A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Icons and the Veneration of Saints

Venerating The Icon of Christ in Colorado

Wesley and Kevin made a number of comments that I thought were thoughtful and substantive.  Rather than bury my response in the comments I decided to post them in this blog posting.  I’ve expanded my defense of the veneration of icons by discussing the different ontologies between the Reformed and Orthodox traditions and a discussion of the Protestant principle of soli deo gloria (to God alone be the glory).


No Depicting of God,   No Religious Devotion to Images

Wesley wrote,

The Second Commandment makes a strict prohibition against the depicting of God and against the offering of religious devotion to images. The concern of Exodus is that no one tries to depict God as a creature in an image, and that no one treats an image with religious devotion. (I am repetitive here to emphasize the point.)

With respect to the first point Wesley made a good point, one that the early church fathers would agree with.  I noted in my earlier blog posting “Calvin vs. the Icon”:

John of Damascus anticipated the main thrust of Calvin’s argument against icons when he argued that the Old Testament injunction against images was given in order to prevent the Israelites from attempting to represent the invisible God.  He noted however that the situation changed with the Incarnation.

It is clearly a prohibition against representing the invisible God.  But when you see Him who has no body become man for you, then you will make representations of His human aspect.  When the Invisible, having clothed Himself in the flesh, become visible, then represent the likeness of Him who has appeared.  When He who, having been the consubstantial Image of the Father, emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant, thus becoming bound in quantity and quality, having taken on the carnal image, then paint and make visible to everyone Him who desired to become visible (in Ouspensky 1978:44).

With respect to treating “an image with religious devotion” there is a whole word study section ‘The Philological Argument’ in my article “Calvin Versus The Icon” about the distinction between worship of the true God, idolatry which is worship offered to any but God, and veneration which we see the saints of old giving to men.  What matters is the intent behind the action, not just the act itself.  In Genesis 43:28 we read of Joseph and his brothers: “And they bowed low to pay him honor.”   Similarly, when Abraham entered into negotiations with his Hittite hosts he showed them extreme courtesy by bowing to them (Genesis 23:7, 12).  This is radically different from Revelation 19:10 in which the angel rebuked John, not for falling on his face, but for intending to give him worship (as indicated by the infinitive form προσκυνησαι).

For further reading I recommend Timothy Copple and Patrick Barne’s article “Presumptuous Propositions.”

Icons and True Worship

Wesley wrote:

Your statement that we “cannot have truly Christian worship in a place where icons are purposefully excluded” is, to be candid, ridiculous. The Father is seeking those who will worship him in spirit and in truth. If we can worship the Father in spirit and in truth without the use of icons, then your statement is proven false, and Nicaea II is simply dead wrong. When the Ecumenical Councils speak against or out of harmony with the Scriptures on any point, they ipso facto do not speak for the Church on that point.

First, of all in an inter-faith dialogue like this one should be very careful about using pejorative adjectives like “ridiculous.”  I make it a point never to call a student’s question “stupid.”  Derogatory labels can have a chilling effect on open dialogue.  I would prefer something like: “I strongly disagree with that.”

Second, Jesus’ statement in John 4:24 that God is to be worshiped in spirit and truth can be understood as referring to God being worshiped in the Spirit (the Holy Spirit) and in Truth (Jesus), i.e., the Trinity.  If you are asserting that “worship in spirit” means disembodied worship then I think that interpretation has gnostic implications I am not comfortable with.  So your refutation of Nicea II on the basis of John 4:24 is based upon one particular interpretation.  Nicea II rests upon a broader hermeneutical tradition.  I would challenge you to show the hermeneutical tradition behind your interpretation of John 4:24.  Who among the church fathers supports you?

Internal Apostolic Tradition

Wesley accepts the idea of apostolic succession at least in the sense of the handing on of a set of teachings:

Third, if there is this distinction between internal and external apostolic succession, it only favors Protestants, for it allows for there to be the existence of one without the other. For example, he [Kabane] mentions that Roman Catholicism has the external succession of ordination without having maintained the internal succession of faith. I would say, in the very least, the Reformed faith-tradition has maintained the internal succession without maintaining the external.

Wesley claims that the Reformed tradition is legitimate because it rests on a historical tradition just as much as Eastern Orthodoxy:

…the Reformed faith-tradition may possibly be acknowledged and accepted as a legitimate or authentic expression or form of Christianity since it possibly possesses an internal apostolic succession of faith and truth. I would contend it is indeed the case that the Reformed faith-tradition has maintained the true faith.

I believe that Kabane accurately represented the Orthodox understanding of the importance of internal apostolic succession along with external apostolic succession.  Whether or not the Reformed tradition is rooted in an internal apostolic succession has yet to be proven.

To prove his assertion Wesley would need to do the following: (1) list the main points where the Reformed tradition differs from the Orthodox tradition and (2) provide historical evidence of a continuous patristic tradition that affirm the Reformed doctrine or practice.  The word “continuous” means that one or two isolated quotations will not suffice but rather a number of citations and conciliar decisions that meet the criteria of the Vincentian canon.

Mere Practice and  When Scripture is Silent

Kevin writes:

...such is an argument from silence since there is nowhere recorded in the Scriptures such things for the treatment of icons of saints, Jesus Christ, or God.  Whatever later Jewish or even Christian tradition has done in various places in the history of God’s people is also irrelevant since mere practice does not equate to endorsement by the Scriptures of the same.  The history may inform our view but it does not require us to submit to its witness.

If I understand Kevin correctly he is not dismissing the usefulness of history, rather he is insisting that whatever lessons we might learn from history never rises to the rank of Scripture.  Furthermore should they differ, history yields to Scripture.  The Orthodox position is that the Apostles commanded an equal respect for their Tradition within the text of Scripture.  The Church functioned on the basis of that prior regard for Tradition before settling in Council just which texts should be regarded as Scripture.  The early church read Scripture within the context of Tradition, nowhere drawing a bright red line like the Protestants who a thousand years later would subordinate Tradition to Scripture.  We must not be selective in our approach to history, taking only what we like and trashing history or the Tradition of the Church whenever it contradicts our own new Tradition.  Nor can we claim that our new Tradition is pure biblical exegesis when it is divorced from the Tradition the Apostles commanded their disciples to obey.

So what does one do in the face of competing Tradition(s)?  I would say: by finding the True Church.  If you leave the Holy Spirit out of the equation in I Timothy 3:15 the result is rationalistic argumentation.

Protestants have a low view of the Visible Church (the Church Militant); it can be divided, contain an admixture of truth and error (hence the many denominations), and is not seen as the pillar and ground of truth (I Timothy 3:15).  For Protestants there is no true, visible Church, and no continual, trustworthy corporate guidance from the Holy Spirit (i.e., the Holy Spirit guidance is only for individual Christians).  This low view of the visible church is understandable in light of the excesses of medieval Catholicism which sparked the Protestant Reformation.  But once I found the Church that Paul spoke of in I Timothy 3:15, I found stability for my doctrine and for my reading of Scripture. I believed that her dogmas were all true, that the Holy Spirit has infallibly guided and preserved her since Pentecost.  The Holy Fathers of every Ecumenical Councils believed this.  Shouldn’t you?  Vladimir Lossky wrote: “Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”  Thus, Tradition does not stand over the Church; rather the Church preserves, passes on, and proclaims her Tradition.  From our perspective the Protestants seem to view Scripture as something that fell from heaven like the Koran, and that the Church is just some fallible, human organization which is accountable to an external Book.  God promised in the Old Testament the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell the people of God.  The Church is the “pillar of truth” preserving the Apostolic tradition in both written and oral forms.

Note: this paragraph is a paraphrase of Patrick Barnes remarks found in Robin Phillips’ site Robin’s Readings and Reflections “Debate: Is Protestantism Heretical?” (01-Aug-2008) in the section titled “Patrick 4.”

So when I assert that the icons are biblical I meant it in the sense that Scripture teaches the use of images in worship and that there are other passages that are congruent with the Orthodox use of icons in worship.  If one is looking for specific passages that refer to two dimensional painted images of Christ and the saints hanging in Christian churches I will be among the first to say that the Bible does not teach that.  But the early Church did not operate on that basis and neither does the Orthodox Church.

Contrary to what Kevin may think Orthodoxy does not construct its theology upon history.  It constructs its theology upon the interpretation of Scripture informed by an oral tradition that goes back to the Apostles.  What Kevin thinks of as “mere practice” needs to be understood in relation to an ongoing traditioning process.  So Kevin is right when he asserts that just because something was done long ago it does not make it binding on Christians today; but if this practice is rooted in the Apostolic tradition that is a whole different story.  Again it is important that we keep in mind the distinction between small “t” tradition and capital “T” Tradition.  A small “t” tradition even if it possesses considerable antiquity is not necessarily binding on the Church catholic.

