A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Author: Robert Arakaki (Page 37 of 89)

An Orthodox Critique of the Cultural/Dominion Mandate


R.J. Rushdoony

R.J. Rushdoony

Within the Reformed Christian tradition arose a small but influential movement in the mid/late 1960s known as Christian Reconstructionism.  While based on Reformed theology it contains some significant and unique twists.  Reconstructionism is marked by certain distinctives: the cultural mandate, sphere sovereignty (soevereiniteit in eigen kring), presuppositional apologetics, and the rejection of an otherworldly pietism.  Among its key thinkers are: R.J. Rushdoony (considered the movement’s founder), Gary North (his son-in-law), James Jordan, Greg Bahnsen, and David Chilton.  Reconstructionism’s influence extended beyond Christian circles into politics.  With generous funding from Howard Ahmanson, Jr., Reconstructionism became popular in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Both Ed McAteer’s Religious Roundtable conferences and the separate but friendly Moral Majority were heavily influence by Rushdoony Reconstructionism.

Key to Christian Reconstructionism is the concept of “cultural mandate” or “dominion mandate.”  This is the conviction that Scripture gives the church a mandate to take dominion of this world socially and culturally (De Waay).  Rushdoony in an interview with Jay Rogers stated:

Paul refers to the Church in Galatians 6:16 as the new Israel of God. This means that we have a duty. We have to occupy the whole world. The Great Commission is to make disciples of all nations. To bring them all into the fold together with all their peoples because Christ is the ordained King of all creation. We have a magnificent calling. I don’t believe God programmed us for defeat.  (Emphasis added.)

This theological paradigm is based on the understanding that sin consists of autonomy (independence of God’s divine rule) and the belief that the subsequent disorder and sufferings that afflict us stem from this rejection of God’s will.  Reconstructionists believe that the remedy is theonomy – the restoration of divine rule through the preaching and application of Scripture.  This leads to the belief that all of Scripture is about reconstruction.  Rushdoony in “The Meaning of Theocracy” wrote:

What we today fail to see, and must recapture, is the fact that the basic government is the self-government of covenant man; then the family is the central governing institution of Scripture. The school is a governmental agency, and so too is the church. Our vocation also governs us, and our society.

Christ as the Second Adam has “federal” headship of the new human race and Christians are called to apply Scripture not only to their own lives but to the world around them as well.  They rely on sola scriptura as the basis for their moral code.  This can be construed to mean a narrow exclusivist framework that allows for very little interaction with contemporary thought or non-Western cultures.

The Bible commands both personal devotion and cultural transformation according to biblical law. We should heartily abhor any “either-or” mentality about these things. We don’t need to abandon one for the other. True piety must include both. But we must be sure to get our standards for both from Scripture alone.  (Chilton; emphasis added.)

R.J. Rushdoony wanted government to be in the hands of Christians as they were the ones who truly accepted the divine law:

The Christian theonomic society will only come about as each man governs himself under God and governs his particular sphere. And only so will we take back government from the state and put it in the hands of Christians.  (Rogers; emphasis added.)

Critical to Reconstructionist or Dominion theology are three biblical passages: Genesis 1:26-28, Genesis 9:1-5, and Matthew 28:18-20.  In their reading of Genesis 1 God gave man the mandate to exercise dominion not only over animals but also culture and politics; hence the term “cultural mandate.”  In Genesis 9, God reaffirms the original mandate to Noah after the Flood.  From the prohibition against the killing fellow humans is inferred the institution of the magistracy.  Using the cultural mandate of Genesis 1, Christian Reconstructionists understand the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) to be the basis for the universal Christian world order.  De Waay notes:

Christian Reconstructionism consistently tie the dominion mandate to Matthew’s account of the Great Commission. In it they see the call of God for the church to “disciple” the “nations.”  This they understand (along with the usual understanding of preaching the gospel) to be teaching God’s law (theonomy) to geo-political, social institutions for the purpose of Christianizing the world and creating a post-millennial, golden age before the bodily return of Jesus Christ.

Christian Reconstructionism has been labeled “Neo-Calvinism,” a form of Dutch Calvinism initiated by Abraham Kuyper.  The beginning of its ideas can be traced to Kuyper’s 1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary where he spoke of the cultural mandate or “primordial sovereignty.”  In Lecture 3, “Calvinism and Politics,” Kuyper asserted:

In order that the influence of Calvinism on our political development may be felt, it must be shown for what fundamental political conceptions Calvinism has opened the door, and how these political conceptions sprang from its root principle.

This dominating principle was not, soteriology, justification by faith, but, in the widest sense cosmologically, the Sovereignty of the Triune God over the whole Cosmos, in all its spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible. A primordial Sovereignty which eradiates in mankind in a threefold deduced supremacy, viz., 1. The Sovereignty in the State; 2. The Sovereignty in Society; and 3. The Sovereignty in the Church. (Emphasis added.)

The notion of a cultural mandate is fairly new to Reformed theology even though early Reformers like John Calvin were concerned not just with the reform of the church but with reforming civil society as well (See Calvin’s Institutes 4.20).  What Neo-Calvinism has done is to elevate the political, governmental and especially legal element to an unprecedented degree.

The appeal of Reconstructionist theology can be found in its comprehensive worldview.  It unites into one package: the fundamental structure of the natural order (to be under human rule), man’s fundamental identity in relation to God (to rule on behalf of God), the Christian’s fundamental identity in relation to others (to reinstate God’s rule through the preaching of the divine word), and a framework for understanding the grand sweep of human history (Christian dominion will hasten the return of Christ).  Here we see the fusion of the doctrines of creation, salvation, ecclesiology, and eschatology into one coherent (totalizing) whole.  This grand vision provided Kuyper a powerful motivating force for living and for changing the world.

