A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Category: Church Fathers (Page 1 of 12)

A Frank and Friendly Conversation

A Friendly Conversation

A reader wrote the following:

Dear Sir,

I really appreciate this article. I come from a Reformed background. I am one who laments that Protestantism has made so many sects. Yet, I want to ask a very simple question and its not out of spite, I am really curious to know more about how Eastern Orthodoxy holds things together theologically, what happens when the Church Fathers conflict with the Scriptures? The Fathers themselves had different ideas and were not all of the same mind on every issue. The Roman Catholic Church has its Magisterium. The trouble with their position is that they claim their teaching does not err. As much as I have sympathy for your position related to the severe weaknesses of Protestantism in regard of creating sects (which didn’t have to happen), as a Protestant Sola Scriptura seems to be a necessary conclusion even if it is messy.



My Response

Thank you for your blunt questions and your willingness to engage us here! I have broken down your questions into three points with my response following.


1) How does Orthodoxy holds things together theologically?

What unites Orthodoxy is Apostolic Tradition. Apostolic Tradition consists of written Tradition (Scripture) and unwritten Tradition (the oral teachings and praxis of the Apostles) (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Timothy 1:13-14). Unlike Protestantism which insists on the “Bible alone” (sola scriptura), Orthodoxy teaches that Scripture is to be understood within the context of the Church, primarily in the matrix of its Liturgy, the Church Fathers, and the Ecumenical Councils.


Fractio Panis — 3rd century Roman catacomb painting

One good example of how oral Tradition complements written Tradition can be seen in the Eucharist. All early Christian worship services had the Eucharist and all early Christians believed in the real presence — that Christ’s body and blood are truly present in the Eucharist. This was an implicit understanding shared by the early Christians. According to Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107) it was the Gnostic heretics who denied the real presence in the Eucharist viewing it as symbolic (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 7.1).

Zwingli vs. Luther at the Marburg Colloquy – 1529

This belief in the real presence was transformed into a precise formula in the West during the Middle Ages resulting in the distinctive Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. In the East, the Orthodox position was that the real presence was a mystery. When the Protestant Reformers sought to reform Christian worship on the basis of sola scriptura, they ran into the problem of how to interpret Jesus’ words: “This is my body.” Were the words to be understood literally or symbolically? Not having oral Tradition to fall back on, Luther and Zwingli reached an impasse and parted ways. One has to wonder whether sola scriptura was the underlying cause of Protestantism’s earliest church split. One also has to wonder whether sola scriptura is the reason why Protestantism never had a shared common worship.



Orthodox Liturgy in Russia

Oral Tradition can also be seen in the understanding that Christian worship was to take place on Sunday, was to have the Eucharist, and follow a liturgical order (see Justin Martyr’s First Apology 65-67). There is no explicit Scripture passage that mandates a liturgy with the Eucharist every Sunday. These are all part of oral Tradition that emerged alongside the Bible. It is important to keep in mind that the biblical canon and the Liturgy emerged simultaneously within the early Church, both are the result of the Church being led by the Holy Spirit. Thus, oral Tradition plays an important part in the unity of the Faith as Scripture.

All Orthodox parishes today follow the same Liturgy. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom provides a rich hermeneutical context for understanding the Bible. I strongly recommend you attend the Liturgy for several Sundays—at least 6 to 8—taking note of Scripture being expressed in the prayers and hymns in the Liturgy. The Liturgy is beautifully complex, multi-layered and multi-sensory, involving whole person, body and soul with the goal of drawing the worshiper closer to God.

The Liturgy with the church calendar provides another commonality among Orthodox parishes across the world today as well as providing a historical link to the early Church. This calendar is not a piece of paper hanging on the wall, but rather a schedule of services, prayers, and hymns to be used on designated days. Through the feast day services Orthodox parishes around the world remember the lives of the saints and important historical events. When I was a Protestant I learned church history through reading books but as an Orthodox Christian I learn church history through attending services. In Protestantism, church history tends to be specialized knowledge, not shared knowledge as in Orthodoxy. This shared understanding of church history and the saints is another factor to Orthodox unity. Without knowledge of family history, we become susceptible to becoming isolated individuals intent on developing our own identities.

First Ecumenical Council – Nicea AD 325

Another source of unity is Orthodoxy’s adherence to the Seven Ecumenical Councils. At these Councils major heresies were refuted by the Church Catholic. There have been other later councils that while not considered Ecumenical have been universally received by Orthodox churches, for example, the 1623 Council of Jerusalem which rejected Calvinism. Another unifying factor is the Nicene Creed which we recite every Sunday. The Nicene Creed, while it does not define every point of theology, nonetheless provides the parameters of what all Christians are obliged to believe. When Orthodox Christians recite the Nicene Creed we are affirming the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Ecumenical Councils, especially the first two. Orthodoxy’s objection to the unilateral insertion of the Filioque is indicative of Orthodoxy’s adherence to the conciliar approach to doing theology. The conciliar approach underlying the Nicene Creed is radically at odds with the Protestant theological method which is based on sola scriptura.

Then there is the episcopacy which consists of a living, historical chain of bishops who trace their spiritual lineage back to the original Apostles. The bishop as the recipient and guardian of Apostolic Tradition also oversees the local liturgical celebrations. No priest can validly celebrate the Eucharist apart from the bishop’s authorization (Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8). Keep in mind that this authority is a covenantal authority. When Christ said: “This is the blood of the New Covenant,” he was implying that Christianity would be a covenant community with a covenant-based leadership. In many ways the authority of the Orthodox Church traces back to the Last Supper, whereas Protestantism’s authority traces to the Reformers in the 1500s taking the Bible as their starting point for their theologizing. However, the problem with the Protestant approach is that the Reformers took into their hands a covenant document (the Bible) without a validly conferred covenant authority to interpret it. Protestants lack this covenant authority because they rejected the historic episcopacy. Lacking the historic episcopacy, the magisterium (teaching authority) in Protestantism shifted to either the university which in the nineteenth century became captive to the European Enlightenment Project or to untethered religious entrepreneurs beholden to nobody except themselves. Theological fragmentation and denominational disarray were the inevitable consequences. This is a sign of Protestantism’s lack of covenantal basis. Because Protestantism rejects apostolic succession, it lacks not only covenantal authority to interpret Scripture but also covenantal unity essential to being part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church confessed in the Nicene Creed. The local bishop through right teaching and right worship ensures the Orthodox Church’s covenantal unity.


2) What happens when the Church Fathers conflict with the Scriptures?

The first thing to note is that just because a Christian thinker lived long ago does not make him a Church Father. Only a select group of men recognized for their teachings and their holy lives have been honored by the Orthodox Church as “Church Fathers.” This recognition is expressed principally through the church calendar in a feast day honoring their service to Christ. There are some early Christians who had brilliant minds but were not regarded as Church Fathers, for example, Tertullian and Origen.

