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Category: Church History (Page 5 of 19)

Protestant Reformation in the Old Testament?


A response to Anastasiya Gutnik’s comment 24 June 2016:

From Anastasiya:

What do you think of Josiah?  In his time the worship of God was corrupt.  So much so that the law was literally a musty, dusty old book found hidden away in the temple.  Upon rediscovering the law Josiah launched a reformation destroying the idols and the altars upon which idolatry was practiced. Does this mean there were none of God’s people left?  But as Paul writes about the time of Elijah “I have reserved 7000 who have not bowed to Baal. So there is a remnant according to election of grace.” How is his any different than the Protestant Reformation?  What are your thoughts on the Apostle Paul warning that wolves would come and tear up the flock and that apostasy would happen after his departure? And what are you thoughts on his statement regarding the times of Elijah?

The church is composed of individuals “one of a city, two of a family” as Jeremiah writes. So what do you have against individual believers receiving the Holy Spirit? In the Acts we see individuals corporately receiving the Spirit (such as Cornelius and his house).  And what Protestant ever said this is done apart from the Church?  Article 28 of the Belgic Confession explicitly says of the Church that “out of it is no salvation.” Even today in the apostate and corrupt churches like Hillsong they still recognize the importance of corporate worship and belonging to a community of believers.

See also Anastasiya Gutnik’s comment 26 June 2016



Whoa!  All these questions!  I feel like I’m being interrogated by a prosecuting attorney.  What say you that we have a friendly dialogue between the two of us?

I appreciate your vigorous interaction with the OrthodoxBridge.  We may not see eye-to-eye on some issues, but we share common ground in our respect for Scripture.  I will explain my positions using the Bible.


Protestantism in the Old Testament?

Your listing of Old Testament passages seems to rest on the premise that the Protestant Reformation has parallels in the Old Testament, thereby providing biblical justification for the Reformation.  This entails the hermeneutical strategy of reading the history of Christianity, especially the Protestant Reformation, onto the Old Testament text.  Getting the types and parallels of Christ and Israel right is what the Jews of Jesus’ time were so poor and weak at.  They were often dead wrong. This means that using the hermeneutics of history approach calls for caution.  Orthodoxy approaches church history through the lens of the unique promise of Pentecost — Christ’s Upper Room promise that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church (John 14-16), and Christ’s promise that powers of hell would never prevail over the Church (Matthew 16:17-18).  Orthodoxy sees church history as one continuous, unbroken narrative from the book of Acts to the present day.  We view world history as the history of the one Church through which God’s power and wisdom unfold bringing about the salvation of the cosmos (Ephesians 1:18-22).

The Apostle Paul’s prediction of the coming of “savage wolves” attacking the flock (Acts 20:29-30) parallels Apostle John’s counsel about heretics who denied that Jesus had come in the flesh (1 John 2:18-23).  The early Church had to deal with early heresies like Gnosticism, Arianism, and Manichaeism.  It survived these heresies, and in time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.  It is difficult to see there being a universal apostasy as you seem to have implied.

If one wants to find a possible parallel for Protestantism, I suggest it would be the northern tribes’ revolt against Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:12-17).  What made that schism so tragic was not so much the rejection of the Jerusalem monarchy but Jeroboam’s creation of rival worship centers in Bethel and Dan, and the installation of a new rival priesthood (1 Kings 12:26-33).  These innovations made the schismatic Israelites susceptible to syncretistic borrowing of religious practices from their neighbors.

In your first paragraph you cited the example of King Josiah (2 Kings 23) reading the Book of the Covenant and cleansing the Temple of pagan idols suggesting it has parallels with the Reformation. What he did was to follow the covenant obligations imposed on the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20.  In no way did King Josiah introduce new doctrines or worship practices.  This has been one of my primary critiques of the Protestant Reformers.  They rightly reacted against many of the abuses and innovations of Medieval Catholicism.  They sought to return to the original Church, not through the Pentecost paradigm — the Holy Spirit working without break through the Church for the past 1500 years, but rather through the novel method of sola scriptura.  This gave rise to novel doctrines not taught by the early Church Fathers or were condemned by early Councils.  Furthermore, it gave rise to a plethora of Protestant denominations with conflicting interpretations of the Bible.  The Protestant rejection of the episcopacy (priestly leadership) and their rejection of the Real Presence in the Eucharist (right worship) as understood by the early Church bears an uncanny parallel with Jehoboam’s innovations.  This is something that should give thoughtful Protestants pause.

You mentioned the Apostle Paul’s quoting 1 Kings 18 about the faithful remnant of 7000 who refused to bow down to Baal (Romans 11:4).  The important point to keep in mind is that Romans 11 is not about the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, but about the perplexing situation in Paul’s time.  The Messiah had come and instead of welcoming Jesus as the promised Messiah, Israel chose to reject and murder God’s Chosen One.  This created a conundrum: Either Jesus was not the promised Messiah or the Jews were no longer God’s people.  These questions were likely on the minds of Paul and his fellow Jewish Christians.  This question quite possibly contributed to the tensions between Jews and Gentiles which seem to lurk in the background of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Did Paul’s conversion to Christ require the renunciation of his ethnic heritage and religious roots?  Was Israel no longer Israel?  Romans 11 is Paul’s solution to the conundrum.  In it he explains the relationship between the Israel of the Old Testament and the New Israel, the Church.   In this context it becomes clear that when Paul alludes to the faithful remnant of the 7,000, he has in mind himself, his fellow Apostles, and Jewish Christians.