One desire has been the ruling passion of my life.  . . . .  It is this: That in spite of all worldly opposition, God’s holy ordinances shall be established again in the home, in the school and in the State for the good of the people; to carve as it were into the conscience of the nation the ordinances of the Lord, to which the Bible and Creation bear witness, until the nation pays homage again to God.  (In Naugle)

Dominionist Christians hold to a post-millennial eschatology which teaches that the Second Coming will not take place until most of the nations are discipled. This does not mean every single nation or person becomes openly Christian; yet the Lordship of Christ will be the dominant influence over the nations as a whole.  This is based on a peculiar reading of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) injunction to “disciple all nations.” Implied here is Dominionist Christians ruling over all of human society at Christ’s return. Understanding this expansive worldview can help one understand the eagerness with which Dominionists seek to bring present day society under “Christ’s rule.”


What Does Genesis 1 Teach Us?

Because Genesis 1:26-28 is foundational for Reconstructionist theology close attention will be given to the Reconstructionist reading of this passage. R.J. Rushdoony’s seminal The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973), and Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy In Christian Ethics (1977), Gary North’s The Dominion Covenant: Genesis (1985) are considered the foundational books for Reconstructionist theology. But upon closer inspection one finds little or no basis for their foundational doctrine of dominion.  For example in  North’s book one finds that Genesis 1:26 is mentioned only three times in this lengthy book (over 500 pages).  North asserts that man’s identity is grounded in his covenant relationship with God and that Genesis 1:26-28 defines the basis for man’s relationship with God.

Man is actually defined by God in terms of this dominion covenant, or what is sometimes called the cultural mandate.  This covenant governs all four God-mandated human governments: individual, family, church, and civil.  (North p. ix)

But what is especially striking is the absence of biblical exegesis that shows how Genesis 1 supports the notion of the dominion covenant and the cultural mandate. This is a criticism made by a number of critics.  Among them is Bob De Waay who wrote “The Dominion Mandate and the Christian Reconstruction Movement.”  Reconstructionist theology is popular even in Southeast Asia where it also met with criticism.  Sze Zeng noted that basing the cultural mandate on Genesis 1 is problematic being based on eisegesis.  He notes:

Kong Hee is reading into the text. Genesis 1 – 2 has nothing to do with the broad mandate to cultivate ‘culture’ in the world. These passages concern the specific agricultural work of the primitive family for their sustenance and not about “taking the raw material God has given to man, and creatively nurturing it to its fullest potential,” as Kong Hee stated. (Emphasis added.)

If the Reconstructionist reading of Genesis 1:26-28 is in error then we need to ask what the correct reading would be.  For that we look at three sources: (1) the magisterial Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin; (2) the early Church Fathers, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine of Hippo; and (3) recent biblical scholarship.

In his commentary on Genesis 1 Martin Luther found that God giving “dominion” to Adam and Eve referred to authority over animals.

And in the next place we must view the matter in an absolute sense, that all animals, nay, the earth itself with all created living things and all generated from them, are subjected to the dominion of Adam, whom God by his vocal and expressed command constituted king over the whole animal creation (p. 121).

John Calvin in his commentary on Genesis similarly found dominion to refer to human authority over animals:

And let them have dominion.  Here he commemorates that part of dignity with which he decreed to honor man, namely, that he should have authority over all living creatures. He appointed man, it is true, lord of the world; but he expressly subjects the animals to him, because they having an inclination or instinct of their own, seem to be less under authority from without. (Emphasis added.)

When we look at the early Church Fathers we find a similar emphasis in their exposition of Genesis 1.  John Chrysostom, considered one of Christianity’s greatest preachers, in his homilies on Genesis noted:

What in fact does the text go on to say?  “Let them have control of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, and all the reptiles creeping on the earth.’” So “image” refers to the matter of control, not anything else, in other words, God created the human being as having control of everything on earth, and nothing on earth is greater than the human being, under whose authority everything falls. (John Chrysostom p. 110)

John Chrysostom goes on to note that just as there are wild animals in the natural world that need to be tamed so likewise in our souls are wild brutish thoughts that need come under the rule of reason (pp. 120-121).  Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Cappadocian Fathers, in “On the Making of Man” noted that mankind’s weaknesses in comparison to other creatures is more than made up for by God bestowing on him “dominion over the subject creatures.” (Emphasis added.)

With reference to modern scholarship we find a similar interpretation of “dominion” in Genesis 1:26.  Keil and Delitzsch’s widely known Old Testament commentary series affirm the understanding that man was given dominion over the animal kingdom and the earth (Vol. 1 p. 64).  Thus, from the standpoint of biblical studies and historical hermeneutics it becomes clear that the Reconstructionists are following an innovative interpretation of Genesis 1 that is at variance with their own Protestant tradition and that of the early Church as well.

One of the biggest problems that must be addressed by Reconstructionist theologians is the fact that the so-called dominion mandate given prior to the Fall may not necessarily apply to the human condition after the Fall.  De Waay notes:

It is remarkable how much emphasis is placed on Genesis 1:26-28 as being a mandate to rule over cultures and human institutions in a fallen world when at the time that Adam was given this mandate, no such cultures existed and the world was not fallen. The text says nothing about cultures or subjugating other people. (Italics added.)



Adam’s pre-Fall dominion has been understood in terms of primal harmony between man and the animal under him.  Martin Luther noted:

For as Adam and Eve acknowledged God to be Lord, so afterwards they themselves held dominion over all creatures in the air, on the earth and in the sea.  Who can express in words the excellency and majesty of this “dominion?”  For my belief is that Adam could by one word command the lion as we command a favorite dog. He possessed a freedom of will and pleasure to cultivate the earth, that it might bring forth whatever he wished (p. 118). Source  (Emphasis added.)