When you say “conflict with the Scriptures” you would need to be more specific. It might be you are thinking of some early Christians who held eccentric views. Or it might be that you, as a Reformed Protestant, might be siding with the minority viewpoint. For example, if you believe that Scriptures affirm the iconoclast position, then you are favoring the minority position. It might also be that you have not critically considered the problematic aspects of the iconoclast position. When I was a Protestant, I assumed that the icon was the weakest point of Orthodoxy until I took a fresh look at Scripture and read carefully the early Christians’ defense of icons. See my article: “The Biblical Basis for Icons” in which I found that icons do not necessarily conflict with Scripture. In any event, it is a matter of record that the pro-icon position was ratified at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II 787) and iconoclasm was condemned as heretical. Also, you need to consider that iconoclasm is not universal across Protestantism and that it represents only an extreme end of the Protestant spectrum. Where Orthodoxy is united on the issue of icons, Protestantism is not.


3) The Church Fathers themselves “had different ideas and were not all of the same mind on every issue.”

Your observation is quite accurate that there was quite a bit of diversity among the Church Fathers. Nonetheless, what they had in common was striking when compared to Protestantism. Early Christian theology was essentially liturgical theology. It was not so much written down on paper as it was sung out loud during the Liturgy. The early Church viewed the Eucharist as the central feature of Sunday worship and all affirm the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. Another common element was the understanding that Christianity was based on oral Tradition received from the Apostles and safeguarded by the bishops. The episcopacy was the norm in early Christianity. Protestant forms of church government like congregationalism and presbyterianism were not the norm. Among the early Christians there was some disagreement as to how to reconcile Jesus being the Son of God with Jewish monotheism. This question became a major crisis with the emergence of the Arian heresy. This heresy was refuted at the Council of Nicea (325). It was for his articulate defense of Jesus’ divinity that Athanasius was recognized as a Church Father. Cyril of Alexandria would be recognized as a Church Father for his defense of Mary as the Theotokos (God-Bearer). It was at the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II, 553) that Nestorianism was condemned as heretical and recognition of Mary as Theotokos be made part of the Liturgy. The iconoclast controversy was precipitated by Emperor Leo III’s edict against icons. For his defense of icons John of Damascus would be recognized as a Church Father. It was at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II, 787) that iconoclasm would be formally condemned as heretical. The early Church encountered numerous heresies and dealt with them through councils–local, regional, and ecumenical—with the assistance of bishops who would later be recognized as Church Fathers. It is not as if conflicts emerged the Church Fathers and were resolved at Ecumenical Councils; but rather heresies surfaced and the bishops came together to deal with these heresies and in the process certain men who played a key role in the upholding of the Apostolic Faith would come to be recognized as a “Church Father” just as an “ordinary” Christian who suffered martyrdom would be recognized as a capital “s” Saint.

Another important aspect of Orthodox unity is the patristic consensus. This “consensus of the Fathers” is usually a reference to the bishops of the Church speaking collectively via an Ecumenical Council. Just as the Holy Spirit guided the Jerusalem Council so likewise he guided later Councils into the truth (cf. Acts 15:28; John 16:13). Please keep in mind that while there have been many church councils, only a few have been recognized as “Ecumenical Councils.” Individually the Church Fathers may err but collectively they bear witness to the Apostolic Faith. Orthodox theology does not seek to neatly and systematically answer every theological question possible in a comprehensive manner similar to the Westminster Confession. of Faith While we remain steadfast on matters of dogma like the Trinity and Christology, there is diversity in other matters like soteriology and eschatology. As an Evangelical in a liberal mainline denomination it distressed me to see pastors and theologians calling into question the dogmas of Christology and the Trinity, and fundamental assumptions of human nature, the Fall, and our salvation in Christ. Since becoming Orthodox, it is a tremendous relief to find myself on the same page on the core dogmas of the Faith as the Orthodox priests I meet. I did not have that certainty when I was Protestant. Whenever I met a UCC minister for the first time, I first needed to feel out their theological orientation: Was he or she a Liberal, an Evangelical, or a liberal Evangelical? The parameter of Orthodox’s Holy Tradition gave me a safe harbor and a sense of integrity that I felt was missing during my time as a Protestant.


What I appreciate about Orthodoxy is how the Church Fathers are very much among us today. The Church Fathers influence how we understand our Faith. When I make reference to Church Fathers like Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, or John Chrysostom, Orthodox Christians understand who I’m referring to. The Church Fathers are not remote figures in the past but our companions of faith. Recently my priest concluded his sermon with quotes from two Church Fathers and then closed with ”Holy John Chrysostom pray for us! Holy Basil pray for us!” For my priest Father Alexander, the Church Fathers are part of great cloud of witnesses who surround us right now.


Orthodox Liturgy in Overland Park, Kansas – YouTube video

Closing Thought

I’ll leave you with this thought. In comparison to meticulous neatness of the Reformed confessions, Orthodox theology is messy and at times fuzzy. However, when it comes to the fundamental core dogmas and worship practices of historic Christianity, Orthodoxy is coherent and stable, while Protestantism is becoming increasingly theologically incoherent, liturgically anarchic, and bereft of historical memory. I suspect that you have had little direct experience with real, live Orthodoxy. I would urge you to spend time getting to know living Orthodox Church and come back again for further engagement. In other words, let keep talking to each other!

Robert Arakaki



Was the Reformation Necessary?

An Orthodox Assessment

This is a reposting of an article I wrote in 2015 with a few minor updating. One notable addition is my assessment of “A Reforming Catholic Confession” which was just released today.


On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church (Wittenberg, Germany) sparking a huge theological debate that would radically alter the religious landscape of Europe. Within a few decades the once unified European society became divided among competing Christian churches.

Today marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  On this anniversary, it would be good for Christians – Protestants and non-Protestants — to reflect on its origins and its legacy.  And to ask: Was the Reformation Necessary?  To answer this question, we need to first understand what justification was given for the Reformation.  One of the finest apologia was written by John Calvin.


Historical Context

In 1543, Calvin wrote “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” in anticipation of Emperor Charles V’s convening the Diet of Spires (Speyer).  Altogether there were four Diets (parliamentary assemblies) held at the town of Speyer situated on the river Rhine in Bavaria.  During that period the Reformation was seen as a minor faction outlawed at the Diet of Worms (1521) and politically a nuisance.  It is likely that the Reformation would have been quashed then and there if it were not for the fragile state of Europe’s political unity.  The four Diets at Speyer trace the growth of the Reformation from a dissenting view into a separate church body independent of Rome.