Kevin’s dismissal of history is indicative a modern Protestant mindset.  In much of the Bible, theology was done through history, i.e., historical narrative.  Many Protestants seems to favor abstract propositions for the construction of theology.  This is one way of doing theology but it is a narrow and constricting approach.  The Christian Faith cannot be reduced to “me and the Bible”; it is a corporate faith.  We share a common confession with a particular faith community.  Moreover, unless we desire to be part of a novel cult, our faith community must be able to trace its roots historically back to the Apostles of Christ.  Orthodoxy is not based on “mere history,” but on a traditioning process substantiated by historical evidence.  Kevin’s dismissal of history is indicative of his isolation from a historical tradition.  His faith runs the risk of becoming an abstract philosophy or a library tradition rather than a faith rooted in a living ecclesial tradition.

Ontology Behind the Orthodox Veneration of Icons and Reformed Iconoclasm

Wesley writes:

So making icons of creatures with the explicit understanding that the icon is not a depiction of God is acceptable. Owning such icons and displaying them in one’s home or in places of public worship are also acceptable. But venerating icons by religiously touching them, kissing them, bowing down to them, using them in prayer, or praying to whoever or whatever is depicted is a violation of the Second Commandment, plain and simple. Are we really to believe that if Moses had seen a Jew in the camp of Israel bowing down in prayer and veneration before the images of the Cherubim woven into the curtain of the Tabernacle, that Moses would have accepted the distinction of dulia and latria? I hardly think so. Soli Deo Gloria! No religious devotion (glory) is to be given to anyone or anything but God alone, and the veneration and devotional use of icons are clearly religious devotion. The Second Commandment prohibits this practice explicitly. When anyone violates the Second Commandment with an otherwise “innocent icon,” that icon becomes an idol, and the religious devotion becomes idolatry. This is exactly what Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians are doing.

Venerating the Icon of Saints Peter and Paul

The most common way of venerating an icon is to kiss the icon.  When Orthodox Christians enter the church they kiss the icon of Christ or bow their heads briefly as a sign of respect and confession of Christ’s lordship.  They also kiss the icons of the saints or touch the icon briefly as a gesture of affection.

This practice has biblical roots.  St. Paul wrote in several of his letters: “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; I Thessalonians 5:26).  St. Peter wrote the same thing in I Peter 5:14.  The Bible also contains references to people kissing Christ.  In Luke 7:45 Jesus rebuked his host for omitting the common courtesy of greeting him with a kiss.  In Psalm 2:12, a Messianic psalm, we find the admonition: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way…. (NIV)”

Much of Protestant iconoclasm rests on ontology.  A huge chasm in how they understand the structure of reality separates the Reformed tradition from Orthodoxy.  Protestants for the most part view reality as two distinct and separate realms: the physical and the spiritual.  Divine revelation takes place principally by means of a divinely inspired text; other sources of knowledge are subordinate to the sacred text, the Bible.  The Reformed tradition is for the most part anti-sacramental.  It rejects the notion of sacraments, i.e., divine grace conveyed through physical objects.  This is especially the case with modern American Presbyterianism.  But in the case of Calvin himself and Mercersburg Theology there is an openness to divine grace conveyed spiritually through the physical object (water/bread/wine) but not in direct connection with the material object.  For the Reformed Christian, the physical matter wine/bread/water is necessary for the spiritual blessing to occur but there is no spiritual benefit in the physical object per se.

For many Protestants baptism is understood as an outward sign of one’s inner faith in Christ.  Holy Communion likewise for many Protestants is an intellectual exercise in which the elements serve to remind us of Christ’s death on the cross and stimulate our faith in Christ.  The ontology of the Protestant tradition allows for divine revelation principally in an intellectual form hence the stress on propositional content in theology and the emphasis on the study of the Bible in discipleship.

The Orthodox understanding of reality is that the physical and the spiritual overlap, i.e., there is an integration or synergy between the material and the spiritual.  We do not draw a clear cut distinction between the physical and the spiritual; rather we draw the distinction between the created cosmos (which is both physical and spiritual) and the Uncreated Creator.  The ontology of the Orthodox world view allows for the possibility of sacraments: the waters of baptism conveying the grace of regeneration; the Bible as both the human word and the word of God; and the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  Orthodox approach ontology is not a dichotomistic either-or like in Protestantism but rather both-and.

The Protestant either-or worldview extends to the after life.  Protestants are adamantly opposed to praying for the dead or asking the intercession of the departed saints.  If one thinks about it this worldview separates the church militant from the church triumphant.  One could even say that this is an act of schism.  Furthermore, this assumption is a repudiation of the line in the Apostles Creed about the communion of saints.  Thus, the Protestant staunch belief in this ontological divide means that icons of the saints are mere pictures that at best serve as reminders or teaching aids but cannot connect us with the departed saints who are beyond our mental imaginations.

Venerating the Icon in Nashville, TN

The Orthodox both-and worldview opens the way for the idea of the communion of saints, a very ancient teaching as evidenced by the Apostles Creed affirmation of the communion of saints.  It means that those who have fallen asleep in the Lord are now part of the great cloud of witness in Hebrews 12:1.  Christ’s resurrection has shattered the gates of Hell.  Where before death resulted in an uncrossable chasm, with Christ’s Paschal victory the wall of separation between living and the dead has become tenuous.

So when Orthodox Christians venerate icons they are showing love and respect not to the two dimensional images but to the persons depicted in these images.  For the Orthodox the departed saints are not far from us.  Because we along with the departed saints are alive in Christ and because Christ has conquered death not even death can break this fellowship we have with each other.  That is why the early Church in the Apostles Creed confessed its belief in the “communion of saints.”  The saints are not abstract historical figures but beloved family members whom we love and who we pray with.  In the Divine Liturgy the church militant here on earth and the church triumphant in heaven are united around the throne the God.  This calls for a major readjustment in the Western mindset to integrate the physical and spiritual dimensions as Scripture, the Fathers, and the ancient liturgies have done.

From a pastoral perspective the Orthodox worldview offers comfort for those recently bereaved.  If you saw a widower standing over a grave telling his beloved wife how much he missed her, would you tell him that he’s committing a sin?  Or would you tell him that this is a good form of emotional release?  Wouldn’t it be better to say that she’s with the Lord and that she’s part of the great cloud of witness who are praying for us?

I suspect that part of what lies behind many Protestants’ iconoclasm is the physicality of the  act of venerating icons.  So much (most) of Protestant worship is cerebral; one sings songs and listens to the sermon.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  If Martin Luther did not have a problem with a physical gesture of making the sign of the Cross then it’s not that big a jump to kissing the Bible or a cross.  Love involves outward visible expression.  Can one love someone without showing it?    St. John admonishes us in I John 4:18 to love in word and in truth.

There are passages in the Bible that point to physical actions having spiritual significance.  In Mark 5:27-30 we read about a sick woman who by touching Jesus’ clothes received physical healing.  Her healing was the result of her faith in Jesus and power going out from him into her body.  In Acts 5:15 we read of Peter’s shadow having a healing effect on people.  In II Timothy 1:6 Paul reminds Timothy of the spiritual charism that he received through the laying on of hands, i.e., his consecration to the ministry.  In Isaiah 6 we see the angel telling Isaiah:

See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.

The physical contact of the coal with Isaiah’s lips is not magic but a sacramental act.  Isaiah was spiritually ready to receive this hot fiery coal that not even a seraph could handle by his confession of his sinful state.

What I am trying to show here is that when Orthodox Christians kiss an icon or touch an icon with their fingers they are engaging in a mind-body-spirit action that reaches across from this physical dimension into the heavenly dimension.  In Orthodoxy we access the spiritual dimension with both our minds and our bodies, the Reformed tradition seems to access the spiritual dimension principally through the intellect.

Orthodox Veneration of the Saints vs. Protestant Soli Deo Gloria

Wesley objects to the veneration of the saints by invoking the principle of soli deo gloria.  But the mere invoking of a slogan is not enough.  Wesley must show the biblical basis for making this assertion.  My response is that the denial that the saints are vessels of glory is contrary to Scripture.  Because humanity is created in the image of God, we were created for glory and we were created to give glory to God.  In Psalm 8:6 we read:

You made him a little lower than the angels;

You crowned him with glory and honor (NKJV).