Gabe Martini, an Orthodox blogger, in a FaceBook discussion on dominion theology underscored how dominion referred to the primordial harmony between man and animals that has been lost in the Fall:

When it comes to our rule or dominion over creation, this is seen as a sign of God’s love for humanity (in Chrysostom, for example), but also as something LOST by the advent of sin. In other words, the dominion “mandate” was a pre-Fall (if you will) command, something that is no longer possible in our present or (un-)natural state. This is why you see animals following around extreme ascetics where that likeness of Christ and the dominion mandate is actually present.  The reason hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and tsunamis wreak havoc on the earth is this corruption and death brought on in Adam. The first Mother of Life (“Zoe” in the Septuagint) became tragically a mother of death. But the true Mother of Life (Mary) and the true Man or Adam (Jesus Christ) reversed that curse, paving the way for life—even life everlasting.  So when a wild animal attacks a person, this is not an example of our need to exercise dominion over that creature or punish it; it’s a reminder that we failed to live up to our original mandate, and that only through the mysteries of the Faith in Christ can a reconciliation be found.  (Emphasis added.)

Another significant challenge for the Reconstructionists is the fact that their belief that Genesis 1:26 has implications for the political relations has been repudiated.  The late Fuller Theological Seminary missiologist, Arthur Glasser, criticized the notion of humans subjugating humans.  He cited Kirk(?) who wrote: “Man has no right whatsoever to subjugate his fellow man.  Only God is man’s legitimate Sovereign” (Kingdom and Mission p. 33).

Probably the strongest and most direct refutation of the Dominionist reading of Genesis 1:26 is to be found in Augustine’s City of God.

He did not intend that His rational creature, who was made in His image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation,— not man over man, but man over the beasts. (City of God 19.15, emphasis added)

If Augustine of Hippo, considered the preeminent theologian of Western Christianity, repudiates the Dominionist reading of Genesis 1:26, then those who hold to Reconstructionist theology should take heed and reevaluate their position lest they end up belonging to an eccentric sectarian group far from the mainstream.

In conclusion, what the Dominionists or Reconstructionists have done is read into Genesis 1:26 their belief that men are to rule over other men, and implicitly that Christians (Calvinists) are to rule over other men (other Christians and non-Christians).   This position can sound plausible until one sits down for a minute, take a deep breath, then read the passage calmly paying attention to what it says and it does not say.  Genesis 1:26 teaches that humanity is to rule over (1) the fish of the sea, (2) the birds of the air, and (3) all the creatures on the ground.  Nowhere does verse 26 teach the idea of men ruling over other men!  When one examines the way Genesis 1 has been interpreted by the early Church Fathers and later by the Protestant Reformers, we find an innovative reading of Genesis 1 that rests on shaky exegesis.  The command in Genesis 2:15 to “dress” and “keep” the Garden of Eden, that is, to cultivate and adorn the Garden of God can be understood to refer to man as a farmer living in harmony with nature.


Sojourners in the World

Ancient Athens Agora

Ancient Athens Agora

The foregoing critique of Reconstructionist theology does not mean that Scripture is silent on God’s sovereignty over creation and human society.  There are a number of key passages that speak to this issue although they may not be the ones that Reconstructionists give much attention to.  One of the best overview of God’s sovereignty can be found in Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts 17.


From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.  God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.  “For in him we live and move and have our being.”  As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.”  (Acts 17:26-28, NIV)

In his speech Paul described God’s providential care over all of humanity.  Nowhere in his speech do we find any indication of Reconstructionism’s dominion mandate!

Another key passage is Jeremiah 29:4-7 in which God instructs the Jews living in Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity” of their new home.  He does not instruct the Jews to take the reins of power in Babylon but to serve their pagan masters to the best of their ability.  This is because God is the Ruler of Jews and non-Jews.  His sovereignty extends beyond the borders of Israel into all the world including the so-called unconverted barbarians.  Paradoxically, God is sovereign even when pagan kings rule over his elect.  Dominionist theology doesn’t hold up well to situations of ambiguity and pluralism.

The Epistle of Diognetus, an early writing included among the Apostolic Fathers, described Christians as living among men, sharing the “local customs” and language, and being different only with respect to their way life based on Christ’s love.  “They pass their time upon the earth, but they have their citizenship in heaven.  They obey the appointed laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives.  They love all men and are persecuted by all men.  They are unknown and they are condemned.  They are put to death and they gain life” (Chapter 5:10-12).  This does not sound like Dominionist or Reconstructionist theology at all!  One has to wonder then whether the Dominionist Christians are of the same spirit as the Apostolic Fathers, the first generation Christians who were taught by the very Apostles of Christ.

When we look at the early Christians we find an absence of a clearly defined political theory.  The early Church entered the world as an illegal sect at times persecuted by the Roman government and at times living at peace with society.  With Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in AD 313 Christianity became a public religion.  Then in time it became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Theodosius.  While Orthodoxy holds symphonia – church and state complementing each other – as an ideal, it is far from a dogma or political platform like that advocated by the Reconstructionists.

Another major exegetical blind spot in Reconstructionist theology is the silence with respect to the Davidic covenant.  This grant covenant encompassed the earlier Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants (2 Samuel 7, 1 Chronicles 17:11-14) and established a prototype for Christ’s kingship.  The Davidic Covenant is foundational for understanding the New Covenant founded by Jesus Christ.  One has to ask why has the Davidic Covenant been all but ignored by the Reconstructionist Christians?

In contrast, Reconstructionist theology has some specific ideas about politics.  Mark Rushdoony identified Christian Reconstructionism as being (1) anti-statist, (2) favoring small, limited government, and (3) shrinking national and state governments in order to expand the influence of the family, church, and local community.  It appears that Reconstructionist theology is wedded to a particular kind of political structure with very little wiggle room for alternative political views.  Despite the Reconstructionism’s anti-statist stance and its Libertarian tendencies one has to wonder what a Reconstructionist polity would look like.  Would it be similar to Puritan New England which expelled Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson for their non-Calvinist beliefs?  Would they support regicide like Oliver Cromwell did in the Puritan Revolution?  Would they support capital punishment for a heretic like Servetus in Calvin’s Geneva?  In an 1988 interview with Bill Moyers Rushdoony admitted that the Reconstructionist theology would lead to the support for capital punishment for violations of biblical law.  Many Christians would find such a polity unpleasant and repulsive.