Muslim Invasion of Europe in the 1500s source

At the first Diet of Speyer in 1526, in a moment of political and military weakness, Charles V was forced to accept the principle allowing each local ruler to rule as he wished: “every State shall so live, rule, and believe as it may hope and trust to answer before God and his imperial Majesty.”  This decision in effect suspended the Diet of Worms and allowed the Lutherans to coexist with the Roman Catholics.  (In 1526 the Turks were advancing in Hungary and later that year would lay siege to Vienna necessitating vigorous military action by the Emperor.)  In 1529, Charles V was strong enough to seek the reversal of the 1526 resolution.  While most complied, six rulers along with fourteen free cities objected.  They drew up an appeal which would be known as the “Protest at Speyer”; the signatories would become known as “Protestants.”  A third diet of Speyer was convened in 1542 for the purpose for rallying support against the Turks.  The Protestant princes withheld support until the Emperor agreed to the Peace of Nuremberg (1532).  A fourth Diet at Speyer was convened in 1544.  This time Charles V needed support against two fronts, against Francis I of France and against the Turks.  It was in this the context that Calvin composed “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.”  By 1555, the Emperor would be forced to give legal recognition to the Lutherans in the Peace of Augsburg.

Source: James Jackson

Christian Europe divided    source: James Jackson


Historically, Calvin’s “Necessity of Reforming the Church” was not a game changer.  However, Theodore Beza (1519-1605) considered this essay one of the “most powerful” of the time (Beza, p. 12).  This review seeks to be sensitive to the fact that Calvin’s essay was written in the context of a Protestant-versus-Catholic debate while assessing Calvin’s apologia for the Reformation from the standpoint of the Orthodox Faith.  References and page numbers are from J.K.S. Reid’s Calvin: Theological Treatises (1954).


Iconoclasm and True Worship

Calvin’s first justification is the use of images in churches which for him impedes “spiritual worship.”

When God is worshipped in images, when fictious worship is instituted in his name, when supplication is made to the images of saints, and divine honours paid to dead men’s bones, and other similar things, we call them abominations as they are.  For this cause, those who hate our doctrine inveigh against us, and represent us as heretics who dare to abolish the worship of God as approved of old by the Church (p. 188).

The critique was directed against Roman Catholicism which at the time was heavily influenced by the Renaissance.  While there may have been excesses in the churches of Calvin’s time, his remedy was drastic – the removal of all images from churches.  This is something no Orthodox Christian could endorse especially in light of the fact that iconoclasm was condemned by an Ecumenical Council (Nicea II, 787).


Strasbourg Cathedral - France Source

Strasbourg Cathedral – France Source


Calvin’s argument here is highly polemical with very little theological reasoning involved.  Calvin’s failure to rebut John of Damascus’ classic defense of icons based on the Incarnation and the biblical basis for the use of image in Old Testament worship present a gaping hole in his argument for the necessity of the Reformation.  See my critique of Calvin’s iconoclasm in “Calvin Versus the Icon.”


Spiritual Worship versus Liturgical Worship

Calvin’s next target is what he deemed “external worship” and “ceremonies” (p. 191).  Calvin argues that there was a time when liturgical worship was useful (i.e., during the Old Testament) but that with the coming of Christ liturgical worship has been abrogated.

When Christ was absent and not yet manifested, ceremonies by shadowing him forth nourished the hope of his advent in the breasts of believers; but now they only obscure his present and conspicuous glory.  We see what God himself has done.  For those ceremonies which he had commanded for a time has now abrogated forever (p. 192; emphasis added).

This argument is a form of dispensationalism.  While there are differences between Jewish and Christian worship, Calvin pushes it to the breaking point.  Calvin’s dismissal of liturgical worship overlooks the fact that early Christian worship was liturgical.  Evidence for this can be found in Volume VII of the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series p. 529 ff.

Calvin objects to external ceremonial worship on the grounds that it leads to the failure of people to give their hearts and minds to God (p. 193).

For while it is incumbent on true worshippers to give heart and mind, men always want to invent a mode of serving God quite different from this, their object being to perform for him certain bodily observances, and keep the mind to themselves.  Moreover, they imagine that when they thrust external pomps upon him, they have by this artifice evaded the necessity of giving themselves (p. 193).

For Calvin true Christian worship consists of the preaching of Scripture and the inculcation of right understanding of the Gospel.

For the Orthodox Calvin’s derisive assessment of the Liturgy is hard to swallow.  The Liturgy lies at the core of Orthodox life.  On most Sundays we use the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom which dates to the fifth century and on 10 Sundays we use the older Liturgy of St. Basil which dates to the fourth century. Calvin’s argument here rests on the assumption that early Christian worship was basically Protestant in form (Reformed).  This is highly questionable in light of the church fathers and historical evidence.  Most likely the theological motive for Calvin’s anti-liturgical stance is his spiritual versus physical dichotomy.

In short, as God requires us to worship him in a spiritual manner, so we with all zeal urge men to all the spiritual sacrifices which he commends (p. 187).

Protestantism’s emphasis on the sermon and its downplaying of the embodied aspects of worship: bowing, prostrations, processions, candles, incense, etc. can be seen as originating from this dichotomy.  There is no evidence that the early Christian worship was informed by this mind/body dichotomy.  Where Calvin takes an either/or approach, Orthodoxy takes a both-and approach holding that the symbolism and ritual actions that comprise the Liturgy help us better understand Scripture.


Reforming Prayer

Calvin strongly objects to the intercession of the saints and to the practice of praying in an unknown tongue (pp. 194-197).  He notes that there was a Catholic Archbishop who threatened to throw in prison anyone who dared to pray the Lord’s Prayer in a language other than Latin (p. 197)!  Calvin’s motive was to emphasize Christ as the sole mediator.  For him the invocation of the saints is idolatrous (p. 190).  Similarly, he condemns relics, religious processions, and miraculous icons.

Now it cannot without effrontery be denied, that when the Reformers appeared he world was more than ever afflicted with this blindness.  It was therefore absolutely necessary to urge men with these prophetic rebukes, and divert them, as by force, from that infatuation lest they might any longer imagine that God was satisfied with bare ceremonies, as children are with shows (p. 191; emphasis added).

This leads Calvin to call for the reforming of worship and devotional practices so as to restore what he calls “spiritual worship.”  In this particular passage Calvin seems to advocate church reform by preaching and if that did not work, by force.

It is hard to know to what extent medieval Roman Catholic devotional practices had fallen into excesses during Calvin’s time, but an Orthodox Christian would be taken aback by the sharpness of Calvin’s critique.  Praying to the saints is an ancient Christian practice.  The Rylands Papyrus 470 which dates to AD 250 contains a prayer to the Virgin Mary asking for her help.  The ancient Christian practice of praying to the saints is based on Christ’s resurrection and the communion of saints.  While certain bishops sought to temper the excesses in popular piety surrounding the commemoration of the departed, the idea of worshipers here below – the church militant — being surrounded by the departed – the church triumphant – became part of the Christian Faith.  Excess in popular piety is best held in check through faithful participation in the liturgical life of the Church and submitting to the pastoral care of the priest.

