A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Christian Unity Amidst Reformation Wars & Seminary Wars


“Missional ecumenicist” John Armstrong has two parallel passions: church unity and church missions.  Pastor Armstrong’s Protestant catholicism (small c) is characterized by his gracious, warm-hearted relationships, openness, and appreciation for both Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions.  He is relatively new to the Reformed tradition having come from a broad Evangelical background.  He wrote:

I entered the Reformed Church in America, about ten years ago, out of growing conviction that I could find a “broader way” of expressing my Reformed faith in both catholicity and ecumenism. I wanted a church home that had a meaningful catholic history and some ecclesial stability without all the stops and strictures of the rigidly conservative Reformed Church expressions that I see in the U.S.

Pastor Armstrongrecently wrote two interesting series of blog postings.  One lengthy series (twenty two articles!) — “Must the Reformation Wars Continue?” — sought to bring closure to the controversy over sola fide (justification by faith alone) that divides Protestants from Roman Catholics.  This was followed by another series, “Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love?”  In it Pastor Armstrong challenged the official reasons for Prof. Douglas Green’s “retirement” from Westminster Seminary.  He also delved into the conflictual culture at Westminster.  At first glance the two series of articles appear unrelated but in fact both address conflicts that divide the body of Christ and hinder the mission of the Church.

Pastor Armstrong has good reason to be distressed by the bible wars tearing apart the Westminster Seminary community.  He calls for the promotion of a culture of “radical love” that will lead to healing and reconciliation among the various parties.

Conflict is not new to Westminster Seminary.  Westminster is an off shoot of Princeton Seminary which succumbed to theological liberalism in the 1920s.  The struggle to uphold sola scriptura has given rise to a series of retreats: from Princeton to Westminster, then from Westminster to Redeemer in Houston.  John Armstrong sings the praise of Redeemer Seminary in Dallas as being what Westminster used to be.  Furthermore, the controversy surrounding Prof. Green is all too typical.  Just a few years earlier, Westminster Seminary was wracked by controversy over Prof. Peter Enns’ discussion of biblical inspiration and modern scholarship.  This led to Enns ouster in 2008, followed by a third of the board of trustees resigning.  Going back to the 1970s, there was controversy over Prof. Norman Shepherd’s understanding of the covenant.  This gives rise to the question: Why has Westminster Theological Seminary been so prone to conflicts rooted in the tension between doctrinal orthodoxy and rigorous scholarship?

Though our Protestant brothers rarely see it, this readiness to debate almost any detail of Bible and theology, and to separate from each other if our views differ slightly, is all too typical of the Protestant mentality.  This way of thinking is evidence of how conservative Protestants take the Bible and matters of faith seriously. But there is also another presupposition beneath these bible wars. It is the understanding that true Christian piety requires not only the laying aside of the Church Fathers’ interpretation of Holy Scripture – but the expectation that Scripture must be studied anew to learn afresh what the Spirit is teaching the Church. But if the Church Fathers received the Scriptures from the Apostles, identified and defined the biblical canon, and gave us the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology in the early Creed, why are Protestants so quick to reject and ignore the Church Fathers?  For Orthodox Christians this laying aside of the wisdom of the early Church Fathers guided by the Holy Spirit is dumbfounding.  Did not Christ himself promise that he would send the Holy Spirit who would guide the Church into all truth?  (See John 16:13.)


Luther Invoking Sola Scriptura at the Diet of Wurms

Luther Invoking Sola Scriptura at the Diet of Worms – “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scripture or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone . . . .”

Protestantism’s approach to the Bible – sola scriptura — is rooted in two ideals.  One is the ideal of Scripture liberated from Church Tradition.  This was needed in order to withstand the demands of the Roman Church that Luther and other Reformers submit to the Papacy.  The other ideal is sola scriptura combined with rigorous scholarship.

The latter reflects the Protestant Reformation’s roots in the seminary and the academy.  Martin Luther was a seminary professor and John Calvin studied law at the leading French universities.  This openness to human reason also led to the expectation that Protestantism and its seminaries could confidently interact with the academy and the public square via sola scriptura. The Protestant ideal of sola scriptura with rigorous scholarship held so long as European culture was predominantly Christian but with the rise of modern science and the Enlightenment a radically different epistemology emerged.  This new way of thinking sought to be grounded in empirical observation of the natural order and guided by human reason independent of divine revelation.

Thus, it is no surprise then that liberal theology with its naturalistic bias and the emphasis on scientific scholarship emerged in the German universities.  It was in Germany that the modern university emerged that influenced higher education in the US in the 1800s and the 1900s.  Similarly, the higher critical method invented in the German universities was brought over to America where it swept major theological schools like Princeton.  Protestant theology being “liberated” from Holy Tradition preserved and passed on through the Church became vulnerable to innovative doctrines and practices.

