A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Category: Eucharist (Page 2 of 6)

The Apostolic Failure of the Reformed Church

Beauty so ancient and so new


Some of the readers of the OrthodoxBridge have questioned whether there is in fact a trend of Protestants converting to Orthodoxy.  One important evidence can be found in “Searching for the Historic Christian Church: The Allure of Eastern Orthodoxy” by Pastor Mike Brown.  The article opens with:

In the past five or six years, I have known several people who have left Reformed Christianity for Eastern Orthodoxy. Their reasons for making that decision varied. Some were mesmerized by the beauty of the Divine Liturgy. Others found Eastern Orthodoxy (hereafter EO) to offer a greater appreciation for mystery and religious experience than what they had known as a Protestant. All of them, however, were attracted by and eventually convinced of EO’s claim to be the original church founded by Christ.  (Emphasis added.)

While small, the number of Reformed Christians becoming Orthodox has become a matter of pastoral concern.  Among the converts are longtime seasoned elders and pastors well-read in Reformed theology.  Dissatisfaction with the shallowness of contemporary worship and a hunger for a connection with the Ancient Church are compelling people to become Orthodox.  Pastor Brown notes:

Many Protestants and evangelicals attest to feeling disconnected with the ancient church, and desire greater certainty that the church they attend has not been drastically changed by the world over the passing centuries.

Pastor Brown broke down the quest for the Ancient Church into three attractions: (1) continuity in worship, (2) continuity in doctrine, and (3) continuity in church government.  In the first part, he gives an assessment of Orthodoxy’s claim to antiquity, then presents what the Reformed tradition has to offer.  He is to be commended for his generally accurate presentation of Orthodoxy.  In doing so, he avoids the fallacy of the straw man argument that often mars Reformed critiques of Orthodoxy.  In the second part of his article, Pastor Brown seeks to show that “there are good reasons for Reformed Christians to be confident that they belong to the historic Christian church” and that there is thus no need for them to convert to Orthodoxy.


Part 1 – Pastor Brown’s Critique

Continuity in Liturgical Worship

Pastor Mike Brown challenges Orthodoxy’s claim to historical continuity in worship.  He writes:

However, regarding EO’s claim to unbroken succession in its worship, I make two observations. First, the notion that the Divine Liturgy has been in place since the days of the apostles is misleading and grossly oversimplified. While it is true that certain components of the Divine Liturgy were present in the liturgies of the ancient church (i.e. Scripture reading, weekly communion, the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and creeds, etc.), there is no evidence that the basic form of the Divine Liturgy was used by the apostles or universally practiced by churches in the first few centuries. (Emphasis added.)

I found what Pastor Brown meant by “the basic form of the Divine Liturgy” in this critique to be vague.  Is he referring to a regular pattern of worship or to something specific like the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom?  It seems Pastor Brown understands Orthodoxy’s claim to continuity of worship to consist in its possessing a fixed, detailed order of worship from Day One.  This can be seen in the phrase “looking identical” in the quote below.

Likewise, the most reliable documents from the post-apostolic early church, such as the Didache (c. 2nd century) and Justin Martyr’s First Apology (c.155-157), provide us with evidence that worship in the ancient church consisted of Scripture reading, preaching, singing, the Lord’s Prayer, and weekly communion. These, however, show no signs of looking identical to the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church. In fact, the oldest surviving liturgy in use by EO today is the “Liturgy of St. James,” which dates no earlier than the 4th century. EO’s claim that its liturgy has remained unchanged since the days of the apostles is unsubstantiated and overstated.  (Emphasis added.)

Orthodoxy has never made the claim for a fixed Liturgy from Day One.  Nor has it claimed that the Divine Liturgy looked identical to the worship of the New Testament Church.  Anyone reading early church history will soon realize that this was not the case.  During the first three centuries, a general shape of the liturgy prevailed across the world, even in the midst of diverse practices.  In time Christian worship became uniform and fixed in order and form.  Indeed, Pastor Brown’s use of “looking identical” indicates he does NOT understand, or intentionally hyperbolizes Orthodox continuity!

The flaw in Pastor Brown’s critique is his focus on external form without taking into account the inner meaning of Christian worship.  The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s website article “Introduction to the Divine Liturgy” which he quoted from took care to stress the continuity in inner meaning:

But whatever were the various forms of the Divine Liturgy of the primitive Church, as well as of the Church of the final formation of the Divine Liturgy, the meaning given to it by both the celebrants and the communicants was one and the same; that is, the belief of the awesome change of the sacred Species of the Bread and Wine into the precious Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the Lord. (Emphasis added.)

Pastor Brown comes close to constructing a straw man argument especially in light of the fact the article takes care to note that underneath the variation in outward form in Christian worship has been the constant belief in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.


Form versus Inner Meaning

Central to Christian worship from the start was: (1) the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection in the Eucharist, and (2) the belief in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.  An examination of early Christian worship and the writings of the early Church Fathers show the universality of these two defining elements.  These two elements define Orthodox worship even today.  It would be unthinkable for an Orthodox parish to have a Sunday service that consists only of the Liturgy of the Word or for the priest to declare that Eucharist was just symbolic.  What is not central to Orthodox worship is a long sermon in which the pastor shows off his rhetorical skill and unique exegetical insights week after week. Indeed, in the Liturgy the Orthodox priest essentially disappears behind the form of the Liturgy and attention is focused on the worship of the Trinity.

When we compare Reformed worship with early Christian worship two facts become apparent: (1) a new form of Sunday worship has emerged that is sermon-focused and (2) the rejection of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  In his attempt to show how Reformed worship conforms to early Christian worship Pastor Brown brings to the reader’s attention Calvin’s Genevan Psalter of 1542, which was “according to the custom of the ancient church.”  However, invoking historical documents like the 1542 Genevan Psalter or Calvin’s Institutes 4.17.44 does not negate the fact that a new pattern of worship has come to dominate the Reformed tradition.  Two questions quickly reveal the flaw in Pastor Brown’s claim:

  • Is it the norm for Reformed churches to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday?
  • Is it the norm for Reformed churches to teach and affirm that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper?

