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Affirming the Ecumenical Early Church


First Ecumenical Council - Nicea AD 325

First Ecumenical Council – Nicea AD 325

On 29 April 2013 The Calvinist International posted Pastor Steven Wedgeworth’s provocative article: “The Myth of the Ecumenical Early Church.”

The “myth” or “misconception” that he seeks to debunk was that the pre-Nicene and Nicene church was “more or less united, both doctrinally and politically.”  He makes his case by arguing: (1) that the first Ecumenical Council (Nicea AD 325) did not produce doctrinal unity as evidenced by the multiplicity of subsequent regional councils, and (2) it was largely due to imperial intervention that the orthodox “homoousios” Christology prevailed.

Pastor Wedgeworth’s article is sure to draw the attention of those who hold in high esteem the Church Fathers and the Seven Ecumenical Councils.  This is especially the case for those who belong to the Orthodox Church.  Kallistos (Timothy) Ware in the Orthodox Church wrote:

Orthodoxy has always attached a great importance to the place of councils in the life of the Church.  It believes that the council is the chief organ whereby God has chosen to guide His people, and it regards the Catholic Church as essentially a conciliar Church. (p. 15)  (emphasis added)

He continues:

In the Church there is neither dictatorship nor individualism, but harmony and unanimity; its members remain free but not isolated, for they are united in love, in faith, and in sacramental communion.  In a council, this idea of harmony and free unanimity can be seen worked out in practice.  In a true council no single member arbitrarily imposes his will upon the rest, but each consults with the others, and in this way they all freely achieve a ‘common mind’. (p. 15) (emphasis added)

For such a sweeping and provocative thesis, Pastor Wedgeworth’s article is in my opinion rather undeveloped.  One undeveloped aspect has to do with theological and spiritual dimensions of church unity in the early period.  I expect that we will hear more from him on this in the future.  I hope that Pastor Wedgeworth will address the following questions:

  • How does he see Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit guiding the Church into all truth (John 16:13) being fulfilled in the early Church?
  • Does Pastor Wedgeworth believe that the early Christians were faithful in holding to the teachings of the Apostles?  Or does he believe that the early Church ‘fell’ from the Apostolic faith either soon after the passing of the original Apostles or later with Emperor Constantine’s acceptance of the Church?
  • Which model of church unity does he hold to?  The Orthodox conciliar model?  The Roman Catholic papal monarchy?  Or the Protestant invisible church model?

Robin Phillips’ Affirmative Response

We are fortunate that Robin Phillips has written a response which was posted 10 May 2013 on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy.  In it he calls into questions certain contentions made by Pastor Wedgeworth’s and attempts to provide an affirmative argument for the ecumenical early Church.  His article is just an initial response.  He hopes to provide a more in-depth response this coming summer.

The unity and orthodoxy of the early church is something that Christians from the Reformed and Orthodox traditions are concerned about.  I have reposted Robin Phillips’ response in its entirety so that we can have a discussion about the issues raised by Pastor Wedgeworth.  I thank him for generously granting me permission to repost his article. Readers are encouraged to read Pastor Wedgeworth’s article as well Robin Phillips’ in order to engage in a civil and reasoned discussion about the early Church.

The Ecumenical Early Church: A Reply to Pastor Wedgeworth — Robin Phillips

Steven Wedgeworth operates theWedgewords blog and is the Founder ofThe Calvinist International website. Last week he wrote a thought-provoking article for the Calvinist International website titled “The Myth of the Ecumenical Early Church.”
This summer I plan to interact with Wedgeworth’s article in my columns at The Colson Center. However, before doing that I thought it would be helpful to pen some initial responses here in order to solicit some feedback and to give Pastor Wedgeworth an opportunity to correct me in any areas where I may have misunderstood his article.
Anyone who has read Pastor Wedgeworth’s writings will be aware that he has drunk deeply from the wells of Walter Lowrie. This is reflected in Mr. Wedgeworth’s frequent contention that

  • There is no patristic theology of the Church, only various theologies.
  • The emperors essentially created Orthodoxy by deciding who was “in” and who was “out.” It was only through legislation that the external unity of the Church was preserved.
  • The only type of unity that existed was a local unity, to do with getting along with those next to you.
  • Even after the Council of Nicea, Arians (people who denied the divinity of Christ) comprised much of the official leadership of the Church.

The last point is crucial, because it suggests that the Arians and other heterodox groups had legitimate standing in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, even after being officially condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325. Instead of allowing the experience and consent of the Church over time to determine, retroactively, what the conceptual boundaries of the Church always were, this narrative places heretical sects on essentially the same footing as Nicene Christianity.

This is exactly the line Mr. Wedgeworth has taken in his recent article “The Myth of the Ecumenical Early Church.” He opens the article by disputing the use of the definite article before early Church. There is no such thing, he argues, as the early Church, and he seems to be uncomfortable referring to “ecumenical councils.” All we have is various churches, rival brands of Christianity competing for power. The only reason Nicene Christianity was considered ecumenical is because it was backed by Emperors.

Mr. Wedgeworth makes a lot out of the fact that the Nicene Creed took a few decades to be widely accepted and that it was only fully solidified through the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople (the convocation that produced the present Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed). He seems to treat it as a surprise that the councils sometimes took a long time to be widely recognized and he implies that it is a contested point that there were moments in time where it seemed that all was lost. Perhaps in the circles Wedgeworth moves there is a cardinal misunderstanding about these central facts of Church history, but frankly I have never read a book that presented the type of dehistoricized approach to creedal history that Wedgeworth has set himself up against.

The centerpiece of Wedgeworth’s article is a long list of numerous neo-Arian synods and confessions from the mid 4th century, proving that “the creed of Nicaea was an outsider.” Wedgeworth’s point is that the only type of ecumenical unity that existed was political and that the Emperor was the locus of Christian unity. Of course, many of the Emperors were heretics, so if it were true that the Emperor were the locus of Christian unity, then we must concede that there was never any real true Christian unity to begin with—which, I think, is precisely Pastor Wedgeworth’s point.

One problem with Pastor Wedgeworth’s view is that it is radically individualistic, for no historic Christian group has ever taught that the Emperor was the locus of Christian unity. The early Christians certainly did not think this way about their unity, as even a cursory read of St. Ignatius and St. Irenaeus will demonstrate. Rome teaches that the locus of Christian unity is and has always been the Bishop of Rome (who, by the way, was on the side of St. Athanasius), while the Orthodox Church sees the locus of Christian unity as the Faith itself and, by extension, therefore those bishops and laity who profess the true Orthodox faith at any given point of time. (Notice that the Orthodox Church does not believe Church unity to be located in a single, structural institution, despite the fact that many uninformed Protestants think the Orthodox believe this. The Orthodox Churches are unified in faith and in Eucharistic communion, but each autocephalous Church has its own structure and government.) But no group in the history of Christendom has ever taught that the Emperor was the true locus of Christian unity.