JCBrdGrmReading Reconstructionist literature one gets the impression that dominion is given emphasis and the theme of the Suffering Servant is downplayed or muted.  If the Church is to “reign” (whatever that word should imply) on earth then it seems most likely to happen by suffering, serving, dying, and martyrdom, not through the exercise of social-political authority. The “suffering-servant” is a far more common Christological theme for “rule” in both Scripture and the early church fathers.



St. Seraphim Cathedral - Dallas, Texas

The Liturgy and the Cultural Mandate

Being an Orthodox Christian does not entail the rejection of the idea of a cultural mandate.  Rather we understand the cultural mandate in the context of the Eucharist, not in theocratic rule.  In Revelation we read about the New Jerusalem: “The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.”  The glory and honor of the nations is a way of speaking of the culture and the arts of the Gentiles.  This prophecy finds its fulfillment in the Divine Liturgy.  In the Eucharist we take from the natural order wheat and grapes and transform them by means of technology and cultural arts into bread and wine. We bring them into the Church and God blesses the bread and the wine transforming them into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Church architecture, the icons, the hymnography, and the transformed lives of the people present at the Liturgy that we find the fulfillment of the Cultural Mandate. And it is in the Church in the Liturgy, the Sacraments, the ascetic disciplines and the life of repentance that men are learning to rule over their passions and where the Dominion Mandate finds its fulfillment.


The Bosphorus Strait

The Bosphorus Strait

With respect to ecclesiology most Reconstructionist Christians from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s were considered low church Calvinists who adhered to a strict and austere regulative principle approach to worship.  However, as they began to read Orthodox, Anglican, and Roman Catholic writings their theology began to morph becoming the Federal Vision movement.  (One influential work has been Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World.) Today Rushdoony and other early Reconstructionist are criticized as being almost Anabaptist in their ecclesiology.  The Federal Vision movement stimulated among Reformed Christians interest in the early Church, the Church Fathers, liturgical worship, and the Eucharist.  In exposing people to the early Church the Federal Vision movement exposed its followers to the Orthodox Church with the unexpected consequence of some of its members “crossing the Bosphorus.”

Robert Arakaki


Augustine of Hippo.  City of God.

John Calvin.  Commentary on Genesis.

David Chilton.  “Piety and Christian Reconstruction.”

Bob De Waay. “The Dominion Mandate and the Christian Reconstruction Movement.” Critical Issues Commentary.

Arthur F. Glasser. N.D.  “Kingdom and Mission: A Biblical Study of the Kingdom of God and the Worldwide Mission of His People.”  Class reader for MT 520.

Gregory of Nyssa.  “On the Making of Man.”(Chapter VII)

Michael A. Grisanti.  1999.  “The Davidic Covenant.”  The Masters Seminary Journal (Fall 1999), pp. 233-250.

Abraham Kuyper.  “Third Lecture – Calvinism and Politics.”  Stone Lectures.

Martin Luther.  Luther on Creation: A Critical and Devotional Commentary on GenesisJohn Nicholas Lenker, ed.

Bill Moyer.  Interview with R.J. Rushdoony.  Excerpts found in “Quoting Rushdoony Just Seems Like a Really Bad Idea” by Libby Anne, Love, Joy, Feminism.

David Naugle.  “Introduction to Kuyper’s Thought.”

Gary North.  1982.  The Dominion Covenant: Genesis: An Economic Commentary on the BibleVolume I.  Revised 1987.  Institute for Christian Economics: Tyler, Texas.

Jay Rogers. “An Interview with R.J. Rushdoony” in Forerunner.com.

Mark Rushdoony.  2005.  “The Continuing Legacy of Christian Reconstruction.”  Chalcedon Foundation.

R.J. Rushdoony.  “The Meaning of Theocracy.”  Chalcedon Foundation.

Sze Zeng.  2010.  “Critique on Kong Hee’s Genesis 1-2 ‘Cultural Mandate.’”


Which Came First: The Church or the New Testament?

The Apostle John dictating to Saint Prochorus

The Apostle John dictating to Saint Prochorus


I am reposting Fr. James Bernstein’s excellent article about the history of the Bible and how what he learned caused him to abandon sola scriptura (the Bible alone) for the Bible in Tradition.


Source: “Which Came First: The Church or the New Testament?” by Fr. A. James Bernstein was published by Conciliar Press/Ancient Faith Publishing and is used by permission. All rights reserved. It is available in booklet form, along with many other booklets on topics of Orthodox faith and practice, at http://store.ancientfaith.com/booklets/



As a Jewish convert to Christ via evangelical Protestantism, I naturally wanted to know God better through the reading of the Scriptures. In fact, it had been through reading the Gospels in the “forbidden book” called the New Testament, at age sixteen, that I had come to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and our promised Messiah. In my early years as a Christian, much of my religious education came from private Bible reading.

By the time I entered college, I had a pocket-sized version of the whole Bible that was my constant companion. I would commit favorite passages from the Scriptures to memory, and often quote them to myself in times of temptation-or to others as I sought to convince them of Christ. The Bible became for me-as it is to this day-the most important book in print. I can say from my heart with Saint Paul the Apostle,

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

That’s the good news!

The bad news is that often I would decide for myself what the Scriptures meant. For example, I became so enthusiastic about knowing Jesus as my close and personal friend that I thought my own awareness of Him was all I needed. So I would mark verses about Jesus with my yellow highlighter, but pass over passages concerning God the Father, or the Church, or baptism. I saw the Bible as a heavenly instruction manual. I didn’t think I needed the Church, except as a good place to make friends or to learn more about the Bible so I could be a better do-it-yourself Christian. I came to think that I could build my life, and the Church, by the Book. I mean, I took sola scriptura (“only the Bible”) seriously! Salvation history was clear to me: God sent His Son, together they sent the Holy Spirit, then came the New Testament to explain salvation, and finally the Church developed.