Paul understood glory to be part of the human condition.  In I Corinthians 11:7 he writes:

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God…. (NIV)

Glory or fame is one of the blessings God bestows on his followers.  In Genesis 12:2 God promises Abram: “I will make your name great.”  In Psalm 84 we read of Yahweh bestowing glory on his followers:

He will give grace and glory (Psalm 84:11 NKV)

In Psalm 149 we read:

The holy ones shall boast in glory. (vs. 5 NKJV)

This glory have all the holy ones. (vs. 9 NKJV)

Where “glory” can be taken to mean fame in this present life, in the book of Daniel we find a prophecy that point to God bestowing eternal glory on his followers:

Those who understand shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and some who are righteous, like the stars of heaven forever and ever (12:3 NKJV)

In the coming of Christ we find a fulfillment of the Old Testament promises.  For much of his earthly life Jesus’ divine glory was  concealed with several exceptions.  One was the theophany on the Mount of Transfiguration.  What is interesting is the account in Luke which records that Moses and Elijah “appeared in glorious splendor” talking with Jesus (Luke 9:30-31).  Just before his Passion Jesus prayed for the Christians:

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one (John 17:22; NIV)

Furthermore, our glorification is just as much a part of our salvation as our justification.  Paul wrote:

And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:3; NIV)

The glorification of the saints does not detract from God’s glory but rather enhances it.  Paul writes in II Thessalonians 1:10:

…when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed.  (NKJV; emphasis added)

Our glory comes from our being united with Christ and our living for Christ.  Paul writes in I Corinthians 10:31:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (NIV)

To conclude, our glory is not independent of God’s glory.  It is rooted in the synergy of our salvation in Christ.  We were created in the image of God and we were created to give glory to God.  To the extent the saints are glorified God is glorified even more.  Orthodoxy takes a both-and approach to glory; this allows for the honoring of those whose lives exemplified Christian discipleship.  In venerating the saints the church militant on earth affirms its fellowship with the church triumphant in heaven.  The Protestant either-or understanding in the soli deo gloria greatly weakens our link to the church triumphant.  This can be seen in the widespread neglect of church history among Protestants.

The clearest explanation of the relation of God’s glory and our salvation in Christ is to be found in C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Weight of Glory.”  He points out that glory does not mean shining like a light bulb but rather being praised by God for being a good and faithful servant.  Thus, the icons hanging on the walls of an Orthodox church are like a portrait gallery of the heroes of the faith.  This is much like the way we honor athletes who through their hard work won regional championships or the way we honor who served the nation through their sacrifice and bravery.

If Reformed Christians seek to rigorously apply the principle of soli deo gloria they would need to advocate the emptying of trophy cases in high schools honoring the football teams and the removal of portraits of veterans who served their country.  However, I’m sure Reformed Christians like Wesley would recognize the benefit of the secular practice of honoring those who exemplify our community’s values and ideals.

Therefore, the Protestant tenet soli deo gloria is unbiblical.  Based upon the above analysis I am persuaded that Scripture supports Orthodoxy’s both-and approach of God being glorified in his saints, and refutes the Protestant either-or understanding which ascribes glory exclusively to God.  I strongly suspect that soli deo gloria was formulated as a reaction to the excesses of medieval Roman Catholicism.  If Wesley wants to invoke the principle of soli deo gloria against the Orthodox veneration of the saints he needs to: (1) show how this principle is grounded in Scripture, (2) how Scripture contradicts the Orthodox veneration of the saints, and (3) how the Protestant soli deo gloria is not a theological novelty but part of the historic Christian faith in the first millennium.

Robert Arakaki

Return to Top.     Home.


  1. Karen

    Thanks so much, Robert. “God is,” indeed, “wondrous in His saints.” I remember singing many times in my childhood Methodist Church that great old hymn “The Church’s One Foundation.” That line about “mystic, sweet communion with those whose rest is won” was not much more than pious sentiment to me at the time. Now it has become a living, experiential reality. “The saints are not abstract historical figures but beloved family members whom we love and who we pray with.” Yes, indeed.

    I think there is a certain cultural or ego-centrism about automatically defining the action of another as something (in this case, idolatry) without first exploring the inner attitude and understanding of the one performing the action. Did Jesus do that, or did He point to the intent of the heart first and foremost? “What matters is the intent behind the action, not just the act itself.” I watched a documentary series called “The Long Search” where a British (Anglican) journalist explores each of the world’s great faith traditions. He goes to Romania to explore Orthodoxy. When he asks a Romanian woman what she is doing when she kisses the icons, she says “Paying respect.” I hope more Protestants will listen to Orthodox testimony (historic as in St. John of Damascus) as well as their contemporary Orthodox brothers and sisters before rushing to prejudgment on this issue based on a particular interpretation and application of Scripture.

  2. Karen

    The Reformed interpretation of the biblical prohibition of the worship of “idols,” with its emphasis that it is the act of bowing, etc., toward an object of religious art, where the use of an object itself is understood to be central to such “idolatry” can obscure for some what is in fact the real reason for the Scripture’s prohibition (see 1 Cor. 10:19-20). Case in point: a couple of years ago, I came across the blog post of a Hindu objecting to Christians’ accusations of him as an idolator (he seemed very aware of idolatry in its ritual physical aspect being ridiculed by Christians on the basis of the logic found in Isaiah 44:9-20, for example). This Hindu insisted he was not an idolator because a Hindu does not worship the object (physical idol) itself, but rather the *spirit* that inhabits the object or that the object represents! Meanwhile, an Orthodox does not understand the Lord or the Saints to inhabit their icons, but he does understand that the Orthodox icon is a physical aid to worship that takes into account the necessarily embodied expression of our worship and that the worship or honor/veneration (note: again, in Orthodox understanding veneration and worship are *not* synonymous terms) is referred to that which is depicted, not to paint on wood.

  3. Jack

    I enjoyed reading this article. As a former Protestant who was a youth pastor for 8 years but is now a catechumen (thank you Lord) I can easily say the potential for idolatry is as great in Protestantism as it is in Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, there are some on both sides that characterize the other in ways that are not accurate nor gracious.

    Contemporary worship music played a significant role in the churches I attended when I was Protestant…in some cases it played too significant of a role. The icon I have in my room is like a painted worship song of Christ. It brings to memory the melody of Christ and invokes in me a response of worship to God.

    Given the prevalence of images of Christ in Protestant churches this really isn’t about whether Jesus should be painted it’s simply about the uneasiness some Protestants feel towards expressions of worship that are not centered around patterns of experience they are used to.

    • robertar


      Welcome to the discussion on the OrthodoxBridge! Thank you for sharing your insights with us.

  4. Anthony

    I found this a very interesting and thought-provoking discussion, particularly the point about the Reformed tradition separating the material and the spiritual. Sometimes they seem to forget that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

    When I was new to Orthodoxy, I worshipped in a house church – literally a house, which had a chapel in the basement. As I arrived, other parishioners would be gathering upstairs and we would take one another by the hand and kiss each other on the cheek three times in greeting. If I was early, and the priest was not yet in the altar, I would bow down to him and also kiss his hand in greeting. How strange it would have felt to then enter the chapel itself and not bow down and give a loving kiss to the icons of Christ, His Mother and the Saints!

  5. Lurker

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


    • robertar


      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! Thank you for your questions.

      First, I would like to encourage all my readers to avoid acronyms like “ECF.” It took me several minutes to guess that you meant “early church fathers.” Commonly known acronyms like USA, UN, USSR are okay. Acronyms like PCA, OPC, CREC, UMC, UCC should be avoided unless the immediate context makes it clear to the reader what you are referring to. Keep in mind that we have visitors from a wide variety of backgrounds and they may not be well acquainted with our lingo.

      Second, regarding your assertion that “there aren’t many pieces of evidence from the first century about prayer to the saints or the veneration of the Theotokos,” I would say that while the evidence is not abundant, there is evidence from the very early period, possibly as early as the first century. What I plan to do is present the evidence in support of the Orthodox understanding of the veneration of the saints in a few days. That should give you or Wesley time to do research in support of your position. And I’ll address your statement concerning the “communion of saints.” BTW, just for clarity, will you be representing the Reformed position or a broader Protestant Evangelical position?


      • Lurker

        I apologize for the use of EFC. I’ll keep that in mind in the future.

        Actually, I was trying to play devil’s advocate. I myself am Orthodox but I thought it helpful to ask the question about justification historically for these practices. While I do believe that there is evidence, as you yourself have said there are more than a few folks here from a variety of backgrounds who will not just take your word for it that such evidence exists. I look forward to what you have to write about concerning such evidence and the phrase “communion of the saints”. Forgive me, I was only trying to be fair in regards to the evidence presented (or in this case, the lack thereof). I should probably have made my background clear from the start in order to avoid confusion.