Now this does not, in itself, prove Wedgeworth’s thesis false. However, at a minimum it does suggest a certain strangeness that after nearly two thousand years of Church history we are only now in a position to appreciate the true nature of Christian unity as it existed in the apostolic Church.

Christians knew from earliest times that some separated themselves from the One Church thereby leaving the unity of the One Body of the One Christ.  By the fifth century there were already several groups who had so separated — Docetists, Gnostics, Marcionites, Montanists, Arians, Eunomians, Pneumatomachians, Nestorians, Monophysites, Monothelites, etc.  None of this disunity in Christendom broke the unity of the One Body of the Incarnate Christ. Nor does it imply that what unity did exist was a pseudo-unity generated by the contrivances of imperial politics.

Does this mean that there was always true ecumenical unity? It depends on what we mean byecumenical, and part of the problem with Wedgeworth’s article is that he equivocates on this central term. In the early Church (and I employ the definite article unashamedly) the term ecumenical was used to designate an imperially convoked synod. But it is also used to denote a theologically authorized synod binding on the Church. Pastor Wedgeworth only acknowledges the first meaning. But imperial convocation doesn’t make a synod binding on the Church; it just makes imperial officers and those on the imperial payroll obligated to adhere to it. What made councils such as Nicaea and Chalcedon binding on the Church was the fact that they were eventually recognized as being ecumenical in the second sense. That is, they were ecumenical to the degree that they were seen to define the boundaries of the universal, catholic faith/Church handed down by the apostles. Being allergic to ecumenism in this second sense, Pastor Wedgeworth has no difficulty referring to the Arian party as part of “the Church” without qualification.

The surprising ease with which reformed pastors like Wedgeworth (who are ostensibly theologically conservative) can stretch the category of “Church” to cover heretical sects that denied the deity of Christ might form the basis of an interesting sociological study. However, it isn’t really that surprising: should Pastor Wedgeworth acknowledge that the Arians actually constituted a heretical sect outside the boundaries of the apostolic Church, then the early Church begins to look much more unified than he wishes to allow.

With the perspective of the Church as a whole as it has been guided by the Holy Spirit over time, we should be able to look back and see that the Council of Nicaea and the councils which followed it were truly ecumenical. That is, they were truly inspired by God as marking out the boundaries, and therefore the unity, of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The fact that it took time to recognize this, and that the Council of Constantinople had to clarify the Nicene Creed, is not a new revelation to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Church history. No one disputes that ecumenical unity was a process back then as much as it is today. It has never been under dispute that it was only retroactively that many of these councils were ultimately recognized as being truly ecumenical and therefore binding. No one disputes that at the time of the ecumenical councils there was great confusion concerning the true faith, even among the faithful. And no one is saying that confused Arians in the 3rd and 4th centuries (before the boundary lines were fully recognized) were not Christian in some sense.

What I am suggesting, however, is that it would be very wrong for us to take as normative the confusion that existed then and appropriate it to ourselves now. Just because the process of solidifying the true faith was long and messy doesn’t mean that now we can’t look back and identify where the true Church really was. If we are not able, in hindsight, to do that, then we might well question what the purposes of the ecumenical councils even were.

Pastor Wedgeworth ends his article by saying “And it should be obvious to say that this truth is of more than academic value.”  Pastor Wedgeworth does not explain what he thinks the practical consequences of his thesis actually are, but it isn’t difficult to guess. By denying that the Church had any universal common faith, Wedgeworth has created the conceptual room needed to justify the kind of divisions that have become commonplace within Protestantism as well as the types of theological innovation that create these divisions in the first place. But I think the shoe is actually on the other foot. The fact that Church history has been such a messy affair is a vindication of an ecumenical church led by the Holy Spirit. It is confirmation of the miraculous nature of the Church and apostolic tradition that it has survived down to the present day.

Robin Phillips is the author of Saints and Scoundrels and a contributing editor for a number of publications, including Salvo MagazineTouchstone and the Chuck Colson Center. He is working on a Ph.D. in historical theology through King’s College, London and blogs at Robin’s Readings and Reflections.


  1. Jacob (formerly Outlaw Covenanter)

    Real quick:

    You wrote, summarizing SW’s position, “it was largely due to imperial intervention that the orthodox “homoousios” Christology prevailed.”

    The introduction to the SVS edition of St Gregory Nazianzus’ *On God and Christ* specifically argues that it was imperial intervention that won the day. That was an Orthodox scholar saying that.

    SW’s claim for the multiplicity of regional councils is indisputable. As I made clear in an earlier email between some of the people on this forum, there was no reason for believers back then to privilege Nicea over, say, Tyre since both were councils that had Imperial backing. The only way we can know Nicea was “more special” is by ad hoc reasoning.

    Further, any criticism of SW must take into account that he has done nothing more than summarize the best Orthodox and Catholic scholarship on Nicea. Ware is nice, but he is no Lewis Ayres.

    Part of me is tempted to repost my intra-email response to Phillips but I don’t want to steal the thunder.

    • robertar


      I’m not disputing Orthodox scholarship or the role of imperial politics, but I am raising questions about the role of the Holy Spirit’s guiding the Church. What struck me about Pastor Wedgeworth’s presentation of the early Christological controversy was its focus on the socio-political factors to the neglect of the spiritual. I expect that as a pastor he will have a faith perspective on church history.

      No one is disputing the multiplicity of regional councils. The question then becomes: Did a doctrinal consensus with respect to orthodox Christology eventually emerge and become the established position of the early Church? The Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Spirit guided the Fathers of First Ecumenical Council (Nicea AD 325). Metropolitan Kalllistos Ware wrote that the Orthodox Church knows which seven councils are regarded by her as ecumenical, but the precise criteria are not clear (p. 252 in the Orthodox Church). Pastor Wedgeworth’s article gives one the impression that it was political power that defined doctrine, not truth. This sounds rather Foucauldian in approach. Is this what Pastor Wedgeworth has in mind? Are you comfortable with the implications of this approach to early church history?

      I noticed you airily dismissed Ware as an authority, presumably because he lacks the academic credentials that Lewis Ayres presumably has, but you need to keep in mind that as a Metropolitan, Ware speaks as an official teacher of the Orthodox Church. He is articulating what the Orthodox Church believes. Thus, he cannot be dismissed out of hand. You denigrated the retrospective approach taken by the Orthodox Church as ad hoc but my question to you is: By what criterion can one identify an “ecumenical” Council? Or if there is no such thing as an “ecumenical council” then by what means does one identify correct doctrine? It seems to me that your approach is based on individualistic reasoning independent of an ecclesial base. I suspect based on previous conversations that you do not believe any particular ecclesial tradition or church body possesses a mageristerium to which you would submit. Rather, you belong to a church body because you are in agreement with it.