To claim the Protestant Reformers comprise the faithful remnant of 7,000 mentioned by Paul involves reading Protestant church history into the Bible, a very dubious proposition.  This reading of Scripture cannot be asserted; it must be proven.  For several decades now, Anglican Bishop and bible scholar, NT Wright, has been pointing out this common Protestant flaw of reading the Reformation back into Scripture.  Lowell Handy’s “The Good, Bad, Insignificant, Indispensable King Josiah” (2005) traces the place of King Josiah in church history.  Among the early Church Fathers and into the Middle Ages, Josiah occupied a minor role in biblical studies (Handy 2005:41).  He acquired prominence in the 1500s among the Protestant Reformers who saw in Josiah a model of a reforming king and in the 1800s among Protestant bible scholars who saw the “Book of the Covenant” read by Josiah as evidence for a revised understanding of Old Testament formation.  In other words, the prominence given to Josiah is peculiar to Protestantism and does not reflect the broader Christian exegetical tradition. This retroactive approach of reading Protestant history into the Bible is highly speculative and self-serving.


Coptic Icon of Pentecost

Coptic Icon of Pentecost


The Church — Individuals versus Corporate Body

In your second paragraph you cited Jeremiah 3:14 — one from a city and two from a family — to justify the idea of the church as an aggregate of individuals.  This is a bit of a stretch.  Where is this interpretation found in church history?  Some of the more extreme Protestant groups believe that all one needs to comprise a church is a group of like-minded believers who gather to hear sermons about the Bible. But that is like saying gathering a group of kids and giving them a ball makes them a team! They need to agree that they are a team, playing the same sport by the same rule, and under a team leader.  A more pertinent passage for explaining the individual Christian’s relation to the corporate body, the Church, would be 1 Corinthians 12:12-13:

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.  So it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

And then, there’s 1 Corinthians 12:17:

Now you are the body of Christ and each of you is a part of it.

The Amplified Bible translates 1 Corinthians 12:27 it this way:

Now you [collectively] are Christ’s body, and individually [you are] members of it [each with his own special purpose and function].

The key point here is that we become part of the Church through the sacrament of baptism.  One does not join the Church as one is received by the Church.  Furthermore, Paul understood the Church to possess an internal structure, an ordering of ranks.  In 1 Corinthians 12:27-28, Paul lists the orders of church ministries: apostles, prophets, teachers, and workers of miracles.  In Ephesians 4:11, he gives a slightly different ordering: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.  From these passages we learn that the Church is not an aggregate of independent individuals, but rather a corporate body of interrelated members.  There is no need to grasp at obscure or dubious Old Testament passages for our doctrine of the Church when there are New Testament passages that give us greater clarity on the question before us.  As a matter of fact, the Reformed tradition’s teaching about the Church as a covenant community speaks against the individualistic approach that you seem to favor.

In no way am I opposed to the idea of individuals receiving the Holy Spirit.  The real issue is whether one can receive the Holy Spirit independently of the visible Church.  The main difference is that Protestants deny that we receive the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of the Church (chrismation).  However, they need to take into account the fact that the sacrament of chrismation was very much a part of early Christian initiation.  Cyril, the patriarch of Jerusalem in the 300s, described the sacrament of chrismation in which the newly baptized is anointed on the forehead, the ears, the nostrils, and the breast. (Catechetical Lecture 21.4)  This remains the practice of the Orthodox Church to the present.  The point here is that just as baptism is a sacrament administered by the Church through its ordained clergy, so the reception of the Holy Spirit takes place via the sacrament of chrismation which immediately follows baptism.

The issue of the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” has been an especially divisive one for Protestants. Baptists and many Evangelicals equate the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the “born again” experience. Pentecostals and many charismatics identify the baptism in the Holy Spirit as an experience distinct from the born again experience and signified by the gift of tongues.  It’s not clear to me what the Reformed tradition’s position of the reception of the Holy Spirit is.  I searched through the Belgic Confession, which you cited, and while there were numerous references to the Holy Spirit, there seem to be no specific teaching about the point in time when the Christian receives the Holy Spirit.  I then searched through the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Confession and was not able to find anything with respect to the reception of the Holy Spirit. Please help me on this.  Where does the Reformed tradition stand on the baptism in the Holy Spirit?  When does this take place for the Christian?  Does it takes place at the time of baptism, the born again experience, or is it an individual experience distinct from baptism?