        • robertar


          Thank you for the clarification. And thank you for being forthright about your background. I prefer the more straightforward approach of asking that both sides present their evidence. However, I do appreciate your question as it has forced me to do further research on the subject matter. And I hope those from the Reformed tradition will be able to present evidence in support of their position.


    • Matthew N. Petersen

      I should add that we glorify God further by saying that He has glorified His saints, and thus praising him by delighting in his work of glorifying them, than we do by saying he cannot glorify people, or if he does, we should not praise him for it, and delight in it by lauding their glory. Of course, the questions still needs to be addressed whether Orthodox glorification of saints is the correct sort of glorification.

      This also seems consistent with solo deo gloria. When we honor–that is glorify–Luther on reformation day, we are not, simply as such, disobeying solo deo gloria. When we listen to Bach, and praise Bach, we are not departing necessarily refusing to give all the glory to God.

      It is also worth noting that though Solo Deo Gloria is Protestant, similar phrases are used by all Christians. Bach signed his works SDG–Solo Deo Gloria–but Jesuits have AMDG as their motto “Ad majorem deo gloria” “for the greater glory of God”, and Fr. Stephen, reflecting Orthodox practice, titles his blog “Glory to God for all things.”

      • Karen

        Further, Fr. Stephen draws the title of his blog “Glory to God for all Things” from the last words of St. John Chrysostom.

  6. Iconodule

    I thoroughly enjoyed the article and perhaps it is my obvious bias being only but a catechumen but I can offer no real contradictions, except maybe one you might like to address regarding St John Damascene’s argument regarding the incarnation and how we can depict Christ. Traditionally verses in genesis have been thought to have been epiphaniess of God to men, I immediately think of the three angels coming to blessed Abraham and him bowing down and worsipping them (if I understand the text correctly), so if God appeared before hand, and still comandeded that the making of images representing himself to be bad, does that therefore nulify sacred Icons? Since Christ’s appearance might also be like the theophanies? Or is there a distinction to be made between these appearances of God in the Old and new testament? Would much appreciate a responce 😀

    God bless and keep up the wonderful work.

  7. Iconodule

    Lulz I meant Theophanies.

  8. David

    For what it’s worth, here’s Wikipedia’s History section (note: the Heidelberg Catechism is Protestant). Helpful? But it doesn’t really clear up the ‘nature’ of just what that “communion” consists of between the living saints, and the dead in Christ saints. Will look further. (Oughta be a sermon/article on this from an early Father?) My current Reformed pastor (interestingly) has emphasised this far better the past 12 yrs…but don’t remember specific sermons on this (nature/implications) in past.

    Also enjoyed Robt’s ontological arguments…but wondered IF the 7th Eccum. Council fleshed out WHY the presence and use of Icons is NECESSARY. I’m appreciative/alert to my Protestant tendency to “reduce-to-essentials” (fundamentalism?) rather than embrace the Whole/Fullness — but do the Bishops at the 7th council SAY WHY the presence & use of Icons are NECESSARY. What dangers happen if they aren’t? Does the Spiritual & Physical realities of life get too partitioned/divided off against each other (re: Francis Schaeffer’s Upper/Lower stories)? Thinking ‘nature-of-reality’ here???

    “History (Wiki…)

    The earliest known use of this term to refer to the belief in a mystical bond uniting both the living and the dead in a confirmed hope and love is by Saint Nicetas of Remesiana (ca. 335–414); the term has since then played a central role in formulations of the Christian creed.[3]

    The doctrine of the communion of saints is based on 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul compares Christians to a single body.

    The words translated into English as “saints” can refer to Christians, who, whatever their personal sanctity as individuals, are called holy because they are consecrated to God and Christ. This usage of the word “saints” is found some fifty times in the New Testament.

    The Heidelberg Catechism defends this view, citing Romans 8:32, 1 Corinthians 6:17 and 1 John 1:3 to claim that all members of Christ have communion with him, and are recipients of all his gifts.

    The persons who are linked in this communion include those who have died and whom Hebrews 12:1 pictures as a cloud of witnesses encompassing Christians on earth. In the same chapter, Hebrews 12:22-23 says Christians on earth “have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.”

  9. Russ Warren

    Thank you, Robert, for this explanation. I look forward to your deeper discussion of “communion of saints” (Calvin’s “Defense of the Reformation” takes an interesting tack on this — basically whether or not the saints are active in heaven he claims an agnosticism).

    One quick point: no matter how many times John of Damascus is brought up, it isn’t going to get any hard core Reformed person to change their mind about icons. Why? He isn’t biblical. While we do believe in the Incarnation (I do get tired, and please forgive my audacity here, of hearing from various Orthodox — both on the lay and clerical levels — that because we don’t have icons we don’t believe in the Incarnation; it simply isn’t true), we don’t necessarily see any justification in the New Testament itself that the 2nd commandment has been substantially changed (even John, whom I see as the most “Orthodox” apostle, reminds us at the end of his first epistle to “Little children, keep yourselves from idols”). It is true that “he who has seen me has seen the Father,” but “seen” can be used metaphorically to mean “understand” or to “know” (in the participatory sense: the one who is participating in Christ is participating in the Father). The list could go on.

    In the end, and this may be the roadblock that we hit again and again in our dialogues, the question is what role Scripture has within Tradition (I think it is a bit myopic for some, certainly not all, Reformed to still speak as if Tradition is an escapable reality): can Scriptural exegesis (whether Christological, historical-critical, grammatical-historical, redemptive-historical, or whatever mode you please) challenge and readjust the liturgical and ecclesiastical traditions? Even ones that go back millennia?

    In the Humanities class that I am currently teaching, we just went over the Reformed, Lutheran, Anabaptist, and Tridentine arguments concerning images in worship (the nice thing in my class is that we have a cradle and committed Roman Catholic and an Orthodox catechumen — the dialogue is fantastic): one of the main reasons that the Reformers (especially Luther and Calvin) were at least semi-iconoclastic (Luther in mind here) was because of the possible excess — the focus on Christ could, and often was, lost in popular piety. The icons took the place of the living Christ, the saints and Christ were considered on the same level of intercessory power, and folks brought offerings to the icons themselves, instead of to Christ through the Church. What is the Orthodox Tradition (which, of course, was not a main concern of the Reformers) doing to make sure that your understanding of icons (nicely nuanced as it is) is being held to by the rank-and-file, especially amongst the ethnic enclaves which are (stereotypically at least) fairly nominal in their actual engagement of the Church’s official dogmas and explanations?

    Well, that wasn’t “one quick point.” Sorry for misleading you. As always, I am appreciative of the dialogue here and hope that together we can achieve the advancement of Christ’s Gospel in this, and other, lands.

    • Russ Warren

      Upon re-reading this, when I said John of Damascus wasn’t “biblical,” I meant no slight against his theology, just that it doesn’t arise out of the text of the New Testament itself. My apologies.

    • robertar


      You brought up a number of good points and I am writing my response to them. I plan to post my response in a separate blog posting shortly. Thank you for your positive tone and candor, they help deepen the dialogue on this blog!


      • Russ Warren

        I do try to keep things civil. My apologies if the one on the “Veneration” wasn’t as much so. My only excuse is the large cocktail of cold medications I’m currently on!

        I do appreciate how these posts are not just bringing forward historical evidence but also providing insight into what our fundamental differences are (such as the nature of authority and certainty).


  10. Kevin D. Johnson


    I have weighed whether or not to respond to this post simply because it contains a number of fundamental misconceptions about Protestantism that would take no small amount of time to correct. I’m not sure it’s possible to reply merely to the comments directly referred as a response earlier ones I’ve made, but I’m going to give this a shot for the moment anyway.

    I do not remember saying that Orthodoxy constructs its theology upon history nor am I dismissing the witness of history like some sort of amnesia-laden modern as Robert erroneously supposes. As a matter of fact, in other contexts I have argued long and hard for the relevance of history concerning subjects like this one. But, history is no small thing to understand, discover, and evaluate going forward. If all this was so obvious to any reader of history, likely there would be little for us to discuss let alone argue about.