      It then comes down to this: Is there a true Christology as opposed to heretical Christology? In this day and age when theological liberalism has made inroads into much of Protestantism, the question of how one ascertains the right teaching of who Jesus is becomes a matter of urgency. During my time as an Evangelical in a liberal Protestant denomination I found that sola scriptura with its high regard for reason did not result in doctrinal stability but in hermeneutical chaos which was why I was drawn to Orthodoxy’s claim to doctrinal continuity over the past two millennia. I found the Orthodox Church’s appreciation the interconnection between social solidarity and theological knowledge, i.e., conciliarity, reassuring and convincing.

      If you want to repost the entirety of your earlier intra-email response to Robin Phillips’ article by all means feel free to do so. It might help get the conversation going.


      • Jacob (formerly Outlaw Covenanter)

        I won’t be able to answer all of the questions at once.

        ***Did a doctrinal consensus with respect to orthodox Christology eventually emerge and become the established position of the early Church?***

        Yes. And SW would say yes. The problem, given Athanasius’s five exiles, is that the “doctrinal consensus” would have been hard to pin down because the Arians were the overwhelming consensus for quite a while.

        *** Is this what Pastor Wedgeworth has in mind? Are you comfortable with the implications of this approach to early church history? ***

        I don’t presume to read his thoughts.

        ***I noticed you airily dismissed Ware as an authority, presumably because he lacks the academic credentials that Lewis Ayres presumably has, but you need to keep in mind that as a Metropolitan, Ware speaks as an official teacher of the Orthodox Church. He is articulating what the Orthodox Church believes. Thus, he cannot be dismissed out of hand.***

        Fair enough, but Ware’s book is very old (and my comments were rather tame compared to some ROCOR reviews of that book, given Ware’s ecumenicism) and Nicene scholarship has come A LONG WAY in the past fifty years.

        *** By what criterion can one identify an “ecumenical” Council? Or if there is no such thing as an “ecumenical council” then by what means does one identify correct doctrine?***

        That’s an excellent question to which I haven’t really seen an Orthodox answer. Khomyakov and Mark of Ephesus seem to disagree on that point.

        ***It seems to me that your approach is based on individualistic reasoning independent of an ecclesial base. I suspect based on previous conversations that you do not believe any particular ecclesial tradition or church body possesses a mageristerium to which you would submit. Rather, you belong to a church body because you are in agreement with it.***

        This is true of any theological choice. I’ve challenged numerous anchoretic apologists on this point and they all have to default to some kind of “individualist reasoning” when asked why they are EO and not Roman, Copt, Armenian, etc.

        • Gabe Martini

          If a staunch Protestant’s daughter turns Roman, and betakes herself to a convent, why does he not exult in the occurrence?

          Why does he not give a public breakfast, or hold a meeting, or erect a memorial, or write a pamphlet in honour of her, and of the great undying principle she has so gloriously vindicated?

          Why is he in this base, disloyal style muttering about priests, and Jesuits, and the horrors of nunneries, in solution of the phenomenon, when he has the fair and ample form of Private Judgment rising before his eyes, and pleading with him, and bidding him impute good motives, not bad, and in very charity ascribe to the influence of a high and holy principle, to a right and a duty of every member of the family of man, what his poor human instincts are fain to set down as a folly or a sin.

          All this would lead us to suspect that the doctrine of private judgment, in its simplicity, purity, and integrity —private judgment, all private judgment, and nothing but private judgment — is held by very few persons indeed; and that the great mass of the population are either stark unbelievers in it, or deplorably dark about it; and that even the minority who are in a manner faithful to it, have glossed and corrupted the true sense of it by a miserably faulty reading, and hold, not the right of private judgment, but the private right of judgment.

          John Henry Newman, Private Judgment.

        • Perry Robinson


          You write in agreement that a doctrinal consensus emerged and became the established position of the early church and that SW would agree to this. But this seems strange to me. I could see if you answered affirmatively if the question were about the imperial church, but the imperial church isn’t “the early church” is it? If it is, how does this not overturn SW and your contention that there never was such a consensus? Or is the thesis that there is only consensus in “the early church” when imperial force creates it? And it we should just chalk it up to providence that Protestants find that such exercise of political power are the positions Protestants find to be harmonious with scripture? Doesn’t that strike you as rather…ad hoc?

          You write that the Arians were the overwhelming consensus for quite a while. Do you mean among imperial officials, both clergy and lay or do you mean in the church?

          Secondly your answer seems to paper over some important facts. A good solid majority of bishops were semi-Arian and by that I mean that they were not opposed to Nicea per se (since it was these bishops who shifted and helped win the day at Nicea) but rather were concerned about Sabellianism and a failure to distinguish between the persons as it was difficult to maintain a personal distinction in their minds without at least bordering on an essential difference. Such persons do not strike me, let alone Hanson, Ayres and others as people chanting Arius’ little dittys for their quiet time. Given the views of people like Marcellus, it is perfectly understandable that they had such concerns, not to mention the previous century’s battle with Sabellianism and the philosophical and theological use of homoousia. Such persons are not full blown Arians and so Arianism as such was never held the majority. If it had, we’d have an awfully hard time explaining a number of facts. First, how is it that Nicea so overwhelmingly trumped Arianism? How is it that the Arians were never able to hold a synod ecclesiastically on par ( as I noted above in the way I noted above) as Nicea? How come they were never able to simply and completely overturn Nicea when they had said supposed majorities? And how is it that after Theodosius’ death, they simply didn’t push the church in the other direction? And how is it that Arian replacement bishops were simply run out of town and/or never accepted by the overwhelming population and clergy in major metropolitan areas? Why did the Arians had to make contraptions to force the mouths open of communicants and that in large numbers if Arianism was the majority at any given time? Such things seem to undermine your claims.

          As to Ware, I agree as far as scholarship goes, but then again, SW is making a theological claim that either isn’t in the contemporary scholarship in historical theology or is highly partisan and controversial. As such neither he nor you are telling us something we don’t already know.

          As far as identifying an ecumenical council, I am sure that Khomyakov and Mark of Ephesus do disagree, but of course if they were of equal standing, that might be problematic, but they aren’t. Mark is a saint, a bishop and a bishop of an apostolic see no less. Khomyakov was a layman whose views while influential among many Russian thinkers and theologians can’t be doubted is not a saint and his own works were rejected by a number of ecclesial authorities of his own day. Apple meet orange. It is understandable why at a time of major influence of German Idealism Khomiakov, along with Soloviev, would come up with the ecclesial theories that they did. But as far as I know, none of them gained sanction from the church in Russia or anywhere else.