You cited article 28 of the Belgic Confession.  The Belgic Confession‘s affirmation that there is no salvation outside the Church is a reflection of the historic understanding of the Church. The novelty of Protestantism is that it denies that claim to Roman Catholicism.  It justifies this denial on the grounds that Roman Catholicism under the papacy has become corrupt, unbiblical, and even apostate. Furthermore, Protestantism lays claim to belonging to the true Church on the grounds that it has the true interpretation of Scripture. This despite the numerous conflicting interpretations of Scripture held by the myriad of denominations!  My point is that you can cite Article 28 of the Belgic Confession all you want, but how do you know your church is part of the true Church?  Which makes me wonder: “What is your church affiliation?  And what leads you to think that your local congregation is part of the true Church?”

In closing, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy are two quite different religious traditions.  They once shared in a common Faith, however, tragically the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) following the Schism of 1054 has moved more and more from the patristic consensus.  What Martin Luther and John Calvin were protesting against was a medieval Catholicism quite different from the Church of the first millennium.  In that light, I view Protestants as unwitting victims of Rome’s deviation from the early Church Fathers.

I have done my best to respond to your questions.  I trust that I have answered them satisfactorily.  I look forward to hearing your responses to my questions and to the interesting conversation you and I will have in the near future.

Robert Arakaki

Pentecost and the Promise of God Fulfilled

Icon of Pentecost

Icon of Pentecost

This article is a reposting of an article published on 29 May 2012.

The Orthodox Church celebrates Pentecost as the fulfillment of Christ’s promise that the Father would send the Holy Spirit to His Church to lead Her into all Truth.

“But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” (John 14:26)

This abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church is foundational to Orthodox Christianity. The Holy Spirit is God with us, who leads the Church through the Liturgy, gave supernatural courage to the early martyrs, and guided the Ecumenical Councils to defeat the various heresies. The Holy Spirit led the bishops in the formulation of the Nicene Creed and in defining the canon of Holy Scripture. Indeed when we look at church history we see the work of the Holy Spirit.  The power of the Holy Spirit preserves the Faith once for all delivered to the Saints.

What sets Orthodoxy apart from the Protestant understanding of Pentecost is Orthodoxy’s strong corporate sense of the Holy Spirit. In the Bible the Holy Spirit is given to the Church corporately, through the Apostles to their disciples in the laying on of hands, to ensure the preservation of Tradition.  This corporate and historic view of Pentecost and its implications offer a sharp contrast to Protestant views and practices in which the role of the Church is minimized or neglected.

In Protestantism the Holy Spirit is understood to be given to individual believers separately, privately and independently of the Church (which is assumed to be flawed and weak).  In this blog I will be comparing the two traditions’ understanding of Pentecost.


193-159The River of God Flowing into History

The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of the eschatological temple.  In chapter 47, he tells of a stream of water issuing from the altar in the New Temple.  As this stream of water gets longer, it grows deeper and wider.  It then branches out in various directions and wherever it goes it brings renewal and healing.

This prophetic vision was fulfilled on Pentecost.  The Apostle Peter in his Pentecost sermon opens by quoting the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17; OSB; emphasis added).  Pentecost also fulfills a prophecy made by Christ.  In John’s Gospel Jesus announced:

If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.  He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.  But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 37-40; OSB)

We enter into Ezekiel’s prophetic vision in our conversion to Christ.  In the Septuagint version of Ezekiel 47:3 we read that the river was the “water of remission.”  This is fulfilled in our baptism when we are baptized into Christ and receive forgiveness for our sins.  The word “poured out” is also found in Romans 5:4 which talks about “the love of God being poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (OSB; emphasis added.)

Ezekiel’s prophecy presents a vivid picture of trees lining the side of the great river:

 Along the bank of the river on this side and that, will grow all kinds of trees used for food.  Their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail.  They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary.  Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing. (Ezekiel 47:12; OSB; emphasis added.)

This verse is a picture of a spirituality rooted in divine grace.  It echoes Psalm 1 which describes a life grounded in the reading and meditation of God’s Law.  This verse also echoes Genesis 2:10-14 which describes how the Garden of Eden had a river that flowed in four different directions.  The trees bearing fruit year round in Ezekiel’s prophecy can be understood as the restoration of the access to the Tree of Life forfeited by Adam and Eve.  The river lined with fruit bearing trees can be understood as the Church as the river of God.  It can also be understood as the Church as a tree offering the healing life-giving fruits of the Cross (Christ’s body and blood that we receive for life everlasting).  Ezekiel’s vision of the river of life is recapitulated in the book of Revelation 22:1-5 with a slight twist, a Christocentric reference is made to the Lamb of God slain for the salvation of the world.


Church History as the River of God

The book of Acts is fundamentally a theological book.  Luke structured his narrative along the lines of a particular trajectory framed by the Great Commission (cf. Matthew 28:19-20, Luke 24:47-49).  Acts 1:8 sketches the three phases of the book: Jerusalem (the Jews), Samaria (the half-Jews), and the Gentiles (the ends of the earth or the non-Jews).  Acts begins with Jesus’ original followers in Jerusalem and the Gospel being preached primarily to the Jews (Acts 1-11).  This is the Jerusalem phase.  Then we see Gospel preached to the Samaritans (Acts 8).  It is not until we come to Acts 13 that we read of the Church engaged in intentional missions when the Church at Antioch sends out Paul and Barnabas to evangelize.  Acts closes with Paul reaching Rome, the political capital of the Roman Empire and preaching the Gospel freely for two years.  What we see is the river of God flowing into history from Jerusalem into the various parts of the Roman Empire as foretold by Ezekiel.