Close, maybe, but not close enough.

Let me hasten to say that the Bible is all God intends it to be. No problem with the Bible. The problem lay in the way I individualized it, subjecting it to my own personal interpretations-some not so bad, others not so good.



It was not long after my conversion to Christianity that I found myself getting swept up in the tide of religious sectarianism, in which Christians would part ways over one issue after another. It seemed, for instance, that there were as many opinions on the Second Coming as there were people in the discussion. So we’d all appeal to the Scriptures.

“I believe in the Bible. If it’s not in the Bible I don’t believe it,”

became my war cry.

What I did not realize was that everyone else was saying the same thing! It was not the Bible, but each one’s private interpretation of it, that became our ultimate authority. In an age which highly exalts independence of thought and self-reliance, I was becoming my own pope! The guidelines I used in interpreting Scripture seemed simple enough: When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense. I believed that those who were truly faithful and honest in following this principle would achieve Christian unity.

To my surprise, this “common sense” approach led not to increased Christian clarity and unity, but rather to a spiritual free-for-all!

Those who most strongly adhered to believing “only the Bible” tended to become the, most factious, divisive, and combative of Christians-perhaps unintentionally. In fact, it seemed to me that the more one held to the Bible as the only source of spiritual authority, the more factious and sectarian one became. We would even argue heatedly over verses on love! Within my circle of Bible-believing friends, I witnessed a mini-explosion of sects and schismatic movements, each claiming to be “true to the Bible” and each in bitter conflict with the others. Serious conflict arose over every issue imaginable: charismatic gifts, interpretation of prophecy, the proper way to worship, communion, Church government, discipleship, discipline in the Church, morality, accountability, evangelism, social action, the relationship of faith and works, the role of women, and ecumenism. The list is endless. In fact any issue at all could-and often did-cause Christians to part ways.

The fruit of this sectarian spirit has been the creation of literally thousands of independent churches and denominations. As I myself became increasingly sectarian, my radicalism intensified, and I came to believe that all churches were unbiblical: to become a member of any church was to compromise the Faith. For me, “church” meant “the Bible, God, and me.” This hostility towards the churches fit in well with my Jewish background.

I naturally distrusted all churches because I felt they had betrayed the teachings of Christ by having participated in or passively ignored the persecution of the Jews throughout history. But the more sectarian I became-to the point of being obnoxious and antisocial-the more I began to realize that something was seriously wrong with my approach to Christianity. My spiritual life wasn’t working. Clearly, my privately held beliefs in the Bible and what it taught were leading me away from love and community with my fellow Christians, and therefore away from Christ. As Saint John the Evangelist wrote,

“He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20).

This division and hostility were not what had drawn me to Christ. And I knew the answer was not to deny the Faith or reject the Scriptures. Something had to change. Maybe it was me. I turned to a study of the history of the Church and the New Testament, hoping to shed some light on what my attitude toward the Church and the Bible should be. The results were not at all what I expected.



My initial attitude was that whatever was good enough for the Apostles would be good enough for me. This is where I got my first surprise. As I mentioned previously, I knew that the Apostle Paul regarded Scripture as being inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). But I had always assumed that the “Scripture” spoken of in this passage was the whole Bible-both the Old and New Testaments. In reality, there was no “New Testament” when this statement was made. Even the Old Testament was still in the process of formulation, for the Jews did not decide upon a definitive list or canon of Old Testament books until after the rise of Christianity. As I studied further, I discovered that the early Christians used a Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint.

This translation, which was begun in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century B.C., contained an expanded canon which included a number of the so-called “deuterocanonical” (or “apocryphal”) books. Although there was some initial debate over these books, they were eventually received by Christians into the Old Testament canon. In reaction to the rise of Christianity, the Jews narrowed their canons and eventually excluded the deuterocanonical books-although they still regarded them as sacred. The modern Jewish canon was not rigidly fixed until the third century A.D.

Interestingly, it is this later version of the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, rather than the canon of early Christianity, that is followed by most modern Protestants today. When the Apostles lived and wrote, there was no New Testament and no finalized Old Testament.

The concept of “Scripture” was much less well-defined than I had envisioned.



The second big surprise came when I realized that the first complete listing of New Testament books as we have them today did not appear until over 300 years after the death and resurrection of Christ. (The first complete listing was given by St. Athanasius in his Paschal Letter in A.D. 367.) Imagine it! If the writing of the New Testament had been begun at the same time as the U.S. Constitution, we wouldn’t see a final product until the year 2076! The four Gospels were written from thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the interim, the Church relied on oral tradition-the accounts of eyewitnesses-as well as scattered pre-gospel documents (such as those quoted in 1 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Timothy 2:11-13) and written tradition.

Most churches only had parts of what was to become the New Testament.

As the eyewitnesses of Christ’s life and teachings began to die, the Apostles wrote as they were guided by the Holy Spirit, in order to preserve and solidify the scattered written and oral tradition. Because the Apostles expected Christ to return soon, it seems they did not have in mind that these gospel accounts and apostolic letters would in time be collected into a new Bible. During the first four centuries A.D. there was substantial disagreement over which books should be included in the canon of Scripture. The first person on record who tried to establish a New Testament canon was the second-century heretic, Marcion. He wanted the Church to reject its Jewish heritage, and therefore he dispensed with the Old Testament entirely. Marcion’s canon included only one gospel, which he himself edited, and ten of Paul’s epistles.