    I have insisted that Scripture is primary to our understanding of these issues and that history plays a secondary role. But, it is more than that really. History cannot tell us which behaviors were primary beyond the creedal and conciliar orthodoxy of the first few centuries and the decidedly conflicting witness of the early Fathers. Beyond that, one simply cannot assume that Practice A was universally in place among the entirety of the early Church or that it was an acceptable practice of the Apostles passed down the generations. So even if you could find a first century witness praying to saints. that does not establish the practice as a bona fide apostolic tradition in the least. First of all, pictures on the catacombs are hardly evidence in that regard and say nothing about how those pictures were used. For all we know they were merely illustrations for an ancient children’s sermon! Secondly, there were many aberrant practices and doctrines even during the early years of the apostolic era that make it almost impossible to see anything except what is contained in the writings of the early Fathers or the Scriptures as legitimate practice without a great deal of hesitation on the part of someone bringing such “evidence” to the table. So, the establishment of early apostolic or post-apostolic practice prior to the third or fourth century is not as clear cut as some here would like to argue.

    Furthermore, what also cannot be proven is that there is any divergence between the message of the gospel as it is presented in the biblical text and the traditions referred to within the pages of the New Testament. So, even if we grant the supposition that for the Apostles tradition carried equal respect compared to the Scriptures in the end you are no further along in demonstrating the legitimacy of such an idea. Of course, you can posit that additions or developments were made, but you cannot establish it as any sort of fact except to engage in a sort of fideistic leap of faith in an external authority other than the Bible. In other words, you are simply left begging the question.

    The formation of the Canon of the New Testament which you call as witness to argue for equating tradition to the status of Scripture is no help given that for the Apostles the New Testament was largely already functioning as Scripture (cf. 1 Tim 5:8 quoting the Gospel of Luke as Scripture quite without conciliar consent) and the Apostolic Church primarily used the Old Testament as their text going forward until such time as the New Testament books were completed and recognized as canonical by the Church. And, incidentally, no authoritative tradition or act of Church Council added the Old Testament as canonical for the Church at that time. The Apostles and others in the Church merely recognized the Old Testament for what it was–the Word of God. The same was true for the New Testament on the whole when we realize the only likely reason that the NT Canon had to be put together was to avoid the influence of heresy. Given that the New Testament books themselves were already Godbreathed and inherently Scripture — nothing can cancel out the authority of the books even if the Apostolic Church failed to recognize their validity (which did happen on occasion until the matter was eventually settled once for all).

    I would commend you for coming to the point in your logic that you must find the “True Church” in order to determine between competing traditions except for the fact that it is not necessary as a believer in Christ to come to such a point in looking at these issues. The only ones who advocate otherwise are the ones wanting you to join their communion without question. How convenient!

    Simply put, the Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation and is sufficient in that regard (2 Tim 3:15-17). What other men may claim or other authorities attempt to persuade you and others in believing beyond that which the Bible outlines is merely not required for a Christian to believe and does not impinge on the status of a believer once they come to Christ. So, this search for the Holy Grail of the True Church is just as fruitless a pursuit as any sort of pilgrimage designed to add more to your faith than what the Bible outlines.

    I will close here after a few more comments regarding your erroneous assertions of Protestantism. Protestants do not maintain a low view of the visible church as you claim though some evangelicals may. There is a visible church according to many of the Protestant confessions made during and shortly after the Reformation and I’m just aghast at this clear misrepresentation of the Protestant position. Also, the notion that Protestants see the Holy Spirit only working in the life of the individual and not in the Church is pure fiction on your part. You are of course welcome to your perspective but it’s not historically accurate to claim these things and its especially troublesome for a website which claims to want to dialog with Protestants to make such baseless claims. These things are so egregiously in error that there is no need to even quote sources to provide a rebuttal. Any Protestant worth his salt knows how untrue these assertions are. Also, Protestants do not view the Scriptures as having dropped from the heavens like the Koran and here I would point you to the extended work of Bruce Metzger, Kurt and Barbara Aland, and many others that have studied long and hard to develop not only a better and more accurate history of the canon but also to aid in further establishing the witness and science of textual criticism. Last, your notion that Protestants do not have a full doctrine of the communion of the saints in accordance with the Creeds is simply offensive, uninformed, and unwelcome. You are welcome to state the differences, but Protestants most certainly believe in the communion of the saints (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 55). That does not have to mean that we agree with Romanists, the Orthodox, and others who suppose that we must have fellowship and prayer with them on this side of heaven.

    Perhaps some other night I will address your misuse of the actual Scriptures you mention above and your slight on the reformation slogan designed to give glory to God alone. But, for now, this post should give your readers some things to consider.

    • Lurker

      Unless otherwise done so in a previous post, Kevin stands unchallenged. I would hope that someone might respond on this or perhaps even better on the newest post on the justification of icons.

      • robertar


        It could be that no one answered Kevin’s comment above because he merely re-states what’s he has said many times…and has been answered several times before. If you are new to the Blog there is a lot of cogent interchange in previous blog post before that I suspect many are just not interested in restating again, and has not bothered answering this latest redundant comment. If you want to engage Kevin on the issues, you are welcome to do so.


        • Kevin D. Johnson

          LOL. Robert. Some dialog partner you are.

          At any rate, even if you won’t respond to me (and it’s absurd to think that all I’m doing here is repeating myself here or on the other thread above) — you do need to take the time to correct your factual inaccuracies regarding what you’ve stated about Protestantism.

          • robertar


            You would make a much better dialog partner if you took a more civil tone in your comments. Your negative tone is off putting. Furthermore, it makes it harder for me to appreciate the good points you do make from time to time. I urge you to put more effort into taking a more positive tone in your writing. But in response to you and Lurker here is my response.

            Re. Historical Evidence — In the second paragraph you write: “I do not remember saying that Orthodoxy constructs its theology upon history….” But in the following paragraph you argue about the inadequacy of the historical evidence for doing theology. You write: “So even if you could find a first century witness praying to saints that does not establish the practice as a bona fide apostolic tradition in the least.” You are attacking the very thing that you denied attributing to Orthodoxy!

            The historical evidence are external corroboration to the Church’s oral tradition. What is striking about the historical evidence is it shows that the early church bears a much stronger resemblance to the Orthodox Church of today than any Protestant churches. This suggests that Protestant Christianity is a novelty that goes back to the European Reformers of the 1500s but not to the early church.

            Re. Biblical Canon — Your argument based on I Timothy 5:8 is confusing. What does the teaching about the neglect of providing for one’s family have to do with the canon? Your sentence: “And, incidentally, no authoritative tradition or act of Church Council added the Old Testament as canonical for the Church at that time. The Apostles and others in the Church merely recognized the Old Testament for what it was–the Word of God.” The traditioning process in Orthodoxy does not rely solely on church councils shows you don’t quite understand the Orthodox tradtioning process. The acceptance of certain writings as apostolic by the Apostles and their successors, the bishops, is a vital part of the traditioning process. This acceptance was done through the local church’s decision as to what would be read out loud during the Sunday Liturgy.

            What books belong to the New Testament canon is not self evident. For many of the books it was a very easy decision to make, but for others it was much more difficult resulting in the need for decisions by a council. The reason why we have Hebrews in the New Testament and not the Shepherd of Hermas was because of complex process among the early churches. In time a consensus emerged that became part of capital “T” Tradition. Since the New Testament does not provide a list of authorized books, we depend on the listing of books we have received from others. All Christians are recipients of this tradition which identified 27 books as belonging to the New Testament. The unity of the early Church was important for excluding the Marcionite heresy’s attempt to truncate the New Testament canon. Surely, you are not asserting that our listing of 27 books that compriase the New Testament emerged independently of a tradtioning process?

            Re. the Sufficiency of Scripture — You write: “Simply put, the Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation and is sufficient in that regard (2 Tim 3:15-17).” A careful reading of the passage shows that you are paraphrasing that passage and are taking a dogmatic stance based on that paraphrase rather than on a careful exegesis of that passage. What Paul affirms here is the divinely inspired nature of Scripture (Old Testament), and its immense usefulness for spiritual growth and Christian ministry. It takes considerable reading things into the text to make it sound like the Protestant sola scriptura. For the sake of others I will quote the passage you cited:

            …and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (NIV)

            Re. Finding the True Church — the point about the need to find the True Church is that we all belong to a faith tradition. I used to belong to the Congregationalist tradition in Hawaii which traces its roots to New England Puritanism before I became Orthodox. We cannot be Christians independent of the Church. Even John Calvin was clear about that in his Institutes. I find your position on the true Church contradictory. On the one hand you insist that Protestant confessions do affirm the visible Church and yet you also dismiss the search for the true Church as “fruitless” to use your words. First answer me this: Would you affirm that all the various Reformed traditions — the PCUSA, PCA, OPC, RCA, CREC — as part of the visible Church and that all of these belong to the true Church? If not which visible church group does belong to the true church? Second, identify which visible church tradition you belong to.