In most instances, the answer will be “no.”  It is interesting to note that in Note 25, Pastor Brown cites Michael Horton’s article “At Least Weekly” and Keith Mathison’s book Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper to show that an attempt is being made in Reformed circles to recover historic Christian worship.  What he does not realize is that this very attempt at recovery is an admission that something has been lost.  It is no wonder that many Reformed Christians are feeling the loss and are looking to Orthodoxy to regain it.

The Orthodox conversions Pastor Brown is trying to halt are happening even in the most liturgical and sacramental churches in the Reformed community.  Indeed, something historic has been lost, otherwise there would be little interest among Reformed folks in learning about the Liturgy and Eucharistic practices in the Early Church. This loss is compelling many to find their roots in the Orthodox Church. Retreating back only as far as Calvin and the 1500s, has not satisfied many.

Probably the greatest disconnect has been with respect to the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.  The vast majority of Protestants and Evangelicals today believe that the Holy Communion (Eucharist) is just a symbol.  This marks a major break from historic Christian worship.  Ignatius of Antioch noted that it was the heretics who denied that the Eucharist “is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ” (Letter to Smyrnaeans 7.1).  Interestingly, John Calvin in no uncertain terms denounced the teaching that the Eucharist is symbolic as an “error not to be tolerated” (“Confession of Faith Concerning the Eucharist” in Reid p. 169).  Is it not striking that nowhere in his article does Pastor Brown discuss the consecration of the bread and wine or the real presence in the Eucharist?  Could it be that these are unimportant issues for him?  Or perhaps too dangerous to broach?

Pastor Brown seems to think that, by following certain historic practices, Reformed churches are “preserving a connection to the worship of the ancient Christian church.”

By retaining ordinary practices such as the Lord’s Prayer, Psalmody, and weekly communion, we can be confident that we are worshiping God in the same way as the ancient church, and have not merely followed a new tradition.

All of these elements are, of course, important to historic Christian worship but are they enough?  The desire for a retrun to historic worship, in reaction to the excesses of contemporary worship, is only part of the reason that people are drawn to Orthodox worship.  Many are drawn to a worship that goes beyond intellectual stimulation to real communion with God.  Perhaps they are drawn to the mystical reality behind the liturgical forms but overlooked by Pastor Brown? Many inquirers are tantalized by the promise given by Christ himself:

 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.  (John 6:55-56)

Orthodoxy believes that, in the Eucharist, the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ and that when we go up for Holy Communion we actually partake of the body and blood of Christ.


Right Doctrine

Many Reformed Christians are drawn to Orthodoxy out of a need for assurance that what they believe is not man-made doctrine, but the historic Christian Faith.  Pasto Mike Brown writes:

A second area where many Christians complain of feeling an historic void in their faith is doctrine. Just as they want to be confident that they are worshiping God the same way the apostles and early church did, they also want to be sure that the teachings and beliefs of the church they attend conform to that history as well.

Pastor Brown responds to this hunger for historic doctrine by criticizing Orthodoxy for its “superficial” theology.  He notes:

Thus, it is difficult not to find EO’s claim to uninterrupted continuity in its doctrine to be superficial as they possess no unifying confession on matters of essential Christian doctrine beyond the seven Ecumenical Councils. It is unsatisfactory and unfair to ignore debates on important biblical teaching simply because those debates arose in the west after the 8th century.  (Emphasis added.)

My response: “Why is it so important that a religious tradition have a detailed theological confession?  What does it have to do with historical continuity?”  Pastor Brown’s concern with detailed theological systems is historically conditioned, reflecting Protestantism’s intellectual roots in Medieval Scholasticism, e.g., Thomas Aquinas.  Where Western theology seeks to understand God with the intellect, Orthodox theology starts from the understanding that genuine knowledge of God comes through prayer and worship.

Pastor Brown’s complaint about Orthodoxy’s theology being “superficial” is perplexing.  Many of the original Protestant confessions have become historical curiosities that many, including pastors and elders, tend to honor only in name.  In recent years, many of these detailed statements of faith have been replaced by broadly-phrased confessions of lowest common denominator.  It is ironic in the face of the Reformed tradition’s plethora of confessions that Pastor Brown would complain that Orthodoxy has “no unifying confession.”  There is no unifying confession for the Reformed tradition either!  Where the Lutherans have the Book of Concord, there is no similar unifying confession for the Reformed tradition.  While the Westminster Confession is probably the most widely known, it is not the doctrinal standard for the entirety of the Reformed tradition.

How effective are detailed confessions for preserving doctrinal orthodoxy?  Pastor Brown is probably too embarrassed to make mention of the fact that his denomination, the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA), was the result of a schism in the 1990s when a sizable group felt the Christian Reformed Church in North America was moving away from the truths of the Reformation.  Apparently, the split resulted from tensions between theological conservatives and liberals. Those who are interested in the details of the split might be interested in reading Robert P. Swierenga’s Burn the Wooden Shoes: Modernity and Division in the Christian Reformed Church in North America (2000).   Is it not telling that the so-called Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Synod of Dort) have been unable to guarantee doctrinal stability in the face of theological liberalism for the past two centuries?  The lesson here is clear – even detailed, precisely-worded confessions are not strong enough to withstand the onslaught of modernity.

While Orthodoxy may not have a precise theological system like Protestantism, there is within Orthodoxy a hidden strength that most Protestants do not see – liturgical theology.  In the Divine Liturgy doctrine is fused with worship.  If one listens to the hymns and prayers, he will hear every Sunday the core dogmas of the Christian Faith: the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Good News of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.  Although alien to Protestantism, liturgical theology is an ancient way of doing theology.  Irenaeus of Lyons wrote: “But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion” (Against Heresies 4.18.5).  Basil the Great in his On the Holy Spirit defends the divinity of the Holy Spirit from the trinitarian prayers used in the Liturgy.  The ancient saying “Lex orandi, lex credendi” (the rule of prayer is the rule of belief) describes how our worship informs our doctrine.