Protestant Version of Church History — Disruption


What happened afterwards?  Did the river of God that began on Pentecost in Acts 2 run dry?  One would think so given the widespread belief among Protestants that a general apostasy occurred soon after the original Apostles passed on.  Many believed that Christianity remained largely in spiritual darkness (with the exception of a “faithful secret remnant”) for the next thousand years or more until Martin Luther rediscovered the true Gospel.  Another trope used by Protestants hold that the early church valiantly bore witness to the Gospel but was captured by Emperor Constantine and transformed into an institutionalized church barely recognizable to the original Christians.  This historical trope is important for Protestant theology because it needs some kind of disjuncture (apostasy or compromise) to justify its claim that the Protestant Reformation was necessary for the restoration of Gospel and Church of the New Testament.  If there was no such break then there would be no need for a Reformed Church separated from the Church of Rome.

Ralph Winter, a prominent Protestant missiologist, called this the BOBO theory — that the Christian faith Blinked Off after the apostles, then Blinked On in our time or whenever our church began (1517 for Protestants, 1823 for Mormons).  But there is no hint whatsoever in Scripture that Blinked Off-Blinked On would happen to Christ’s Church especially in light of Christ’s promise that he would not leave them orphans but would send the Holy Spirit to guide them and protect them! Nor is there historical evidence that the Christian faith went AWOL for almost fifteen hundred years!  The uncompromising witness of the martyrs in the face of persecution and the early church’s memorializing the martyrs contradict the notion of a widespread early apostasy.  Ralph Winter’s article described how the Gospel advanced among the barbarian tribes even during the so-called Dark Ages.

While Rome and Western Europe saw the collapse of civilization and the onset of the Dark Ages, it must be kept in mind that in the Byzantine East culture, commerce, and learning continued to thrive for almost the next thousand years.  Thus, the Protestant paradigm of church history has two major problems: (1) it cannot be supported by historical evidence and (2) it contradicts the promises given by Christ to his followers.  Ultimately, the BOBO view of church history is a denial of Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit to be in and with the Church throughout history.

In their approach to church history many Protestants make two mistakes: (1) they assume that the church in the New Testament was Protestant in structure and practice, and (2) they ignore the historical continuity between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Church of the first millennium. The Protestant dismissal of the Orthodox understanding of church history with a wave of the hand is astounding.  They assume this without looking at the evidence! But, the fact is that the pre and post Nicean Church simply did not look anything like a Protestant Church.  Very early on Christians crossed themselves frequently.  Early Christian worship was focused on the Eucharist, not the sermon, and all Christians held to the real presence in the Eucharist.  Christian initiation was done via the sacrament of baptism after a lengthy process of instruction in which one had to commit to memory a creed.  The early church was episcopal in structure (ruled by bishops) and conciliar (major decisions made by gatherings of bishops).

That the early Christians followed these practices is supported by leading scholars with no axe to grind.  Highly recommended are: Jaroslav Pelikan’s magisterial The Christian Tradition, J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines,Oscar Cullmann’s Early Christian Worship, W.H.C. Frend’s The Rise of Christianity.  For primary sources highly recommended are: The Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus’ Against the Heretics, and Eusebius’ Church History.

This unfounded assumption resulted in Protestants misreading the New Testament and the early church fathers.  There is in the Reformed tradition a growing appreciation of the fact that original Reformers like Calvin had a high regard for the church fathers. But even here, the Reformers’ appreciation of the church fathers was limited and selective. When the fathers’ writings seem to support Protestant ideas, Calvin and the Reformers freely quoted Athanasius and Augustine. But these same Fathers were ignored when they spoke on the rule of bishops, the Eucharist, church unity, the place of Holy Tradition, and a theosis union with God.


Orthodox Version of Church History – Continuity

The trope of church history as the river of God is useful for understanding Orthodoxy.  The trope of the river of God assumes a fulfillment in history of Christ’s promises that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13) and that it would be stronger than the powers of Hell (Matthew 16:18).  The Orthodox Church believes that we can expect to see these Scriptural promises fulfilled throughout the age of the church.  It believes that what began on Pentecost continues to the present day.

The Orthodox Church is the river of God flowing in the book of Acts into the two millennia continuously and without break to the present day.  This trope assumes a fundamental continuity in terms of doctrine, liturgy, and spirituality from Pentecost to the present day.  If Orthodoxy can support its claim to historical continuity then Protestants will need to reexamine their assumption of a fundamental break occurring in church history and with that the need for a Reformation.

Worship.  The Eucharist has been integral to Christian worship from the beginning.  The Orthodox Church uses the Liturgy of St. James which dates to the first century in Jerusalem, the Liturgy of St. Basil which dates to the fourth century and the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom which dates to the fifth century.  Without exception, the Eucharist has been a part of the Sunday worship in Orthodoxy. The same cannot be said of Protestant worship.  Most Protestant churches celebrate the Eucharist infrequently. While many Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran Christians claim to practice weekly communion, their claim rings hollow in light of the fact that they reject the historic understanding of the real presence in the Eucharist.