          Conciliarism posits a number of jointly necessarily and sufficient conditions for a council to be ecclesiastically ecumenical. Some of those conditions I gave above. Others are discussed at various councils, not the least of which is 2nd Nicea. Often various Orthodox writers try to come up with conditions in disputes with Protestants and Catholics, but polemical contexts are not the place to divine them. The way to do it is to look at the source material and see how and why councils acted as they did and what beliefs they gave evidence to and what was enacted in the canons. If people would spend more time reading the sources like 2nd Nicea or Chalcedon, I think they’d become more apparent to them. But given that say Chadwick is the only secondary source that even references 2nd Nicea on this point, I am not surprised.

          It is also important to distinguish two sets of questions. It is one thing to identify something as such to fulfill the conditions on knowledge and quite another to identify it in terms of normative law. That is, there is a difference between what I need to know about the law and what I need to make law. These cover two distinct spheres and people (not necessarily you) often conflate them. What I need to know that Nicea is ecumenical is different from what is necessary for it to be or become so.

          Referring to your Orthodox interlocutors in pejorative terms like “anchoretic” is uncharitable and does not help your cause or the conversation stick to the arguments.

          If any theological choice is made apart from an ecclesial basis, then this seems to entail that there is ecclesial and theologically neutral ground to occupy. What position then is neutral from whence you make such decisions?

    • Perry Robinson


      Roused from my dogmatic slumbers…
      As far as the SVS reference, I have no doubt that Theodosius’ advocation of the Nicene cause proved decisive for the imperial church, but there are a few things to keep in mind here. First, the line of reasoning turns on the same mistake SW seems to be making, which is conflating the church as such with the imperial church. It is uncontroversial that the imperial church at times endorsed heretical views, but as Robin originally pointed out this would essentially grant ecclesial and theological legitimacy to Arians and any party during such periods if we conflate what imperial office holders do and profess with the church as such. When Jerome remarked that the whole world awakened to find itself Arian and Athanasius stood contra mundum, it doesn’t seem like they had the church in mind as having apostatized or being their adversaries. Rather they took the imperium to be so.

      On the other hand, I am sure the support of various princes and kings in Europe proved decisive for the survival and spread of Protestantism too. What would Luther’s cause have been had the German princes decided to quash him like a bug rather than use him as a tool to expand their political power? If Henry 8 would have had a living son by Catherine would we even know who Cranmer was? I doubt it. The political success of a given view is neither here nor there.

      Christianity survived nearly three centuries of persecution by the Roman empire. Arianism putters out at around 150. If political power was the sole sufficient condition here, we’d expect Arianism to last longer or Christianity to have died sooner.

      Synods while convoked by imperial authority and consequently had the force of law, did not derive their ecclesial authority from the fact that bishops were on the imperial payroll. They derived that authority from a belief in apostolic succession. That all by itself seems like a problem for SW case and Protestantism generally. This is why one of the earliest conditions for a council was that bishops could speak freely and openly without being under imperial duress. Emperors could depose bishops as imperial officers, but emperors could not unmake bishops as such. Consequently the argument put forward by you and SW seems like it conflates the two powers acting in synergy and makes them one power. I am not surprised to find mongergists doing so.

      Other conditions come to the surface in canon law and church tradition, such as only bishops may vote (unless presbyters or deacons were acting as legates for a see), the call for a council had to go out to all of the apostolic sees which had to be present by patriarchate, legate or letter. Such conditions are not primarily imperial conditions but conditions set down in the tradition, exemplified or called on in various situations and codified into canon law, both within and outside of the imperium.

      You are quite right that SW mentioning of regional synods is indisputable, but that is not on the table under dispute. What is under dispute is whether they amount to proof that there was no common and normative faith before during and after such periods. The argument so far turns on conflating what imperial officers did with the church per se. A relevant question would be, who, ecclesiastically speaking, was the legitimate bishop of Alexandria during the time of anyone one of Athanasius’ exiles? I can’t see how SW’s position can address such questions meaningfully.

      As far as what you wrote to others in private emails, I obviously can’t tell so I can only go by what you wrote here. You assert that there was no reason to take Nicea over Tyre and that the only way we know that Nicea was “special” (authoritative?) is by ad hoc reasoning. I’d b very interested in seeing an actual argument for those conclusions. I grant that both synods had imperial backing, but imperial backing was never a sufficient condition for a legitimate synod on anyone’s historical take. So you’d need to articulate what other conditions had to obtain in the minds of participants for the council to be legitimate. Do you mind saying from your point of view what those conditions were?

      Furthermore, it seems to me that all of those synods were differentiated from Nicea in a number of ways. First, most if not all of the pro-Arian or Semi-Arian synods never directly overturned Nicea or launched a full frontal assault. Rather they sought to undermine it or reframe it to push it to the side. It is akin to Roe v. Wade in American legal tradition. No one can overturn Roe via law directly, but they can chip away at it, marginalize and such. This was in the main the pro-Arian strategy. That is all by itself evidence from hostile witnesses that Nicea had a standing that these other synods, which were by and large regional synods just didn’t have and that wasn’t a matter of imperial backing either.

      Furthermore, none of those synods could call on and confect a consensus between all of the apostolic sees, which was of paramount importance going back as far as Ireneaus of Lyon as Nicea could and did. That seems to put Nicea head and shoulders above these other contenders. Even with all the gerrymandering that various pro-Arian emperors could perform, they never could achieve a patriarchial consensus in synod. This is why at best the regional Arian synods were only as good as their regional rivals which contradicted them and never could take Nicea off the books.

      And a curious question I have is this. If on your view there was no (and isn’t now) principled difference between these regional synods and Nicea, why isn’t Nicea a regional synod too? It can’t be because Nicea got imperial backing or received the name “ecumenical” because other pro-Arian synods did that too. So on your view, why isn’t Nicea just a regional synod too? Why aren’t all ecumenical synods regional synods?

      As far as SW doing nothing more than summarizing current scholarship, there is some truth to that, but there is also some legerdemain going on. As I noted previously, that there were pro-Arian or Semi-Arian regional synods attempting to chip away at Nicea is neither here nor there. What SW is claiming though is something more, that this constitutes evidence that there was no common and normative church or faith. Does contemporary historical theology advance that as an established fact? Not that I know of.