The disputes at Westminster Seminary are not between Methodists and Baptists, or Pentecostals, Anglicans and Presbyterians. They are taking place within the same Presbyterian denominations. These bible wars are the consequence of Protestant seminaries’ exclusion of Holy Tradition’s normative role in the study of Scripture.  In addition to giving rise to a plethora of Protestant denominations, sola scriptura creates a theological rigidity that makes it difficult for Protestant seminary professors and other Christian scholars to think critically.  It creates a sort of invisible Procrustean bed for Protestant scholarship.  When seminary professors seek to apply rigorous scholarship with results that challenge or give rise to questions about certain established doctrinal distinctives bible wars erupt.

As I bounced back and forth between the two series of articles I found myself wondering: If Pastor Armstrong in his zeal for Church unity is so eager to end the Reformation wars by smoothing away the rough edges of the sola fide issue, where does he stand on Rome’s claim to universal magisterium?  While the appeal of Roman Catholicism may lie in a form of broadness and stability that Evangelicalism and Protestantism clearly lack, Pastor Armstrong has yet to address the Pope’s claim to universal magisterium, i.e., his claim to be the authoritative expositor of the Christian Faith.  Furthermore, I do not see much evidence that Pastor Armstrong has engaged Orthodoxy’s insistence that Scripture be read in the context of Holy Tradition, that is, the Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils.

I voiced these concerns earlier in a four part series “Contra Sola Scriptura.”  In my review of Dr. Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura I noted similar problems much like that which roils the Westminster Seminary community today.

With respect to Protestantism over the past five centuries Mathison has had to concede that it has not worked well (p. 290).  When we look at the Reformed tradition, which we can assume had the best understanding of sola scriptura, we find similar practical difficulties.  Which particular Reformed denomination has been most faithful to the principle of sola scriptura? PCUSA, PCA, OPC, RCA, EPC, BPC, CPC, CPCA, WPCUS, ARPC, RPCA, RPCGA, or CREC?  Has sola scriptura proven to be a source of doctrinal unity or division in the Reformed churches?

…Dr. Mathison lists three reasons why sola scriptura hasn’t worked so far: (1) the Reformation took place long after the initial schisms, (2) sola scriptura was soon replaced by a distorted version “solo scriptura” espoused by Evangelicals, and (3) the rise of the Enlightenment (p. 290).  But his defense of sola scriptura against the charge of hermeneutical chaos suffers from a serious gap.  None of these explanations account for the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 where Luther and Zwingli met to debate the meaning of words of Christ: “This is my body.” Their failure to work out the practical implications of how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper constitutes one of Protestantism’s earliest failures.  This tragic event took place just ten years after Luther’s 95 Theses with the result that the Protestant movement soon was divided into three factions.  Calvin was unable to forge a theological consensus beyond his own circle of followers.  In Chapter 3, “Martin Luther and John Calvin,” Mathison makes no mention of Ulrich Zwingli, the great Swiss Reformer.  This shows a serious gap in Mathison’s historical analysis.  The Marburg Colloquy is an early occurrence of the impracticality of sola scriptura for the magisterial Reformation and is something Mathison needs to address.


Zwingli and Luther at the Marburg Colloquy - 1529

Zwingli and Luther at the Marburg Colloquy

In a 2007 article, Pastor Armstrong shows he too is familiar with the classical Protestant version of sola scriptura that allows for reason and experience.  He also shows awareness of the criticism that sola scriptura gives rise to division.  He wrote: “I fear for a Protestant future that continues to promote sectarianism as essential to sola Scriptura.”  In response to Roman Catholics who asserted Rome’s magisterium Armstrong asserted that sola scriptura “rightly defined” and “rightly used” will address these concerns.  But IS this prescription adequate for dealing with the instabilities and divisions that arise from Westminster’s attempt to uphold sola scriptura?

Orthodoxy’s approach is to interpret Scripture within the framework of Holy Tradition.  While Orthodoxy is receptive towards modern biblical scholarship, it holds the Ecumenical Councils and the patristic consensus to be normative over modern biblical scholarship.  This I suggest will avoid the dilemma of the Scylla of Protestantism’s sola scriptura versus the Charybdis of Roman Catholicism’s infallible papacy.  The Orthodox approach to the reading of Scripture is grounded in the stability of ancient Holy Tradition that balances out Protestantism’s sola scriptura.  Orthodoxy’s conciliarity, i.e., giving priority to the Ecumenical Councils over any bishop, balances out Roman Catholicism’s claim to papal supremacy.  It is here that Reformed-Orthodox dialogue can be fruitful and can be useful for those distressed by the bible wars in Protestant seminaries.  (See Seraphim Hamilton’s article “Looking at Critical Scholarship Critically” which discussed biblical scholarship and the more flexible approach to inerrancy in Orthodoxy.)

Contrary to what most Protestants hoped for, sola scriptura flings wide open the door for theologians and bible scholars to formulate new interpretations and doctrines – yet is incapable at the same time of sorting through the rival interpretations. It thus breeds division and chaos rather than unity and communion of the saints that Pastor Armstrong longs for.

