A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Category: Book Review (Page 1 of 6)

Review – Peter Leithart’s “The End of Protestantism”

An Orthodox Assessment

The Rev. Peter Leithart’s The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church is more than an expanded version of his well known article “Too Catholic to be Catholic.”  Leithart has brought a more nuanced and sophisticated level of analysis to his critique of Protestant denominationalism by drawing on social science literature.  He has done more than criticize denominationalism; he has also provided concrete examples that exemplify his vision of a reunited Christianity.  His writing style – passionate, scholarly, and eloquent – while easy to read, is not lightweight.

Leithart’s book deserves attention because he is on the forefront of a movement of Protestants seeking to reconnect with the Ancient Church while also addressing Protestantism’s tragic divisions.  Another reason for an Orthodox assessment is that Leithart has included Orthodoxy in his quest for Christian unity.  Indeed, Pastor Leithart even addresses part of the book to Protestants who increasingly are being drawn to Orthodoxy – curiously seeking to dissuade them from re-uniting with the historic Orthodox Church!


Breaking Ties With the Ancient Church

It is widely acknowledged that one of Protestantism’s fundamental problems is its divisions.  While most Protestants agree that denominational divisions are not good – division, even divisiveness has historically been its dominant characteristic – starting from the very beginning with Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.  Protestants have taken several approaches to the problem of a divided Christianity.  Many Evangelicals posit an invisible Church comprised of all true believers.  What unites this invisible Church is not shared doctrine but the subjective “born again” experience.  Another is the Branch Theory which holds that church unity is found in the three historic branches: Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Anglicanism.

Being a good Protestant, Leithart rejects the claims either of Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy to be the true Church.  As a high church Protestant, Leithart rejects the unity of the invisible Church.  What Leithart proposes is that there will be a visible, unified Church in the future.

The unity of the church is not an invisible reality that renders visible things irrelevant.  It is a future reality that gives present actions their orientation and meaning.  Things are what they are as anticipations of what they will be (p. 19, italics in original; cf. p. 26).

This future-oriented ecumenism is not new.  Gabriel Fackre – Andover Newton Theological School’s Samuel Abbott Professor of Christian Theology Emeritus – in an essay written in 1990 described the United Church of Christ’s ecumenism.  This essay  anticipated Rev. Leithart’s future oriented vision of church unity by 25 years.

Diversity is not the foe of doctrine.  It stretches those who honor it toward catholicity.  May we live out the enriching unity we have and toward a larger unity to come (Fackre p. 149; italics in original, bold added).

Pastor Leithart has an evolutionary understanding of the Church in which doctrine, practice, and worship evolve over time.  The danger of Pastor Leithart’s solution is that it entails a parting of ways with the Ancient Church.

One weakness of Protestantism has been its wholesale neglect of church history, especially the first 1,000 years. The ironic tragedy of Leithart’s unified church of the future is that this church would have been rejected and excluded from Holy Communion by the early Church Fathers. Mercersburg theologian John Nevin in “Early Christianity” describes the estrangement between Protestantism and the Ancient Church:

The great Athanasius, now in London or New York, would be found worshipping only at Catholic altars.  Augustine would not be acknowledged by any evangelical sect.  Chrysostom would feel the Puritanism of New England more inhospitable and dry than the Egyptian desert (p. 271).

And, given the many changes that have taken place in recent decades, one has reason to wonder: How many modern day Evangelicals and Protestants would be welcome at the Eucharist in Luther, Calvin, and Bucer’s church?  Readers of Leithart’s book should be aware of the high cost that comes with Leithart’s proposed solution: broken fellowship with the early Church.


A Protestant Solution

For all Pastor Leithart’s sweeping ecumenical vision, his solutions are surprisingly Protestant. Leithart gives with one hand, but then takes back with the other.  At first he “retracts” certain Protestant positions then he quietly reinstates the same Protestant positions.

Mary will be honored as God-bearer.  Saints will be celebrated.  Church buildings will be bright and colorful.  But in the reformed Catholic church, there will be no prayers to Mary, no appeals to the saints, no veneration of icons.  . . . .  Formerly Presbyterian and Baptist churches will paint their walls and put in stained glass (p. 32; emphasis added).

Pastor Leithart remains resolutely Protestant.  This is evident in his flat out refusal to subject the Protestant Reformation to critical scrutiny.

The Reformation recovered central biblical and evangelical truths and practices that Protestants ought not to sacrifice.  Even after Vatican II and the ecumenical movement, even after the joint Lutheran-Catholic statement on the doctrine of justification, many of the traditional Protestant criticisms of Catholicism and Orthodoxy (of the papacy, of Marian doctrines, of icon veneration, of the cult of the saints) hold (p. 169).

While many of the criticisms the Reformers directed against Roman Catholicism were valid, Protestants like Rev. Leithart need to come to terms with the fact that the Reformation took place in the 1500s, a long time after the early Church, and that it has introduced many doctrinal and liturgical innovations not found in the early Church.  The discrepancy between Protestantism and early Christianity is something that Protestants must give account for.


So What’s New?
Reading Leithart’s book brought back memories of my former denomination the United Church of Christ (UCC).  The future church which Pastor Leithart described with moving eloquence in Chapter 3 sounds much like the mild liberalism of the UCC in the 1950s and the 1960s.  In line with the title of his book, Rev. Leithart calls for Protestant denominations and churches to “die,” that is, to cease to exist in their present forms in order for new forms to emerge.  He writes:

We are called to die to our divisions, to the institutional divisions of denominationalism, in order to become what we will be, the one body of the Son of God (p. 165; emphasis added).

Similar language of death and rebirth as a means to church unity can be found in the UCC’s 1957 “The Preamble to the Basis of Union” which reads:

Affirming our devotion to one God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our membership in the holy catholic Church, which is greater than any single Church and than all the Churches together;

Believing that denominations exist not for themselves but as parts of that Church, within which each denomination is to live and labor and, if need be, die; and

Confronting the divisions and hostilities of our world, and hearing with a deepened sense of responsibility the prayer of our Lord “that they all may be one” . . . . (Emphasis added.)

All that Rev. Leithart has done in End of Protestantism is to update the ecumenical vision of the 1950s that gave birth to the UCC.  So what’s new?


 The Challenge of Liberal Theology

Peter Leithart’s vision of the future church is one where church unity takes priority over doctrinal specificity.  Love and inclusion takes priority over exclusivist fundamentalism.  Theologically, the future church will embrace the rich multiplicity of confessions but with no one confession binding on all.

Confessions, however, will cease to serve as wedges to pry one set of Christians from another.  Confessions will be used for edification rather than as a set of shibboleths for excluding those who mispronounce (pp. 27-28; emphasis added).

There is a subtle disparaging tone here in Pastor Leithart’s understanding of how creeds function to protect the Church against heresy.  He decries what he calls “shibboleths,” but there have been instances when so-called minor differences have had tremendous consequences.  Historically, the Nicene Creed functioned to protect the Church from heresy.  While the Nicene Creed was being formulated, there was a debate over whether the Son was homoousios (same Being) with the Father or homoiousios (similar being) with the Father.  The difference in just one letter – one iota – meant the difference between affirming Jesus’ divinity or denying it.  (See Peter Brown’s article about the iota of difference.)  Leithart’s inclusive approach to creeds, by relativizing the authority of the creeds, opens the door to heresy.

A striking similarity can be seen in the way Pastor Leithart and the UCC both sought to read Scripture in the context of the historic creeds.  Leithart writes:

Confessions and creeds will remain in play.  Churches will unite around the early creeds and will continue to use the treasures of the great confessions of the Reformation, of Trent and the Catholic Catechism, and of the hundreds of creeds and confessions that the global South will produce between now and then (p. 27).

The UCC’s Basis of Union “Section II. Faith” shows a similar inclusive approach:

The faith which unites us and to which we bear witness is that faith in God which the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments set forth, which the ancient Church expressed in the ecumenical creeds, to which our own spiritual fathers gave utterance in the evangelical confessions of the Reformation, and which we are in duty bound to express in the words of our time as God Himself gives us light. In all our expressions of that faith we seek to preserve unity of heart and spirit with those who have gone before us as well as those who now labor with us (emphases added).