Sad but true, the first attempted New Testament was heretical. Many scholars believe that it was partly in reaction to this distorted canon of Marcion that the early Church determined to create a clearly defined canon of its own. The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the breakup of the Jewish-Christian community there, and the threatened loss of continuity in the oral tradition probably also contributed to the sense of the urgent need for the Church to standardize the list of books Christians could rely on. During this period of the canon’s evolution, as previously noted, most churches had only a few, if any, of the apostolic writings available to them. The books of the Bible had to be painstakingly copied by hand, at great expense of time and effort. Also, because most people were illiterate, they could only be read by a privileged few. The exposure of most Christians to the Scriptures was confined to what they heard in the churches-the Law and Prophets, the Psalms, and some of the Apostles’ memoirs.

The persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire and the existence of many documents of non-apostolic origin further complicated the matter. This was my third surprise. Somehow I had naively envisioned every home and parish having a complete Old and New Testament from the very inception of the Church! It was difficult for me to imagine a church surviving and prospering without a complete New Testament. Yet unquestionably they did. This may have been my first clue that there was more to the total life of the Church than just the written Word.



Next, I was surprised to discover that many “gospels” besides those of the New Testament canon were circulating in the first and second centuries. These included the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel according to the Egyptians, and the Gospel according to Peter, to name just a few. The New Testament itself speaks of the existence of such accounts. Saint Luke’s Gospel begins by saying,

“Inasmuch as many [italics added] have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us … it seemed good to me also … to write to you an orderly account” (Luke 1:1, 3).

At the time Luke wrote, Matthew and Mark were the only two canonical Gospels that had been written. In time, all but four Gospels were excluded from the New Testament canon. Yet in the early years of Christianity there was even a controversy over which of these four Gospels to use. Most of the Christians of Asia Minor used the Gospel of John rather than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Based upon the Passion account contained in John, most Christians in Asia Minor celebrated Easter on a different day from those in Rome. Roman Christians resisted the Gospel of John and instead used the other Gospels. The Western Church for a time hesitated to use the Gospel of John because the Gnostic heretics made use of it along with their own “secret gospels.” Another debate arose over the issue of whether there should be separate gospels or one single composite gospel account. In the second century, Tatian, who was Justin Martyr’s student, published a single composite “harmonized” gospel called the Diatessaron. The Syrian Church used this composite gospel in the second, third, and fourth centuries; they did not accept all four Gospels until the fifth century. They also ignored for a time the Epistles of John, 2 Peter, and the Book of Revelation. To further complicate matters, the Church of Egypt, as reflected in the second-century New Testament canon of Clement of Alexandria, included the “gospels” of the Hebrews, the Egyptians, and Mattathias. In addition they held to be of apostolic origin the First Epistle of Clement (Bishop of Rome), the Epistle of Barnabas, the Preaching of Peter, the Revelation of Peter, the Didache, the Protevangelium of James, the Acts of John, the Acts of Paul, and The Shepherd of Hermas (which they held to be especially inspired). Irenaeus (second century), martyred Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, included the Revelation of Peter in his canon.



My favorite New Testament book, the Epistle to the Hebrews, was clearly excluded in the Western Church in a number of listings from the second, third, and fourth centuries. Primarily due to the influence of Augustine upon certain North African councils, the Epistle to the Hebrews was finally accepted in the West by the end of the fourth century. On the other hand, the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, written by the Apostle John, was not accepted in the Eastern Church for several centuries. Among Eastern authorities who rejected this book were Dionysius of Alexandria (third century), Eusebius (third century), Cyril of Jerusalem (fourth century), the Council of Laodicea (fourth century), John Chrysostom (fourth century), Theodore of Mopsuesta (fourth century), and Theodoret (fifth century). In addition, the original Syriac and Armenian versions of the New Testament omitted this book.

Many Greek New Testament manuscripts written before the ninth century do not contain the Apocalypse, and it is not used liturgically in the Eastern Church to this day. Athanasius supported the inclusion of the Apocalypse, and it is due primarily to his influence that it was eventually received into the New Testament canon in the East. The early Church actually seems to have made an internal compromise on the Apocalypse and Hebrews. The East would have excluded the Apocalypse from the canon, while the West would have done without Hebrews.

Simply put, each side agreed to accept the disputed book of the other. Interestingly, the sixteenth-century father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, held that the New Testament books should be “graded” and that some were more inspired than others (that there is a canon within the canon). Luther gave secondary rank to Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, placing them at the end of his translation of the New Testament. Imagine-the man who gave us sola scriptura assumed the authority to edit the written Word of God!



I was particularly interested in finding the oldest legitimate list of New Testament books. Some believe that the Muratorian Canon is the oldest, dating from the late second century. This canon excludes Hebrews, James, and the two Epistles of Peter, but includes the Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. It is not until A.D. 200-about 170 years after the death and resurrection of Christ-that we first see the term “New Testament” used, by Tertullian. Origen, who lived in the third century, is often considered to be the first systematic theologian (though he was often systematically wrong).

He questioned the authenticity of 2 Peter and 2 John. He also tells us, based on his extensive travels, that there were churches which refused to use 2 Timothy because the epistle speaks of a “secret” writing-the Book of Jannes and Jambres, derived from Jewish oral tradition (see 2 Timothy 3:8). The Book of Jude was also considered suspect by some because it includes a quotation from the apocryphal book, The Assumption of Moses, also derived from Jewish oral tradition (see Jude 9).

Moving into the fourth century, I discovered that Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea and the “Father of Church History,” lists as disputed books James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. The Revelation of John he totally rejects. Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete New Testament manuscript we have today, was discovered in the Orthodox Christian monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai. It is dated as being from the fourth century and it contains all of the books we have in the modern New Testament, but also includes Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas.

During the fourth century, Emperor Constantine was frustrated by the controversy between Christians and Arians concerning the divinity of Christ. Because the New Testament had not yet been clearly defined, he pressed for a clearer defining and closing of the New Testament canon, in order to help resolve the conflict and bring religious unity to his divided Empire. However, as late as the fifth century the Codex Alexandrinus included 1 and 2 Clement, indicating that the disputes over the canon were still not everywhere firmly resolved.