Finally, we should note that Protestantism’s problem with division goes beyond Scripture and hermeneutics.  Protestantism’s church divisions are also rooted in its lacking historic continuity.  We noted a few month ago Pastor Andrew Sandlins’ angst over future generation of Reformed Protestants: What will they believe and teach his grandchildren and great grandchildren? And what form of worship will they be using? He laments that the unwillingness of younger leaders to learn from their elders leaves the future of Reformed Protestantism in doubt. But, ironically, it appears that the younger generation learned all too well the lessons of the Protestant Reformers who repudiated Tradition!  Unanchored to Tradition they are at risk of drifting with the tide of contemporary culture becoming ever more separated from their historic roots.  Looking at today’s Evangelical landscape, it appears that future generations of Protestants will drift even further from the Holy Tradition established and embraced by the Apostles:

Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)

What Jude referred to as “our common salvation” was rooted in the Faith that was traditioned (handed over or delivered) to the saints (the early Christians).  Thus, early Christian unity was rooted in a traditioned Faith, not in sola scriptura.  We invite Pastor Armstrong to consider the possibility that the resolution of seminary wars and the healing of divisions is to be found in the embrace of Holy Tradition.  It is commendable that this ardent “missional ecumenicist” has been engaging the Roman Catholic faith tradition, we invite him to enter into a Reformed-Orthodox dialogue as well.  We welcome the pastoral wisdom and warm hearted ecumenicism Pastor Armstrong can bring to the table.

Robert Arakaki


Further Readings

John H. Armstrong.  “The Protestant Principle: What “Sola Scriptura” Means and Why It Matters.”  24 January 2007.

John H. Armstrong.  “What Can Be Done To Seek Unity Between Catholics and Evangelicals?” 7 April 2014.

John H. Armstrong. “Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love?” (Part 3).  10 July 2014.

Seraphim Hamilton.  “Looking at Critical Scholarship Critically: A Response to Greg Carey.” In On Behalf of All.  17 June 2014.

Robert Arakaki.  “Contra Sola Scriptura 1: Book Review: The Shape of Sola Scriptura.” In OrthodoxBridge.  4 June 2011.

Robert Arakaki.  “Contra Sola Scriptura 2: If Not Sola Scriptura, Then What?  The Biblical Basis for Holy Tradition.”  In OrthodoxBridge.  12 June 2011.

Robert Arakaki.  “Contra Sola Scriptura 3: Where Does Sola Scriptura Come From?  The Humanist Origins of the Protestant Reformation.”  In OrthodoxBridge.  1 July 2011.

Robert Arakaki.  “Contra Sola Scriptura 4: Protestantism’s Fatal Genetic Flaw: Sola Scriptura and Protestantism’s Hermeneutical Chaos.” In OrthodoxBridge.  January 2012.

Robert Arakaki.  “Aging Protestants, Deep Sighs, and Holy Tradition.” In OrthodoxBridge.  14 April 2014.



  1. Paula

    Reading these links chilled me to the bone. The ground shifts so fast in protestantism that what was accepted today is not tomorrow. In a lifetime, one can go from being a respected scholar to being a heretic without changing anything about what one believes. I wonder if anyone can see that tradition is being appealed to in these arguments? It makes me believe that Holy Tradition was rejected because the desired answer was not found.

    • robertar


      I appreciate your comment. When I was a Protestant Evangelical I found it tiring trying to keep up with the changes. I found in Holy Tradition a stability that provides me with safe harbor from all the storms of the bible wars. We need to reach out to those wounded by the bible wars with kindness and patience.


      • Paula

        Agreed. I’m learning from you about that kindness and patience.

  2. David

    Yes Paula, it’s really a worse situation than certain progressives
    now like to creatively interpret & apply the US Constitution. The
    protestant mentality is all too much like those Progressive Con-
    situtional scholars who make a studied practice of ignoring all the
    writings of the Founding Fathers who wrote it — or sifting mining
    the text ed for nuggets to build my new constitutional theory.

    There are, of course, real difference here — all leading to more set-
    tled Tradition for reading and understanding Scripture than the
    ammendable US Constitution allows! Who knows what will pass
    for ‘orthodox protestant doctrine and practice” in 20, 40, 100 years
    …even among conservative Reformed folk?

  3. David


    I wonder if this sentence: “The unwillingness of younger leaders to
    learn from their elders leaves the future of Reformed Protestantism
    in doubt.” might be better stated. One might argue they are learning
    all too well just how to reject much or the “Tradition” their leader are
    trying to pass on. Then do their own new sifting and mining of it for
    what they like…much like their elders have done and taught to do the
    Holy Tradition of the early Fathers? Indeed, some Reformed leaders
    fully expect and commend this whole process — but maybe not what
    will result from it?

    • robertar


      You’re right. It could have been stated better. I went in and revised that paragraph.


  4. Piet

    Thank you. I finally get it, why tradition is so important. Protestantism in its never-ending iterations is even now in a wildly churning state of flux, at least when looked at from the vantage of the last 500 years. This appears to be due to a disconnectedness with Holy Tradition, and sola scripture has not been at all effective in stabilizing this process. Protestantism is therefore a highly unstable movement. Catholicism is connected to tradition, so it is not unstable, but has continued to multiply, albeit somewhat slowly compared to Protestantism, the egregious errors that lead to the Great Schsim. The process of generating error in the Catholic Church, however, appears to be accelerating so this in itself constitutes a kind of instability.