Also, in comparison to Roman Catholicism Orthodoxy has been more receptive to the use of the vernacular in the Liturgy.  The Church of Rome’s inflexible stance on Latin as the language of worship changed with Vatican II.  An Orthodox Christian would find it puzzling that the acceptance of the vernacular was accompanied with a new liturgy, the Novus Ordo Mass.  Why not retain the historic Mass but translate it into the local vernacular?  This is what is done in many Orthodox parishes in the US.  Many Orthodox parishes celebrate the ancient St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy in English or a mixture of English and non-English.

While not a prominent part of contemporary Reformed-Orthodox dialogue, it should be noted that not only does Orthodoxy today continue to venerate icons, we also have relics and miraculous icons.  While the danger of fraud exists, Orthodoxy has safeguards to discern the validity of these supernatural manifestations.  What is concerning about Calvin’s critique is the way it rejects the sacramental understanding of reality so fundamental to Orthodoxy.  Also, concerning is the secularizing effects of Calvin’s position.  The Protestant Reformers did not deny the supernatural, but confined it to Scripture.  For example, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were efficacious because of the power of the “Word of God” (signaled by the capitalized form for the Bible) invoked during the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Another implication of Calvin’s emphasis on personal faith is the interiorizing and psychologizing effects on Protestant spirituality.  The personal interior dimension of Christianity took priority over the collective ecclesial aspects of the Christian life.  Thus, Calvin’s quest to reform prayer comes with a high cost that many Protestants may not be aware of.


The Ground of Salvation

It was justification by faith alone (sola fide) that sparked the Reformation.  When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses he called into question the practice of selling indulgences.  In the ensuing debates the focus shifted to the ground of salvation.  The sale of indulgences was based on the Western medieval theory of the church as a treasury of merit and the power of the keys.  Calvin writes:

They say that by the keys the treasury of the Church is unlocked, so that what is wanting to ourselves is applied out of the merits of Christ and the saints.  We on the contrary maintain that the sins of men are forgiven freely, and we acknowledge no other satisfaction than that which Christ accomplished, when, by the sacrifice of his death, he expiated our sins (p. 200).

Much of the debate surrounding justification by faith was framed and constrained by the judicial, forensic paradigm to the exclusion of other soteriological paradigms.  While much of Calvin’s rebuttal of his opponents rested on the forensic theory of salvation, one can find a non-forensic understanding of salvation in his writings.

This consideration is of very great practical importance, both in retaining men in the fear of God, that they may not arrogate to their works what proceeds from his fatherly kindness; and also in inspiring them with the best consolation, lest they despond when they reflect on the imperfection or impurity of their works, by reminding them that God, of his paternal indulgence, is pleased to pardon it (p. 202).

Calvin’s emphasis here on God’s paternal love for humanity is surprisingly close to what Orthodoxy affirms.

The issue of the ground of our salvation and the faith versus works tension was never a major issue in Orthodoxy.  Unlike Western Christianity, Orthodoxy never went into detail about how we are saved and the means by which we appropriate salvation in Christ.  Where Orthodox soteriology remains rooted in patristic theology, medieval Catholicism took a more legal and philosophical turn with unexpected innovations like the sale of indulgences and the understanding of the Church as a treasury of merits.  The Orthodox understanding of salvation is informed by the Christus Victor (Christ the Conqueror) motif as is evidenced by the annual Pascha (Easter) service and by the understanding of salvation as union with Christ.  The theme of union with Christ is much more intimate and relational than the idea of imputation of Christ’s merits which is more impersonal and transactional in nature.  Unlike certain readings of sola fide (justification by faith alone), the Orthodox understanding of the relationship between faith in Christ and good works is more organic and synergistic.  We read in Decree 13 of the Confession of Dositheus:

We believe a man to be not simply justified through faith alone, but through faith which works through love, that is to say, through faith and works.

Soteriology is one of the key justifications for the Reformation.  In claiming to bring back the Gospel the Protestant Reformers introduced a much more narrow understanding of the Gospel.  The debates over justification would be consequential for Protestantism.  Justification by faith was elevated into a pivotal dogma.  Some Protestants insist that unless one holds fast to the distinction between imputed righteousness and infused righteousness, then one will not have a “proper” understanding of the Gospel; and if one did not have a “proper” understanding of the Gospel, then one was not truly a Christian!  The early Church on the other hand dogmatized on Christology but remained flexible and ambiguous on how we are saved by Christ.  It was not until the medieval Scholasticism introduced these categorical precision that the Catholic-versus-Protestant debates over justification became a possibility.  One unforeseen consequence of these debates is that personal faith in Christ soon became equated with intellectual assent to a particular forensic theory of salvation.  Another consequence is that it erects walls between Protestantism and other traditions like Orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy being rooted in the church fathers and the Ecumenical Councils would not view the Protestant Reformers’ “rediscovered” Gospel in sola fide (justification by faith alone) as sufficient justification for the Reformation but more as a theological innovation peculiar to the West.


Reforming the Sacraments

For Calvin the reform of the church entailed the reforming of the sacraments, removing man-made additions and returning to the simplicity of biblical worship.  This is his justification for reducing the number of sacraments from seven to two.  Calvin is reacting to several developments: (1) liturgical additions not found in the Bible, (2) the adoration of the Host, (3) withholding the communion chalice from the laity, and (4) the use of non-vernacular in worship.  For Calvin the pastor medieval Catholic worship resulted in the laity being reduced to passive bystanders looking on with dumb incomprehension.  Calvin seeks to replace this magical understanding of the sacraments with one based on an intelligent understanding of Scripture in combination with a lively faith in Christ.

Like Calvin, modern day Evangelicals hold to two sacraments but many will be surprised by how Calvin understood the sacraments.  Calvin did not do away with infant baptism, nor did he insist on total immersion.  While Calvin rejected the medieval Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, he did not embrace a purely symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper.

Accordingly, in the first place he gives the command, by which he bids us take, eat and drink; and then in the next place he adds and annexes the promise, in which he testifies that what we eat is his body, and what we drink is his blood.  . . . .  For this promise of Christ, by which he offers his own body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine, belongs to those who receive them at his hand, to celebrate the mystery in the manner which he enjoins (p. 205; emphasis added).

Calvin adopts a view somewhere between the extremes of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the later Protestant Evangelical “just a symbol” understanding of the Lord’s Supper.  However, his “under the symbols” seems to implicitly deny that the bread and the wine undergo a change in the Eucharist.  It is at odds with the understanding of the early church fathers.


Assessing Calvin’s Apologia

To sum up, Calvin justifies the Reformation on three grounds: (1) doctrine, (2) the sacraments, and (3) church government, claiming that the goal was to restore the “old form” using Scripture (i.e., sola scriptura).