Continuity in Church Governance

Another reason why many Reformed Christians find Orthodoxy appealing is its claim to apostolic succession. God is the God of history.  He created mankind then acted through men within human history. The historical books and the detailed genealogies in the Bible point to the importance of our roots in history.  Just as genealogies were part of the Mosaic covenant community, Israel, so likewise is apostolic succession the genealogy of the new covenant community, the Church.  It is proof that there exists a historic, unbroken continuity that links the present-day episcopacy back to the original Apostles. Without history, Christianity would be a philosophical system of abstract ideas, rather than a concrete way of life and a community of people.

In his critique, Pastor Brown draws on Michael Horton’s argument that the Galatian churches’ succumbing to the Judaizing heresy was enough to refute Orthodoxy’s claim that doctrinal orthodoxy is preserved by means of apostolic succession.  However, the episcopacy does not stand alone, but in the context of the Church Catholic.  The notion of an independent bishop is self-contradictory.  If one bishop falls into error, his fellow bishops will be there to correct him.  Is it not curious that Pastor Brown failed to mention the role of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 in resolving the crisis that erupted in Galatia?  The Jerusalem Council provided the precedent for the Ecumenical Councils.  In the Councils, apostolic succession in its collective expression functioned to preserve right doctrine.

As a Reformed theologian, Michael Horton is hostile to the episcopacy.  For him, apostolic succession takes place through the gospel.  Reading Horton’s assertion that what counts is preaching the same gospel that the Apostles proclaimed one can’t help but wonder if by “gospel” he means the doctrine of sola fide which was supposedly “recovered” by Martin Luther in 1517.  The Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection has always been part of the historic Christian Faith, but the categories of imputed righteousness versus infused righteousness so crucial to sola fide are nowhere to be found among the early Church Fathers.  It was not until after Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo set forth the satisfaction theory that the theological foundations for Luther’s sola fide was possible.  If none of the early bishops taught sola fide, this makes sola fide suspect historically.  It is a theological innovation alien to historic Christianity.  It is no wonder then that Pastor Brown and Michael Horton are critical of Orthodoxy’s claim to apostolic succession.  Disavowing the historic episcopacy gives them the liberty to read the Bible according to their Protestant convictions.

For a discussion of: (1) the meaning of imputed and infused righteousness see the Theopedia article “Imputed Righteousness,” (2) the novelty of imputed and infused righteousness see my article “Response to Michael Horton,” and (3) the novelty of sola fide see my article “Response to Theodore – Semi-Pelagianism, Sola Fide and Theosis.”


Part 2 – Pastor Brown’s Apologia for Reformed Christianity

Church Fathers

Many Christians are naturally drawn to Orthodoxy because of its historic roots in the early Church. Pastor Brown responded to this by noting that the Protestant Reformers, most notably John Calvin, drew heavily on the early Church Fathers.  However, to selectively quote the early Church Fathers does not in any way prove that one shares in the same faith as the early Church Fathers.  None of the Church Fathers taught sola scriptura or sola fide – the two key teachings of the Protestant Reformation.  Calvin and other Reformers engaged in cherry picking the Church Fathers to legitimize their novel Protestant doctrines.  While they did quote from the Church Fathers, they did not subject their theology to the patristic consensus.  This was because, under sola scriptura, the Reformers’ own readings of the Bible had greater authority than the Church Fathers’.  Calvin praised the early Church Fathers when they supported his views and scorned them when they differed from his views.  This implied that Calvin knew better than the Church Fathers! (Rock and Sand pp. 131-132.)

Pastor Michael Brown concedes that he and his fellow Reformed ministers could do a better job of “showing Reformed theology’s continuity with ancient and medieval theology.”  My response is: “They could do a better job of reading the early Church Fathers with an open mind.”  When I was studying church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, I read the early Church Fathers in order to improve my Protestant theology.  Early on, I found the Church Fathers perplexing.  This confusion was cleared up when I came to the realization that the early Church Fathers were not Protestant and that Protestantism was altogether different from the early Church.  Facing up to this discontinuity was disturbing and disheartening, but brought clarity to my reading of the early Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils.  The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s emerged from a different cultural and theological context.  The Reformers’ theology was influenced by the medieval papacy, medieval canon law, an excessive reliance on Augustine of Hippo, the Via Antiqua of medieval Scholasticism, and far more than normally acknowledged, the Via Moderna of Renaissance humanism.  Pastor Brown and others like him are mistaken if they think that selectively quoting the Church Fathers will take them back to the Faith of the early Church.



With respect to icons, Pastor Mike Brown stresses the Reformed tradition’s iconoclasm and argues that icons constitute a break from the historic continuity of Christian worship.  He presents two lines of arguments: (1) patristic and (2) biblical.

For the “ample evidence” that icons were not tolerated in the early church, Pastor Brown gives three sources: (1) Irenaeus of Lyons, (2) Epiphanius of Salamis, and (3) the Synod of Elvira.  The first thing to note is that Pastor Brown is being very selective with the evidence he presents to the reader.  He makes no mention of any pro-icon sources.  For the sake of fairness, he should at least have mentioned theological classics like John of Damascus’ Three Treatises on the Divine Images and Theodore the Studite’s On the Holy Images.   Even more striking is his failure to mention the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II, 787). Failure to mention these important evidences leaves the Reformed inquirer in “blissful ignorance.”

I was surprised that Pastor Brown cited Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the greatest Church Fathers, as being against icons.  However when I read the passage cited (AH 1.26.6), I was disappointed to find that he had misread Irenaeus.  Furthermore, the correct citation is 1.25.6, not 1.26.6.   As a service to the reader I present the passage mentioned by Pastor Brown.

Others of them employ outward marks, branding their disciples inside the lobe of the right ear. From among these also arose Marcellina, who came to Rome under [the episcopate of] Anicetus, and, holding these doctrines, she led multitudes astray. They style themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.  (Emphasis added.)

A careful reading of Against Heresies 1.25.6 makes it very clear that Irenaeus is describing and criticizing the practices of the Gnostics, a heretical group.  It is astonishing that Pastor Brown paid no attention to the sentence: “They style themselves Gnostics.”  I suspect that this blooper is largely due his unfamiliarity with the early Church and that in his haste he unwittingly projected Reformed iconoclasm onto Irenaeus of Lyons.