Ecumenical Council

Ecumenical Council

With the passage of time the Church discerned which writings were truly apostolic and which were not. It was a prolonged struggle, taking place over several centuries. As part of the process of discernment, the Church met together several times in council. These various Church councils confronted a variety of issues, among which was the canon of Scripture. It is important to note that the purpose of these councils was to discern and confirm what was already generally accepted within the Church at large. The councils did not legislate the canon so much as set forth what had become self-evident truth and practice within the churches of God.

The councils sought to proclaim the common mind of the Church and to reflect the unanimity of faith, practice, and tradition as it already existed in the local churches represented. The councils provide us with specific records in which the Church spoke clearly and in unison as to what constitutes Scripture. Among the many councils that met during the first four centuries, two are particularly important in this context:

(1) The Council of Laodicea met in Asia Minor about A.D. 363. This is the first council which clearly listed the canonical books of the present Old and New Testaments, with the exception of the Apocalypse of Saint John. The Laodicean council stated that only the canonical books it listed should be read in church. Its decisions were widely accepted in the Eastern Church.

(2) The third Council of Carthage met in North Africa about A.D. 397. This council, attended by Augustine, provided a full list of the canonical books of both the Old and New Testaments. The twenty-seven books of the present-day New Testament were accepted as canonical. The council also held that these books should be read in the church as Divine Scripture to the exclusion of all others.

This Council was widely accepted as authoritative in the West.



As I delved deeper into my study of the history of the New Testament, I saw my previous misconceptions being demolished one by one. I understood now what should have been obvious all along: that the New Testament consisted of twenty-seven separate documents which, while certainly inspired by God nothing could shake me in that conviction-had been written and compiled by human beings. It was also clear that this work had not been accomplished by individuals working in isolation, but by the collective effort of all Christians everywhere-the Body of Christ, the Church. This realization forced me to deal with two more issues that my earlier prejudices had led me to avoid:

(1) the propriety and necessity of human involvement in the writing of Scripture; and

(2) the authority of the Church.



Deeply committed, like many evangelicals, to belief in the inspiration of Scripture, I had understood the New Testament to be God’s Word only, and not man’s. I supposed the Apostles were told by God exactly what to write, much as a secretary takes down what is being dictated, without providing any personal contribution. Ultimately, my understanding of the inspiration of Scripture was clarified by the teaching of the Church regarding the Person of Christ. The Incarnate Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, is not only God but also man.

Christ is a single Person with two natures-divine and human. To de-emphasize Christ’s humanity leads to heresy. The ancient Church taught that the Incarnate Word was fully human-in fact, as human as it is possible to be-and yet without sin. In His humanity, the Incarnate Word was born, grew, and matured into manhood. I came to realize that this view of the Incarnate Word of God, the Logos, Jesus Christ, paralleled the early Christian view of the written Word of God, the Bible. The written Word of God reflects not only the divine thought, but a human contribution as well.

The Word of God conveys truth to us as written by men, conveying the thoughts, personalities, and even limitations and weaknesses of the writers-inspired by God, to be sure. This means that the human element in the Bible is not overwhelmed so as to be lost in the ocean of the divine. It became clearer to me that as Christ Himself was born, grew, and matured, so also did the written Word of God, the Bible. It did not come down whole-plop-from heaven, but was of human origin as well as divine. The Apostles did not merely inscribe the Scriptures as would a robot or a zombie, but freely cooperated with the will of God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.



The second issue I had to grapple with was even more difficult for me-the issue of Church authority. It was clear from my study that the Church had, in fact, determined which books composed the Scriptures; but still I wrestled mightily with the thought that the Church had been given this authority. Ultimately, it came down to a single issue. I already believed with all my heart that God spoke authoritatively through His written Word.

The written Word of God is concrete and tangible. I can touch the Bible and read it. But for some strange reason, I was reluctant to believe the same things about the Body of Christ, the Church-that she was visible and tangible, located physically on earth in history. The Church to me was essentially “mystical” and intangible, not identifiable with any specific earthly assembly. This view permitted me to see each Christian as being a church unto himself. How convenient this is, especially when doctrinal or personal problems arise!

Yet this view did not agree with the reality of what the Church was understood to be in the apostolic era. The New Testament is about real churches, not ethereal ones. Could I now accept the fact that God spoke authoritatively, not only through the Bible, but through His Church as well-the very Church which had produced, protected, and actively preserved the Scriptures I held so dear?



In the view of the earliest Christians, God spoke His Word not only to but through His Body, the Church. It was within His Body, the Church, that the Word was confirmed and established. Without question, the Scriptures were looked upon by early Christians as God’s active revelation of Himself to the world. At the same time, the Church was understood as the household of God,

“having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:20, 21).

God has His Word, but He also has His Body. The New Testament says:

(1) “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Corinthians 12:27; compare Romans 12:5).

(2)”He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18).

(3) ” And He [the Father] put all things under His [the Son’s] feet, and gave Him to be head overall things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22, 23).

In early times there was no organic separation between Bible and Church, as we so often find today. The Body without the Word is without message, but the Word without the Body is without foundation. As Paul writes, the Body is

“the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

The Church is the Living Body of the Incarnate Lord. The Apostle does not say that the New Testament is the pillar and ground of the truth. The Church is

the pillar and foundation of the truth

because the New Testament was built upon her life in God. In short, she wrote it! She is an integral part of the gospel message, and it is within the Church that the New Testament was written and preserved.