Gabriel Fackre, one of the UCC’s leading theologians, described the UCC’s approach of using creeds to interpret Scripture in a similar way:

As the scriptures are the source of our understanding of Christ, the historic ecumenical and confessional tradition is a key resource in construing its meaning (p. 141; italics in original).

For those who grew up in the provincial sub-culture of Evangelicalism all this might sound daring but for those who grew up in mainline Protestantism this is familiar territory.  Within a matter of a few decades the UCC’s inclusive ecumenism degenerated into radical liberalism.  For those of us who had to struggle against UCC’s tragic apostasy from historic Christianity Pastor Leithart’s confessional eclecticism strikes us as naive.

Many Evangelicals are unaware of how insulated they are.  They hold in high esteem teachers and pastors for their “unique” and “brilliant” insights into Scripture not knowing that much has been borrowed from others.  What seem to be bold and innovative teachings are often drawn from one of the early Church Fathers or, worse yet, a revived heresy.  This is why knowledge of church history is so important for sound theology.

One of the flaws of the UCC has been its susceptibility to theological liberalism.  When my former home church voted to withdraw from the UCC, I was struck by two things: (1) how so many liberals were enraged at my home church’s decision to exercise congregational autonomy in order to hold to what the Bible teaches and (2) the casual disregard the liberals had towards the doctrinal issues that prompted my former home church to withdraw.  Surprisingly, Peter Leithart devoted very little attention to the threat of Liberalism (p. 78, 178).  This makes me suspect that Pastor Leithart seriously underestimates the danger of liberal theology.  From my time in the UCC, I can say I’ve experienced Peter Leithart’s “reformed Catholic church.” It is like a delightful and colorful Indian summer before the cold grey and grim winter sets in.

I have several questions for Pastor Leithart:

  • When you described the future ‘reformed Catholic church,’ are you not reiterating the mildly liberal United Church of Christ of the 1950s and 1960s?
  • And given the UCC’s later apostasy, what safeguards will your ‘reformed Catholic church’ have to ensure it remains in historic orthodoxy?



Post-Evangelical Eclecticism

The Evangelical subculture in many ways is a closed off, provincial religious ghetto.  Most who grow up within this bubble are all but completely unaware of this rich heritage to be found in the two thousand years of church history.  When they do discover this bigger world many become enthusiastically inclusive and eclectic in their theology and practices giving rise to what many have dubbed “post-Evangelicalism.”  This post-Evangelical shift can lead to a quest for church unity.  Peter Leithart’s ecumenical vision reflects this optimistic post-Evangelical eclecticism.

Former Lutherans will discover fresh insights in the writings of former Mennonites and Calvinists; former Baptists will study encyclicals from Rome with appreciation; former Methodists will deepen their insights into the liturgy by studying Eastern Christian writers.  . . . .  Origen and Augustine and Aquinas and Luther and Barth will be remembered and honored (p. 27)

What Pastor Leithart writes above is nothing new.  In my early days, I felt stifled by the literature of popular Evangelicalism, so I was delighted to discover the theological richness of the Heidelberg Catechism and Calvin’s Institutes.  Later, I began to explore Roman Catholicism, reading John Paul II’s encyclicals, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and GK Chesterton.  To balance things out, I also read up on liberation theology: Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff; and contemporary Catholic spirituality writers like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen.  While I was reading up on covenant theology and Mercersburg Theology, I was also trying to keep up with the Charismatic Renewal.  At first, all of this reading was exciting, but after awhile it became tiring. I was like a tourist constantly on the road, visiting new and exotic locations.  I never really settled down for long, and when I did come back to my Protestant home, I found that the neighborhood had changed quite a bit.  I felt at home with the people of my home church but did not really feel at home theologically.  Many American Christians today likewise drift from one new and grand theological insight to the next, religious nomads looking for greener pastures.

Ancient Chinese Map


Our theological systems are like maps.  They purport to tell us where we came from, where we are at present, and they guide us to where we wish to go – to our destination.  Not all maps are accurate.  As a matter of fact, bad maps will take us into great danger.  One could  collect maps as a hobby, but when on the road, one needs to commit to one good map to reach one’s destination.  Constantly switching maps does no good if one is lost and trying to find the way home.  Post-Evangelicals who enthusiastically read across religious traditions are like avid map collectors.  They may enjoy seeing the wide world out there but sooner or later they will have to decide where their spiritual home is.  Eventually, after reading extensively across traditions, I found myself drawn to the ancient wisdom of the early Church Fathers which helped me discover the historic Orthodox Church.


Jesus’ Prayer for Unity – An Exegetical History

One key premise of Rev. Leithart’s book is that God will fulfill Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for a future unified Church (pp. 13, 115, esp. 173).  We read in John 17:

My prayer is not for them alone.  I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23, NIV; emphasis added)

Leithart made John 17 foundational to his quest for church unity:

We can know that God will keep his promise to make his people one as he is one with his Son.  Somehow, someday, reunion will happen, because the Father gave his Son to make it happen (p. 26).

To achieve anything resembling this vision, every church will have to die, often to good things, often to some of the things they hold most dear.  Protestant churches will have to become more catholic, and Catholic and Orthodox churches will have to become more biblical.  We will all have to die in order to follow the Lord Jesus who prays that we all may be one (p. 36).

But does Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 apply to Protestantism’s divisions?  To answer this question, we need to look at how historically the early Church Fathers interpreted this passage.

Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) understood this reference to unity as an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity.  In Of the Christian Faith Book 4 Chapter 3 §34 he writes:

But who can with a good conscience deny the one Godhead of the Father and the Son, when our Lord, to complete His teaching for His disciples, said: “That they may be one, even as we also are one.”  The record stands for witness to the Faith, though Arians turn it aside to suit their heresy; for, inasmuch as they cannot deny the Unity so often spoken of, they endeavour to diminish it, in order that the Unity of Godhead subsisting between the Father and the Son may seem to be such as is unity of devotion and faith amongst men themselves continually of nature makes unity thereof.  (NPNF Vol. X, p. 266, cf. p. 227)

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) understood Jesus’ reference to his unity with the Father as an affirmation of his role as divine Mediator.  In his homilies on the Gospel of John Tractate 110 §4 Augustine notes:

And then He added: “I in them, and Thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.”  Here He briefly intimated Himself as the Mediator between God and men.

But in adding, “That they may be perfect in one,” He showed that the reconciliation, which is effected by the Mediator, is carried to the very length of bringing us to the enjoyment of that perfect blessedness, which is thenceforth incapable of further addition. (Homilies on the Gospel of John; NPNF Series I, Vol. 7, §4; p. 410)

In The Trinity Augustine understood John 17:21 to be an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity and his office as mediator.  He writes:

This is what he means when he says that they may be one as we are one (Jn 17:22)—that just as Father and Son are one not only by equality of substance but also by identity of will, so these men, for whom the Son is mediator with God, might be one not only by being, of the same nature, but also by being bound in the fellowship of the same love.  Finally, he shows that he is the mediator by whom we are reconciled to God, when he says, I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected into one (Jn 17:23).  (The Trinity Book 4, Chapter 2 §12; p. 161; Transl. Edmund Hill; italics in original, bold added; NewAdvent.org  On the Holy Trinity Book 4 chapter 9)

The context for mediation here is that unity between God and sinful humanity, not a unity among rival denominations.

Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200/210-258) received a letter (date 256) from Firmilian, the Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, which contains a reference to John 17:21.  Firmilian used the passage to affirm the Church’s unity in the face of geographic separation.  He also understood John 17 as referring to the Christian’s union with God.