Reformed apologists like to cite the story of Epiphanius entering a church and ripping down a curtain with an image embroidered.  Epiphanius was no obscure figure but a recognized saint.  For Reformed apologists this is major evidence in support of iconoclasm.  This argument is not new.  As a matter of fact it is the exact same argument made by the iconoclasts in the early Church.  Theodore the Studite and John of Damascus knew of it and responded by noting that if one were to visit Epiphanius’ church one could see it decorated with images and Gospel stories.  Furthermore, both Church Fathers asserted that the anecdote was a spurious forgery.  Theodore the Studite in his On the Holy Icons wrote this hypothetical debate over icons:

Heretic: Epiphanius is one of them, the man who is prominent and renowned among the saints.

Orthodox: We know that Epiphanius is a saint and a great wonder-worker. Sabinus, his disciple and a member of his household, erected a church in his honor after his death, and had it decorated with pictures of all the Gospel stories. He would not have done this if he had not been following the doctrine of his own teacher. Leontius also, the interpreter of the divine Epiphanius’ writings, who was himself bishop of the church in Neapolis in Cyprus, teaches very clearly in his discourse on Epiphanius how steadfast he was in regard to the holy icons, and reports nothing derogatory concerning him. So the composition against the icons is spurious and not at all the work of the divine Epiphanius. (“Second Refutation” §49; p. 74)

A modern assessment of Epiphanius’ alleged iconoclasm can be found in Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition Vol. 2, page 102.  It is important that Protestants inquirers know that even evidence like this presented by Reformed apologists their arguments are by no means slam dunks.  There is another side of the story.  To give the inquirers only one side of the argument is not fair to them.

But, what if the anecdote about Epiphanius is valid?  What if one saint turned out to be an iconoclast?  This is where the patristic consensus comes in.  John of Damascus notes:

Nor can a single opinion overturn the unanimous tradition of the whole Church, which has spread to the ends of the earth. (On the Divine Images “First Apology §25; p. 32)

According to the patristic consensus, no single person’s opinion can represent the Christian Faith.  This view must be expressed by the Church Catholic.  Using poetic language, Theodore points out that a single swallow’s song does not mean that spring has come.  It is worth noting that iconoclasm is not even a Protestant position, but peculiar to one strand of Protestantism, the Reformed tradition.

Reformed apologists like to cite the Council of Elvira as evidence against icons.  The inquirer should be aware of three issues.  First, Pastor Brown needs to show why we should give a minor local synod preference over an Ecumenical Council (Nicea II).  An Ecumenical Council represents the ruling of the Church Catholic on a disputed issue.  One cannot cherry-pick the councils on the basis of what one likes or does not like.  Second, to endorse a council implies that one is willing to follow the rulings issued by that council.  Pastor Brown accepts Canon 36 which seems to prohibit images, but then he ignores Canon 26 which imposes the Saturday fasts.  Third, it is not clear from the original Latin whether Canon 36 stemmed from opposition to icons in general or whether it was out of concern that images painted on church walls would be vulnerable to vandalism (keep in mind that this synod was held during the height of the ferocious Diocletian persecution).  The Synod of Elvira’s alleged iconoclasm stems from a faulty translation of the original Latin.  Steven Bigham, an Orthodox priest, translated Canon 36 as follows:

It has seemed good that images should not be in churches so that what is venerated and worshiped not be painted on the walls. (in Bigham p. 161; emphasis added)

To sum up, the evidence that Pastor Brown presents for iconoclasm in the early Church is scanty and weak.  He misread Irenaeus of Lyons.  His anecdote about Epiphanius of Salamis was deemed a forgery by two notable Church Fathers.  There is evidence that Canon 36 of the Council of Elvira cited by Reformed apologists is based on a flawed translation of the original Latin.  In all fairness to Protestant inquirers, Pastor Brown should have alerted them to the issues relating to his evidences and the arguments in defense of icons in the early Church.  Keeping Protestant inquirers in ignorance is not doing them a favor.

For his biblical critique of the Orthodox veneration of icons, Pastor Brown invoked the Second Commandment.  However, one cannot just invoke the Second Commandment.  There are important exegetical issues that need to be addressed.  First, it is important to read the Second Commandment in its context.  The First Commandment’s monotheism suggests that the Second Commandment was directed against the worship of the pagan deities of Egypt and Canaan, not against the use of images in Israelite worship.  Second, in the latter half of Exodus one finds God instructing Moses to incorporate images into the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1, 31).  The entirety of the Mosaic Tabernacle, including the images, was intended to promote the true worship of Yahweh.  The use of images was continued in Solomon’s Temple (2 Chronicles 3:7, 14).  This suggests that there is indeed a biblical basis for the use of images in places of worship.  Interested readers can read my article “The Biblical Basis for Icons.

Little is known about Christian worship prior to the fourth century.  Reformed Christians infer from this silence that the early Church was devoid of icons.  However, if we take into account the striking images found in the Jewish synagogue and Christian church in Dura Europos that date back to the mid 200s one is confronted with positive evidence for the use of images in early Christianity.  The archaeological evidences found in Dura Europos together with the biblical and patristic evidences taken together present a powerful witness in support of the use of icons in early Christianity.  This is something that Reformed apologists have yet to address.


Differences in Personal Perspectives

I suspect that Pastor Brown’s enthusiasm for the Reformed tradition stems from his having been part of Calvary Chapel.  In comparison to Calvary Chapel, which traces its origins to the Jesus Movement of the 1960s in California, the Reformed tradition is much more historic, going back to the Reformation of the early 1500s.  Its teachings are definitely deeper in comparison and its worship more liturgical than Calvary Chapel’s informal approach.  His glowing assessment of the Reformed tradition is further colored by his being part of the UCRCNA.  As a new denomination that emerged in the 1990s, the UCRCNA is still a young and vigorous denomination.  Sociologically, because schism functions as a method of self-selection that excludes rival views, it is not surprising that Pastor Brown has enjoyed oneness of mind among his fellow pastors and parishioners.