Oral Tradition - The Apostle Paul preaching

Oral Tradition – The Apostle Paul preaching

The Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). This verse was one that I had not highlighted because it used two phrases I didn’t like: “hold the traditions” and “by word [of mouth].” These two phrases conflicted with my understanding of biblical authority. But then I began to understand: the same God who speaks to us through His written Word, the Bible, spoke also through the Apostles of Christ as they taught and preached in person. The Scriptures themselves teach in this passage (and others) that this oral tradition is what we are to keep! Written and oral tradition are not in conflict, but are parts of one whole. This explains why the Fathers teach that he who does not have the Church as his Mother does not have God as his Father. In coming to this realization, I concluded that I had grossly overreacted in rejecting oral Holy Tradition. In my hostility toward Jewish oral tradition, which rejected Christ, I had rejected Christian oral Holy Tradition, which expresses the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. And I had rejected the idea that this Tradition enables us properly and fully to understand the Bible. Let me illustrate this point with an experience I had recently. I decided to build a shed behind my house. In preparation, I studied a book on carpentry that has “everything” in it. It’s full of pictures and diagrams, enough so that “even a kid could follow its instructions.” It explains itself, I was told. But, simple as it claimed to be, the more I read it, the more questions I had and the more confused I became. Disgusted at not being able to understand something that seemed so simple, I came to the conclusion that the book needed interpretation. Without help, I just couldn’t put it into practice. What I needed was someone with expertise who could explain the manual to me. Fortunately, I had a friend who was able to show me how the project should be completed. He knows because of oral tradition. An experienced carpenter taught him, and he in turn taught me. Written and oral tradition together got the job done.



What confronted me at this point was the bottom line question: Which came first, the Church or the New Testament? I knew that the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, had called the Apostles, who in turn formed the nucleus of the Christian Church. I knew that the Eternal Word of God therefore preceded the Church and gave birth to the Church. When the Church heard the Incarnate Word of God and committed His Word to writing, she thereby participated with God in giving birth to the written Word, the New Testament. Thus it was the Church which gave birth to and preceded the New Testament. To the question, “Which came first, the Church or the New Testament?” the answer, both biblically and historically, is crystal clear.

Someone might protest,

“Does it really make any difference which came first? After all, the Bible contains everything that we need for salvation.”

The Bible is adequate for salvation in the sense that it contains the foundational material needed to establish us on the correct path. On the other hand, it is wrong to consider the Bible as being self-sufficient and self-interpreting. The Bible is meant to be read and understood by the illumination of God’s Holy Spirit within the life of the Church. Did not the Lord Himself tell His disciples, just prior to His crucifixion,

“When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come” (John 16:13)?

He also said, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Our Lord did not leave us with only a book to guide us. He left us with His Church. The Holy Spirit within the Church teaches us, and His teaching complements Scripture. How foolish to believe that God’s full illumination ceased after the New Testament books were written and did not resume until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, or-to take this argument to its logical conclusion-until the very moment when 1, myself, started reading the Bible. Either the Holy Spirit was in the Church throughout the centuries following the New Testament period, leading, teaching, and illuminating her in her understanding of the gospel message, or the Church has been left a spiritual orphan, with individual Christians independently interpreting-and often “authoritatively” teaching the same Scripture in radically different ways. Such chaos cannot be the will of God,

“for God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33).



At this point in my studies, I felt I had to make a decision. If the Church was not just a tangent or a sidelight to the Scripture, but rather an active participant in its development and preservation, then it was time to reconcile my differences with her and abandon my prejudices. Rather than trying to judge the Church according to my modern preconceptions about what the Bible was saying, I needed to humble myself and come into union with the Church that produced the New Testament, and let her guide me into a proper understanding of Holy Scripture.

After carefully exploring various church bodies, I finally realized that, contrary to the beliefs of many modern Christians, the Church which produced the Bible is not dead. The Orthodox Church today has direct and clear historical continuity with the Church of the Apostles, and it preserves intact both the Scriptures and the Holy Tradition which enables us to interpret them properly. Once I understood this, I converted to Orthodoxy and began to experience the fullness of Christianity in a way I never had before.

Though he may have coined the slogan, the fact is that Luther himself did not practice sola scriptura. If he had, he’d have tossed out the Creeds and spent less time writing commentaries. The phrase came about as a result of the reformers’ struggles against the added human traditions of Romanism. Understandably, they wanted to be sure their faith was accurate according to New Testament standards. But to isolate the Scriptures from the Church, to deny 1500 years of history, is something the slogan sola scriptura and the Protestant Reformers-Luther, Calvin, and later Wesley-never intended to do.

To those who try to stand dogmatically on sola scriptura, in the process rejecting the Church which not only produced the New Testament, but also, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, identified those books which compose the New Testament, I would say this: Study the history of the early Church and the development of the New Testament canon. Use source documents where possible. (It is amazing how some of the most “conservative” Bible scholars of the evangelical community turn into cynical and rationalistic liberals when discussing early Church history!)

Examine for yourself what happened to God’s people after the twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Acts. You will find a list of helpful sources at the end of this booklet. If you examine the data and look with objectivity at what occurred in those early days, I think you will discover what I discovered. The life and work of God’s Church did not grind to a halt after the first century and start up again in the sixteenth. If it had, we would not possess the New Testament books which are so dear to every Christian believer.

The separation of Church and Bible which is so prevalent in much of today’s Christian world is a modern phenomenon. Early Christians made no such artificial distinctions. Once you have examined the data, I would encourage you to find out more about the historic Church which produced the New Testament, preserved it, and selected those books which would be part of its canon. Every Christian owes it to himself or herself to discover the Orthodox Christian Church and to understand its vital role in proclaiming God’s Word to our own generation.



Bruce, F.F., The Canon of Scripture, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1990.

Farmer, William R. & Farkasfalvy, Denis, The Formation of the New Testament Canon: An Ecumenical Approach, New York: Paulist Press, 1983.

Gamble, Harry Y., The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Kesich, Veselin, The Gospel Image of Christ, Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992.

Metzger, Bruce Manning, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Meyendorff, John, Living Tradition, Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978.

Histories of Christianity generally give some information on the formation of the Canon, although they are not likely to discuss its relevance to the authority and interpretation of Scripture.


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.


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