And this also which we now observe in you, that you who are separated from us by the most extensive regions, approve yourselves to be, nevertheless joined with us in mind and spirit.  All which arises from the divine unity.  For even as the Lord who dwells in us is one and the same, He everywhere joins and couples His own people in the bond of unity, whence their sound has gone out into the whole earth, who are sent by the Lord swiftly running in the spirit of unity; as, on the other hand, it is of no advantage that some are very near and joined together bodily, if in spirit and mind they differ, since souls cannot at all be united which divide themselves from God’s unity.  “For, lo,” it says, “they that are far from Thee shall perish.” But such shall undergo judgment of God according to their desert, as depart from His words who prays to the Father for unity, and says, “Father, grant that, as Thou and I are one, so they also may be one in us.” (Epistle LXXIV §3, NPNF Series 2 Vol. V, pp. 390-391; emphases added)

The controversial Alexandrian theologian Origen (c. 185-c. 254) interpreted John 17:21 in light of Neo-Platonist philosophy.  In De Principiis he describes how the end will be like the beginning.  He notes that where the Fall consists of humanity and creation lapsing into complexity and diversity, the end will consist of the restoration to unity promised in John 17:21 (ANF Vol. IV, De Principiis Book I, Ch. 6 §2; pp. 260-261).

John Chrysostom (c. 344/354-407) notes in Homily 82 in the series on John’s Gospel that verse 21 refers to concord among the Christians and that verse 23 means that peace has greater ability to persuade men than miracles (NPNF Series 2 Vol. XIV, p. 304; New Advent Homily 82).

To sum up, a review of early Christian writings fails to show anyone interpreting Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23 in a manner similar to Rev. Leithart’s.  This lacuna – the failure to consider other possible readings of John 17 – raises significant questions about the validity of Pastor Leithart’s exegesis.  The absence of patristic precedence suggests that Leithart’s ecumenical reading of John 17:20-23 is a novelty.  This in turn suggests that he has wrongly applied the Johannine passage to the Protestant predicament of division and denominationalism.  The dubiety of Leithart’s exegesis turns his future-oriented ecumenism from inevitable to improbable.  If the biblical basis for Rev. Leithart’s evolutionary ecumenism is flawed, then it needs to be revised or even discarded for another approach to church unity.

Is Closed Communion Divisive?

Pastor Leithart laments the “divisiveness” of closed communion (p. 170), but he should take into consideration the benefits of closed communion.  Historically, closed communion, by protecting the Church against heresies, upheld the unity of the Church. Interestingly, Protestant churches have overwhelmingly (until recently) taken their cue from Calvin, Luther, and other Reformers who practiced closed communion. It was not until the 1970s that open communion became widely accepted in Protestant circles. In other words, Leithart’s call for open communion is a novelty at odds with historic Protestantism and ancient Christianity.

Receiving Communion in the Orthodox Church is a sign of one’s sharing the same faith with the Ancient Church as well as with fellow Orthodox believers today.  What makes this possible is that every local Eucharistic celebration is carried out under the bishop who is part of the chain of succession going back to the Apostles.  For example, the local Greek Orthodox parish through its bishop has a direct historical link to John Chrysostom and the Ecumenical Councils.  The local Antiochian Orthodox parish through its bishop has a direct historical connection to John of Damascus and Ignatius of Antioch. This historic connection is something no Protestant church can claim due to the schism underlying the Reformation.

Pastor Leithart is more than welcome to partake of Eucharist at an Orthodox church providing he is willing to accept Apostolic Tradition and come under the teaching authority of the Orthodox bishops, the successors to the Apostles.  But if he wishes to hold on to the doctrinal innovations of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s then he should accept the fact that he has chosen to walk in a different tradition.  Protestantism and Orthodoxy are not theologically compatible.  Where many Protestants view theology as negotiable, for the Orthodox Apostolic Tradition is a treasure to be safeguarded for future generations until the Second Coming.


Leithart’s Questions for Inquirers

The solutions put forward by Pastor Leithart seem to be intended for the divisions within Protestantism.  He does not devote much attention to Protestantism’s differences with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  However, he looks askance at Protestants who are interested in Orthodoxy.  To Protestants contemplating conversion to Orthodoxy, Leithart posed two questions:

  • “What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople?”  and
  • “Are you willing to start eating at a eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome?” (p. 170)

My answers to Rev. Leithart’s questions are as follow:

  • With respect to the first question, I would say: “I am deeply indebted to Protestantism for introducing me to the Bible.  I am looking forward to joining the Church that gave us the Bible.”
  • With respect to the second question, I would say: “To be Protestant is to be cut off from eucharistic fellowship with the Ancient Church.  It is regrettable that Reformers have rejected certain key doctrines that were affirmed by the Seven Ecumenical Councils.  Your proposed solution is intrinsically schismatic, even if that is not the intent.”


What Defines Orthodoxy

Pastor Leithart is under the mistaken impression that Orthodoxy defines itself on the basis of differences with Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (p. 38).  The starting point for his paradigm of church history is the Church being broken into many pieces – while we all have different pieces of the puzzle; no one has the whole picture.  This forms the basis for his evolutionary approach to ecumenism which assumes that the various parties should come together and negotiate theology.  Implicit to this view is theological relativism; in this paradigm there is no doctrinal orthodoxy that holds across time and space.

. . . all disputants must acknowledge that we see through a glass darkly, now only in part.  We should all be ready to be corrected by brothers and sisters, whatever tradition they inhabit.  We should all do theology with a prayer for brighter, more comprehensive light (p. 173).

Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has a different starting point.  What defines Orthodoxy is fidelity to Apostolic Tradition. This is the Tradition of the Apostle spoken of repeatedly within Scripture (2 Thessalonians 2:15, 2 Timothy 1:13-14).  This is THE Faith once and for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3).  The phrase “once and for all” means a one-time only giving of Apostolic Tradition, not a progressive, gradually evolving of the Christian Faith.  Athanasius the Great summarized the importance of Holy Tradition for Orthodox identity:

But, beyond these sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the Church is founded, and he who should fall away from it would not be a Christian, and should no longer be so called. (Epistle 1 to Serapion §28)

Orthodoxy insists on keeping the Apostolic Faith intact – unlike Roman Catholicism which has added to Holy Tradition and Protestantism which has rejected parts of Holy Tradition.  This can be ascertained through a comparison of the Orthodox Church today with the Ancient Church. Leithart’s evolutionary approach is radically at odds with Orthodoxy’s two thousand years of safeguarding Apostolic Tradition.

To readers who find Pastor Leithart’s vision of a reunified church that includes Orthodoxy appealing, I want to say in all charity and truthfulness: “That’s not going to happen.  We’re Orthodox; we don’t change.”  This means that those who wish to remain Protestant should realize this means walking on a separate path from Orthodoxy.  We can have friendly relations, but we will not share in the Eucharist.  I am not opposed to what Leithart referred to as “strategic alliances” (p. 64).  This is very much needed as we move into a post-Christian American culture.


My Assessment

Despite his commendable intentions, Peter Leithart’s End of Protestantism suffers from several serious flaws.

First, Leithart’s evolutionary approach to church history creates a division between present day Protestantism and the Ancient Church.  The notion of an embryonic Apostolic Faith is nowhere to be found in Scripture or in church history. The Faith, once and for all delivered by the Apostles to the Church, was never assumed to be an infant or immature Faith that continually morphs and evolves throughout history. They understood it to be a mature Faith from the start.  Many Protestants are unaware that their doctrines and worship would bar them from receiving Communion in the Ancient Church.

Second, Leithart’s book provides a dubious Protestant solution to a Protestant problem. His refusal to even consider relinquishing Protestant beliefs serves only to reinforce the schism with the Ancient Church.  For example, none of the Church Fathers taught the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.  While the early Church Fathers did affirm the authority of Scripture, they taught Scripture IN Tradition.  With sola scriptura the Protestant Reformers introduced the novel notion of Scripture OVER TraditionBy jettisoning Holy Tradition, sola scripura opened the door to Protestantism’s hermeneutical chaos and the unprecedented proliferation of denominations. It is only with the repudiation of sola scriptura and the return to Apostolic Tradition that Protestantism can find healing for its divisions.  Protestants longing for the one holy catholic and apostolic Church need to break out of the Protestant paradigm of sola scriptura and embrace the paradigm of Apostolic Tradition. 