    • Perry Robinson


      Something else to consider. The argument that Khomiakov’s account is circular and question begging can also be redeployed against Protestantism and the formal canon of scripture. So if Khomiakov’s account falls prey to this argument, then so does Protestantism and I am not sure how that constitutes a victory for Protestantism.

  2. Archpriest John Morris

    Wedgeworth’s arguments are merely a restatement Tubingen school of church history founded by Walter Bauer. Bauer over emphasized the size and influence of the various heresies throughout church history to argue that there has never been real agreement of Christians on basic doctrinal issues. Later Adolph von Harnack, in his massive History of Dogma argued that the whole idea of dogma resulted from Hellenistic corruption of the Christian religion. Thus Wedgeworth’s arguments are nothing new. However, they are also wrong. Constantine and his sons were not followers of the 1st Council of Nicea but favored a compromise called semi-Arianism that taught that Son is “of like essence” with the Father. They exilled St. Athananius 5 times. They even forced the Church to lift its excommunication of Arias. However, on his way to triumph-ally receive the Eucharist, he stopped to use a public latrine, and died. A careful study of the Fathers shows that Wedgeworth and those who agree with him are wrong, because one finds a consistent doctrine taught from the very beginning of Christianity. Wedgewood and those like him over emphasize the importance of relatively small heretical groups to support their argument that there has been little doctrinal agreement among Christians. Remember this view of church history comes from Protestants who reject the Councils and the Fathers. Therefore, they have a built in reason to discredit the Fathers and the Councils.

    • Gabe Martini

      The very existence and life of the Orthodox Church today refutes Wedgeworth’s conclusions. The history we’re well aware of — it is our history, after all.

      I’m always amused by those who think recent scholarship or a thesis here-or-there can somehow undermine 2,000 years of apostolic tradition, secured by the blood of martyrs and the courage of men such as Saint Athanasius, who fought against all odds to preserve the one, true faith.

      The messiness of early Church history (in fact, of ALL Church history) we gladly affirm and understand — not only because it is our history, as the apostolic Church, but because it proves that the resulting Orthodox Faith is by the hand of God, and not be mere accident or political force. There are no Emperors forcing me to believe the faith of Constantinople and AD 381, and yet here we are. The existence of our Church today refutes the entire premise.

      This is, it seems, the biggest weakness of those who would accuse us of Caesero-papism; there is no Caesar, and we have never had a Pope (in the revisionist sense of the term).

      As Calvin would lovingly say, this is all “abundantly refuted by its own absurdity.” Sometimes the dots don’t connect, even though they’re all on the same page.

      In peace,

    • William Tighe

      IIRC, as various “Arian” factions (I put “Arian” in quotation marks, because many Arian theologians do not appear to have had much respect, let alone veneration, for Arius’ own theological views) emerged in the 350s, united only by their opposition to Nicaea and homoousios, the Emperor Constantius threw his support to the “homoians” (those who wished to say that Christ was “like” the Father), thus excluding both the homoiousians (those who wished to say that Christ was “like in essence” to the Father), as inclining dangerously to the Nicenes by their willingness to speak creedally of “essence,” and the radical “anomoeans” (those who wished to say that Christ was, as a created being, “unlike” the Father). That is, at least, the view of Richard Hanson in his *The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God* (1988), but perhaps it has not evoked general acceptance.

  3. Travis

    His new post has “defeated Orthodoxy”


    • Jacob (formerly Outlaw Covenanter)

      I think you are misreading the term “defeat.” He is simply explaining the conditions which would lead to Athanasius’s getting exiled five times. Yes, Nicea is great and self-evident and wonderful and such, but the historical fact remains that few at the time thought it was self-evident (Otherwise why was Athanasius exiled so many times?).

      If someone is reading SW’s post thinking that his post sought to attack “orthodoxy” or “Nicea,” well…wow, that is a wildly misreading of the texts.

      I understand most of you do not know Steven. He was my roommate in seminary. I can assure you that he does his theology around the “pro-Nicene” construct ala Lewis Ayres (whose scholarship on this blog, I note, hasn’t been addressed). He and I have had sharp disagreements in the past on Divine Simplicity and what it means to be Nicene. I can assure you he is Nicene, probably more than most.

      • Gabe Martini

        Being “Nicene” is evidenced by being united to the one, true Church that made it through these tough times, and eventually vindicated the efforts of men such as Athanasius, not to mention confessing the Creed of Constantinople in 381 without the Filioque.

        One is not “Nicene” by mere doctrinal affirmations or an assembly of books and treatises, but by joining one’s whole self — body, soul, and spirit — with all those who have suffered before us for that Nicene faith in the one, true Church; the very Church that Christ built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, and the very Church that is His one, unbroken Body.

      • David

        Hey Jacob,

        Do you really mean to say “few at the time saw it as self-evident”? Did not the Bishops that rallied to Athanasius see it as evident? Were they few that carried the day at Nicea, and for decades/centuries afterwards — despite the Imperial opposition of a very popular Emperor? Indeed, that the Church refused to yield to the tremendous Imperial pressure seems like a pretty exceptional example of basic Unity among the Bishops…exiles notwithstanding, does it not? Messy at times, yes. But it seems a far cry from the theological chaos Steven wishes to imply about the Early Church. (What say Pelikan/Irenaeus?)

        As for being “Nicene”, how much can one jettison or ignore and still be “Nicene”. This smells a good bit like what political Leftists do with the US Constitution. They neuter amendments they don’t like, and deny and/or obfuscate what the writers intent and meaning — but still want to call themselves constitutional defenders. Plays a bit weak, egh?
        in His tender mercies,

        • Jacob

          My larger point was that no one knew the necessary conditions at the time for calling Nicea an ecumenical council, beyond the obvious fact that the Emperor called it. The difficulty, which SW simply outlines in history, is that many councils could claim to be just as ecumenical because of the Emperor’s call.

          As to “reinterpreting Nicea,” I do remember that Drake Shelton has repeatedly challenged Jnorm, Gabe, and others on Constantinople’s changing of “ousia” to mean numerical unity, not the earlier generic ousia-unity. That is far more severe a reinterpretation than anything SW has done.

          • Gabe Martini

            Hinging on Drake’s every word is not doing you any favors, Jacob. I realize you’re trying to distance yourself from Orthodoxy for a variety of reasons, but you can do so without appealing to Drake as an authority.

            Comparing the 2nd Ecumenical Council with SW is an interesting approach. I’m not sure what do do with that one.

      • Perry Robinson

        Is the question that Nicea was self evidently true or whether Nicea met the conditions to be supremely normative?

        In some ways I am sure SW is Nicene, except for autotheos of all three persons, a rejection of baptismal regeneration, a rejection of Apostolic Succession…

        the new post seems to make the same mistakes as the old post, namely conflating the imperium with the church per se. even doing that tho undermines the thesis, namely that there was no consensus, except when there was.

