case-in-point that you don’t see yourself as following a tradition of canon. Where did you get the NKJV? Who translated it? How do you know to affirm what is in it? You have mentioned the New Testament canon, but what about the Old Testament? There is no consensus among the three major branches of the church as to which books are in the canon. The Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Old Testaments all contain different books. But beyond that, why do you trust the editors of the NKJV? As someone who teaches Greek for a living, I also would ask how you know that their notes are accurate? How do you know that they translate accurately? After all, every translation is an interpretation!

      3) If (a translation of) the Bible speaks for itself or is clear, why are there so many Protestant views of what the Bible means? How do you justify the Presbyterian interpretation. You say that you don’t have an interpretation, you just follow the Bible. So do many other types of Protestant. Are we to suppose that all the other Protestant groups have an interpretation and that you alone with the Presbyterians are following the Bible itself and not an interpretation?

      4) The history of the canon is relevant for the above reason #2. That is, your appeal to the NKJV for an authority of which books are in or out is exactly that: an appeal to authority. Even if you reject the “church” and accept the “church fathers”, you do so on a basis that lies outside the idea of sola scriptura in the narrow sense (i.e. in a sense that says scripture is self-justifying).

      5) Who gave you your Bible? Why do you find reason to trust your Scottish ancestors? Where did they get their theology? Where did they get their Bible? I think that much of what you have said suggests that you are unwilling to go behind your assumptions to ask why you hold them. Having them is enough. Sola Scriptura is an unquestioned fundamental of your faith, but it is a principle that you cannot justify from either scripture or the early church. But to many even Christians the doctrine of sola scriptura is not self-evident. You believe it because it was handed to you by the Christians in your life. The Orthodox do not believe it because a different tradition was handed to them by the Christians in their lives. Something has to arbitrate between the two and it cannot be on the assumption that one or the other is right. An outside criterion or criteria need to be invoked to arbitrate between the two.

      6) You keep bringing up your Presbyterianism and Scottish heritage. What place does that have in light of Sola Scriptura? You say later that you follow your “faith tradition”, but how is “tradition” different than “interpretation”? Then later you say that your church is not authoritative, but only the NKJV is your authoritative “church”.

      7) Although I see your point of view that some or many Orthodox beliefs do not seem grounded in first century Christianity, it is important to ask how we can accept the canon of the people through whom the canon came to us (i.e. the 4th/5th century church) and not accept virtually anything of what they said otherwise. As for the question of canon and authority, two good books, one Catholic, one Protestant, are By What Authority? by Mark Shea and A High View of Scripture? by Craig Allert. You can check out my reviews on Amazon (I use my moniker Prometheus).


  25. Paula


    I, too, share Eric’s loss for words in response to your last post. I think it’s because the Orthodox definition of “church” is not the same as yours, as far as I can tell. This isn’t the only word in common use by Orthodox and Reformed people which mean radically different things.

    • Larry Gray


      You are right about the differences in the meaning of “Church” between different faith traditions. I have nothing but respect for the Orthodox Church. I may not agree with it on a number of things, but we are all Christians, and that’s what is really the most important. I have been to A Russian Orthodox Church with a friend who was Orthodox. The service was impressive and the singing by the male choir was beautiful. It almost made me want to become Orthodox. Almost.


  26. David


    It should obvious that Larry is not at the right place to seriously
    interact with The Orthodox-Reformed Bridge post(s). He is not ready
    or willing to seriously challenge his own Presbyterian Tradition. Nor
    can he see the inconsistency of accepting the Early Church’s Cannon of
    Scripture, Trinitarian Theology and much of its Christology — while
    rejecting without seriously looking closer at the Church of the early
    Fathers. This is all okay as this Blog is not the right place or forum for
    everyone. Or, maybe it’s not the right time. Let him go. Time will tell
    if he ever has the courage to really look honestly at these things. So,
    let us wish him God speed and the tender mercies of Christ Jesus be
    with him on his journey.

    • Larry Gray


      You are right, I am not ready, willing or even slightly interested in “challenging” my own Presbyterian Tradition. Are you willing to challenge your own Orthodox/Reformed Tradition? I didn’t think so. Your post is ill-mannered and insulting. Especially your advice to let “me go.” Is this your personal blog? I have as much right to be here as you do, so back off. I have enough courage to deal with anything that comes my way. And I have an honest belief in my Presbyterianism, just as, I’m sure, you have in whatever faith tradition you follow. You need to understand that not everyone has been brought up in an Orthodox Church. You might want to look back a ways in this thread to the article by Met. Philaret of New York. He has a very good handle on Christianity and all of it’s faith traditions.


      • Anastasios

        This is Robert Araraki’s blog, not David’s.

  27. David

    Thanks Larry,

    Was not trying to insult you — just seeing things as they are now.
    Oh, and FYI…I’m soon 61 and was 34+ yrs a Reformed Presbyterian
    (twice PCA Elder) after being raised Southern Bapt. I remember
    well being where you are, content, satisfied and my Ref. Presbyerianism
    for over 30 years. Then at 57 I took the dare of some Orthodox friends
    and started seriously reading and allowing myself to argue and be
    challenged by their writings. So I can sense when one much like me
    is not really ready. God speed to you brother.

    • Larry Gray


      I appreciate the message and the thought behind it. By the way, I am now 62 so we are both in the same boat there. It is interesting that you were a Southern Baptist, then Presbyterian and now Orthodox, that’s quite a religious resume, but I am glad that you have found a faith that sustains you. My being a Presbyterian is not something that I deliberately chose, so to speak. My Scottish heritage, as well as my Presbyterianism, is ingrained deeply into my soul. My great-great-great-great-Grandfather Thomas Gray and his wife, Mary along with their four sons, came to this country in 1792 from Skibo, Scotland, because of English religious intolerance and the enclosing of common lands, that left them no choice but to emigrate. My three times great Grandfather, James Gray, had his son, my two times great Grandfather, Absolom Gray. My great Grandfather was Benjamin Franklin Gray, my Grandfather was Walter Franklin Gray, my Father is Walter Wayne Gray, and I am Larry Wayne Gray. My brother, Brian, has two sons, Travis Wayne Gray and Tyler Franklin Gray. The reason I went into this rather lengthy recital was to give you some idea of the family bonds and religious heritage that are as much a part of me as my right arm, and just as indispensable, in the fullest meaning of that word.
      I also wish you God speed and many years of health, happiness and family.


  28. Paula


    What brings you to this website then?

    • Larry Gray


      Evidently my membership on this blog is not desired so I will cancel my membership now.


      • robertar


        IF you are not really that ready to reconsider your ecclesio-theological positions at this time, perhaps it might be best if you came back later at a better time?

        Meanwhile, you are most welcome to read articles and lurk as long as you wish…and even occasionally comment. It’s all up to you …no one is kicking you off the Blog or even asking you to leave now.


      • Paula

        Hi Larry,

        I am not at all trying to say you are unwelcome. I’m just curious about your participation due to the purpose of this site.

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