    There was almost no way for the Reformers to break with Rome and recover the apostolic gospel without recourse to the Orthodox faith, because all they accomplished was to move the furniture around within the paradigm of the Western Church. They did not successfully escape it.

    What say you?

    • robertar


      I’m glad to see you grasp one side of the issue: Protestantism’s fundamental theological instability. The next question is: What is the solution to Protestantism’s flaw? For me, it took a while to come to trust the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church. I had to acquaint myself with the writings of the early church fathers like Athanasius the Great, Irenaeus of Lyons, Ignatius of Antioch, and the first century document, the Didache. I also had to grapple with Christ’s promise that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide his Church into all truth (John 14:26, 16:13). So if you are a Protestant looking into Orthodoxy, my advice is for you to take your time, read the early church fathers, attend the Sunday Liturgy, and keep praying.


      • Piet

        Yes, I am a Protestant frustrated with change and looking at the Orthodox tradition. While I do finally get it about role of the apostolic tradition, and I see that sola scripture has not kept Protestantism from instability, I am not quite ready to throw out “scriptura” altogether. For instance, while I greatly admire the Orthodox manner of burial of the dead, I am put off by the whole idea of relics. It seems gruesome and in regards to scripture, it seems like it may violate the law of Moses, whereby one is rendered unclean by contact with a dead body, although I suppose technically there is seldom any direct contact with a relic. So, don’t we need “scriptura” to make sure we have not drifted in our “traditio”?

        I understand that God keeps some bodies of the saints free from corruption, and I understand the unity in the liturgy of the Church in Heaven and on Earth, and I understand that in venerating relics a connection is being made to a saint in the presence of God. But that is also the rationale for veneration of icons, so why are relics needed? (I also understand living people can be venerated, with a holy kiss, etc.)

        • The Master

          Because sometimes God has chosen to work through a saint’s relics, weather they are alive or dead. For example there is a story in the old testament about a Great holy man that when he died was buried in a tomb specifically set apart for this holy man. Several years later while some Israelites were burying another man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into The Holy Man’s tomb. When the body touched The Holy Man’s bones, the man being buried came to life and stood up on his feet (2 Kings 13:21).

          In both the old an new testament we see that God would even use things that the apostle wore to work miracles

          “(Acts 1:29) …God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out.”

          ‘(2 Kings 2:11-14) Then it came about as they were going along and talking, that behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. And Elisha saw it and cried out, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. He also took up the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and returned and stood by the bank of the Jordan. And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and struck the waters and said, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” And when he also had struck the waters, they were divided here and there; and Elisha crossed over. ‘

          –The Master

          • robertar

            Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! Thanks for contributing to the discussion.


        • Clayton

          The Orthodox understanding of relics being a conduit of Grace actually is supported by Scripture. 2 Kings 13:21 comes to mind.

        • Piet

          I want to think about relics some more. Please delete my post unless you feel it is something that you want to respond to.

          • Piet

            OK, the post was posted so its out there.

            While that scripture from Kings refers to the miracle wrought by contact with Elijah’s bones, not his uncorrupted body, it does not address the issue of the veneration of Elijah’s relics. If anything, it might be said that the relics of Elijah were disrespected by throwing a body on top of them.

          • Karen


            Some things to consider in addition to Clayton’s example from 2 Kings, are precedents also found in the NT in Acts 5:15 and Acts 19:11-12 where objects or phenomena (Peter’s shadow) associated with an Apostle were vehicles of the grace of God. I think your struggle to understand the role of relics in Christian faith is a natural one, given where you are coming from. Many of us have asked the same questions along the way to becoming Orthodox. There’s a series of podcasts at AFR, showing how Protestants, too, often instinctively honor their heroes of faith through their relics, which might lend some perspective. The first is here:

            As Orthodox, we would allow that God’s performance of a miracle as a result of the contact with Elijah’s bones (the bones and personal belongings of Saints are also holy relics–not just uncorrupt flesh) is a sign that the attitude reflected through contact with Elijah’s bones was one of trust in Elijah’s God. This could not, therefore, from an Orthodox perspective represent disrespect for Elijah’s bones. This faith-filled attitude of expectancy for God to act through His servants is one God honors.

            In contrast is the act of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6:6, who reached out to steady the Ark of the Covenant when it was being transported back to Jerusalem (in a manner contrary to God’s instruction about how the Ark was to be carried) with David’s army. This represented support of what amounted to a series of careless acts of disobedience and forgetfulness of God’s commands about how the Ark of the Covenant was to be handled, and the consequences were a dread-inspiring judgment for this.

            In the former case in 2 Kings, the attitude expressed in the action was one of dependence upon God. In the latter, it was one of presumption and forgetfulness of His commands.