Therefore let there be an examination of our whole doctrine, of our form of administering the sacraments, and our method of governing the Church; and in none of these three things will it be found that we have made any change in the old form, without attempting to restore it to the exact standard of the Word of God. (p. 187; emphasis added)

Calvin and the other Reformers had no intention of dividing the Church or of creating a new religion.  They desired to bring back the old forms using the Bible as their standard and guide.  The results, however, have been quite different from what the Reformers had expected.  The next five centuries would see within Protestantism one church split over another, new doctrines, new forms of worship, and even new morality.


Saddleback Community Church

One interesting statement in Calvin’s apologia is the sharp denunciation of “new worship” (p. 192).

. . . God in many passages forbids any new worship unsanctioned by his Word, declared that he is gravely offended by such audacity, and threatens it with severe punishment, it is clear that the reformation which we have introduced was demanded by a strong necessity” (p. 192; emphasis added).

In light of the fact modern day Protestant worship ranges from so-called traditional organ and hymnal worship that date to the 1700s, to exuberant Pentecostal worship, to seeker friendly services with rock-n-roll style praise bands, to the more liturgical ancient-future worship one has to wonder if the Protestant cure is worse than the disease the Reformers sought to cure!

It is encouraging to see a growing interest among Reformed Christians in the ancient liturgies and the early Church Fathers.  This points to a convergence between two quite different traditions.  However, they remain far apart on icons, praying to the saints, and the real presence in the Eucharist.  These are not minor points. Calvin’s essay “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” makes clear these are part of the basic rationale for the Reformation.


Was the Reformation Necessary? 

My answer as an Orthodox Christian is that while the situation of medieval Catholicism in Luther and Calvin’s time may have warranted significant corrective action, the Protestant cure is worse than the disease.  For all its adherence to Scripture, the Reformed tradition as a whole has failed to recover the “old form” found in ancient Christianity.  Its numerous church splits put it at odds with the catholicity and unity of the early Church.  Orthodoxy being rooted in the early Church, the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and in Apostolic Tradition has avoided many of the problems that have long plagued Western Christianity.  Orthodoxy has never had a Reformation.  It has had no need for the Reformation because it has remained rooted in the patristic consensus and because it has resisted the innovations of post-Schism medieval Roman Catholicism.  The fact that Orthodoxy has never had a Reformation is something that a Protestant should give thought to.


Reform versus Return

Sign Here for Church Unity  source

One of the unintended consequences and greatest tragedies of the Reformation has been the numerous church splits and theological divisions among Protestants. In response to this, today on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a coalition of some 250 Protestant theologians and leaders issued “A Reforming Catholic Confession.”  They sought to show that “difference does not mean division” and that the heirs of the Reformation are more “catholic” than the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox!

Caleb Lindgren in the Christianity Today article “Protestants: The Most ‘Catholic’ Christians” writes:

Additionally, the new statement of faith, crafted by a team of Protestant theologians and church leaders, aims to show that Protestants are actually more catholic (meaning “universal”) than Roman Catholics, who demand allegiance to the Roman pontiff, or than Orthodox Christians, who reject the claims of Rome but still rely heavily on apostolic succession to guarantee faithful Christianity.

The first thing I noticed about Mr. Lindgren’s description of Orthodoxy is his fixation on church governance.  Actually, what defines Orthodoxy is fidelity to Apostolic Tradition, written and unwritten.  A bishop’s apostolic succession in itself does not guarantee Orthodoxy; there must also be faithful adherence to the Liturgy, the Nicene Creed (325 and 381), the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and the patristic consensus.  For the Orthodox, Orthodoxy is an integrated package, a way of living life in Christ.

The Eucharist is Our Unity

As an Orthodox Christian, what I find most striking about the “Reforming Catholic Confession” is how Protestant their solution was — a piece of paper!  This is an intellectual and disembodied solution to a very serious problem.  A signed theological statement can have much value, but it is not adequate for addressing the deep flaws of Protestantism.  Protestantism suffers from: (1) the lack of an binding, authoritative and unifying Creed, (2) lack of common worship, and (3) lack of church leadership united in faith and worship.  For the Orthodox, unity is found in the Eucharist — sharing in the body and blood of Christ.  In the Eucharist we are united with the Church Catholic.  Ignatius of Antioch, the third bishop of the Apostle Paul’s home church in Antioch wrote:

Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. [Letter to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 8]

What should be noted here is that Ignatius of Antioch defined catholicity, not in terms of a theological statement on a piece of paper, but in terms of sharing in the Eucharist.  Thus, Protestants need to keep in mind that the “Reforming Catholic Confession” offers a Protestant approach to unity that is radically at odds with the early Church.

There is a funny story about a Protestant who wanted to convert to Orthodoxy.  He runs up to an Orthodox priest and says: “I’m a Protestant, what must I do to become Orthodox?”  The priest answered: “You must give up your Roman Catholicism!”  The point here is that many of the problems in Protestant doctrine and worship reflect its origins in Roman Catholicism.  It also reflects the fact that Western Christianity has broken from its patristic roots in the early Church.  Another way of putting it is that Protestants are innocent victims of Rome’s errors and innovations.

Anniversaries are often occasions for celebration.  They can also be time of assessment and evaluation.  Has the Reformation worked?  Has it been beneficial?  There is an oft-told joke about insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  For the past 500 years Protestants have made many, numerous attempts to reform, to bring back the early Church.  They have done so despite repeated failures.  The thinking seems to be: “This time we’ll get it right!”  I have referred to this as ecclesia reformans sed semper reformanda gone amok.  [See “Protestantism’s Fatal Genetic Flaw:  Sola Scriptura and Protestantism’s Hermeneutical Chaos.“]  To weary Protestants and Evangelicals I say: “Stop the reforming madness and return to the early Church.  Five hundred years of reform hasn’t worked.  It is time for Protestants and Evangelicals to consider something different — renounce the innovations of the Protestant Reformation and embrace Apostolic Tradition.

Athanasius the Great taught, not sola scriptura (the Bible alone), but fidelity to Apostolic Tradition. In his Letter to Serapion chapter 28 he wrote:

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.

Here we read that Apostolic Tradition, which originated with the Lord Jesus Christ and was passed on through the Apostles and the Church, is foundational to being a Christian.  Without this Tradition, one cannot be a Christian.

This nothing new.  It is an elaboration of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the 2 Thessalonians 2:15:

Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.

Robert Arakaki



Robert Arakaki.  2012.  “Protestantism’s Fatal Genetic Flaw:  Sola Scriptura and Protestantism’s Hermeneutical Chaos.

Athanasius the Great.  “The Letters of Saint Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit to Bishop Serapion.”

Theodore Beza.  “Life of John Calvin.”

James Jackson.  “The Reformation and Counter-Reformation.”

The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. “Diets of Speyer.”

Caleb Lindgren.  2017.  “Protestants: The Most ‘Catholic’ of Christians.” Christianity Today. (12 September)

J.K.S. Reid, ed.  1954.  Calvin: Theological Treatises.  The Library of Christian Classics: Ichthus Edition.  Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

A Reforming Catholic Confession.” (31 October 2017)

Additional Resources

Center for Baptist Renewal. 2017.  “In Praise of Reforming Catholic Confession.” (15 September)

Internet Monk (Chaplain Mike).  2015.  “Reformation Week 2015: Another Look – God’s Righteousness.”