My personal perspective is different from Pastor Brown’s.  Unlike Pastor Brown’s Reformed denomination which resulted from a schism, Congregationalism in Hawaii has a history of continuity going back to the Puritans.  My being an Evangelical in the liberal UCC gave me a quite unique perspective on the Reformed tradition.  This perspective was further refined when I was at Gordon-Conwell in Massachusetts, the heartland of New England Puritanism, and interacted with UCC liberals during that time.  As a result of these experiences, I was able to appreciate the historic legacy of John Calvin and the New England Puritans while seeing up front the realities of liberal mainline Reformed Christianity.  Unlike Pastor Brown’s unreserved enthusiasm for the Reformed tradition, my assessment was a mixture of respect, dismay, and consternation.  My time in a liberal Reformed denomination caused me to question the long-term viability of the Reformed tradition, which made me open to Orthodoxy and the Ancient Church.


The Challenge for Reformed Apologetics

It seems that Pastor Mike Brown is unaware of how much the ground has shifted in the Reformed-Orthodox dialogue.  In recent years, new Orthodox pro-icon apologia have emerged that refute the Second Commandment argument on exegetical grounds, draw on recent archaeological findings, and critically analyze the theological basis of John Calvin’s iconoclasm.  These arguments are being raised by former Protestants who are familiar with Reformed iconoclasm and who, after prolonged study of the Bible and the Church Fathers, have come to embrace the pro-icon position of Orthodoxy.  Interested readers can read my earlier articles, where I  have discussed in greater detail the anti-icon arguments raised by Reformed Christians.  I also recommend Gabe Martini’s detailed response to Pastor Steven Wedgeworth’s iconoclasm.  Questions about the formal principle (sola scriptura) and material principle (sola fide) of Protestant theology have emerged causing a number of Protestant pastors and theologians to convert to either Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

Reformed apologists cannot simply repeat what worked in the past and ignore the newer arguments and issues raised by Orthodox apologists.  They need to show that they are aware of these new arguments and are willing to engage them.  Sadly, it does not appear that Pastor Brown shows a familiarity and mastery of this new material.



The Apostolic Failure of the Reformed Church

Pastor Mike Brown’s argument can be summed up: “We have the same things the Orthodox Church has.  They have liturgies; so do we.  They cite the Church Fathers; so do we.  They have creeds; so do we.  You don’t have to become Orthodox to be part of the Ancient Church.  Reformed Christianity is Ancient Christianity!”

My response to all this is: “Come and see!”  Visit an Orthodox Sunday Service.  Experience the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom which dates back to the fifth century.  Talk to the local Orthodox priest.  Ask him what the Orthodox Church teaches about Christ, the Trinity, and prayer.  Compare the Orthodox Church of today with the early Church.  Follow the guidance of the Prophet Jeremiah:

Stand at the crossroads and look;

Ask for the ancient paths,

Ask where the good way is and walk in it,

And you will find rest for your souls.

(Jeremiah 6:16, NIV; Emphasis added.)

Robert Arakaki


Recommended Reading

Robert Arakaki.  2013.  “A Response to John B. Carpenter’s “Icons and the Eastern Orthodox Claim to Continuity with the Early Church.”  OrthodoxBridge.com (16 September)

Robert Arakaki.  2012.  “Response to Michael Horton.” OrthodoxBridge.com (10 May)

Robert Arakaki.  2011.  “The Biblical Basis for Icons.”  OrthodoxBridge.come (12 June)

Robert Arakaki.  2011.  “Calvin Versus the Icon: Was John Calvin Wrong?”  OrthodoxBridge.com (19 June)

Steven Bigham.  2004.  Early Christian Attitudes toward Images.

Pastor Mike Brown.  2016.  “Searching for the Historic Christian Church: The Allure of Eastern Orthodoxy” in www.ChristURC.org.  (9 December)

Synod of Elvira” Wikipedia.

Gabe Martini.  “Is There a Patristic Critique of Icons?” (Part 3 of 5) (Council of Elvira) 20 May 2013.

Gabe Martini.  “Is There a Patristic Critique of Icons?” (Part 4 of 5) (Epiphanius of Salamis)  22 Ma 2013.

Gabe Martini.  “An Orthodox Response to John Calvin on Icons: Icons and Idolatry.Pravoslavie.  6 December 2014.

Rev. George Mastrontonis.  N.d.  “Introduction to the Divine Liturgy”  in Goarch.com

Jaroslav Pelikan.  2011.  Imago Dei: The Byzantine Apologia for Icons.

J.K.S. Reid, ed.  1964.  “Confession of Faith Concerning the Eucharist” in Calvin: Theological Treatises p. 169.

Carly Silver.  2010.  “Dura-Europos: Crossroad of Cultures.Archaeology Magazine (11 August)

Josiah Trenham.  2015.  Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings.


Was the Reformation Necessary?

This is a relaunch article.  It marks the end of my blog vacation and the OrthodoxBridge moving to Ancient Faith Blogs.  


Luther posting the 95 Theses

Luther posting the 95 Theses

This Saturday will mark the 498th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  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 was divided among competing Christian churches.


As we draw near to the 500th anniversary of Protestantism it would be good for Christians – Protestants and non-Protestants — to reflect on its origins and its legacy.  And to ask the question: 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.

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

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 Roman 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 priesthood.

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 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.

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 dogma.  Some Protestants insist that unless one holds fast to the distinction between imputed righteousness and infused righteousness one will not have a “proper” understanding of the Gospel and if one did not have a “proper” understanding of the Gospel 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

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.

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 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.  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.

As Protestantism’s five hundredth anniversary draws near it provides an opportunity for Reformed and Orthodox Christians to assess the Reformation and ask: 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.

Already a conversation about the necessity of the Reformation is underway.  Three major Reformed leaders: Don Carson, John Piper, and Tim Keller did a videotaped conversation: “Why the Reformation Matters.”  The Internet Monk published: “Reformation Week 2015: Another Look – God’s Righteousness.”  The Reformed-OrthodoxBridge hopes to provide a space where the two traditions can meet and converse in an atmosphere of civility and charity.

Robert Arakaki



Theodore Beza.  “Life of John Calvin.”