  5. Eric Todd

    I had similar questions as a Protestant. Upon considering Orthodoxy and the idea of house and water blessings, I began to see in Scripture many instances of God using physical matter to impart grace. A few examples:

    1. The waters of the pool of Bethesda (John 4). The angel came periodically to stir the waters, which healed those who were submerged. The sick man whom Jesus eventually healed was not lacking in faith. Rather, he lacked interaction with the water. Physical matter imparted the grace of healing.

    2. Aprons and handkerchiefs (Acts 19). We learn from Acts that Paul’s aprons and handkerchiefs–his “relics”– were brought to the sick and they were healed. Would it be incongruent with Scripture to imagine that the bones of St. Paul or other apostles would also have this unusual effect? (The testimony of the relics of St Clement of Rome, Paul’s disciple, is another early example of such healing).

    3. Healing from Peter’s shadow (Acts 5).

    4. Healing from Jesus’ robe (Mark 5).

    Of course, the Eucharist is the best example of the spiritual combining with the physical. Scripture tells us that some who partook of the Eucharist improperly actually died (1 Cor 11). Much more than just a symbol, God uses the physical bread and wine to impart grace.

    • Karen

      Oops! Sorry, I should have read all the way to the end of this thread before responding to Piet. I see you have addressed this much more thoroughly than I did! Thanks, Eric.

      • robertar


        I just want to add that the veneration while a part of Orthodoxy is a minor element in Orthodoxy. More emphasis can be found on the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist in the Sunday Liturgy. I’ve encountered relics only on a few occasions in the time that I’ve been Orthodox.


  6. Piet

    Thank you for your kind replies. Handkerchiefs, shadows, disturbed waters on a pool, even Elishah’s bones, are not quite the same as venerating human remains. However, I don’t want attention on me, and what you have shown me is that looking at the Orthodox tradition is not like sifting through Protestant denominations to determine which of them most closely align to one’s own views. And you are reminding me that it is a very ancient tradition, that has changed the least of any Christian tradition, and so perhaps I am actually experiencing a kind of cultural conflict, transmitted through time as it were.

    Thank you for allowing me to share, I have learned from you. Even though I have been open about misgivings, I am actually quite open to the Orthodox faith. But I realize this is going to take some time.

  7. David


    Let me assure you, most of us have struggled with one or more
    aspects of Orthodoxy. Raised a So-Bapt. the 33+ yrs Reformed
    Presby. I had many. Mercifully, the Holy Spirit is patient and
    kind…and does not rush us. And thankfully, the Orthodox are
    unusually patient with inquirers. It takes time to work through
    all these things, especially those so strange to the Protestant
    mentality — though ancient and historic in the Faith and Church
    of our Lord. Allow me to amen Robert’s exhortation to go quietly
    to a dozen or so Divine Liturgies. Go slow, be at peace, smell the
    incense and pray the prayers. God be with you brother. You will
    love these things at the right time and pace.

  8. William Tighe

    This article by a Lutheran pastor on the widespread “optionalizing” of Baptism among “Evangelicals” may be relevant to aspects of this discussion:


  9. Piet

    “…our entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.” Schmemann, For the Life of the World

    Enjoying reading, going slow, with prayer. Any tradition that can produce an Alexander Schmemann is worth close inspection.

  10. David

    Amen to that, Piet! 😉

  11. Piet

    I haven’t read the entire book yet, and I might be getting ahead of myself, but would you say that the Orthodox faith is a united tradition in that everything that is done relates in some way to the liturgy? Can you say the liturgy combines the worship of worshippers in Heaven with those on earth because of the essential unity of the Church in both places? Would you say that veneration of relics relates to the liturgy because it is a reminder of the unity of believers on earth with the Church in Heaven?

    • robertar


      I see Orthodoxy’s unity as organic, not static and uniform. This means that the unity that we speak of is not always neat and tidy. There may be loose ends that may drive some of the more fussy fastidious types crazy. To answer your first question: the Sunday Liturgy pretty much integrates the faith and practices of Orthodoxy. But one needs to keep in mind that the Sunday morning Divine Liturgy is linked to the Sunday morning Matins service that precedes the Liturgy and the Vespers service that is held the Saturday night before. Then there are the midweek services that complement the Sunday service. This might sound overwhelming to you. Again, my advice is take things slowly. I needed to attend the Liturgy for about two years before I could get a sense of what was going on!

      Let me use this analogy, let’s say there’s this little boy who for the first time saw this huge swimming pool. To get him into the pool you let him dangle his feet in the shallow end until he’s comfortable to jump into the shallow end. If you threw him into the deep end he’s going to be so scared he’ll stay away for a long time.

      Your second questions shows a good understanding of how Orthodoxy understands the unity of Christian worship. Truly there is one worship (Liturgy) because we are one Body in Christ.