The Gospel Coalition. 2015.  “Keller, Piper, and Carson on Why the Reformation Matters.

Ligonier Ministries (Robert Rothwell). 2014.  “What is Reformation Day All About?


Honoring the Dead

Radiant Pascha!

And Other Weird Orthodox Stuff

For Protestant inquirers, Orthodoxy is more beautiful, glorious, wilder, and weirder than they would imagine.  They hear ancient prayers chanted in dark churches illuminated by candles while smelling the scent of incense drifting in the air.  If they attend the Orthodox services on special feast days, they will see other surprising rituals: the priest and congregation processing around the church building with the symbolic funeral shroud of Christ on Holy Friday, the priest flinging flowers all around the main sanctuary on Holy Saturday, and the joyous shouts of “He is Risen!” at the Easter midnight service.  They will see priests handing out bottles of holy water on the feast day of Christ’s baptism, and priests blessing baskets of fruits and jars of honey at the start of the Dormition fast in August.  They will also witness strange things like miraculous icons and people kissing the relics of dead saints.

These Orthodox practices will seem strange to most Protestants.  But before discussing these Orthodox practices below, let’s first look at some common Protestant or at least American practices regarding loved ones who are no longer with us. In other words, how does one of the premiere Protestant countries, the U.S.A., treat their departed loved ones?

Memorial Day at the National Memorial Cemetery, Honolulu HI  Source

Those who criticize Orthodoxy for the importance we give to the relics of the saints might want to take into consideration the priority the U.S. government gives to locating the remains of the fallen soldiers in far-off battle sites.  In 2015, the U.S. government allocated $80 million for the Senator Daniel K. Inouye Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency building in Hawaii.  This forensic laboratory will help identify bone fragments and return them properly to loved ones.  Would Protestant critics be willing to say that the $80 million could have been better used elsewhere?  Similarly, there is the local custom in Hawaii of placing flower leis on the graves in the National Cemetery on Memorial Day.  Would Protestant critics be willing to say that the time put into making the leis and the hours the local Boy Scouts put into placing the leis on the graves would be better used elsewhere?  If they are willing to grant that it is very much worth the time and trouble to remember and honor those who gave their lives for their country, how much more would it be worth the time and trouble for Christians to honor those who gave up their lives for Christ?

Memorial Day tradition at Ft. Snelling, Minnesota  Source

Many Protestants have the custom of visiting the graves of their loved ones – spouses, children, parents, and relatives – on the anniversaries of their death or on special occasions like Christmas, Easter, or Memorial Day.  It is a widely accepted practice to place flowers on the graves.  Many will even talk with their loved ones voicing their regret, their loss, and sometimes the hope of being reunited in the future.  What these Protestants are doing is quite similar to how Orthodox and ancient Christians remember the dead.  I urge Protestant readers not to be hasty in judging how Orthodox Christians honor the dead but to consider the Orthodox point of view.





Memorial Service

From time to time, Orthodox parishes will hold memorial services for someone who has died.  For this service a small table is placed before the icon of Christ.  On the table is a plate with a small mound of boiled wheat and two candles on the right and left.  The boiled wheat symbolizes Jesus’ remark about the grain of wheat that is buried (John 12:24).  During the Memorial Service we lament our fallen state:

I am an image of Your indescribable glory, though I bear the scars of my sins.  Master, take pity on the work of Your hands, and in Your loving-kindness cleanse me.  Grant me the home land for which I yearn, making me once again a citizen of Paradise.

And we celebrate Christ’s victory over death:

God of spirits and of all humankind, as You trampled down death, overthrowing the Evil One and granting life to Your world, will You, Lord, grant rest to Your servant(s) (N.) now asleep in death, in a place of light, a place of renewed life, a joyous place, shunned alike by pain and sorrow and sighing.

During the Memorial Service we do more than remember our loved ones, we also pray for them.  We ask God:

Every sin he (she, they) may have committed, in word or deed or thought, as our good and loving God forgive; for no one can live and not sin.

The Memorial Service culminates with the priest and the congregation singing several times: “May their memory be eternal.” [video]  The website for St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Portland, Oregon, gives this explanation for the Memorial Service:

The Orthodox Church teaches that through our prayers, those “who have fallen asleep in the faith and the hope of the Resurrection” continue to have opportunity to grow closer to God. Therefore, the Church prays constantly for her members who have died in Christ. We place our trust in the love of God and the power of mutual love and forgiveness. We pray that God will forgive the sins of the faithful departed, and that He will receive them into the company of Saints in the heavenly Kingdom. The Orthodox Church remembers the departed in the prayers of every Divine Liturgy, but also has a special Memorial Service, said on numerous occasions.

Whereas the Memorial Service takes place as the need arises, there are in the Orthodox calendar several days designated “Saturday of the Souls.”  On these days we remember those departed and pray for them.  This is so different from my former Protestant home church, where deceased church members are pretty much forgotten after their funeral.

There is in our modern culture a deep-seated fear of death.  We don’t like to contemplate our mortality.  We avoid talking about death and dying.  Evangelical worship services, on the other hand, tend to focus on spiritual uplift or on how being a Christian can result in a happy, fulfilling life.  In Orthodoxy there is a more frank acknowledgment of our mortality.  In every Sunday Liturgy we pray for a good Christian death and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ several times.  Every year on the Sunday of the Final Judgment we are reminded that we will have to give a reckoning for how we lived our lives.  All this is spiritually healthy.  In the early Christian classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, one important step is “Step 6 – Remembrance of Death.”  The Orthodox remembrance of death can lead to practices that Protestants may regard as weird, unseemly, or even grotesque.  But it should be kept in mind that the cross which at one time was a means of inhumane punishment and an agonizing death was transformed into a symbol of hope and Good News by Christ’s resurrection.  Each bedside death becomes a battle field where we come face-to-face with our final enemy Death and those who are faithful to the end become more than conquerors (1 Corinthians 15:28; Romans 8:37).


Orthodox Monasteries

Monasteries are very rare or non-existent in many Protestant denominations.  Many Protestant inquirers are not sure what to make of monasteries. One very important thing to keep in mind is that monasteries are not places of normal Orthodoxy.  Monasteries are places where certain people devote their entire lives to prayer and spiritual growth. [video] To visit a monastery is like visiting a training camp for professional athletes with high-tech equipment and strict training regimens.  Not everyone is called to be a full-time athlete, but we are all called to live a healthy, active lifestyle.