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

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

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

Additional Resources

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?


A Growing Exodus? Words of Encouragement for Hesitant Calvinists



No Entry? or No Leaving?

In response to some families recently leaving his Reformed (CREC) church for the Orthodox Church, Pastor Toby Sumpter recently wrote “The Levite Club.”  In the article he uses strong language to dissuade them from leaving Reformed Christianity for Orthodoxy.

His main argument is that to leave the Reformed church for Orthodoxy is an act of schism. That is, it will bring division to the body of Christ. Coming from a new Reformed denominational spin-off founded in 1998, this accusation is rich in irony. I don’t think Pastor Sumpter is advocating the invisible church model so popular among Evangelicals but something closer to the Anglican branch theory of the church. This is the doctrine that there is one Church with several branches: Roman Catholic, Reformed Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox. This is a relatively new doctrine that arose in Anglicanism several centuries after the Protestant Reformation in the mid-1800s and has no ancient precedent.

According to the branch theory while church divisions are regrettable, they are transitory in nature and will in time be overcome with church unity once again restored. I infer this from Pastor Sumpter’s subsequent blog posting which contains a lengthy excerpt from Philip Schaff’sPrinciple of Protestantism.”  In light of the branch theory of the church it is understandable that Pastor Sumpter would view with alarm parishioners leaving Reformed Protestantism for Orthodoxy.


Does Galatians 2 Apply?

Pastor Sumpter brings up Galatians 2 to bolster his argument that leaving the Reformed church is wrong. He sees parallels between the present situation and the conflict between the Apostles Peter and Paul in Antioch.

You can’t convert and act like you aren’t making a drastic statement about them. How is going from sharing the body and blood of Christ with them to being forbidden to becoming more catholic? You are going from loving Christ in the brothers and sisters right in front of you to getting cozy with strangers. This is why Paul withstood Peter to his face in Antioch. He was eating with some brothers and then when the Judaizers showed up, he withdrew. This is against the truth of the gospel.

Pastor Sumpter, following other CREC teachers, presumes Galatians 2 somehow addresses the question who has access to the Eucharist. But in fact, in Galatians 2 Paul was rebuking Peter for refusing to partake of the common meal with Gentile converts to Christ; Eucharistic fellowship was not an issue in Galatians 2. The Greek for “eat with” in Galatians 2:12 is συνεσθιω (sunesthio). It was used for ordinary meals, not special religious festivals; see Luke 15:2, Acts 11:3, and 1 Corinthians 5:11. For Pastor Sumpter to equate the common meal with the Eucharist is a serious misreading of the biblical text. So, to apply Galatians 2 to the issue of Eucharistic fellowship today represents a lapse in logical reasoning. On the other hand to apply Galatians 2 to the present day situation — Orthodox Christians welcome the opportunity to share a common meal with their Reformed friends and family members!

For a closer parallel let us imagine that the Judaizers were Christian teachers who were at one time loyal to the Apostles then repudiated them as false teachers, broke off to start a new Christian church based on the “true” Gospel of salvation. Then we would have a situation more pertinent to the issue before us. Let us imagine that these renegades came to Antioch with their new teachings and unapologetic for their break with the Apostles, would they be admitted to the Eucharist?  It is hard to imagine the Apostles Peter and Paul allowing them to partake of the Eucharist!

The problem with Pastor Sumpter’s usage of Galatians 2 goes beyond the twisting of Scripture to make it say what you want; the problem is also ignorance of church history. Trinitarian baptism never guaranteed someone Eucharistic fellowship any more than Circumcision guaranteed access to the Jewish Temple. Both the Jew of the Old Covenant and the Christian of the New Covenant could become unclean and forfeit his sacramental privileges. Historically, admission to the Eucharist was premised on being in submission to the ruling Bishop at the time, not merely Baptism. In the early Church it was the Bishop who taught new converts the Gospel. Thus, to be baptized in the early Church meant coming under the authority of the Bishop, likewise to receive the Eucharist meant that one was in unity with the Bishop who was in Eucharistic unity with other bishops around the world, that is, the Church Catholic. To be excommunicated by your Bishop meant being out of fellowship not only with the local Christian fellowship but the universal Church as well.

Canadian Football playing field.

Canadian Football playing field.  Source

The amazing thing is that the CREC pastors want to repudiate the historic Church, Her Bishops, and Her Sacraments, then claim the right to celebrate Her Sacraments in their own way. It is astonishing that Pastor Sumpter would call the historic Orthodox Church “divisive” and/or “schismatic” if She does not follow the CREC theology and ecclesiology!  It would make as much sense as Canadian football players demanding admission to the NFL Hall of Fame or else the NFL would be divisive or exclusionary!  Let us recognize and respect the fact that different games have different rules one must play by. Different game rules call for different playing fields, or else we will end up with multiple players on the same playing field playing according their own interpretations of the rule book with no referees to enforce the rules. If a football player wishes to play in the NFL games, he must play according NFL rules not according his own interpretation.


Where is the True Church?

Pastor Toby Sumpter’s beef with Orthodoxy lies in their refusal to recognize Protestant sacraments as equally valid as the Holy Mysteries received in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. He wrote in a comment thread:

I may request that a person be baptized before coming to the table at Trinity, but I do not thereby insist that if any other church does it differently than me, they are therefore not a true church and their sacraments invalid. Rome and Orthodoxy are sectarian by their refusal to acknowledge the fullness of the Triune God in the sacraments and government of other historic Christian bodies. [Emphasis added.]

What he is saying here is: Hey! We’re just as much a church as the Orthodox Church is a church. This is based on the assumption that Protestantism is part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” confessed in the Nicene Creed. But this raises several questions: What is the Church historically? More importantly, what has been the basis for church unity?  Is the church just any group of people who gather to hear sermons from the Bible, formulate new doctrines and confessions, create their own Bishops and Sacraments? Does church history teach or allow for modern ecclesiastical entrepreneurialism that give rise to new startup churches, new teachings, and alternative Christianities?

elephant-in-the-room3Historically, the Christian community gathered on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist around the Apostles and then later their successors, the Bishops. There is simply no way the office of the Bishop can be honestly read out of the historic Church of the first fifteen centuries. It is possible that the trauma of the break from Rome created a historical amnesia in Protestant theology. Recently, there has appeared in Protestantism a desire to recover and incorporate some historic forms of worship. This has resulted in Reformed churches celebrating Holy Communion on a weekly basis. Some have gone so far as to discard the “just-a-symbol” understanding of the Lord’s Supper for the historic understanding of the Real-Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. These steps are all commendable. Yet there remains one important element missing — perhaps the elephant in the room – that is the episcopacy or the office of the Bishop.