      As for your third question, I can only give you my best guess. Revelation 6:9 speaks of the souls of the martyrs under the heavenly altar. This gives us the precedent for embedding relics inside the altar at its consecration. When a new Orthodox church is built, the building is consecrated to sacred use. Then the altar which is just a wooden box or marble table is likewise consecrated. Only when it is consecrated for sacred worship does the box or table truly become an altar. At the Greek Orthodox Church I attend in Honolulu are the relics of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste and also of Saint Boniface. For me, the Sunday Liturgy links me not only to the saints in heaven but it also physically links me to historic figures. Saint Boniface for me is not a remote historical person but someone whose relics are in the same church building I am in! For someone who received his M.A. in church history from a Reformed seminary this makes church history come alive in a new way so to speak.

      Don’t worry about asking all these questions. This blog has been set up for inquiring Protestants and Evangelicals. You might want to join one of the FaceBook discussion groups and post your questions there. Consider: “Orthodox and Non-Orthodox Christians Discussion Group” and “Ask an Orthodox Priest.”


  12. Piet

    And I do apologize for hijacking the thread. I have actually read the blog post a couple of times, it absolutely demonstrates the challenges sola scriptura has raised for Protestants. It has come at a timely point in my life when I was ready to hear it, having experienced my own challenges of the ever changing face of Protestantism. Reformed distinctives I had counted on, and indeed, took as a given, such as strong exegetical preaching, just collapsed through a series of experiences. My faith in the Reformed tradition has been shattered, largely by the tradition itself, and I now find myself reading your blog and Schmemann and going to a few Orthodox services.

    • robertar

      When people ask me why I became Orthodox, I tell them “My Protestant theology fell apart.” My journey to Orthodoxy was a long one that took about 7 years. I can relate to Fr. Alexander Schmemann opening your eyes. I still have vivid memories of reading his “Life of the World” in this hotel lobby in a cold winter afternoon in Boston. I’ll be praying for you.


  13. PDS

    Hello Robert,

    I have been reading your blog for around a year now, and appreciate the thought and effort you put into your articles. This article makes some good points, but I don’t know if the solutions you present to the problems for Reformed (and other types of Protestant theologies) are significantly better then the various forms of Sola Scriptura.

    You put forward a common Orthodox claim:

    “Orthodoxy’s approach is to interpret Scripture within the framework of Holy Tradition. While Orthodoxy is receptive towards modern biblical scholarship, it holds the Ecumenical Councils and the patristic consensus to be normative over modern biblical scholarship.”

    This claim, on the face of it, is plausible and attractive. Using the guidance of the 7 councils and respected church fathers, interpretation of Scripture is given an greater degree of objectivity, which counter balances the multitude of interpretations given to us by various forms of critical scholarship. Therefore, we can expect more unity in interpretation and, crucially, more confidence in our conclusions.

    However, this assumes that the 7 councils and respected church fathers are interpreted in a uniform fashion. It assumes that a patristic consensus is possible in practice and not just as a principle – which appears to be a contested question among Orthodox theologians.

    The same questions about critical scholarship arise when interpreting the history of the church. And I’ve heard it said that there are similarities between what the Reformers did to church history to what modern biblical scholarship has done to the Bible. Whether that is true or not, the same types of methodological questions need to be asked.



    • robertar


      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge!

      The conciliar method and the patristic consensus that I proposed as a hermeneutical method were not meant to be understood as an academic method to be used in seminaries but as life in the Church. So when you wrote about interpreting the Councils and the Church Fathers in a “uniform fashion” I suspect you had in mind a method deployed in a modern academic setting where abstract reasoning is the dominant method. The critical church historiography you mentioned is very much like the critical biblical studies rooted in the Enlightenment Project. Many valuable insights have emerged from this method but some are not quite compatible with the historic Christian Faith. For this reason the secular university is a more suitable venue for such research than an ideologically committed institution like the theological seminary.

      If you haven’t done so, I suggest you read George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine in which he compared the experiential-expressive method of doing theology against the cultural-linguistic method. What I gained from Lindbeck is the understanding that theology (doctrine and ritual) is a communal property shared by its members. There are certain in built constraints on the Church as a faith community that sets it apart from the modern university which emerged from the European Enlightenment. I think much of Protestantism’s recent problems stemmed from the belief that objective reason can lead to a better understanding of Scripture and that “objective” and “scientific” research into Scripture (church history and other disciplines) can take place in the seminary just as in academia. Having relinquished Tradition as the normative framework Protestantism laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment by turning theology and biblical studies into a contested terrain where various parties could challenge each other by means of evidence and logic where the superior hypothesis wins out much as in modern science.

      In conclusion, the modern scientific method applied to Scripture or to church history, while fruitful and offering much insights, is based on a method quite different from that of the early Church. Keeping the differences between the two is important for allowing Christian theology to grow and benefit from the findings of recent critical scholarship in Scripture and church history.


      • Anastasios

        Very interesting points. I might also argue that other areas of study (not just theology) suffer when they are “academicized” too strongly. The divide between the “experiential-expressive” and “cultural-linguistic method” would seem to apply in, for example, mathematics as well.