Leadership.  Pastoral authority in Orthodoxy is grounded in apostolic succession.  The five ancient patriarchates can all trace their spiritual lineage back to the original Apostles.  Protestantism, due to its being a schismatic break off from the Papacy, cannot lay claim to apostolic succession.  Apostolic succession is more than formal authorization but a sharing in the Holy Spirit across the generations that goes back to the original Pentecost in Acts.  Critical to apostolic succession is faithfulness to the “pattern of sound words” (II Timothy 1:13).  Thus, while Anglicanism can claim to possess apostolic succession, the fact that many of its current bishops hold blatantly heretical views undermines this claim.  In short, in no way can Protestants claim continuity in leadership.

Doctrine.  An important means of maintaining doctrinal unity in the early Church are the Ecumenical Councils.  The entire Church of the first millennium accepted the Seven Ecumenical Councils.  Protestantism has abandoned them in several ways: (1) it passively accepted the Papacy’s insertion of the Filioque clause and (2) it downgraded the binding authority of the Nicene Creed with its novel doctrine of sola scriptura.  Having rejected the binding authority of the Seven Ecumenical Councils Protestant churches underwent a bewildering number of doctrinal permutations that would be unrecognizable and unacceptable to the early church fathers.

Spirituality.  There is a rich stream of spirituality running through the history of the Orthodox Church.  One of the best examples is the lives of the saints.  The Orthodox Church considers them heroes of the faith whose lives exemplify the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives throughout the history of the church.    Orthodoxy can point to Saint Polycarp who boldly confessed Christ even when the Roman governor threatened to burn him alive, Saint Mary of Egypt a prostitute who spent decades in the desert in order to cleanse her soul, Saint Athanasius who defended the divine nature of Christ against the heresies of Arius, Saint Gregory Palamas who expounded on the uncreated light of Mount Tabor, the Chinese Martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion, Peter the Aleut martyred in San Francisco in the early 1800s, Father Arseny who suffered in the Soviet gulags.  The river of God flows on!

When one looks for the heroes of the faith in Protestantism, especially in popular Evangelicalism, what one is likely to find are popular radio preachers, well respected seminary professors, and celebrity athletes.  Many of these Protestant celebrities will be forgotten in time.  It would be hard for a Protestant to claim a rich and unbroken history of spiritual formation.

When one compares Orthodox with Protestant spirituality, we find a marked sobriety and stillness in Orthodoxy not often found in Evangelical and Pentecostal circles where emotional fervor and free expression typically dominate.  All too often the charismatic quest for a continuous spiritual high has led to burn outs and spiritual collapse. Christians in Reformed and mainstream Protestantism struggle with a spirituality grounded in cerebral propositional reasoning rather than that inner stillness nourished by the liturgical worship found in historic Orthodoxy.


Synergy: God provides the water, we receive it.

Come and Drink!

Come and Drink!

On Pentecost Sunday Orthodoxy celebrates Pentecost in a special service that comprises three long kneeling prayers.  Aside from this annual service, Pentecost is an ongoing reality in Orthodoxy.  It is experienced in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church.  It is experienced vividly in the monastic communities.

In Protestantism the individual reception of the Holy Spirit overwhelms the understanding of the Holy Spirit being given to the Church.  There has been much debate between Evangelicals and Pentecostals over whether the baptism in the Spirit occurs when one has a born again experience or as a separate event accompanied by speaking in tongues.  What the two sides have in common is their silence on the role of the Church.  However, historically one receives the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of chrismation which follows the sacrament of baptism.  This sacramental approach to Christian conversion avoids Protestantism’s subjectivism.  To those who deny the efficacy of sacraments I would respond that the sacraments are no mere rituals anymore than wedding vows are just words.  For the Orthodox, Pentecost is not so much something I experience by myself, but through life in the Church.  Life in the Church is like the River of God in which we are immersed into its water of life (the sacrament of baptism) and eat of the fruit of the tree (partake of the Eucharist). To the Protestants and Evangelicals who are spiritually thirsty, the Orthodox Church says: Come and Drink!

 Robert Arakaki

The Early Church Fathers: Babies or Giants?


I recently received an inquiry from someone with a Reformed background.  He brought to my attention that a certain Protestant pastor is said to have claimed that the early Church Fathers were “church babies.”  I have not been able to verify whether or not this pastor actually made that remark but I felt that the question deserved a good answer.  This reader has also been in conversation with friends who are interested in Mercersburg Theology.  One of them brought up the “fallacy of infallibility” objection against Orthodoxy.  That is, “locally an Orthodox or Catholic bishop would have authority over his denomination but since the Church has been immature for the last 2000 years (being resurrected again in the 16th century) she is in no way infallible.”  What follows is an attempt to answer that particular conversation but also in a way others can benefit.