Third, Leithart’s proposed Reformational Catholicism sounds very much like a repeat of the ecumenical approach taken by the United Church of Christ which has since succumbed to theological liberalism.  Church history contains many valuable lessons.  It behooves Pastor Leithart and readers of his book to heed the warning from the tragedy of the UCC lest they repeat the UCC’s ecumenical disaster.

Fourth, the premise underlying Leithart’s ecumenical vision – John 17:21-23, is based on a novel reading at odds with historic exegesis.  Because Protestants revere Scripture as the divinely inspired Word of God, they value the right interpretation of Scripture.  The questionable exegesis underlying Pastor Leithart’s ecumenical vision should give thoughtful Protestants pause.

Fifth, with respect to Protestantism’s schism with Orthodoxy Rev. Leithart’s greatly underestimates how his Protestantism sabotages any attempt to reconcile the two traditions.  Protestants need to realize that they are walking in a tradition separated from Ancient Christianity.  In 1672, the Orthodox Church in the Confession of Dositheus formally condemned Reformed theology.  The formal conciliar nature of this rejection of Protestantism is something ecumenists like Leithart cannot avoid.  Peter Leithart’s optimistic future oriented ecumenism holds that the two paths will one day meet up but this review has raised issues that call this into question.  Leithart has not taken seriously the difficulty of merging Protestantism with Orthodoxy.

Indeed, Protestants must come to terms with their duplicity toward the early Church, particularly the Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils. One cannot at one and the same time mine gems of theological truth and wisdom from the Church Fathers then later scorn and vilify them as idolaters or immature theologians. 

As a theological map Peter Leithart’s The End of Protestantism is flawed.  It will likely take its users into dangerous territory and cause them to waste valuable time that could be used more productively. There are two alternative paths to the future for the reader.  One is to exclude Orthodoxy from Leithart’s ecumenical vision.  This is the path if one wishes to hold on to one’s Protestant identity.  The other is to be willing to measure Protestantism against the Ancient Church and being open to making changes in light of Ancient Christianity.  In addition to the example of Peter Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox, there is the more recent example of Joseph Gleason in the article “A Calvinist Anglican Converts to Orthodoxy.”

“Who’s your bishop?”


A Thought Experiment

Imagine that Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons appear at Pastor Leithart’s church in Birmingham, Alabama, one Sunday morning. Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch, Apostle Paul’s home church (see Acts 13:1-3).  He authored several letters just before his martyrdom around 98/117. Irenaeus was the bishop of Lyons, a city on the western edge of the Roman Empire.  He was the disciple of Polycarp, who was the disciple of Apostle John, and wrote Against Heresies prior to his martyrdom circa 195. Both men lived in the second century shortly after the Apostles had passed on and were known for their zeal in defending the Christian Faith. What would they say to Leithart over coffee after worship?

Likely, Ignatius’ question would be, “Who is your bishop?”  As a good Calvinist, Leithart’s answer would be: “We don’t have bishops.  We’re Reformed Presbyterians.”  Ignatius’ follow-up question would likely be: “But you do know that without a bishop’s approval you don’t have a valid Eucharist?  You would know this if you read my letter to the Smyrnaeans.”  Irenaeus would then chime in, “Reformed Protestants?  I never heard of these words.  Is this part of Tradition received from the Apostles?  I was talking with one of your parishioners and he told me that the Protestant Reformation began in the 1500s!”

Let us say that a little later bishops Ignatius and Irenaeus were to sit down for lunch with the local Orthodox priest with Pastor Leithart joining them.  In the course of the meal Ignatius would ask the Orthodox priest: “Who is your bishop?”  The priest would quickly answer: “His Grace Bishop Alexander of the Diocese of the South of the Orthodox Church in America.”  Irenaeus would follow up with, “Do you teach the Tradition of the Apostles?”  The priest would answer: “Our church home page has this statement of purpose: ‘The community is committed to keeping the Faith as transmitted by the Apostles to the first Fathers of the Church and preserved in the Holy Orthodox Church.’” At some point Pastor Leithart must reckon with the reality. First, the saints of old would find the innovations of Protestantism strange and at odds with Apostolic Tradition.  Second, they would recognize the historic Tradition of the Apostles preserved and guarded in the local Orthodox parish.  A sobering reality indeed for Protestants.


Protestantism’s End

We are thankful for Protestant men like Pastor Leithart who seriously seek Church unity and wonder if the title of his book tells us more than he intended?  If Protestants are truly sincere about uniting with Orthodoxy, they would need to embrace the Orthodox Church in all its fullness and historicity.   This, to play on the title of Leithart’s book, would mean the end of Protestantism.  It can be done.  Peter Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox tells how a group of Evangelicals transitioned from Protestantism to Orthodoxy.  The transition was not easy.  Returning to the Faith of the Ancient Church required their relinquishing certain Protestant beliefs, but in 1987 some 2000 Evangelicals were received into the Orthodox Church.  Readers who wish to know more about what is involved in transitioning from Protestantism to Orthodox will find the article “Crossing the Bosphorus” helpful on the theological and practical levels.

Robert Arakaki



Robert Arakaki.  2012.  “Unintended Schism: A Response to Peter Leithart’s ‘Too Catholic to be Catholic.’”  OrthodoxBridge (12 June).

Robert Arakaki.  2013.  “Crossing the Bosphorus.”  OrthodoxBridge (15 January).

Athanasius the Great.  1951.  The Letters of Saint Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit to Bishop Serapion.  Trans. and ed., C.R.B. Shapland.  Uploaded by Mark Walley 2014.

Augustine.  1991.  The Trinity.  Translator, Edmund Hill, OP.  New City Press.

Peter Brown.  2014.  “The Homoousios Controversy and Semi-Arianism.” Jesus Christ God, Man and Savior Week Six: God the Son at Nicea and Constantinople.  (Version 7 updated 5 October).

Fr. Stephen Andrew Damick.  2013.  “‘A Premodern Sacramental Eclectic?’: Evangelicals Reaching for Tradition.” OrthodoxyAndHeterodoxy (25 June).

Gabriel Fackre.  1990.  “Christian Doctrine in the United Church of Christ.”  In Theology and Identity: Traditions, Movements, and Polity in the United Church of Christ.  Edited by Daniel L. Johnson and Charles Hambrick-Stowe.  Pilgrim Press.

Peter Gillquist.  2010.  Becoming Orthodox.  Conciliar Press, 3rd edition.

Joseph Gleason.  2013.  “A Calvinist Anglican Converts to Orthodoxy.”  JourneyToOrthodoxy (24 October).

Peter Leithart.  2016.  End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church.  Brazos Press (a division of Baker Publishing Group).

Peter Leithart.  2012.  “Too Catholic to be Catholic.”  First Things  (21 May).

John Williamson Nevin.  1978.   “Early Christianity.”  Catholic and Reformed, pp. 177-310. Editors, Charles Yrigoyen and George Bricker.  The Pickwick Press.

Andrew Tooley.  2007.  “Emerging Church: Evangelical or Post-Evangelical Pioneer?Catalyst ( 1 November).

United Church of Christ.  “Basis of Union.”

Brian Zahnd.  2013.  “A Premodern Sacramental Eclectic.”  BrianZahnd.com (24 June)

See Also

David George Moore.  2016.  “End of Protestantism (a review of Peter Leithart).”  Jesus Creed (22 October).

Kris Song.  2016.  “Is This the ‘End of Protestantism?’ A Review of Peter Leithart’s Latest Book on Church Unity.”  The Two Cities (27 October).

Fred Sanders.  2016.  “Does Protestantism Need to Die?”  Christianity Today (21 October).

Douglas Wilson.  2016.  “The Purported End of Protestantism.”  Blog and Mablog (2 November).