    • robertar


      Rather eye catching, but actually the title reads: “THE DEFEAT OF ORTHODOXY? AN EXAMINATION OF THE RISE OF HOMOEAN THEOLOGY AND THE COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE IN AD 360.” So Pastor Wedgeworth’s title–in my opinion–uses a frequently used rhetorical device of posing a provocative or controversial point. It would be more controversial if that was his conclusion as well but my reading of it is that he left the matter unresolved. But there are some inherent difficulties in the position he takes. He wrote:

      As Protestants, we at TCI have no theological quarrel with the Council of Nicaea or its theological heritage. Indeed, we fully embrace what is now referred to in scholarly circles as “pro-Nicene” theology. We do not do this because of the rulings of councils, however, nor of the subsequent “reception” of the doctrine in various ecclesiastical circles (for to do so would to locate the authority in those places). Instead we accept Nicaea because we believe its doctrine to be a faithful exegesis of the Holy Scriptures. We also have no problem admitting that Greek philosophy and post-Biblical doctrinal tradition were employed to articulate the pro-Nicene theology. This is to be expected and fully consistent with our own views of reason and revelation.

      Basically, Pastor Wedgeworth is saying that he and his colleagues accept and endorse the Council of Nicea because it is “biblical,” that is, it agrees with their reading of Scripture. But among liberal Protestants are those whose Christology are closer to the Arian Christology, if not outright Arian. They hold to that position because their reading of Scripture in light of modern theological and biblical scholarship. So what we have here is a replay of the early Christological controversies between the homo-oousian party and the homoi-ousian party. How does Pastor Wedgeworth and his colleagues in The Calvinist International plan to deal with this theological division in modern Protestantism? On what authority can he claim that they have the correct Christology and that those who deny or question the full divinity of Christ have a heretical Christology? Or will he claim that these are two acceptable theological options? Keep in mind that both are de facto Protestants in light of their being part of historic mainline churches, so to say that they are not Protestants isn’t going to cut it. That is why the anathemas are so important; they link right Christology with membership in the Church. It is because of this that Orthodoxy does not struggle with Arianism today; that question has been settled definitively. Unless Protestants can recover theological unity on orthodox Christology, one must raise the question: Has Protestantism been defeated?


  4. Canadian

    It all seems fine and dandy to take shots at ecclesial authority, which the above comments appropriately mitigate, in my estimation. But that the ecclesial mechanism is clearly in scripture is evident. Acts 16:4 shows that a mechanism of ecclesial authority binds all churches, and it is not stated that this occurs just because it was apostles. Repeatedly in ch 15 and 16 the reference is to “the apostles and elders” and even once says “apostles, elders and the whole assembly” meaning the Council itself and not just the present apostles. The Council itself had authority. Ecumenical authority isn’t just some dictatorial activity, though. It is the preserving of the truth that seems good to the Holy Spirit and us, which is an interaction of Persons. Why is it a surprise that this interaction took time and was not without controversy?

  5. Prometheus

    I agree with two things that the Orthodox have pointed out with regard to Protestantism. We have weak ecclesiology and in that no real way to justify our scriptures.

  6. Nicodemus

    Fr. John, Jacob, & Robert,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m persuaded that with honest zeal we will come to understand each other and Church History better. Now a few comments and observations.

    First, it should be obvious, of course, that Pre-Nicean Church History began in 33 AD, after Christ’s Ascension. (Constantine, and Imperial favor, pressure and exile came 300+yrs later.) Thus, the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church begins its formation with Christ’s promise to His disciples. Pentecost and the leading/guiding presence of the Holy Spirit in daily life of the Church continued for decades before any NT Scripture was pinned. Then come the Apostles’ exhortations throughout the NT Scriptures to Keep their Tradition of the Faith once for all delivered to the saints. There is thus a Prima fascia credibility to Orthodox Holy Tradition, Spiritually, Historically – which includes the pre-Nicean Church.

    All this is what’s behind Robert’s first question and it’s not surprising that Protestants ignore it. Robert has noted several times how Protestants are, of necessity, forced to a Blink-On/Blink-Off presence of the Holy Spirit teaching/leading the Church (or tiny remnants) into all Truth. Even honest Protestants, those who’ve learned to appreciate the significance of this rich Holy Tradition, yet pick and chose what they like from Holy Tradition, as if at a historic and theological smorgasbord. What’s critical, and tragically missed, is their failure to grasp (unlike Prof. Clark Carlton) that given its pedigree, Holy Tradition actually has a Spiritual claim upon them. (Jame 4:17 comes to mind, “Therefore, to him that knoweth to do good but doeth it not, to him it is sin.”) Lord have mercy.

    Secondly, as has been mentioned, that the Bishops rallied to Athanasius despite Imperial pressure is telling. Of course, it’s unlikely Nicea was the first time Bishops thought through such things – without carefully typeset, printed and bound “bibles”. But they, with their Priests and Parishes, continued in the Nicene Unity of the faith despite all the “imperial exiles” and continued pressures. Without such an established unity, it would have been far easier to do the opposite.

    Of course Ware’s books are “very old” (50+ yrs) and of course we should doubtless halt in our tracks and pull out all early Creeds, Liturgies and Traditions for editing…due to there now being some new scholarship proving the Church has been dead wrong! (Calling Dan Brown!) And there are those who delight to imply some disagreements and differences among the Orthodox – as IF a lack of perfect unanimity proves there was/is a lack of tremendous, fundamental unity of doctrine, Liturgy, Sacrament, and praxis. Of course, it does no such thing, and I suspect as well read as Jacob and Pastor Wedgeworth are, they know it better than I do. It reminds me of that scene where the womanizing, thrice-divorced now shacked-up prodigal son sneers at his faithful, devoted and elderly parents – “hypocrites, we’ve all heard you argue before, you don’t agree about everything!” Lord have mercy.


  7. Prometheus

    Nicodemus, I know that many Protestants do feel that they have good reasons for understanding scripture and tradition the way they do.

    The ones who begin to agree with your claim of prima facie Orthodox pedigree, etc. are not flocking over for various other reasons. To them, Orthodox Tradition would seem more credible if there didn’t seem to be some glaring contradictions between Tradition and Scripture (e.g. sinlessness of Mary) as well as being unsure that the Orthodox Tradition has clear superiority over the Roman Catholic Tradition. So, either they await clarity or they remain Protestant because they don’t expect clarity about the early church to emerge. They are forced to let scripture be the final word for them. This creates problems. But they don’t see the problems with Orthodoxy as any less insurmountable.