My Response

Holy Tradition as the Basis for a Bishop’s Authority

Apostolic succession is key to understanding the office of the bishop.  And, key to understanding apostolic succession is the traditioning process, i.e., the receiving, preserving, and transmitting of Apostolic Tradition.  The office of the bishop is more than an institutional rank; it is a sacred trust.  The bishop has been entrusted with what the apostle Paul referred to as the “good deposit.” (2 Timothy 1:14)  A bishop has authority so long as he is faithful to the Tradition that Christ entrusted to his apostles.  A heretical bishop loses his authority once he abandons Holy Tradition.  Orthodoxy’s approach to the episcopacy focuses on the inner content, i.e., fidelity to Holy Tradition.  In the West the focus is more on the outer form of the episcopal office, i.e., ritual succession (a matter of proper genealogy).  This explains why they consider the Roman papacy valid despite innovations like the Filioque clause, purgatory, Mary’s Immaculate Conception, etc.  It also explains why Anglicans consider themselves to have valid bishops despite their bishops’ failure to uphold the teachings of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and worse yet abandon traditional Christian morality.  What counts for them is the proper rite being carried out when consecrating their bishops.


Vertical and Horizontal Accountability

Holy Tradition provides both vertical and horizontal accountability.  Vertical accountability refers to the present day bishop being able to trace his lineage back to the original apostles.  Horizontal accountability refers to the present day bishop holding doctrines and celebrating a liturgy similar to other bishops around the world who can trace their lineage back to the apostles.



Martial Arts as Tradition

In the martial arts, each school is run by a sensei or sifu (master teacher) who can trace his style to past master teachers.  The sensei is one who earned the right to bear the name of a particular style of martial arts, to open his own dojo (school), and have his own students.  The sensei is also one who has inherited from his teacher the authority to bestow belts (ranks) on his students, the highest rank being the black belt.  This means that a student can verify his sensei’s claims by visiting other dojos, watching the other students, and talking with their teachers.  Anyone can set up their own school of martial arts and give out black belts but for all of this to be meaningful one must be part of a living tradition.  The point of this analogy is that in Protestantism anyone can set up his own “church” and claim “apostolic succession” just by holding a Bible in his hand.  In Orthodoxy a congregation cannot be considered a valid church unless it is a Eucharistic community under the authority of the bishop (Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrneans chapter 8).  The Eucharist is the constitutive act of the local Christian community and access to the Eucharist is a sign that one belongs to the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.



Jesus Christ: The Great High Priest


The Eucharist Makes the Church

The Eucharist as a constitutive act can best be understood from the standpoint of covenant theology.  Every covenant required a sacrifice for its ratification and Christ’s one-time death on the Cross was foundational for the New Covenant.  When Jesus the Lamb of God died on the Cross the Old Covenant sacrificial system came to a close, and the New Covenant was put into effect.  The sacrificial system of Leviticus instituted by Moses was superseded by the Eucharist instituted by Jesus Christ in the upper room with the twelve disciples.  The implications of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist are enormous.  It is best understood not so much as a reenactment or a repetition of Christ’s one-time death on the Cross but rather an extension of Christ’s death on the Cross across space and time via the Divine Liturgy.  The weekly Eucharist can be understood as an act of covenant renewal in which the vassal (the Christian) renews his commitment to the suzerain (Christ).  It can also be understood as a covenant meal in which the suzerain (Christ) and his vassals (the Christian believers) come together as a sign of peace and friendship between two former enemies and as a sign of their common life together.  Like the ancient Near Eastern covenant treaties the Gospels recall and re-enact the suzerain’s great deeds on behalf of the vassals.  The New Testament records the terms of the covenant by which the vassal (the Christian) remains in good standing with the suzerain (Christ).  So long as the vassal remains in a covenant relationship via the covenant meal (the Eucharist) he enjoys the benefits promised in the covenant document (the Bible).  Skipping the meal with the suzerain raises questions about one’s relationship with the suzerain.  An example of this would be David’s avoiding a meal with King Saul (1 Samuel 20:5, 24-29).

The Eucharist as a constitutive act explains why exclusion from the Eucharist is so consequential for Christian identity and one’s salvation.  The fact that Roman Catholics are not allowed to receive Communion at Orthodox churches is a sign of the break between the two traditions.  And this is why it is such a big deal for an Orthodox mission to transition from Reader Services to the Divine Liturgy; this marks the congregation becoming a proper church when the bishop assigns a priest to the mission who will be celebrating the Liturgy on a regular basis.



Evolutionary Paradigm of Church History    Source


Paradigms of Church History

The concept of Holy Tradition has implications for how one understands church history.  It implies the priority given to the preservation of Holy Tradition from generation to generation.  That is why Orthodoxy looks askance at innovation.  When I was a Protestant I was bewildered as to why Orthodoxy would want to hold on to a fossilized or ossified faith.  However, I came to see the Christian Faith as something shared by the community, not as an expression of individual creative thought.  Moreover, I came to appreciate that in the deepest sense Holy Tradition is living and dynamic in the way that a skillful conductor and a well-trained orchestra can infuse meaning and nuance into a music scored by Mozart or Bach.  In the hands of a lackluster orchestra a musical classic can become lifeless and dull.  What makes capital “T” Tradition a living tradition is the Church abiding in the Holy Spirit.