Book Review: Re-Introducing Christianity



Orthodox Apologetics for the 21st Century

Christian apologetics involves two tasks: (1) presenting the Good News of Christ in a way understandable to the audience at hand and (2) defending the Good News of Christ in a way that addresses the questions and objections that listeners may have.  Apologetics involves a high level of communication.  It is not a form of debate, but rather an attempt to speak to the listener’s intellectual questions, social context, and existential concerns.  Doing it well calls for the ability to adapt one’s presentation of the message to one’s audience.  When addressing the Jews, the Apostle Paul cited the Torah, but when he spoke to the Greek philosophers in Athens, he quoted from the poet Aratus’ work, Phaenomena.

An overview of Christian apologetics reveals diversity in style and approaches.  In the early Church, there was a group, known as Apologists, whose goal was to: (1) present Jesus as the promised Messiah to Jews; (2) commend the Gospel to polytheistic Greeks and Romans; and (3) defend Christians against accusations brought against them before the Roman government.  Among the early apologetics works are Epistle to Diognetus, Athenagoras’ Plea, Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, and Tertullian’s The Apology.

Protestant apologetics range from the rationalistic presuppositional apologetics of Cornelius Van Til and Francis Schaeffer, to the forensic, evidential approach favored by Josh McDowell’s well known Evidence That Demands a Verdict.

Some of the best Christian apologetics can be found in Roman Catholics like G.K. Chesterton, whose paradoxical one-liners give the reader an inverted view of reality that often leads to spiritual enlightenment, or Anglicans like C.S. Lewis whose apologetics style combines reason with imagination.  (See Louis A. Markos’ “Literary Apologetics.”)

The book Re-Inventing Christianity points to a new kind of Orthodox apologetics.  Up till now some of best Orthodox apologetics were written to a Christian audience or to an audience familiar with the Christian religion, e.g., Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church.  While undoubtedly a classic, many readers found the book difficult to understand.  Part of the problem lies with the ornate prose style favored by British academics.  Peter Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox and Matthew Gallatin’s Searching for God in a Land of Shallow Wells are written in a style more familiar to American Evangelicals.  However as American society becomes increasingly post-Christian, a new kind of apologetics is needed that speaks to a mixed audience that is both Christian and post-Christian.

Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience was published by Wipf and Stock in the spring of 2016.  The book attempts to speak to a diverse twenty-first century audience that ranges from devout Protestants to disenchanted post-Evangelicals to post-Christian Nones.  Under the Amir Azarvan’s editorial leadership, some twenty authors of diverse backgrounds contributed chapters on Orthodoxy (including this writer). The contributors were instructed to make their contributions short and readable.  Many of the chapters are brief but packed with information.  Below are some of the book’s highlights.  I have grouped them along the lines of different apologetics tasks.

I. Basic Questions About God and About Jesus

  • Fr. Jonathan Tobias’ chapter, “The Reality of God,” sketches how Cartesian dualism has influenced our understanding of modern science in a way that excludes the reality of God and how quantum mechanics’ refutation of the observer/observed dichotomy provides an alternative understanding of reality that is open to the reality of God.
  • Many nowadays have grown up in a post-Christian society where bizarre ideas about Jesus are being circulated in the popular media.  Although clearly fictional, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has popularized many of these ideas.  Eugenia Constantinou’s chapter, “The Historical Jesus,” addresses some of the basic questions post-Christians might have about Jesus: (1) Did Jesus even exist? (2) What happened during the “lost years” of his childhood?, and (3) Was Jesus married?

II. Protestant Questions About Orthodoxy

  • Protestants interested in Orthodoxy will be interested in Fr. John Whiteford’s chapter, “Bible Only?,” in which he critically examines one of the core beliefs of Protestantism.
  • Fr. Steven Ritter examines another of Protestantism’s key teachings in “Are We Saved by Faith Alone?”  On a closely related topic is eternal security which is scrutinized by Joshua Packwood in “Once Saved, Always Saved?”
  • Protestants concerned about the Orthodox veneration of icons will want to read my chapter, “Are We Violating the Second Commandment? The Orthodox Teaching on Icons.”  I’ve already written extensively on this subject matter on the OrthodoxBridge.  This short chapter – only four pages – condenses the main points of my apologia for icons.
  • Many Protestants and their churches eschew “scripted” prayer for spontaneous prayer that “comes from the heart.”  They assume this is the normal way Christians pray. Deacon Michael Bressem chapter, “Why We Recite ‘Scripted’ Prayers,” brings to light the surprising fact that this way of praying is relatively new and can be traced back to the English Puritans of the 1600s.  His excerpt of John Bunyan’s diatribe against liturgical prayer is eye opening.

III. Hard Questions About the Orthodox Church

  • Many Westerners today having become disenchanted with the prevailing rationalism of mainstream culture are turning East in their quest for an experiential and mystical pathway to Reality.  Kyriacos Markides in “The Three-Fold Way” describes the Orthodox teaching of the healing and restoration of the soul to its original divine state via askesis.
  • As Orthodoxy’s presence in America grows, people will form initial impressions which often lead to hard questions that must be answered.  One impression is that Orthodoxy seems ethno-centric.  Fr. Ernesto Obregon addresses this concern in “Is Orthodoxy an Ethnically Exclusive Religion?”  Another issue is Orthodoxy’s all male priesthood which is addressed in Sister Margarete Roeber’s chapter “Respect for Women and the Tradition of the Male Priesthood.”


Post-Christian America -- Methodist Church Converted into Restaurant

Post-Christian America — Methodist Church Converted into Restaurant  source


Speaking to Twenty-First Century America

The future prospects for Orthodoxy’s growth in a post-Christian America depends on its members being able to being able to explain to their family members, friends, colleagues, and even passing acquaintances what Orthodoxy is and the reasons why they are Orthodox Christians.  Much will also depend on the spirit in which Orthodox outreach is done.  Orthodox apologetics at its best is not combative, but conversational.  Amir Arzavan wrote in his introductory chapter:

…our goal is to communicate in an honest, yet non-adversarial way, the following message to the reader: “Here is why we invite you to explore the faith that has brought us so much hope and joy.” (p. 9)



Re-Introducing Christianity is a book that speaks to the rapidly changing religious landscape of twenty-first century America.  I recommend it for the following audiences:

  • Seekers looking for a more authentic Christianity different from the many modern offshoots that populate the religious marketplace these days,
  • Christians and non-Christians seeking reasonable answers to contemporary critiques of the Christian religion, and
  • Orthodox Christians who want to commend Orthodox Christianity is to their friends and family in these troubled and tumultuous times.

Robert Arakaki

Copies may be ordered from Amazon or Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Book Review: Rock and Sand

51+pcoOK8FL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings (2015)

Review by David Rockett

When a seminary trained Protestant Pastor writes a book-long critique of Protestantism after converting to become an Orthodox Priest, it makes for interesting reading! However, critiques of theological systems and its primary proponents outside one’s own loyalties are on the surface suspect. Has the critic carefully understood what he proposes to critique? Is he fair or one sided? These are no small issues if the critique is to be taken seriously. Does the critic have the credentials and standing to do such a thing?

In this light Fr. Josiah Trenham is uniquely qualified to offer a compelling critique of the Protestant Reformers and their theology. Raised in a devout reformed Protestant family and Reformed church, Fr. Josiah was educated by the top Reformed intelligentsia. Fr. Josiah received his B.A. in Social Science or History from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA. His senior thesis was on the famous American theologian and revivalist Jonathan Edwards (1989). In 1992, he received his M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary, Escondido, CA, having studied also at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS, and Orlando, FL under the Reformed theologians Drs. John Frame, John Gerstner, and R.C. Sproul. In 2004, he received his Ph.D. in theology from the University of Durham, England, studying under the well-known Orthodox Christian professor of patristics, Father Andrew Louth.