Who’s Your Bishop?

The episcopacy or office of the bishop is critical to understanding the Church. Protestants have dismissed or overlooked the historic role Bishops played in Christianity because of the historic abuses of the Bishop(s) (Popes) of Rome, but sincere Christians cannot miss the fact of the episcopacy when reading Church history. For example, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (d. 98/117) wrote a series of letters that shed light on the early Church. It is important to keep in mind that he came from the Apostle Paul’s home church (see Acts 11:19-26, 13:1-3)! And it is worth noting the very venue of Galatians 2! [How early is Ignatius of Antioch? There is the story that Ignatius was among the children Jesus took into his arms and blessed (see Mark 10:13-16).]  And it is important to keep in mind that he was writing not as a church historian but as Bishop on his way to his impending martyrdom. In his Letter to the Smyrnaeans he wrote:

Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; even as where Jesus may be, there is the universal Church. It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve, this is well-pleasing also to God; that everything which ye do may be sure and valid. [Lightfoot translation; Emphasis added.]

For early Christians, the Bishop was more than a church administrator; he was viewed as the successor to the Apostles. For this reason early Christians took care to maintain lists of apostolic succession. See Eusebius’ Church History 3.22, 3.34-36 (NPNF Vol.1, pp. 149, 166-169). It was his job to safeguard and pass down the teachings of the Apostles. It was also his job to see that the churches under him were functioning in an orderly and harmonious manner, and that the Eucharist and the sacraments were administered properly.

We must also bear in mind something rarely noted in the Protestant reading of Church history — the New Testament Scriptures were incomplete for the first four decades of church history. As a matter of fact most scholars believe all the New Testament was not finished for the first 70 years!  This means there was no basis for the Protestant Sola Scriptura in the early Church!  How then was the Faith transmitted to the next generations?  Answer: by the Holy Tradition of the Apostles. The Apostle Paul made numerous references to Tradition; see 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 1:13-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23. In other words, the early Christians depended on the Bishops to teach them the Apostles’ doctrines and practices (Tradition). The Apostle Paul expected successors like Bishops Timothy and Titus would faithfully pass on his teachings without change to future generations of Christians. And even when the New Testament canon was finalized in subsequent centuries the Bishops remained the official guardians of Apostolic Tradition. (There is not a single shred of historical evidence that once the New Testament canon was finalized that the Christians then shifted to Sola Scriptura. This is a Protestant presupposition that needs to be scrutinized in light of historical evidence.)

Athanasius the Great in bishop's vestments

Athanasius the Great holding the Gospel book

Historically, the Bishops were responsible for the safekeeping of the physical text of Scripture as well as its right meaning. One can have the right Scripture but abuse it through a wrong interpretation of the text (heresy). In Orthodox iconography the office of the Bishop is signified by the saint holding the Gospel book, a sign of his being the guardian and interpreter of Holy Scripture.

So if Ignatius of Antioch, the third Bishop of the Apostle Paul’s home church, were to walk into Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, (the church pastored by Pastor Toby Sumpter) he would ask: Who IS your Bishop. . . where does he live?  If a congregation cannot give the name of their Bishop and his line of succession back to the original Apostles, the implications are disturbing. One, the congregation would not be considered part of the “universal Church” or “Catholic Church” according Ignatius’ letter. Two, the baptisms and Eucharistic celebrations conducted at these bishop-less congregations would lack Apostolic validity!  (How would you feel if you learned your family doctor didn’t have a real M.D. degree and that the certificate on the wall was a mail order degree?  Would you entrust your family’s health into the hands of a self-taught quack?!!)  Please note: Orthodoxy does not assert dogmatically Protestant sacraments or churches are devoid of grace. Indeed, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware grants there are “measures of the grace of God” in other Christian communions. See The Orthodox Church pp. 307-311. What IS held is that, in openly rejecting the Orthodox Church of history, one rejects the fullness of historic Orthodoxy. One cannot repudiate much that is central to the historic Church (on the one hand), then turn around and claim the same status and privileges of the very Church one has just repudiated!

In other words, Saint Ignatius of Antioch effectively undercuts the basis for Pastor Toby Sumpter’s branch theory of the church!  A bishop-less church is like a general cut off from the chain of command!  Could a loyal soldier in good conscience obey the order of a renegade general?  This leaves a Reformed Christian in search of the historic church with two choices: (1) accept the logical implications of Ignatius of Antioch’s writings and look into Orthodoxy or (2) discard Ignatius of Antioch’s writings on the basis of Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone) and embrace the Protestant understanding of the church.

Thus, Orthodoxy’s unwillingness to recognize Reformed churches as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church is not the result of an arbitrary sectarian outlook held by hide bound church leaders. Orthodoxy’s refusal to grant mutual recognition to Reformed churches is grounded in the teachings of the early Church. In my journey to Orthodoxy one thing that has struck me is how much of early Christianity lives on in Orthodoxy. Tradition in Orthodoxy is a living Tradition. It is something lived out day by day over many centuries. Every Sunday Orthodox churches celebrate the historic Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great. In Orthodoxy I see the Church of the early Church Fathers like Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius the Great, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, John of Damascus. For a Protestant to visit an Orthodox Liturgy is like the movie Jurassic Park where paleobiologist Alan Grant sees living breathing dinosaurs walking right before his eyes.


The Unity of the Church

If Pastor Sumpter holds to the branch theory of the church, then it behooves him to demonstrate how this particular ecclesiology does in fact promote church unity. When one looks at more recent Reformed movements like the Federal Vision or the CREC (Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches) and their embrace of the catholicity of the church one has to wonder how they would bring about unity in an already fractured Reformed tradition, not to mention the many differences in the larger Protestant tradition.