    • David


      Nicodemus can answer for himself, but I wonder if how Protestants (or Orthodox) “feel” about their reasons for believing anything is a salient point? I must admit I’ve “felt pretty good” about my reasoning and understanding many time…until it was pointed out or I discovered later, just how bad and wrong my reasoning and understanding was! 🙂

      I also question your point about the Orthodox holding the “sinless of Mary” as dogma? In _Orthodox Dogmatic Theology_ (Michael Pomazansky, Blessed Seraphim Rose’s translation.)

      “Two dogmas concerning the Mother of God are bound up, in closest fashion, with the dogma of God the Word’s becoming man. They are (a) her Ever-virginity, and (b) her name of Theotokos. They proceed immediately from the dogma of the unity of the Hypostasis of the Lord from the moment of His Incarnation–the Divine Hypostasis. ” (pg 189)
      This begins nine pages devoted to what Orthodox believe and do not believe about Mary. Clear, to the point stuff.

      He makes a point to say Orthodoxy rejects the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (made Roman Catholic dogma in 1954).
      “…[Orthodoxy] has not seen and does not see any ground for the Immaculate conception in the sense of the Roman Catholics interpretation… Only the God-Man Christ begins with Himself the new mankind, freed by Him from the sin of Adam….the Most Holy Virgin was born as subject to the sin of Adam together with all mankind, and with him she shared the need for redemption.” (pg 195)

      Also, in a footnote on the same page he quotes St. John Maximovitch:

      “None of the ancient Holy Fathers say that God in miraculous fashion purified the Virgin Mary while yet in the womb; and many directly indicate that the Virgin Mary, just as all men, endured a battle with sinfulness, but was victorious over temptations and was saved by her Divine Son.”

      He does note the differences between the Orthodox and RC view of sin and the Fall of man — as well as God’s measure of grace to men and women between the Fall and the Incarnation. So, despite some Orthodox believing Mary was kept pure from sin by the Holy Spirit — before and after the Incarnation — is not Orthodox dogma. Please correct me if I’ve not said this rightly.

      Finally, on page 196:
      “As for the tradition concerning the assumption of the body of the Mother of God: the belief in the assumption of her body after its burial does exist in the Orthodox Church.”
      He tell the story from tradition about Mary bones being sent for as relics, but were gone when the tomb was opened. So there are traditions about the assumption of Mary’s body after her death and burial,

      “…and the Orthodox Church, with all its respect for them, does not ascribe to them the significance of a dogmatic source. The church, accepting the tradition of the ascension of the body of the Mother of God, has not regarded and does not regard this pious tradition as one of the fundamental truths or dogmas of the Christian faith.”
      Hope this all helps.

  8. Prometheus

    Thank you David,

    I’m glad you clarified some issues.
    I still am unsure that the Bible allows for Mary to be without sin (i.e. is “all have sinned” not dogma in the Orthodox Church), but it is good to know that it is not her sinlessness is not dogma.


  9. David


    Patriach Bartholomew’s brief comments her might not clear up all things, but it is helpful. It does appear that Mary could well have fallen to sin in her early youth, only to prevail by synergy of labor in Holy Spirit by the Incarnation…after which she was saved by her Son and Savior, and further purified by the Spirit. Thus her purity and example of holiness is far more the focus and emphasis than her sinful need of salvation? (I’m putting question marks to “ask” if I’m saying this right.) Is a good bit removed from Roman Catholic excesses…but certainly a challenge to grasp and embrace for live long Protestants. Of course, the presuppositional question for us is , “If we didn’t get history and the early Church/Scriptures right — did we get Mary right?” (and where did they get their views of Mary…compared to where we got ours?)


  10. Karen

    David and Prometheus,

    I’ve given this one some thought as well. I remember hearing as a Protestant that there are two aspects of the work of God’s grace in our lives, “saving grace” and “keeping grace.” That is, I think all Christians can agree God’s grace both empowers our redemption and recovery of wholeness after we have sinned and also empowers us to resist temptation and avoid sin. Why couldn’t God’s grace providentially, through the purification of her Jewish lineage and her parents as well as her early exposure to God’s Presence in the Temple (as Orthodox traditions suggest), have kept Mary from sin? Scripture also declares in Hebrews 9:27 that “it is appointed for men to die once, . . . “, yet we have the stories of Enoch and Elijah even in the OT, who did not experience physical death, but were transfigured and assumed directly to heaven. From an Orthodox perspective, I think it is true to say that even if we were to allow hypothetically, that Mary’s being kept from personal sin (as with Enoch and Elijah being exceptions to the principle in Hebrews) was a rare exception to the general principle in Scripture that “all have sinned . . .”, this doesn’t mean she would then have had no need of a Savior, since Orthodox don’t teach that there is “salvation” apart from union with the life of Christ. Salvation for the Orthodox involves forgiveness of sins, of course, but it is not exclusively understood as forgiveness of sins, but rather more completely as union with God.

    For another example, Orthodox do not believe infants and young children are capable of personal sin, though we certainly understand they partake in Adam’s corruption and will, when they reach a capacity for this kind of choice, fall into sin apart from cooperation with God’s grace. Consequently, we don’t believe they need forgiveness of sins, but we baptize them because we believe they must be in union with Christ and His life to be saved. This union (common union) is impossible apart from God becoming human (and so having this in common with us), so Mary could not be “saved” in this sense, even if she had never personally or willfully sinned (through the help of God’s grace). Apart from God’s initiative in the Incarnation, she would still have remained unconnected to God’s life/Christ’s blood, and died in sin’s corruption inherited from Adam.

    • Prometheus

      Thank you, Karen,

      I think you have helped clear up these things for me as well. I certainly am partial to Orthodox soteriology, since Salvation is not only about sin. Much Western theology that I encounter seems to make God need sin! That bothers me to no end. If God’s salvation is primarily about union with God, then (please correct me if I am wrong) the incarnation would still have been part of the plan if Adam had not sinned. However, the center of the church service is the Eucharist which I assume should remind us not just of incarnation, but of death and resurrection. Thus, it is hard for me to fully appreciate how our hope of salvation is not bound up with (and centered upon) his death and resurrection in a way that would not have happened had humanity not rebelled.

      Perhaps, though, I am beginning to see. 🙂

      • Karen

        Just to clarify, speaking of “the Incarnation” from an Orthodox perspective, is shorthand for the whole economy of our salvation in Christ–from Christ’s conception to His ascension (and ultimately Second Coming as well). His death and resurrection are certainly central in that. I don’t think we would have had to speak of Christ’s death, and that aspect of His Self-giving would not have had to be realized apart from death entering the world through Adam’s sin and becoming humankind’s condition. My understanding is that certain of the Fathers (maybe St. Irenaeus is one?) taught that Christ would have become Human for our sakes and for the sake of uniting humanity with Himself, even had sin not entered the world.