The hypothetical reverse would be a book-long critique of Orthodoxy’s leading Fathers lives and theology expressed in the Seven Ecumenical Councils – all in historic context, from a Reformed Ph.D. pastor who was raised as a cradle Orthodox, educated at an Orthodox university and seminary (Holy Cross?, St. Vladimir?) – but converted to Protestantism and received his Ph.D. from Westminster! Reformed-Orthodox dialogue would benefit from such a book. We pray our Protestant friends and theologians will read Fr. Trenham’s book with the same zeal an Orthodox would read such a hypothetical book! For now we are more than satisfied with Fr. Josiah’s book: Rock & Sand.


Introduction and Historic Context – Roman Catholic Europe 1500s

Father Josiah’s introduction gives us his book’s three-fold purpose:

…to provide the Orthodox reader with a competent overview of the history of Protestantism…to acquaint Orthodox and non-Orthodox readers with a narrative of the historical relationship between the Orthodox East and the Protestant West…[and] to provide a summary of Orthodox theological opinion on the tenets of Protestantism. (p. 2)

Before doing this he sets the context for the Reformation: “The Protestant Reformation cannot be understood without a cursory grasp of the political, social, cultural, and ecclesiastical developments that created 15th century Europe.” (p. 3) Given Fr. Josiah’s history degree this is understandable and critical for us Moderns. Too often we rush to debate theological tenets before grasping the context or the dominant cultural and sociopolitical realities of the time. Fr. Josiah notes: “The traditional western historiographic categories of ‘Dark Ages,’ ‘Middle Ages,’ ‘Renaissance,’ and ‘Reformation,’ have little meaning in the East, and in fact have now been widely discarded in Western academia. The Fall of Rome…was not as significant in the East…” (p. 5)

The city of Constantinople or New Rome thrived intellectually and politically for centuries long after old Rome had fallen.

Prior to the Reformation, the papal West entered into a scholastic period in which theology was conformed to philosophical paradigms and detached from its traditional ascetic milieu. Theologians became academics and bishops political lords. Detached from the Orthodox East and its insistence on patristic continuity, papal innovations – theological and practical – abounded. These innovations, advanced by a newly articulated and aggressive view of papal supremacy, were supported by a collection of forged historical documents known as the False Decretals…These forged papal letter were fabricated in order to place in the ever-growing claims of papal arrogance and supremacy into the mouths of early saint-popes and thus establish the papal novelties as ancient Christian faith. (pp. 5, 6)

Add to these the Donation of Constantine:

This falsified imperial decree is said to have been written by Emperor Constantine the Great to Pope Sylvester (314-335)…an enumeration of the privileges bestowed upon the pope and his successors. (p. 6)

Thankfully, an honest and influential German Roman Catholic churchman named Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa exposed these documents as fraudulent. Fr. Josiah notes:

Martin Luther was aware of Cusa’s work and obtained a copy as a young theologian, which certainly influenced his thinking on the proclaimed rights of the papacy. Their authenticity has been universally rejected for hundreds of years, even by the papacy. (p. 7)

Luther was not alone in noticing the papacy and their representatives’ moral duplicity, and willingness to lie for great wealth and power. Political power and wealth increasingly became issues surrounding the Reformation in every country including England and its ruler Henry VIII. Fr. Josiah concludes this section with:

A strong argument can be made that the Protestant Reformation itself was more a land grab by the Protestant princes than about ecclesiastical renewal, and that without their cooperation Martin Luther would have been a flame that quickly ignited, but then rapidly dissipated. (p. 8)


An Orthodox Appreciation of Protestant Virtues

This chapter on page 251 appears to be out of sequence. Had Fr. Josiah been writing primarily for a Protestant instead an Orthodox audience, I suspect this chapter would have occurred earlier. Anticipating many Protestant readers of this review I’ve put it here. The book at points is sharply critical of the Reformers and their doctrines, and Fr. Josiah’s graciousness in this chapter seems most fitting:

Before launching this exercise in Orthodox apologetics, however, which must by necessity be highly critical, I would like to share with you an exercise that I require my catechumens to perform in the catechetical program that seekers are asked to engage in. [A blank sheet of paper is given for them to divide in half, writing “Orthodox Beliefs” on the left column and “Heresies/Errors” on the right, make a list.]…The intention of this catechetical exercise is two-fold. First it raises the issue of heresy to the proper intensity. Heresy is not to be played with, and it certainly does not save. Christ, Incarnate Truth, saves. The theological divisions that afflict Christendom are extremely serious, and are not to be swept under the rug by naïve theological peaceniks who assume that, just because they do not understand theology, it therefore must be unimportant…On the other hand, this catechetical exercise guides the person in process of conversion to a deep appreciation of the good of their previous confession. (pp. 253, 254)

Over the next six and half pages Fr. Josiah highlights elements of Protestantism which should be deeply appreciated and given thanks for by converts to Orthodoxy. Listed here without Fr. Josiah’s commentary:

An exceedingly high value upon the text of Holy Scripture; zeal for missionary work…ability of Protestant Christians to articulate concisely…what Jesus Christ has done for them…they call ‘giving a testimony’; a deep and costly commitment to Christian education; aggressive commitment to cultural engagement with Christian values…[finally saying] “I could go on, but I think this is enough to understand that the Orthodox theological critique of Protestantism does not derive from blind prejudice, or a lack of appreciation of the virtues of Protestantism. I admire the virtues of Protestantism most sincerely and make myself its student in those areas where it is exceptional. (pp. 257-263)

Let us pray the critical aspects of the book will be understood in this light.


The Protestant Reformers

Martin Luther was educated as a lawyer at Magdeburg and Eisenbach and the Erfurt University (1501-1505). Yet, he had a near death experience during a lightning storm and prayed to St. Anne with an oath he’d become a monk if she saved him. He took solemn vows as an Augustinian monk in August 1505 at age 22, and was ordained a priest in 1507 at age 24. His father rode in for his first Mass with twenty riders and bestowed a generous gift of money to the monastery. Luther on his visit to Rome was scandalized by the debauchery and blasphemy committed by the priests there, and then later with the sale of indulgences. He posted his 95 Theses on 31 October 1517 just a few weeks before his 34th birthday. Fr. Josiah rightly points out these 95 Theses are no articulation of Protestant dogma, but objections to Roman Catholic innovations that any Orthodox could also agree with on principle.

We can certainly admire Luther’s courage before Rome as we do other early would be reformers like John Wycliffe. Yet we see here just the beginning of the theological controversy that would follow Luther for the rest of his life. Fr. Josiah writes:

The greatest of these [controversies] took place at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. This official gathering was designed to unify the Protestant theologians, but instead served to express the deepest of divisions between Luther and Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli on the subject of the eucharist.” Luther thought his teaching on consubstantiation was the clear teaching of Scripture, and neither could understand why the other was being so hardheaded and disobedient to the ‘clear teaching of Scripture.’ The Marburg Colloquy and Protestant eucharistic controversy revealed the greatest weakness of the Protestant embrace of the doctrine of sola scriptura, and proved the absurdity of any dependence on the clarity of Scripture alone to establish common doctrines. Luther felt very deeply on this matter, and said ‘Before I would have mere wine with the fanatics, I would rather receive sheer blood with the pope. Accomplished Protestant leaders like Carlstadt, Zwingli, Oecolampadius in Basel and Bucer in Strasbourg disavowed Luther’s teaching on the sacraments and church polity. We Orthodox Christians are led to ponder: where is the reality of sola scriptura and the perspicuity of Scripture if even those bound by faculty, friendship, politics and faith cannot agree on the meaning of the central Christian act of worship? (pp. 36, 37)

The failure of Sola Scriptura to engender unity among the Reformers on the central sacrament of the Church is a major point Fr. Josiah makes several times in the book. Space prevents a look into Luther’s often violent rages against the Anabaptist movement he inspired, and the Jews he often seemed to loathe. Yet of the ascetic life and monastic estate Fr. Josiah takes careful note:

In his Small catechism Luther calls marriage ‘one hundred times’ more spiritual than the monastic estate. Yet to enter into the married estate himself Luther became an oath-breaker, as did his wife Catherine. As adults they had sworn oaths to serve Christ faithfully as celibate person like St Paul. Yet as adults they broke the oaths and encouraged hundreds of others to do likewise. In such a case of clear ethical violation Luther found it convenient to vilify the monastic estate in order to justify breaking his own vows. Yet his own Protestant prince, the elector Frederick, who consorted with concubines himself, was so opposed to this offense that Luther was not able to marry as long as Frederick lived. Luther’s colleague and friend Melanchthon was so opposed to Luther’s oath-breaking and marriage to Catherine that he himself did not attend the wedding. (p. 46)

More could be said here and Fr. Josiah reviews a history few Protestants are likely to know. In a footnote he comments further: “Luther was clear about how far from traditional asceticism he had strayed. ‘I now seek pleasure and take it wherever I can.’ He should not have wondered, after such attacks upon ascetical Christian practice, why he failed so bitterly to effect a moral improvement in Christian life amongst the Germans.” (p. 47)

Ulrich Zwingli was a Roman Catholic priest born in Switzerland a year after Luther. Fr. Josiah demonstrates he is far more the father of modern American evangelicalism than either Luther or Calvin.