            Re. the Holy Spirit Working in the Church — The Orthodox would point to the Nicene Creed as one evidence of the Holy Spirit working in the Church producing something that unifies the entire faith community. Can the Protestants point to something similar? What confessional document emerged as a result of the Holy Spirit’s moving among the Protestants and unifies all Protestants? You can take offense at my criticism but is my criticism justified? What evidence is there that the Holy Spirit has moved in Protestantism as a collective whole?

            Re. the Communion of Saints in the Heidelberg Catechism — I took a look at Question 55 and noticed that it doesn’t say anything about the unity between the church militant and the church triumphant. It says:
            First, that believers one and all, as partakers of the Lord Christ, and all his treasures and gifts, shall share in one fellowship. Second, that each one ought to know that he is obliged to use his gifts freely and with joy for the benefit and welfare of other members.

            The answer provided for Question 55 seems to focus principally on the church here on earth. The Scriptural references provided for this Question leaves out Hebrews 11 and 12 and focuses primarily on I Corinthians 12. So while Protestants do affirm the phrase “communion of saints” in the Apostles’ Creed, they understand it in a manner radically different from the early Church. If you wish to prove me wrong, show me a Reformed church that celebrates All Saints Day. The Anglican tradition has held on to this practice through its Middle Way (via media) but the Reformed tradition — from what I know — has rejected this practice.

            Given your concern for factual accuracy, I urge you not to play fast and loose with facts like: (1) I Timothy 5:8, (2) II Timothy 3:15-17, and (3) Heidelberg Catechism Question 55. And it helps if you quote your sources in addition to citing them. Your sloppy scholarship hurts your arguments.


    • Lurker

      Correction: I meant the post on veneration of the saints, not icons. My apologies.

  11. Kevin D. Johnson


    First, 1 Tim 5:8 is the wrong passage. The actual passage is 1 Tim. 5:18 where Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy and Luke in establishing his argument quite without some ‘traditioning process’.

    Second, again, I never said that Orthodoxy constructs its theology upon history nor are my comments trying to establish that in the slightest. Honestly, there is little need to establish such a thing even if it were true. I am merely demonstrating that your assertion that the external witness of history corroborates Orthodox tradition is just not the case. Demonstrating such requires making clear that your position is either unreasonable or without evidence from the pages of history. For example, my comments regarding Athanasius supposed commemoration of Mary and Pelikan’s desire to see plausibility are enough to lend reasonable doubt to the corroboration you think is there. So, in the case of Pelikan and Athanasius I have no need even to say that Pelikan is wrong. The point is that there is no necessary witness in that instance to the supposed corroboration you seek. Call Pelikan’s view plausible all you like, nothing requires a Christian to see it the way you or other Orthodox Christians likely would.

    Of course, it is possible to go the extra mile here and demonstrate that not only is there no necessity to see the corroboration with Orthodox tradition from the pages of history that you seek but also that there are quite possibly further doubts that break in when things are examined more closely. For example, the notion that Pelikan’s view is only “plausible” (Pelikan’s word by the way, not mine) as late as Athanasius’ day (ca. mid-fourth century) shows that the case for a continued veneration of the saints over the life of the early church since the Apostles is much harder to establish if it is even possible at all. And, look what you presented us with in the actual post your wrote that I replied to — unrelated snippets and opinions and the like — none of which conclusively demonstrate any sort of real corroboration with Orthodox tradition from the early centuries of the Church.

    Third, all of what you say about the Canon of the New Testament is simply irrelevant. This traditioning process as you call it is nothing more than the church eventually recognizing the books of the New Testament for what they were, the very words of God. The books did not become such upon the Church’s imprimatur nor did they somehow lack authority in the local churches simply because differing congregations and even some bishops did not have the discernment to immediately understand their worth and authority. It is true, of course, that all Christians today depend upon the actions of the early Church in endorsing the individual books of the New Testament. But, that is quite secondary to the living and active power of the words and books themselves as Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 1.5 says, “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts”.

    And, here, I must take the time to note that this inward witness is not just a witness available to individuals alone but found in the church and among his corporate people as the proof-texts put in place by the Westminster Divines makes quite obvious. Otherwise, what relevance would such a statement have concerning the canon? And so, Protestants recognize with others that the canonical formation of the New Testament was a providential act of God confirmed by the witness of the Spirit both individually and corporately throughout the history of the Church.

    RE: The True Church – the nature of the visible church is such that it does not require seeing one hierarchy, denomination, or even a collection of alphabet soup Reformed denominations as the essential composition of the visible church. Rather, the visible church is composed of “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion…the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.2). The reason we don’t need to go searching for ‘the true church’ is because any church that professes Christ as Lord “catholic under the Gospel” is already true enough for Christians and likely the place they should stay.

    RE: Communion of the Saints, HC Q/A 55.

    Robert, here you must just look closer. First, I’d like to note however that the division of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant are not universal ways to address the reality of what’s being said. So, even though I concur with the descriptions properly understood Protestants can be talking about much the same thing without the corresponding language you are using.

    And, again, look at the proof-texts for the statements on the Heidelberg Catechism. What are the gifts and riches of Christ and are they only limited to believers here on earth or is it quite possible that more is being said here than what you first considered? 1 Cor. 10 notes that even the Israelites were baptized into the cloud and into the sea and the spiritual rock which they drank from was Christ. Paul then goes on to demonstrate how we are all connected to Christ via the Holy Spirit and that certainly is more than an earthly connection. And truly, confessional Protestants well understand the eternal import of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and how his blood ties us all eternally together whether here or in the eschaton. It would be no shock to understand historically that Protestants may want to minimize these connections pastorally in order to avoid the excesses of Rome but it does not at all mean that the communion of the saints is simply a matter of communion down here. Remember Calvin’s very understanding of Real Presence was a lifting of our hearts to the throne room of God present with other believers and especially our Lord. The true communion of the saints is found in eucharistic participation with Christ and by His Spirit and not in the veneration of the saints.

    And, I just have to correct one statement you’ve made. You have yet to establish that the early Church understood the Communion of the Saints different than Protestants. So, at best what you can say conclusively is what I’ve already outlined–Protestants don’t understand it the same way Rome or the Orthodox do. As far as All Saints Day–there are Reformed churches celebrating such things and there is a movement back to using a liturgical calendar. And, I fully support such efforts. The notion that the Anglican way has preserved it as a ‘via media’ is at best a popular myth. In truth, perhaps one of the best witnesses of classical Protestantism minus the last 150 years and the plague of the Oxford Movement was in fact the Anglican Church and as such she deserves a high place in the Reformed world for her historic commitments to what Lancelot Andrewes called ‘One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the fathers of that era’.

    Last, you are welcome of course to disagree with me regarding 2 Tim. 3:15-17 but merely stating it as such doesn’t demonstrate that you are correct. To be more specific, the passage says Timothy knew:

    “the sacred writings, the ones empowering you to be wise into salvation through faith” [a roughly literal translation from yours truly]

    Two points on the grammatical construction here — one is for the verb “empower” as I have above. The participle is in the present tense and speaks to an ongoing action. In other words, this is what the Scriptures continued to make able or empower since Timothy’s infancy. Secondly, the term for “make wise” is an aorist infinitive which implies that the making wise is a one-time event–in other words as the Scriptures work they make you wise to salvation. In Timothy’s case, this happened since infancy until the time that he became convinced (v. 14). Being made wise to salvation is essentially saying the Scriptures are operative here to make a person informed to the point where they can have faith in Christ and salvation in Him. Nothing more is required.

    I wasn’t saying all of sola Scriptura is completely encapsulated here in this passage but only that the Scriptures provide one with what he or she needs to believe in Christ and gain salvation. In other words, Scripture is simply sufficient in that regard. We don’t need more than what the Lord has provided in the Scriptures and Timothy’s testimony via the inspired words of Paul makes that clear. That is not to say however that the context of either a Christian family or church is not normative. Of course these things are good, but the Bible quite clearly says here that the Scriptures make one wise to salvation and nothing else from the standpoint of additional tradition or revelation is required for Christians to be Christian. This is true even if the traditions in question are good and useful for the Church. So, this is why what I originally said is matter-of-fact true:

    “What other men may claim or other authorities attempt to persuade you and others in believing beyond that which the Bible outlines is merely not required for a Christian to believe and does not impinge on the status of a believer once they come to Christ.”

    • Lurker


      It still seems that you prove too much. The question then becomes, why do we need a New Testament when what was known since Timothy’s infancy was the Old Testament.