Orthodox nuns sing in the ossuary at the Pasarea monastery, Bucharest, Romania Source

Part of the monastic calling is preparing for death.  In some monasteries monks will actually sleep in coffins in order to prepare themselves for death.  In ancient monasteries monks will go into the ossuary, the place where the bones of earlier monks are kept, and rearrange the bones to make room for those who will die in due time. [video – see 34:27]  To modern Americans fearful of death such practices are gruesome.  However, the monastic discipline of preparing for the moment of death is an act of realism and courage.  We are all going to die sooner or later.  Many modern Americans have become obsessed with getting the most out of this life.  They make bucket lists of all the fun and exciting things they want to do before they die, but they do so with little heed or preparation for the account they will have give to God after they die (Matthew 12:36; Luke 12:13-21).

Ordinary Orthodox laity will from time to time visit a monastery for spiritual renewal.  They take part in the prayer routines of the monastery in order to deepen their prayer life.  A Protestant visitor who lacks an empathetic understanding of Orthodoxy will often see monastic practices thru the lens of the original Reformers who reacted against medieval Roman Catholicism’s works righteousness.  One should not be surprised if Protestants visiting an Orthodox monastery are offended, even shocked, by what they see there.  Protestantism and Orthodoxy represent two different cultures.  Visitors need to be respectful of these differences and not seek to judge the other by arbitrary standards.  The best way to navigate the differences is through Scripture and church history.  Late innovations should be regarded with suspicion while practices marked by antiquity and ubiquity can be considered worthy of respect by all Christians.



Venerating Relics

One common stumbling block for Protestants is the Orthodox veneration of icons.  Often upon entering an Orthodox Church one will see people crossing themselves then kissing an icon of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or one of the saints.  Another potential stumbling block is the Orthodox tradition of venerating the relics of saints.  An inquirer might regard relics as something weird and out there, but there are relics in every Orthodox Church.  Every altar contains bits of relics placed there during the consecration of the church.  Canon 7 of the Council of Nicea II (787) mandates the placement of relics of saints, particularly martyrs, at the consecration of a church.  This means relics are not something out there but right before us at every Eucharist!  This practice follows Revelation 6:9, which tells of the martyrs under the altar.  The Orthodox belief is that the martyrs are not far away, but interceding for us before the throne of God.


Making Church History Real

For many Protestants, church history has an abstract quality.  Oftentimes, church history is viewed as a source of intellectual data, dates and remote historical figures, not as personal fellowship.  In Orthodoxy, the saints are not far away, but very much with us, even if we cannot see them.  Orthodoxy honors the saints through icons and feast days.  It is one thing to admire the saints after reading about their lives, but it is something quite different to kiss their icons.  Kissing an icon of a saint is an expression of Christian honor, respect and fellowship.  In Hawaii there is the widespread custom of kissing people on the cheek when greeting them.  Among Orthodox Christians it’s a common practice to kiss the hand of the priest as a sign of honor, respect and affection. In light of the American emphasis on egalitarianism, where one person is rarely if ever honored above another, and the stress on individualism, such Orthodox practices often seem not just weird, but offensive. Thankfully, the ancient Church was not so infected by the habits of modernity.

Venerating Saint Nichols’ relics in Moscow 2017 Source

Many Protestants think of Santa Claus as a mythical figure little knowing that there was a real historical Santa Claus – Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra, who was present at the Council of Nicea (325).  In June 2017, the relics of Saint Nicholas were brought to Russia and some 300,000 people showed up to venerate them.  The Voice of America article quoted a young Russian economist who was among those who venerated the relics:

“It was tough, but you got a chance to think about your life, all the problems and the sins you have committed,” economist Svetlana Dzhuma, 24, said after exiting the cathedral in a state of elation.

Venerating the relics of saints represents one way of connecting with the ancient Church.  It also represents a way of affirming that the final word for humanity is not death, but Jesus Christ who will resurrect our bodies at the Second Coming.


Icon – Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp

The Antiquity of Venerating Relics

The practice of venerating the relics of martyrs is an ancient one.  It was mentioned in the early letter The Martyrdom of Polycarp, which has been dated to mid second century (c. 155 or 166).  Here we see the early Christians drawing a distinction between the worship (προσκυνουμεν) given to Christ and the honor (αγαπωμεν αξιως) given to the saints.

For Him [Jesus Christ] indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow disciples! (Chapter 17)

In the following chapter we have one of the earliest accounts of the veneration of relics.  Bishop Polycarp was sentenced to be burned at the stake by Roman authorities.  Afterwards, the Christians gathered up his remains.

Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps. (Chapter 18)

From this passage we learn also of the early Christian practice of commemoration of the anniversary of a martyr’s death.  What is significant about Polycarp’s martyrdom was how early it was.  The veneration of Polycarp’s relics was not some later addition but part of early Christianity.  The Martyrdom of Polycarp consisted of a letter by one church to another.  This means it was not the personal opinion of one individual but reflects the collective thinking of the early Christians.

It is important to understand that the honoring of the saints and the venerating of their relics, while an integral part of Orthodox Tradition, do not comprise the core of Holy Tradition.  They can be seen as out-workings of the core dogmas of the Christian Faith: the Incarnation, Christ’s saving death on the Cross, and his triumphal third day Resurrection.  The Orthodox understanding is that, because the Son of God took on a human body, our fallen bodies can become redeemed vessels filled with divine life.  Christ’s descent into Hades and his triumphal resurrection means that the faithful departed now stand before the throne of God.  This belief in the unbroken fellowship between the Christians here on earth and those who have passed on is found in the Apostles’ Creed: “communion of the saints.”  What may seem to be foolish superstition or arbitrary tradition to skeptical Protestants have their basis in the deep truths of the Gospel.


Calvin’s Argument Against Relics

John Calvin

Calvin’s critique of relics is found, not in his Institutes, but in an essay: “On the Advantages of an Inventory of Relics.” This essay is a fifty-page rant filled with lurid examples.  It is not the coherent theological argument one would expect from a well-respected theologian of his stature.  There is no denying the rampant corruption, frauds, and abuses in medieval Roman Catholicism. But that still begs the important question about the theological basis for rejecting the veneration of relics.  Calvin’s argument consists of unsupported assertions. He writes:

But the first abuse, and, as it were, beginning of the evil, was, that when Christ ought to have been sought in his Word, sacraments, and spiritual influences, the world, after its wont, clung to his garments, vests, and swaddling-clothes; and thus overlooking the principal matter, followed only its accessory. (p. 289)

He goes on to explain his rejection of venerating relics:

In short, a longing for relics is never free from superstition, nay, what is worse, it is the parent of idolatry, with which it is very generally conjoined. (p. 290)

A more theologically coherent argument against relics can be found in Peter Leithart’s article “Why Protestants Still Protest.”  Leithart, echoing Calvin, argues that icons and relics have no basis in Scripture and that they comprise a veil that distracts people from an encounter with Christ.  What we have here is a succinct summary of Calvin’s position, but what is still lacking is a sustained theological argument.