Zwingli viewed Luther as a polemicist, and not above the typical reform of humanism which was unable to shed many Roman Catholic ideas…Luther was not fully committed to the Reformation and was too conservative. (p. 78)

Zwingli is also more the Reformed father of the Anabaptists than either Calvin or Luther, and took his own superior subjective view of Sola Scriptura farther than they were willing. He also likely deserves the distinction as father of the iconoclasts, those who delight in the destroying Christian art and shrines objectionable to them but revered and venerated by the Church for centuries.

Regarding Zwinglians’ boldness and impatience at reform Fr. Josiah writes:

To raise a public debate, Zwingli and his allies then sent a request to the bishop of Constance for abolition of celibacy and permission for “scriptural” preaching – meaning their preaching. Zwingli himself had been living in a secret union with a widow, Anna Reinhardt, since the beginning of 1522. On April 2, 1524, when his lover was pregnant with their first child, he married her and together they had four children….

Fr. Josiah in a footnote wrote: “The real theological father of much contemporary Protestant Evangelicalism was living in fornication while he was articulating evangelicalism.” (p. 82)

A final telling note about Zwingli was his presiding over the dissolution of 350 monasteries and the appropriation of their lands by civil authorities (similar to what Henry VIII did in England). Many of their cronies would trace their wealth for generations to these new land holdings. Again Fr. Josiah’s footnote: “Here we see one of the innumerable cases of Protestant theft on a grand scale. The Protestant assumption appears to be that believing wrongly invalidates property rights.” (p. 83) Incidentally, Luther thought Zwingli’s teaching on baptism worse than the Anabaptists’ and believed that his death in battle was God’s judgment on him.

John Calvin was born in 1509 (26/25 years after Luther and Zwingli) into an aristocratic family. His father planned an ecclesiastical career for his son. Calvin was tonsured at age 12 by the Bishop of Noyon. However, in 1533, at the age of 24 Calvin detached from his Roman position and income. Fr. Josiah wrote in his footnotes:

Calvin’s fallout with the papacy was generational. His father Gerard was a successful lawyer and accountant of sorts for the church. He was accused of corruption in regard to the estates of two priests, and was excommunicated in 1528 [Calvin 19]. He died in that state in 1531 [Calvin 22]. Calvin’s brother, Charles, was a Catholic priest, excommunicated for insulting a colleague and striking a parishioner, and, though offered absolution and last rites on his deathbed in 1537, he refused both and died excommunicate [Calvin 28]. (p. 120)  [Calvin’s age in brackets provided courtesy of the reviewer.]

Calvin, a very bright student, gave up ambitions to study for the priesthood by age 20, and studied law diligently, self-publishing his first book, a translation and commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia, at his own expense. Calvin became a Protestant at age 24. Three years later Calvin would publish his first edition of his infamous Institutes of the Christian Religion. His intellect and abilities led Guillaume Farel to recruit him that same year to Geneva in July of 1536. Though asked to leave after a dispute with the city council two years later (Easter 1538) Calvin was asked to return three years later (Sept 1541) at age 32, where he, “would spend the next twenty-three years producing a massive literary corpus and endeavoring to establish the church of Geneva upon his principles. (p. 124)

Geneva’s city council accepted Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances in 1941 which “established a consistory of pastors and elders to oversee church discipline and public morality.

Fr. Josiah writes:

This body of elders was to have the power of excommunication, which was the cornerstone of his [Calvin’s] system of church polity. Through the police force, the power of this consistory extended into every aspect of personal life in Geneva, and the basis for much resistance by its citizens and grounds for the charge that Calvin created a theocracy in Geneva.

The Yankee Puritans of New England a century later would prove to be meek libertarians by comparison.

It [consistory] examined one’s religious knowledge, criticism of ministers, absences from sermons, use of charms and family quarrels. It exercised discipline against a widow who prayed requiem prayers at the grave of her departed husband, a goldsmith for making a chalice, a barber who tonsured a priest (haircut); …against one who criticized Geneva for executing a heretic; and against someone who sang a song critical of Calvin. The consistory forbade cards and ball games, regulated how much cutlery and how many plates were allowed to be used at the table, prescribed the clothing that could be worn, abolished Christmas day and made it a normal workday, and forbade brides from adorning their hair on their wedding day. Calvin’s hand was intimately involved in almost all matters of the consistory, and it took its cue from him. (pp. 125, 126)

Note here that Calvin was a ripe 32 years old, 8 years a Protestant, when this occurred. The consistory supplied Calvin with a very large salary funded by the City government to symbolize their support.

Fr. Josiah is not as critical of Calvin even offering this summary: “Calvin is especially good in his interpretation of the covenants, and his articulation of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments…maintained a brilliant Christocentric hermeneutic…set forth a very positive view of the divine law…[and] Calvin’s doctrine of the last things is where he may be most traditional [with the Holy Fathers of the Church].” Sadly, as is often the case, Calvin’s zealous youth often got the best of him.

Meanwhile Calvin and other Reformers and Protestants of his day quoted the early Church Fathers implying the Reformation’s agreement with the early Church. Yet this was and is very selective – they were quoted when they agreed with him. Calvin was disdainful of them when they departed from him:

Certainly, Origen, Tertullian, Basil, Chrysostom and other like them would never have spoken as they do, if they had followed what judgment God had given them. But from desire to please the wise of the world, or at least from fear of annoying them, they mixed the earthly with the heavenly. That was a hateful thing, totally to cast man down, and repugnant to the common judgment of the flesh.

Fr. Josiah comments:

Here is Calvin in all his arrogance and theological overconfidence. His accusations against the likes of Ss. Chrysostom and Basil the Great are that they were too worldly, too submissive to worldly powers, and not willing enough to defy merely human judgments.

These charges are ironic in that they apply far more to Calvin himself and the Protestant Reformers than to the Holy Fathers he attacks. Chrysostom and Basil were ascetic monks who were other-worldly, and show Calvin as still quite fixed to the earth by comparison. Who was the one who rejected his tonsure and married: And that a widow? Who was the one so irascible that he could not bear to be contradicted? ?[as a young man]? Who was the one who determined eucharistic practice by the judgment of the civil powers? Who was the one who received a large salary from the state? Who was the one complicit in the execution of heretics? Who was the one who died in the comfort of his own home with the approbation of the wise of Geneva, instead of in harsh exile with the opposition of the emperor? (pp. 131,132)

Like Luther, Calvin was in constant theological disputes. Fr. Josiah writes,

Calvin fought with the Anabaptists, the Zwinglians, the Lutherans, and with the Roman Catholics, while claiming that the Scripture were clear. And, though he read the Holy Fathers extensively Calvin judged them all by their level of agreement with him, imputing moral depravity where none objectively existed in order to justify their universal disagreement with him. This is self-serving and contradictory theology. (p. 133)

I will cut short here Fr. Josiah’s critiques of other Reformers like the Anabaptists and their triumph in America, The Church of England, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and America’s folk religion (many familiar names here). These are rich and as demonstrated above, Fr. Josiah handles them with skill and insight – all from an Orthodox perspective steeped in the history and Tradition of the Church.