The Orthodox paradigm values doctrinal and liturgical stability.  The opposite approach would be an evolutionary or progressive understanding of church history.  This is the understanding that theology over time expands and improves upon what has come before, i.e., the present is superior to the past.  I can sympathize with the progressive approach to church history.  If one delights in thick tomes of systematic theologies and detailed doctrinal formulas, extensive commentaries like those produced by medieval Scholastics, the Reformers, and modern Protestants, plus modern-day seminaries with their erudite faculty members with Ph.D.s from world-renowned universities then the early Church Fathers would seem like small potatoes so to speak.  But speaking as one who has studied at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, I can attest that there is greater wisdom to be found in the early Church Fathers and in the classic liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great.  For a humorous yet searing indictment of modern theology in comparison to the Church Fathers I recommend Thomas Oden’s After Modernity … What?  The heart of the Christian Faith is not a detailed theological understanding of God but rather a trajectory that leads to union with Christ and life in the Trinity.


Left: Orthodox paradigm of theology; Right: Protestant paradigm of theology


Honoring Our Fathers

There are other problems with the paradigm that denigrate the Church Fathers as “babies.”  It is very disrespectful to look down one’s nose at the men who suffered martyrdom to preserve the Christian Faith against pagan Rome and who struggled to preserve the Gospel against the heretics.  Furthermore, can one call their Christology and their doctrines of the Trinity immature?  By what benchmark would your friend measure the early Church Fathers against modern day Protestants?  By sola fide? By sola scriptura? This fixation on the progressive understanding of the Christian Faith is characteristic of Western Christianity.  One sees it as the rationale for the elaborate theological systems of medieval Scholasticism.  It serves as the justifying basis for Protestantism’s novel doctrines.  Even more recently, it has been used to justify the new prophetic revelations in Pentecostal Christianity and the Liberal Christianity’s revisionist theologies and its new morality.  The result has been the unceasing fracturing of Protestantism and an ever-intensifying theological chaos, leading to a religion unrecognizable to early Christians.


New Testament Teaching on Spiritual Maturity

We learn from Scripture that the apostles were acutely aware of the need for maturity in the Faith. The apostle Paul’s description in Ephesians 4:14 of “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of doctrine” describes well the predicament of modern day Protestants. In contrast to Protestantism’s stormy seas, Orthodoxy’s historic Faith resembles an unmoving rock that offers shelter and stability.  The author of Hebrews expected spiritual maturity of his readers and rebuked those who “by now ought to be teachers, but have need someone teach them the elementary principles all over again.” (Hebrews 5:11) Paul’s exhortation to second generation Bishop Timothy to seek out “faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” shows the high value the early Church placed on maturity. (2 Timothy 2:2) There is not a hint whatsoever in Scripture that the apostles were inclined to entrust the Faith once for all delivered to the saints, to “spiritual babies.” Indeed the very opposite can be seen clear in the New Testament Scriptures along with the writings of the designated successors to the apostles (bishops) immediately afterwards.

We should consider another often neglected historic fact. Much has been made of the timing of the Incarnation and the spread of the Gospel during the era of Pax Romana. The intellectual acumen of the early Fathers is a matter greatly neglected, especially by Protestants.  This blind spot can be attributed in part to: (1) unfamiliarity with early Christianity, (2) the assumption that there is no significant difference between early Christianity and Roman Catholicism, and (3) the attitude of chronological snobbery, i.e., the thinking that Protestants are more advanced in their theologizing. But many if not most of the early bishops were brilliant intellectual giants fluent in several ancient languages and conversant in the best of Greek philosophy.  Consider for example Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and John of Damascus. They are far more likely to be intellectual giants and scholars of exceptional maturity — marked by a ascetic piety that should shame most modern Christians and theologians of our present today.


The Question of Infallibility

Your friend’s remark about the fallacy of infallibility begs the question as to where infallibility is to be found.  Within Christianity there are three choices: infallibility resides in the Bible – the Protestant paradigm, infallibility resides in the Pope, the supreme bishop over all Christianity – the Roman Catholic paradigm, and infallibility resides in the Church, the Body of Christ – the Orthodox paradigm.  For Orthodoxy infallibility is not intrinsic to the Church but rather a grace conferred by the Holy Spirit.  Infallibility is an intrinsic property of the Spirit of Truth whom Christ sent to guide the Church (John 16:13).  Orthodoxy believes that the Holy Spirit guided the Ecumenical Councils in their deliberations about the two natures of Christ and the Trinity.  The proof of the pudding lies in the unity of the faith shared by the Orthodox throughout space and time; and in the doctrinal stability that Western Christians so often deride as static, ossified, fossilized, archaic, or more recently, “infantile.”