  11. David

    Thanks Karen,

    Given your way and the context of how some Orthodox argue for the possibility (probability?) of Mary’s never falling into any sin, ever, despite her being tainted with the effects of Adam’s sin, I’m not really offended. It’s a very different way to see the Fall & grace than the Protestant view. Enoch and Elijah exception from that other enemy — Death — is also helpful. It might well be the Truth.

    Yet I’ve never been “scandalized” (as most Orthodox seem to be) with the Protestant possibility of Mary sinning (assuming her ready/sincere repentance) or even her potential lack of virginity which never, of itself, a sin in scripture for a married woman. (Noah was a righteous man, and David a man after God’s own heart…both repentant sinners.) The Truth, of course, (it like most other issues here) lies in the understanding of Scripture and the Tradition the Apostles delivered to the Church.

    • Karen

      David, although all Orthodox are united in believing Mary became exceedingly sanctified and pure over the course of her life, I don’t think all Orthodox are united in believing that Mary never, ever sinned at all even in a small way. I have read that even St. John Chrysostem interpreted her exchange with Christ over the lack of wine at the wedding in Cana as sinning in a small way. It is not for no reason that this whole issue falls outside the scope of dogma that must be believed for salvation in Orthodoxy.

      On the other hand, belief in her ever-virginity was held even by Luther and Calvin. This teaching was not held because normal relations between a husband and wife were considered tainted with sin. (From what I understand, that’s an Augustinian teaching that never found full currency in the East, and is certainly not an Orthodox dogma.) Rather, belief in Mary’s ever-virginity is held based upon the understanding that Mary had been consecrated in a special way to God (much like Hannah consecrated Samuel for Temple service in the OT) to remain unmarried (a virgin) in perpetuity dedicated to prayer and service in the Temple. This special consecration is also similar to what we see in the NT with the Prophetess Anna who we are told had been married for eight years and then widowed. Rather than remarrying, she dedicated herself to prayer in the Temple precincts for the remainder of her life, and, consequently, became a prophetess and was a witness to Christ’s dedication in the Temple as an infant. The biblical principle here is that once a vessel is set aside for a holy use, it is considered profaning that vessel to subsequently use it for a common everyday purpose. That common everyday purpose is certainly not inherently sinful, but it is not biblically proper to return what has been set aside and sanctified for sacred use to common use. It is also not proper to break a solemn vow of dedication to God. Joseph, as a pious Jew, would never have considered taking a consecrated Temple virgin as a normal wife and certainly not after the revelation that God, the Son, had taken flesh in her womb! I suppose that might be analogous for a first century Jew to moving into the Temple to make it your home and making the Holy of Holies the master bedroom! Joseph, the betrothed “husband” of Mary is understood within Orthodox tradition to have been an older man, actually a widower with children (thus Jesus’ “brothers” were actually his stepbrothers) who were likely even older than Mary, and Joseph’s “betrothal” was by way of being appointed guardian to Mary (after the decease of her parents who, like John the Baptist’s parents, were old when she was born). Since she had been dedicated to a life of prayer in service to God (i.e., to remain a virgin and serve in the Temple precincts), this was another reason why it was so scandalous when Mary was found to be with child.

      This scholarly information on Mary from Christian tradition may be of interest:

      • Karen

        In the first century, from what I have read, “betrothal” was a legal covenant agreement whereby a man obtained all of the responsibilities of a husband for support/care and legal protection of a woman who was at this point also called his “wife”, without any of the privileges (i.e., of sexual consummation and begetting of children by her).

        It occurs to me, this practice of dedicating a member (and in extraordinary circumstances even a young child) to a life of prayer in the Temple (within priestly Jewish families), where when the girls so dedicated reached puberty, and in the event her father was no longer living, was “betrothed” to a male relative as a “husband” (as guardian), so that she would have a place to go outside the Temple precincts during periods of ritual impurity (i.e., during her menses) would go a long way to explaining what the Apostle Paul was talking about in options he was giving for celibate service to God in 1 Corinthians 7 and especially vss. 36-38. This passage has many modern Protestant scholars scratching their heads trying to understand whether this is talking about betrothed “husbands” choices about what to do with respect to their betrothed “fiancee/wives” before a wedding and the consummation of a marriage or the choices of Christian men who have virgin daughters not yet given in marriage. From what I remember learning about exegesis of this passage, the first is the more natural understanding of the wording in the original language, but doesn’t jibe with modern ways of thinking about what is meant by the words “husband” and “wife” even in this first-century “betrothed” context. This would make sense if we understood that the first Christians, understanding themselves by virtue of Christian baptism as a royal priesthood under Christ as High Priest (and especially those who were, in fact, Jews descended from Moses and Aaron’s family lines), continued this practice of dedication of certain of their members to a life of intensified priestly prayer and celibate service to God. It would also explain a lot of the practices related to early Christian monasticism. We know that periods of abstinence from normal sexual relations for married husbands and wives and regular periods of abstinence from some kinds of food and drink (fasting) is associated by Paul in this passage (vs. 5) with intensified efforts of prayer. We also see this with John the Baptist, a celibate who led an austere ascetic lifestyle in a manner not untypical of biblical prophets of God. Indeed, as the “forerunner” of Christ, he is understood to be the last in the line of these OT prophets.

  12. David

    Thanks Karen,

    You gave us an outstanding summary of things I’ve read or heard before of how the Orthodox regard the blessed Virgin Mary. It continues to surprise me how as a serious and well-read Protestant for over 40 years, I had never bothered reading, much less sought to carefully understand these things. I know of at least one Presbyterian Pastor who believes the Protestant world has not revered Mary and given her her proper due respect. He’s preached several early Christmas sermons to balance it all out. Sadly, his Protestant caveat/disclaimers about Mary’s common sinfulness, other children by Joseph, object of worship by millions of superstitious Roman Catholics — for all practical purposes neuters the sermon. His “veneration” of Mary bleeds to death from his thousand qualifications-cuts! It just shows how even with sincere intentions in the best of cases — it take tremendous effort for opposing theological systems to charitably understand each other. God’s tender mercies to you Karen.

    • Karen

      David, my experience regarding attitudes toward the Virgin Mary as a Protestant for over 40 years also was no different than yours. There’s a lot of water under the bridge with all the history of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation polemics that is indeed very challenging to sort through.

      God’s grace and peace also to you!

  13. Ray McCalla

    I assume that Wedgeworth is no liberal or feminist, but his approach is strangely consonant with liberal feminists who argue for a big tent early church.

    • robertar


      Good point!


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