      • Kevin D. Johnson

        No. We know from verse 16 of 2 Tim. 3 that *every* Scripture is ‘Godbreathed’ (literally, “theopneustos”) even if Paul was originally speaking of the Old Testament. So, by inference the New Testament is undoubtedly included in that statement. For Timothy, of course, the Old Testament is what Paul was referring to in verse 15 and such only strengthens my case. If the Old Testament can lead us to believe in Christ, surely the advent of the New Testament only makes such a thing even more clear for those so affected by its words. There is no need for a further tradition beyond the gospel “once for all delivered to the saints” in the Scriptures to be handed down in order for people to believe Christ sufficient enough for their salvation.

        • robertar


          Re. New Testament Canon — I know now that you really had in mind I Timothy 5:18, but I find it a stretch that this supports the Protestant understanding of canon formation. It would be a big help if you were to articulate the Protestant position on the formation of the New Testament canon then show how I Timothy 5:18 supports it.

          But I believe we are in agreement on the role of the traditioning process in light of your statement: “It is true, of course, that all Christians today depend upon the actions of the early Church in endorsing the individual books of the New Testament.”

          Re. Historical Evidence — I wish you wouldn’t throw out names without citing your sources. You cited Athanasius but failed to cite the title of his writing and the specific page or section numbering. Similarly, you cited Jaroslav Pelikan but failed to provide us the title of his writing and the specific page. This is poor scholarship. I wish you wouldn’t be in such a hurry to write your responses and that you would take your time to do your homework.

          Re. the True Church — You dodged my question with your quip about the “collection of alphabet soup Reformed denominations.” The question wasn’t about how we defined the “true church” but how you would apply the doctrine to the present day situation. So I’m going to repeat the question:

          Would you affirm that all the various Reformed traditions — the PCUSA, PCA, OPC, RCA, CREC — as part of the visible Church and that all of these belong to the true Church? If not which visible church group does belong to the true church? Second, identify which visible church tradition you belong to.

          A straightforward answer from you would be greatly appreciated.

          My point here is that we all belong to a particular faith tradition. You cite the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession of Faith. That’s fine but is that part of your church’s beliefs? Unless I know which faith tradition you come from, I’m guessing you are either a Paper Protestant or a Lone Ranger Protestant both of which are contrary to what Calvin and other Reformers taught about the Church as our Mother. In his section titled “The visible church as mother of believers” Calvin wrote:

          Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation as Isaiah [Isa. 37:32] and Joel [Joel 2:32] testify (Calvin’s Institutes 4.1.3; Battles ed. p. 1016).

          So to rephrase the question above: Who is your mother? What is the name of your church? Unless I know what faith tradition you belong to, I question whether you are qualified to represent the Protestant/Reformed side in this interfaith discussion.

          Re. Heidelberg Catechism Question 55 — here you are going out on a limb trying to put your spin on what the Heidelberg Catechism is “really” teaching about the communion of saints. It would be more convincing if you were cite and quote either one of the Reformers or a recognized authority on Protestant theology. Furthermore you can’t just make an assertion about Calvin’s understanding of the real presence and how it relates to the communion of saints, again you must cite accurately the sources.

          Re. II Timothy 3:15-17 — Your attempt at a detailed exegesis of the Greek text is not relevant to the issue I brought up. First let me quote you again. You wrote: “Simply put, the Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation and is sufficient in that regard (2 Tim 3:15-17).” The key issue here is the word “all” and the word “necessary.” I can agree with you that all Scripture is divinely inspired and I can agree with you that Scripture can make one wise for salvation. But I find it a stretch that this passage teaches that the Bible “contains all that is necessary for salvation.” You are conflating two different sentences to come up with an altogether different sentence. You still haven’t shown how the passage supports your earlier assertion which I quoted. I wish you wouldn’t play fast and loose with the facts and especially with Scripture.

          My advice to you is take your time and do your homework before you write your comments.

          • Kevin D. Johnson

            Robert you write:

            You cited Athanasius but failed to cite the title of his writing and the specific page or section numbering. Similarly, you cited Jaroslav Pelikan but failed to provide us the title of his writing and the specific page. This is poor scholarship. I wish you wouldn’t be in such a hurry to write your responses and that you would take your time to do your homework.

            Your assertion that I’m engaging in poor scholarship is just completely unfounded and offensive. And, this is a blog we’re commenting on not an academic peer review journal–what you’re doing is simply bad form and impolite. As a point of fact, I provided the reference to Pelikan’s work on another post and made it quite clear where you can find the discussion I’m talking about. And, Pelikan’s work provides all the citations you are looking for in the first place so there is no need for me to provide more information. I’m sorry you’re apparently ignorant of the discussion in question and likely haven’t even read Pelikan’s material, but this is what I originally wrote on the thread in question, (cf. comment made on November 6, 4:49am):

            Jaroslav Pelikan in his exceptional work on Mary (Mary Through the Centuries, cf. the chapter on “Theotokos”) takes great pains to demonstrate that Athanasius (ca. 4th century) referred to a Marian commemoration and office in one or two of his letters but does not conclusively argue that such is the case. Instead, the only conclusion he can really come to is that such a thing is plausible from the perspective of history.

            In addition to this information, I also referred to the Sub Tuum Praesidium and provided a link for your readers to consider further its origin and use in the history of the church. So, please do me a favor and refrain from being unnecessarily offensive in saying I’m engaging in poor scholarship. I’d really prefer it if you just dealt with the arguments at hand. Thanks.

          • robertar


            I still stand by my comments about your poor scholarship. I checked your November 6 4:49 am comment and found that it lacked any specific references for Pelikan. How is the reader to know that you are representing Pelikan’s views fairly and accurately? Just take your time and reread your sources and just give us the author’s name, the title of his work, and the page number. You don’t have to be so quick to respond to my comments. Of course this is not a peer review journal but even for undergraduate research papers it is expected that standard citation methods be followed. As it is your “informed” apologia for the Reformed tradition wouldn’t pass muster in a college classroom.

            It’s nice that you provided a link for the Sub Tuum Praesidium but it’s not directly germane to the issue at hand. The focus of my blog posting was the antiquity of the veneration of the saints, not the Virgin Mary in particular. Please check the title for the posting. I found the link interesting and informative and it helped me to appreciate the fact that the veneration of Mary goes back to the third century. This serves as a valuable complement to fresco found in the catacombs dating back to the late second century.

            BTW, you still haven’t answered my question about your church affiliation. Are you a member of a Protestant congregation or are you an unaffiliated Protestant?


        • Orthodoxy

          Matthew 18:17: Jesus Christ makes the Church the “Final Authority”. John 15:16 Jesus Christ Ordains men to operate His Church in which their “fruits” (one of which is the bible) shall “remain”, note there is no time limit on “remain” …thus the Church still exists today…unchanged because Jesus Christ Himself is “unchanged”.

          John 20:21-23, Jesus sends with the same Authority that His Father sent Him unto the world”…the Church has “final authority. Jesus Christ did not send the Holy Scripture out to baptize the world in the name of the Holy Trinity Matthew 28:19-20. These 12 men were “bishops” in the Church because they replaced Judas, who was a bishop by prophesy (acts 1). In every city the apostles ordained “bishops” therefore in every city (Acts 14:23 and Titus 1.5), appointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28), every Christian submits and obeys (Hebrews 13:17 ) to his Bishop to even be called a “christian”. Who is your bishop?

          Note in Acts 8-9…Saul is killing the Church and Jesus asks “why are you persecuting ME”? Saul asks “who are you” and Christ says “Jesus”…Jesus Christ is the Church and the Church is Jesus Christ. He is not a failure as the heterodox would have us believe and His Church needs no reforming or restoring. Fact is one must change for the Church not the Church changing for them. Those on the right not knowing Him do His work, unaware of His Kingship and are “saved” those on the left “know Him” yet ignore His will are cast out. Matthew 25.

          • robertar

            Dear “Orthodoxy,”

            Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! Nice name! 🙂


    • Prometheus

      There are several issues at stake here.

      One I can address is the visible church. I believe what Robert means by visible church is a clearly defined body of believers with a unified theology and practice that is considered “the church.” Typically Protestants cannot affirm this seriously because it begs the question of “which church?” The Orthodox know what they mean when they say The Church.