An Orthodox Response to Calvin

One important difference between Orthodoxy and Protestantism is Orthodoxy’s belief that physical matter is capable of conveying divine grace.  We believe that in the Eucharist the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.  We believe that in the water of baptism our sins are washed away and we are united to Christ’s death and resurrection.  During the sacrament of baptism the priest blesses the water that will be used for the sacrament.  What starts off as ordinary water becomes blessed and sacred means of grace.  A painted image (icon) through prayer becomes a window allowing us to perceive the kingdom of God.

Underlying the Protestant rejection of relics is a metaphysical dualism that assumes a separation between physical matter and divine grace.  The early Gnostic heretics viewed physical matter as inferior and corrupt in comparison to the spiritual.  While not the same, there is within Protestantism a secular worldview that confines God’s grace to the interior world of thought (doctrine) or feeling (spiritual experience) while viewing external ritual as optional and physical matter as neutral or unspiritual.  This secular approach to religion has resulted in a disembodied, intellectualized Christianity.  The experience of personal conversion to Christ has been elevated as the core of Christianity while other elements like Church, the sacraments, the Creed, the Liturgy, and the ordained priesthood are relegated to the status of optional, non-essential aspects of Christianity.  What for the early Christians was an integral package that comprised life in the Church have become in Protestantism broken fragments scattered all over the ground.

The early Christians, on the other hand, in light of the Incarnation and the Resurrection saw physical matter as capable of being sanctified and transformed into means of divine grace.  This Christianized worldview would give rise to the sacraments of the Church, which took the stuff of creation and transformed them into entry ways into the kingdom of God.  This sacramental worldview was the historic Christian worldview shared by all Christians until the Protestant Reformation.

There is within some modern Protestant circles an attempt to return to the sacramental worldview.  Ted Olsen described how N.T. Wright, the widely-respected Anglican theologian, changed his thinking.  In The Way of the Lord (1999) Wright wrote about:

… his slowly turning away from various forms of dualism, to which evangelicalism is particularly prone, and towards a recognition of the sacramental quality of God’s whole created world. … With the incarnation itself being the obvious and supreme example, and the gospel sacraments of baptism and eucharist not far behind, one can learn to discover the presence of God not only in the world, as though by a fortunate accident, but through the world: particularly through those things that speak of Jesus himself, as baptism and the eucharist so clearly do, and as the lives of holy men and women have done. (Emphasis added.)

Apparently, N.T. Wright still holds to the Protestant understanding of the sacraments in which God’s grace is conveyed principally through the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist.  However, his insight into the sacramental potential of creation provides a bridge to the Orthodox sacramental worldview in which icons, relics, and other physical stuff sanctified by the name of Christ can become channels of divine grace.  This has biblical support.  We read in the book of Acts how the Apostle Paul’s body became a vessel of divine efficacy.

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them (Acts 19:11-12).

The Apostle Peter’s body likewise demonstrated a similar sacramental grace.

As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. (Acts 5:15)

The notion of miraculous relics and icons might seem farfetched to Protestants, but there is ample support for these supernatural phenomena in Holy Scripture.  There is the account of the woman with the issue of blood who was healed upon touching Jesus’ clothes (Mark 5:28-30).  Her personal faith made her receptive to the divine grace emanating from Jesus’ person while the others who were jostling Jesus were left unaffected.  That Jesus’ clothes conveyed some spiritual power can be seen in Mark’s writing: “At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him.” (Mark 5:30)  In the Old Testament, we read how Elijah’s cloak had the power to divide the Jordan River upon contact (2 Kings 2:8).  In 2 Kings 13, we read about how Elisha’s bones had the power to bring a dead man back to life (2 Kings 13:21).  Normally, the bones of a dead person are unclean, but under some circumstances they can become holy objects capable of effecting miracles. Modern Protestants might not be comfortable with such a world, but this is the world of the New Testament, as well as the world Christians inhabited before the Reformation.

A modern-day Protestant might find the notion of a dead person’s bones being holy and grace-filled ludicrous, but Scripture clearly supports it.  Thus, what is puzzling is not the Orthodox veneration of the relics, but rather the Protestant aversion to this practice.  Protestants who reject the Orthodox veneration of relics need to put forward a theologically-coherent and biblically-based argument.  To sum up, where the Orthodox veneration of relics has biblical support and is consistent with the witness of church history, Calvin’s polemical essay comes across as an unhinged, emotional harangue that soon wears on the inquirer looking for solid theological reasoning.  More recent Protestant objections have failed to do any better than Calvin.

The Orthodox practice of praying for the departed and venerating relics of the saints is grounded in the sacredness of our whole humanity (body, soul, and spirit), the power of Christ’s resurrection, and the sacramental understanding of creation, that is, material matter is capable of conveying divine grace.  It reflects an ancient worldview that challenges the secular metaphysics of modernity.  The discomfort felt by Protestants towards the veneration of relics is a sign of the cultural gap between Protestantism and the early Church.  Ted Olsen, in his Christianity Today article “Wrestling With Relics,” wrote: “My own views would have been terribly out of step in the church’s earliest centuries.”  This forces Protestants to choose between Protestantism’s modernity and Orthodoxy’s roots in ancient Christianity,


A Protestant Relic?

Probably the closest thing to a relic in Protestantism is the printed text of the Bible.  There is something neat and soothing about the black ink on thin paper encased in black leather and embellished with gold leaf.  Evangelicals are proud to carry their bibles under their arms into neat church buildings with four bare walls on Sunday mornings and listening to didactic lectures (sermons) about the biblical text.  There is a certain Muggle-like neatness to this worldview.  So it comes as no little surprise when a Protestant stumbles into the enchanted world of Orthodoxy with weird, wild stuff like icons, relics, incense, holy virgins and victorious martyrs they experience feelings of surprise, shock, discomfort, or the joy of having come home at last to the ancient Church.

Robert Arakaki


References and Recommendations

Robert Arakaki.  “Early Evidence for the Veneration of the Saints.” OrthodoxBridge

Robert Arakaki.  “Calvin Versus the Icon.”  OrthodoxBridge

John Calvin.  “On the Advantages of an Inventory of Relics” In Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (vol. 1 of 3) pp. 289-341 and “Inventory of Relics” www.mongergism .com

Fr. Stephen Freeman.  “Soul Saturday — And Forty Days PlusGlory to God For All Things

Vincent Gabriel.  “Early Christian Worship and the Bones of the Martyrs.” OrthodoChristian.com

Peter Gillquist.  The Physical Side of Being Spiritual.

Peter Leithart.  “Why Protestants Still Protest.” First Things (August 1995)

Martyrdom of Polycarp

Ted Olsen. “Wrestling With Relics.” Christianity Today (February 2009)

Fr. John Whiteford.  “What is the Basis for Venerating Saints’ Relics?OrthoChristian

N.T. Wright.  The Way of the Lord

Video: “A Thousand Years are as One Day.”


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