        Many great mathematicians, including Benoit Mandelbrot, have struggled in school because the way in which the subject was taught was too rigorous and abstract (very much post-Enlightement), whereas Mandelbrot’s approach to doing things was more experiential and intuitive. He wasn’t Orthodox (or even Christian) but he did have a love of all things medieval and pre-modern, and he frequently pointed out that fractal and fractal-like designs feature commonly in the art of pre-modern cultures, but they disappeared under the influence of the Enlightenment (and to a lesser extent, the ancient Greek rationalism that the Enlightenment revived). Partly it was because fractals, because they are infinitely complex, make reductionists and those who tend toward reductionism very uncomfortable. They were stigmatized as “pathological” by those who wanted their mathematics to be “well-behaved”.

        Science didn’t originate in the Enlightenment; there were many advances in science and technology during the medieval era and in Byzantium, too. Many of them even took place within monasteries (think Bede, Alcuin, John of Damascus, etc.). But there wasn’t the kind of stifling academic rigorism that characterizes the modern university. There are many people (myself included) who have backgrounds in science, and who love studying it but have had hard times in classes or in the workplace because of the way it’s done. There’ve been many times I’ve wished I could have been born in an earlier era. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt that way on occasion.

        You could also say the same thing about other areas of study (like economics, which is often viewed from an exclusively utilitarian and materialistic perspective here in the USA, one which fails to take into account what is really important).

        Theology was once described as the “queen of the sciences”. I’d argue that once a culture starts doing theology wrong, they will eventually start doing everything else wrong, too.

      • Piet

        Your observations are borne out by the current Federal Vision and Republication controversies in the PCA and OPC. At some point, theology gets to a point of being so ultra-refined and arcane that the few who fully grasp the issues get all caught up in preening and debating the theology. But theology exists for the edification of the Church, as you pointed out neither the Church nor seminaries are proper venues for these esoteric theological disputes. But that’s sola scriptura for you, all conflict with no common hermeneutic.

        • Piet

          Oops. My comment above was intended to be posted to Robert’s comment welcoming PDS to Orthodox Bridge.

  14. PDS

    Hello Robert,

    Thanks for your quick reply! I will certainly need to read Lindbekc’s book, as it sounds very interesting!

    Given the view that Scripture can only be fully understood in “the life in the Church”, does this make the inter-Christian Apologetic mission quite difficult? The more theology is a “communal property shared by its members”, the less it is accessible to non-members. There is limited common ground even with Reformed Christians as they will interpret Scriptures and the Church Fathers differently – according to their own methodologies. There is even less common ground with (most) evangelicals. I guess you know all this – as you took 7 years to convert to Orthodoxy!

    As for myself, I have been intrigued by Orthodoxy, but not persuaded by any intellectual arguments by its Apologists. That’s not to say that my theological views and practices haven’t been challenged by yourself and others, but there is a big difference between that and the huge life shift of becoming Orthodox.


    • robertar


      First of all, I apologize for misspelling the author’s name. It is “Lindbeck,” “ck” not “kc.” I think you are making matters more complicated than they really are. Human beings have this ability to learn a new language and adapt to new settings. It’s not easy but it is possible. It can happen if one is open to learning new things. It helps if there are shared experiences to start from. So in the case of inter-Christian apologetics — I assume you are talking about conversation across different theological traditions — communication is possible so long as we make clear where we share a common belief and where we differ. I am wary when someone from another religious tradition tells me: We’re like you, we believe the same things you do too.” (BTW, is this what you mean by inter-Christian apologetics?)

      George Lindbeck wrote: “Pagan converts to the catholic mainstream did not, for the most part, first understand the faith then decide to become Christians; rather, the process was reversed: they first decided and then they understood. More precisely, they were first attracted by the Christian community and form of life.” (p. 132)

      I would say that the real barrier to communication across different theological traditions are emotions like anger, hostility, defensiveness, or arrogance. If the emotional climate is calm and open then one can start with questions like: “What is important to your faith? Can I see how you worship? What Scripture passages are important to you? What do these passages mean to you?” It is better to start with open ended questions like: “I think I heard a lot about the Virgin Mary in your church services. Why is that?,” then to ask loaded questions like: “Why do you worship Mary?”

      Let me add that in many ways our theologies are driven not by the minutiae of a complex doctrinal system but more by gestalt. People often are moved to consider Orthodoxy when they attend the Liturgy (worship service). In my case, something happened when I read Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World and caught a glimpse of the sacramental view of the world. In the case of Calvinism people are often attracted to this theological tradition after they read a book or hear a sermon that lays out the intellectual rigor of this tradition. They may not have followed all of the pastor’s sermon or hardly any of the sermon but they glimpsed something of the kernel of the Calvinist tradition. Following that glimpse of the gestalt many then struggle to work out the kinks as they investigate or scrutinize that tradition. Then that inquirer may find himself caught between two different theological paradigms intellectually, and between two different loyalties in their hearts. Some people end up converting and changing loyalties, while others hold back and remain in their denomination. Changing theological loyalties is not a matter of logic and doctrine, prospective converts also have to factor in the costs of converting. It means joining a new congregation and learning a new way of worship. Some may lose their jobs, others may alienate family members or be regarded as theologically unsound, but they have taken this radical step because they believe obedience to God is paramount.