BOBO Theory: Blink Off, then Blink On

One of the greatest witnesses to Truth is the Divine Liturgy.  This is because Scripture is primarily a liturgical document.  The proper social context for Scripture is the Sunday Liturgy; private personal devotion in the home or the theologian’s study is secondary.  That is why I invite inquirers to the Divine Liturgy and I ask them to consider that the Liturgy has been essentially unchanged for over a thousand years.  This constancy in worship belies the widespread Protestant belief that the Church was in spiritual darkness until the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s.  If your friend likes Mercersburg Theology then he would know that Nevin and Schaff rejected the “Blink On/Blink Off” (BOBO) paradigm of church history.  This was the main point of Philip Schaff’s inaugural lecture which was later published in book form as The Principle of ProtestantismAs a matter of fact it was those who held to the BOBO theory of church history that initiated a heresy trial against Schaff!  What I appreciate about Mercersburg Theology is the attempt to show that Protestantism is not a novelty, but rooted in church history, and the attempt to show that Calvin’s understanding of the Real Presence in the Eucharist is rooted in the early Church Fathers.  However, as I noted in my essay “An Eastern Orthodox Critique of Mercersburg Theology” – It can’t get you there.  If your friend wants to hold to the BOBO theory, he must first show what benchmark he uses for determining doctrinal orthodoxy and give historical evidence of where and when the early Church went off the rails. If for example, he wants to use sola fide as a benchmark he has to first define the term then show that there were early Church Fathers who taught this doctrine.  Furthermore, he must be able to give specific citations, not vague allusions or broad characterizations.  And, I would note that the paradigm of early Church Fathers = spiritual babies and Protestant Reformers = spiritual adults is nothing more than a rephrasing of the BOBO theory.


Covenant Theology Leads to Holy Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy fits covenant theology much better than Protestantism.  If the Bible is a covenant document, then the Eucharist is a covenant meal.  At each Eucharist the covenant community renews its covenant commitment to the Suzerain (Christ).  Thus, the infrequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper characteristic of Protestantism belies its covenant identity.  Implicit to the covenant framework is the notion of covenant authority.  Just as the Old Testament priests were authorized to offer sacrifices and teach the Torah (Malachi 2:7), so too the New Covenant has a priesthood.  This is implied by the author of Hebrews claim: “We have an altar” (13:10) and Isaiah’s prophecy that God would take some of the Gentiles to be priests (66:20-21).  Liturgical worship with an ordained priesthood was the standard format of Christian worship until the Protestant Reformation.  The Reformed tradition’s disavowal of the episcopacy is rooted in its rejection of apostolic succession.  This means that Protestantism has no historical link to the early Church.  That link has been broken.  The Protestant Reformation is much like the Northern Kingdom’s schismatic break from the Jerusalem Temple (1 Kings 12:25-33); the religious schism was more catastrophic than the political.  Separation from the Levitical priesthood and the Temple in Jerusalem resulted in the eventual demise of the Northern Kingdom.  Israel’s identity as a covenant community was grounded in fidelity to the Torah given by Moses at Mt. Sinai and in fidelity to the order of worship given in the latter half of the book of Exodus.  One thing I admire about Protestant biblical scholarship is the great amount of effort given to textual criticism in the attempt to recover the original manuscripts.  It is unfortunate that Protestantism has neglected the search for a priestly lineage that goes back to the apostles.  Having the Bible is not enough for establishing a covenant identity.  One needs a duly authorized priesthood, as well.  Orthodoxy’s claim to a legitimate priesthood (the episcopacy) can be verified through an examination of its claim to apostolic succession.

In closing, holding a Bible in one’s hand does not make one a Christian any more than preaching from the Bible makes a gathering a church.  This is because holding in one’s hands the covenant document (the Bible) does not make one a proper member of the covenant community.  Participation in the covenant community requires covenant initiation (circumcision in the Old Covenant, baptism in the New Covenant) and participation in the covenant meal (Passover in the Old Covenant, the Eucharist in the New Covenant.  Being part of the covenant community assumes that one is living under the authority of the covenant leadership.  And just as important is fidelity to the terms of the covenant, i.e., living a life of love and justice to God and one another.  I very much appreciate the Reformed tradition’s insight into the importance of the covenant, because it has helped me to identify the Orthodox Church as the true covenant community founded by the Suzerain Jesus Christ who came to restore us to the kingdom of God.

Robert Arakaki


Recommended Readings

Robert Arakaki.  2011.  “The Biblical Basis for Holy Tradition.”  OrthodoxBridge.com

Robert Arakaki.  2012.  “An Eastern Orthodox Critique of Mercersburg Theology.” OrthodoxBridge.com

Robert Arakaki.  2014.  “John Calvin and the ‘Fall of the Church.'”  OthodoxBridge.com

Robert Arakaki.  2014. “Déjà Vu All Over Again.”  OrthodoxBridge.com

Thomas Oden.  1990.  After Modernity … What?  Zondervan Publishing House.

Jaroslav Pelikan.  1976.  The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600).  The Christian Tradition. Vol. 1.  University of Chicago Press.

Jaroslav Pelikan.  1986.  The Vindication of Tradition.  Yale University Press.

J.A. Thompson.  1964.  The Ancient Near Eastern Treaties and the Old Testament.  The Tyndale Press.

Ralph D. Winter.  2013.  “The Kingdom Strikes Back: Ten Epochs of Redemptive History.”  In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.  Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds.  William Carey Library Publishers.


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