Historic Christian Doctrine

Nor does space allow a review of the many doctrinal issues Fr. Josiah elucidates with skill and candor. Among them are an outstanding review of the Filioque heresy and its importance, though embraced by both Protestants and Roman Catholics; an extended historical review of Orthodox Cyril Lucaris’ wrongly supposed conversion to Calvinism, and the Orthodox answer to Calvinism in the Confession of Dositheos and the Synod of Jerusalem (1672). Much here we must skip that is excellent reading.


The Fathers and Holy Tradition

However, Fr. Josiah’s cogent critique of Sola Scriptura – the notion that Scripture is a stand alone as the only infallible rule of faith and practice – merits some attention.

First and foremost is the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Apostles did not teach such a thing but explicitly rejected it in teaching and practice…Our problem with the Protestants is that at this point they are not biblical enough. The New Testament itself affirms that the foundational authority for the Christian and the Church is the Apostles teaching. (p. 64)

The teaching of the Apostles is itself called ‘tradition’ in the New Testament…’Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.’ (2 Thess. 3:6) Tradition is the Christian way of life, or life in the Holy Spirit. Tradition is the Bible rightly interpreted. St. Paul praised the Corinthians for adhering to the Church’s tradition, ‘Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. (1 Corth. 11:2, 15:3 and Jude 3)

Of course today Protestants have their own Traditions…Luther’s (Lutheranism), Calvin’s (Calvinism), Zwingli’s (Baptist), with a host of variations all firmly certain they rest on the clear teaching of Scripture. The question is not If you embrace a theological ‘Tradition’…but whose is it? where did it come from? – and is it the same Tradition spoken of so often and reverently of in the pages of Holy Scripture? Fr. Josiah notes:

…the history of Protestantism, from its very root, bears witness to the lack of Apostolic authenticity of the sola scriptura doctrine. Why do Lutheran, Calvinistic, Zwinglians, and Anabaptist creeds all differ on fundamental points if the Bible alone is the only authority of the reformers? Why could not Luther and Zwingli and other Reformers agree on the nature of the very central act of Christian worship, the Holy Eucharist, if they were both simply reading the Bible and following its teachings? By cutting the cords of Holy Tradition, and placing in its stead the doctrine of sola scriptura, the Protestants ensured theological divisiveness and fracture between themselves and their descendants and have only multiplied divisions, theories, and interpretations ad infinitum, with no end in view to this day. We may judge a tree by its fruit. The sola scriptura tree has borne the fruit of division and every conceivable heresy. (p. 275)


On Salvation

Fr. Josiah writes:

The great problem with Protestant teaching on salvation is its thorough-going reductionism. In the Holy Scripture and in the writings of the Holy Fathers salvation is a grand accomplishment with innumerable facets, a great and expansive deliverance of humanity from all its enemies: sin, condemnation, the wrath of God, the devil and his demons, the world, and ultimately death. In Protestant teaching and practice, salvation is essentially a deliverance from the wrath of God. (p. 288)

This expansive and multifaceted understanding of salvation in Christ is often referred to as the fullness of salvation or salvation maximalism where limiting salvation to mere fire insurance short-changes what the Scriptures and the Church as understood about salvation.

Rather than seeing salvation primarily as a one-time past event in time, Orthodoxy sees salvation a process that occurs in the past, present, and future. Fr. Josiah comments:

As emphasized as this past event is, Orthodox Christians are very much aware that salvation is a process as much as it is a definitive act. We are saved by faith when we are baptized, for sure. However, the New Testament uses the word sozo also in the present and future tenses. In fact, the most common use of the word sozo in the New Testament is the future, not the past. Hence, to be “biblical” we must consider salvation to be primarily, not exclusively, a future reality. (p. 290)

Take, for instance the Reformed Protestant doctrine of atonement as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf.” Here we see the usual Protestant reductionism applied to the Cross of our Savior. The traditional Christian teaching expressed in the New Testament and the writings of the Fathers on the subject of the atonement of our Savior is the Cross saved us in three essential ways: on the Cross Jesus conquered death; on the Cross Jesus triumphed over the principalities and power of this evil age; on the Cross Jesus made atonement for human sins by His blood. Because the Protestants were working out of a soteriological framework of a courtroom and declarative justification, they read the teaching about the Cross through these lenses and as a result articulated a reductionistic theology of the atonement, which ignored the traditional emphasis on the conquering of death and the triumph of the demons. Everything for Protestantism becomes satisfaction of God’s justice, and by making one image the whole, even that image became distorted in Protestant articulation. (p. 294)

Note: To be fair, two Reformed theologians of the late 19th century, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Shaff noted this problem to some degree in their Mercersberg theology (see Robert Arakaki’s in-depth critique).  More recently Anglican Bishop NT Wright’s writings and some of his Reformed followers in the Federal Vision movement have move away from this narrow, exclusively legal-forensic view. Sadly, as they have incorporated select aspects of Orthodox theology, they have been charged as heretics by their Reformed brethren for this select quasi-Orthodox perspective!

In regards to being “biblical” Fr. Josiah also notes:

The 2nd chapter of the Epistle of St. James explicitly affirms that we are not saved by faith alone. Luther’s importation of the word “alone” into his German translation of Roman 3:28 where the word does not exist in the Greek original is yet another Protestant abuse of the New Testament translation… “Orthodox Christians acknowledge the immense importance of the act of faith…[but] categorically deny, however, that one is saved by faith alone. (p. 289)

Finally, Fr. Josiah points to the neglect of theosis and deification:

…the greatest reductionism is found in the immense neglect of emphasis upon the heart of the New Testament teaching on salvation as union with Jesus Christ…. The theology of the Church bears witness to the fact that the mystery of salvation is accomplished not just on the Cross, but from the very moment of Incarnation when the Only-Begotten and Co-Eternal Son united Himself forever with humanity in the womb of the Virgin Mary, his Most Pure Mother. Salvation as union and communion between God and Man drips from every page of the new Testament and in the writings of Holy fathers.

This coming transfiguration of believers, this glorious resurrection and divinization of human nature in the unspeakable bliss of union with God, this shining as the stars in the Kingdom of His Father as our Savior puts it in his parabolic teachings, is the future of believers. It is hardly just forgiveness.

The Tragic reductionism of Protestant concepts of salvation has produced a very serious neglect of theosis, and has led to the serious error of objectifying fallen human life and it limitations and projecting it into the future. It has kept Protestants from understanding the potential of human transformation in this life. (pp. 296, 297)

This wonderful section is full of Apostolic teaching all too often neglected by Protestants.



This review has run a bit long due to the many long quotations. Sadly, many other good and perhaps more worthy passages should have included that have been left out. I conclude here with an exhortation.

If you are Orthodox living and working in the North America, Western Europe, Australia or New Zealand – read this book. It will help you understand what your friends, neighbors, and co-workers believe and the church they attend on Sunday.

If you are a Protestant convert or a Protestant who sincerely wishes to understand Orthodoxy – read this book. Russians and those in traditional Orthodox lands would profit in understanding western Protestants now trying to proselytize them with false doctrines.

Protestant converts living in Asia and Africa should read Fr. Josiah’s book for the same reasons! The Christianity the missionaries brought to your country is not the Ancient Faith proclaimed by the Apostles and their disciples, is rather a new theological system invented by Europeans in the 1500s reflecting the values and mentality of Western Europeans.

Thank you Fr. Josiah for this wonderful book! May its influence be multiplied and magnified within and without the Church of our blessed Savior.


Further Readings

A Calvinist Who Crossed Over to Orthodoxy” by Robert Arakaki 29 September 2011

“Interview with Fr. Josiah Trenham”: The Examiner

Fr. Josiah Trenham — St. Andrew Orthodox Church, Riverside CA


« Older posts