      The question of scripture is tied up in this. When the church fathers refer to the pedigree of the bishops in the church as evidence that they have the correct scriptures and interpretation of scriptures, it suggests that the early church did not believe that scripture-in-itself was sufficient. The keeper of the teaching of Christ, whether in what would come to be known as the Bible or of other extra-biblical teachings, was the Church. The protestant problem as I see it (still protestant myself) is that we affirm a collection of books without trusting in the witnesses that testify to that collection. The witnesses to the New Testament canon are not 1st century, they are all fourth century and later (with the possible exception of the Muratorian Canon). This being true, how does the protestant have confidence in their list? Why do we accept this one tradition, which the fourth century Christians would never have tried to take out of context of the Church (oh-so-different from our Protestant Churches in theology and practice) and read it apart from the other traditions of the fourth century? It is one thing to say “all scripture is inspired” but it begs the question of “what is scripture?” You can say over and over again that scripture was recognized because it had an inherent quality to it, but how would it have looked to you if you had lived in a place and time when Hebrews or Revelation were being disputed? What would have been your appeal then? You could not appeal to their inspiration, because that was precisely what was in dispute! You might have had to admit, with other church fathers, that the Holy Spirit guides the church to both preserve that which was handed down (tradition) and to rightly discern which traditions are authentic (e.g. the canonizing process). It is so easy for us protestants to forget history, or, when we appeal to it, to fail to envision what it would be like to be part of that history. Anyways, that is my two cents.

      • robertar


        I think you are on the right track with respect to your reasoning. It also reminds me of Scott Hahn’s conundrum. He wrote in Rome Sweet Home (p. 76) an account of a conversation he had with Dr. John Gerstner, one of Evangelicalism’s leading theologians.

        “But, Dr. Gerstner, how can I be certain that it’s really God’s infallible Word that I am reading when I open up Matthew, or Romans, or Galatians?”

        “Like I said, Scott, all we have is a fallible collection of infallible documents.”

        Scott thought about this answer then responded:

        “Then it occurs to me, Dr. Gerstner, that when it comes right down to it, it must be the Bible and the Church–both or neither!”

        You might be wondering why I am quoting a convert to Roman Catholicism. One, Scott graduated from the same seminary I went to (Gordon-Conwell). Two, his analysis of the internal problems of Protestant theology is clear and very insightful. Here we see that our understanding of Scripture cannot be divorced the Church. What unites the two is the mystery of Pentecost in which Christ pours out His Spirit who gives us new life in Christ and guides us into all truth.


        • Prometheus

          “all we have is a fallible collection of infallible documents” This is what boggles the mind! It seems a contradiction. If it is a fallible collection, then some documents may have not made it into the collection that should be in it! Perhaps church tradition should be added! But then, the odd bit is the implication that perhaps the church got it wrong when it collected these documents? Perhaps some of these infallible documents were fallibly (i.e. wrongly) chosen to be part of the canon.

          I know what they are really trying to say – that the church that collected the infallible documents was fallible. Yet it is at this very point that I’ve seen Calvinists argue that their doctrines of grace (rather than free will) are necessary (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0uACs89vhE). Because if God doesn’t “micro-manage” the process of canonicity, we can have no guarantee of the integrity of the canon. Their confidence seems to be in the hidden decree of God rather than in the proclaimed promise that Christ would guide his church.

          But even the Calvinists have problems. For they cannot know if they are elect (cf. Calvin’s use of evanescent grace; http://catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2010/06/assurance-of-salvation-and-evanescent.html). How, then can they know if the books in this “fallible collect” were elect? How do they know that the traditions are not elect? The very definition of God’s hidden counsel is that it is hidden! It seems, then, with many of these writers, that the logical conclusion should be, “I don’t know.”

          Ultimately, whatever Protestant/Reformed group one comes from, the problem remains the same. How do we know that the Bible represents the sum of Christian teaching?

          • robertar


            I see you are wrestling with some of the fundamental issues of Protestant theology. I pray that you will find the mature and stable faith Paul wrote about in Ephesians 4:14-16.


  12. Kevin D. Johnson

    I’m not going to play this game with you, Robert. Stick to the issues. There’ s nothing wrong with what I’ve posted concerning Athanasius and it does not represent poor scholarship. I gave you Pelikan’s title and the chapter in question twice now. Today you can even go look it up on Google Books if you don’t have the book though some of the content may be missing.

  13. Todd

    Though not a Catholic (doubtful I ever will be), your commentary on the either/or mentality in Protestantism is very refreshing. Long before my daughter decided to join the Catholic church, I was becoming increasingly skeptical about this mindset – there are things in scripture that simply don’t add up with that view of the world. In fact, in some ways they lead to nearly Gnostic conclusions which clearly need to be denied. Thank you for a respectful representation of your beliefs, and the number of very good points you’ve made!

    • robertar

      Todd, Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! I appreciate your comment.


  14. Simon Pearson

    Great comments! My journey led me from Charismatic/Pentecostalism to Reformed Theology then by God’s mercy on to Orthodoxy. I was a missionary in China for a time with YWAM. I have been involved in many denominations in this missionary past. But now I have settled and come home to the Orthodox Church. I found rest to many an unanswered question and confusion. Thanks to you all for your efforts on this site.
    Love in Christ,

    • robertar


      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! And welcome home! You’ve had an interesting journey no doubt.


  15. Fr John alassaf

    Thank you God bless you really it is very nice

    • robertar

      Dear Fr. John,

      Thank you very much! I’m glad you liked the article. May God’s blessing be on your ministry.


  16. gerald u

    I will say the Bible itself does not support the Sola Scriptura theology as we can see from the notes below:

    1) Paul says that much Christian teaching is to be found in the tradition which is handed down by word of mouth (2 Tim. 2:2). Paul also instructs us thus” So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter [a]from us.” (2 Thess. 2:15NASB) 

    2)Johns conclusion John 21:25NIV
    Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

    Hence Scripture and Tradition are the full ingredients; not one but both.And Scripture is actually incomplete without tradition.

    Also I beleive that the Apostles had they held onto the Sola Scriptura belief would have handed down such teachings like the mandatory circumcision rites inherent in Judaism .

    Christ initiated a system through His Apostles and gave them authority to make disciples of all Nations and promised them His presence always till the end of time .Meaning that the successors of the Apostles share in this authority.

    Othordoxy dwells on the same Authority which was why the early Christians held the memoirs(New Testament) of the Apostles in high esteem even at par with the writings of the Old testament (Septuagint) .
    Which was why the several centres in the ancient Church did their best to preserve them (this too a Tradition they have kept as handed down to them)
    And a painstaking effort made to be sure that the sources of the Letters preserved are in line with Apostolic traditions.(Apostolic Succession and Canonicity)
    Its also important to note that these letters were not as widely circulated as we have now which is why a lot had to also depend on the traditions handed down by the heirachy or the clergy who are the custodians of these apostolic traditions and authority.
    Christian practice and hence traditions precede the scriptures as such norms as handed down by word of mouth and conduct have already been in place before the scriptures were written .

    On the use of icons in worship

    Coming from an African background Nigeria precisely were we still have some Traditional Idol Worshipers. in the Igbo tradition which i am conversant with .The shrine/idol/Arusi is the abode of the spirits or deity .And worship and sacrifices are made to the idol and adherents believe them to be their gods .And a priest dedicates his life serving these idols (eg the Arochukwu Long Juju were visitors used to come from afar to worship) .

    There is a clear difference in the Orthodox approach to Icons as from childhood a Catholic understands that the statue of Mary is but an image reminding us of the person of The Mother of Jesus .Any reverence we have thence is solely because of that fact (image of Mary Mother of Jesus) .
    There is therefore no intrinsic worship of the Icon rather a veneration which is far from the Worship of God .And a show of love for whom the image represents .
    Mind you this respect is because we believe those images as those of holy people who had a good relationship with God.

    • robertar

      Thanks Gerald for your comment!


  17. Rick

    Wesley said, “Are we really to believe that if Moses had seen a Jew in the camp of Israel bowing down in prayer and veneration before the images of the Cherubim woven into the curtain of the Tabernacle, that Moses would have accepted the distinction of dulia and latria? I hardly think so. Soli Deo Gloria! ”

    I’m still in deep research mode, and therefore very reluctant to comment much–much less debate–however, when I read that particular response, it struck me that the Icons that are being venerated, are Icons of Christ, Mary, the Apostles, and other honoured saints. I don’t believe I have ever heard of an Orthodox believer venerating an Icon of an archangel. If this is correct, and admittedly, I am opperating on an assumption at this point, then it seems to me that the point being asserted is in fact valid–honor is being given to those people honoured by the Church.

    On a side note, I really appreciate this blog, and take the time to read both the original posts, and associated comments. That’s the only way for me to discover things that I didn’t even realize I needed to ask!

    • Robert Arakaki


      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! I appreciate your willingness to learn about Orthodoxy and icons. I encourage you to visit an Orthodox Sunday liturgy (worship service) and observe how the people in the congregation relate to the icons in the church. After several Sundays and talking with various people I’m confident you will come away with a better understanding of what the veneration of icons is about. It’s hard to make a fair assessment just based on reading books and articles. God bless you in your research!


Leave a Reply