      BTW, I’m not clear about your denominational affiliation so I’m guessing at times as to how to best respond to your queries. But I can understand if you are reticent. Or you could send me a personal message via the contact box.


  15. PDS

    Hi Robert,

    Thanks for the reply. I appreciate your response. What I meant by inter(intra?)-Christian apologetics was the challenge of persuading Christians from other traditions to become Orthodox (or the other way round). I have no desire to minimise the differences between traditions.

    The idea of a gestalt certainly resonates with me. I am from a Evangelical background, but even within my own tradition, which I have been part of for many years, I don’t have a full systematic understanding of its core doctrine or practice. I know less about other traditions – including Orthodoxy – which I have only glimpsed by comparison. I would love to systematically work through every doctrine and practice, and figure things out logically and then make a choice, but this is not practical or even possible. Even then, as you say, conversion is not primarily about that.

    I have a rule about giving too much personal information away on the Internet so I’ll contact you to continue this conversation.



    • robertar


      Knowing that you come an Evangelical background is very helpful for me. It would make something of a difference if say you came from a Reformed denomination or a charismatic group. And like you I have a rule against giving too much personal information on the Internet. Thanks again for joining the conversation. Let’s keep an open mind and loving heart as we talk with each other.


  16. Anastasios

    Say, perhaps your next article should be about Mark Driscoll and the recent controversy surrounding him. Driscoll has been made to step down from his position after comments he made on the internet about women (he basically called them “penis homes”) became public. http://time.com/3304861/pastor-mark-driscoll-penis-homes/

    Previously he’s said that if a man commits adultery, it may be the woman’s fault for not keeping herself good-looking or thin enough for him, or for not giving him enough sex. He once told a woman “you need to go home and tell your husband that you’ve met Jesus and you’ve been studying the Bible, and that you’re convicted of a terrible sin in your life. And then you need to drop his trousers, and you need to serve your husband [orally].” Later Driscoll boasted that this was the way she won him to Christ and got him to start coming to church. That’s the most bizarre method of evangelism ever.

    Driscoll is perhaps best known for trying to re-masculinize Christianity, and his potty-mouthed and often misogynistic style is part of that. Evangelicalism and Catholicism both have a _huge_ problem with male attendance.

    Driscoll and the other neo-Calvinists have been trying to change that. Some of them are even holding fight clubs in church (like in this movie: http://www.fightchurchfilm.com/). What they’re actually pushing seems more like pagan ideas about virility rather than the genuinely Christian ideal of masculinity, which is centered on Jesus Christ, the perfect man. True masculinity doesn’t consist in beating up on or belittling women, nor does it consist of bullying or picking on the weak, or bragging about your physical prowess. Jesus did none of these things.

    These guys also promote the neo-Jovinian attitude that all men must marry and be the heads of households, all women must bear their children, and that family life is the primary focus of Christianity. Monasticism, or even just simply remaining single, are viewed as aberrations. There’s often a tendency among these folks toward “shaming” anyone who isn’t married early enough, or who doesn’t marry, which goes along with the tendency to shame (bully) anyone who isn’t “manly” enough. It’s almost like these folks never read about Paul who was perfectly content remaining single and even wished everyone was the same way. Driscoll said that Jesus, Paul, and King David were “dudes. Heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose, dudes.” Actually, Jesus and Paul were both celibate, both chose to die even though they could have fought their way out of it, and King David’s sex life is nothing to admire.

    The fact that American churches have a hard time attracting men is indeed a problem, but there’s another solution, one that doesn’t involve degrading women. Orthodoxy has no problem with attracting women; indeed, Orthodox churches are the only ones where the majority of converts are male, and it’s usually husbands who have to convince their wives to swim the Bosporus rather than the other way around. Something about Orthodoxy is attractive to guys, maybe because it shows them what _real_ manliness is like. Jesus Christ is the ultimate man, not the sex-hounds and fight-clubbers that Driscoll & Co. hold up as the ideal.

    • robertar


      I apologize for the slow response. For some reason I haven’t been getting email notification.

      It has been suggested that I write about Pastor Mark Driscoll. There are moral failings among Reformed Christians and also among Orthodox Christians as well. My apologetics strategy has been to focus on issues of faith and practice in order to help Evangelicals and Reformed Christian better understand Orthodoxy. You do have a good point about the unbalanced understanding of what it means to be a man among many Evangelicals. Rather than go negative, the better approach is to go positive like Frederica Mathewes-Green’s article: “Why Orthodox Men Love Church.”


      • Bayou Huguenot

        Driscoll would have been an appropriate topic even up to last year. I think with the recent fiasco he is forever disgraced (at least publicly; with regard to grace that’s between him and God).


        I couldn’t stop myself from reading your comment. That’s the effect Driscoll has on people. You know you should stop reading but you just can’t

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