But the unity being discussed here is a horizontal unity among the various Protestant bodies today. It is a horizontal unity in the sense that it spans the world geographically in the present moment. Another dimension to church unity is the vertical unity that links the present day church to the early Church. Can Pastor Sumpter claim unity with the early Church?   Pastor Sumpter and Philip Schaff may have read the church fathers but are they in the line of historic Eucharistic Communion with a Bishop of the early church say of Saint John Chrysostom?


Let’s go time traveling!

Let us try this thought experiment. Let’s say Toby Sumpter and Philip Schaff travelled in a time machine back to Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople in the late fourth century when John Chrysostom was giving his famous sermons. Would they be allowed to receive Communion?  The answer is: No. This is based on the fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople of today which has been in unbroken continuity with Saint John Chrysostom for centuries would deny Pastor Toby Sumpter Holy Communion now as it would then. Keep in mind that John Chrysostom is the 37th Bishop of Constantinople who served from 398 to 404, and the current Bishop is Bartholomew I who took office in 1991 is the 271st Bishop of Constantinople.

In terms of doctrine and worship the Greek Orthodox Church today is virtually identical with Saint John Chrysostom’s Church then. The question one must then ask is: Is there a discontinuity between the Greek Orthodox Church of today and the church of John Chrysostom’s time?  If there is a disruption (this I believe is what Pastor Sumpter would assume), then when did the break take place?  If the discontinuity is due to Protestantism’s break with Rome then the question becomes: Is the Reformed church one with Saint John Chrysostom’s church or is it a separate church?


By What Authority?

Interestingly, in addition to logic and reason, Pastor Sumpter felt the need to invoke his pastoral authority as he closes the blog article.

You are under the authority of and in communion with Jesus now through the pastors and elders who baptized you, catechized you, and serve you the Supper.

When I read this sentence I was taken aback. When I was a Protestant I never encountered such naked expression of pastoral power; not even when I was talking with my pastor about my intention to become Orthodox!  This kind of strong authority is a part of Orthodoxy but even then Orthodox priests exercise it cautiously. I heard an Orthodox Priest relate instances when parishioners wanted to adopt practices or views contrary to Orthodoxy, his response to them was: “There’s the door. And you’re welcome to come back when you’re ready.”  Meaning they were free to leave the Church if they held views at odds with the teachings of the Church but that he would welcome them back if they changed their mind. This open door approach is more respectful of human dignity than emotional blackmail and spiritual intimidation cloaked in “pastoral” concern.

But the more fundamental question here is: What is the basis for pastoral authority?  At the Last Supper Jesus said to his disciples: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20)  In other words with his death on the Cross Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant. This means that the Church is the New Israel. Like the Israel of the Old Covenant there was covenant order and covenant authority. Covenant authority is not something one generates by one’s self; it is conferred by a higher authority. Jesus told his disciples: “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me. . . .” (Luke 22:29)  Covenant authority is conferred by Christ to his Apostles who in turned conferred it to their successors the Bishops via ordination. Inquirers into Orthodoxy today can examine the Orthodox Church’s claim to apostolic succession through the lists of successions, e.g., that of Patriarchate of Antioch or that of Constantinople. The sad thing is that the lack of Bishops means the absence of covenant authority in Reformed churches. This leads to the question: By what authority does Pastor Sumpter warn people not to convert to Orthodoxy?  Lacking the covenant authority of the historic apostolic Church, Pastor Sumpter is on shaky grounds here.

Pastor Sumpter curiously uses his pastoral position with emotional family appeals for unity. One wonders if he offers the same counsel to couples and families coming to his church who are leaving historic Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican family backgrounds? Or does Pastor Sumpter’s idea of schism cut in only one direction? Regardless, this line of argumentation seems more than a tad manipulative – if not downright duplicitous.


Joining the Levite Club?

It is regrettable that Pastor Toby Sumpter has to engage in name calling in his defense of Reformed Christianity. This is more than a breach of good manners; it is also symptomatic of a weak theological position. I am reminded of this quote:

Observe which side resorts to the most vociferous name calling and you are likely to have identified the side with the weaker argument and they know it. (Charles R. Anderson)  Source

Equating joining Orthodoxy with joining the “Levite club” or becoming “camel gulpers” and “gnat stranglers” is colorful polemics but not reasoned argumentation. We deserve better than that!

You can’t convert and act like you aren’t making a drastic statement about them. How is going from sharing the body and blood of Christ with them to being forbidden to becoming more catholic? You are going from loving Christ in the brothers and sisters right in front of you to getting cozy with strangers. This is why Paul withstood Peter to his face in Antioch. He was eating with some brothers and then when the Judaizers showed up, he withdrew. This is against the truth of the gospel. This is high handed hypocrisy and pharisaism. You are the Levite and the Priest on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. You have made an idol of ceremonies and traditions, and you are training to become a professional camel gulper and gnat strangler.  [Emphasis added.]

I suspect the polemic here is directed against: (1) Orthodoxy’s liturgical approach to worship and prayer and (2) Orthodoxy’s ascetic disciplines. With respect to the first target of Pastor Sumpter’s polemic (liturgical worship) all I can say he is correct in his judgment. Just as Old Testament worship and spirituality was liturgical and formal in nature so too is Orthodox worship and spirituality. I note however that Christian worship has historically been liturgical in nature and that it was not until the Protestant Reformation and especially the emergence of Puritanism that ceremonialism was stripped from Christian worship. So what’s the problem?

With respect to the second target of Pastor Sumpter’s polemic (Orthodoxy’s ascetic disciplines) I would point out that while Orthodoxy has a lot of rules about fasting and prayer, it is not legalistic. This may sound contradictory but the fact of the matter is we fast and pray for our spiritual growth, not to earn God’s favor. I learned that there are occasions when it is better for an Orthodox Christian not to fast for reasons of charity or hospitality. For example, if an Orthodox Christian visits the home of a non-Orthodox family and is offered hamburger the better thing is accept their hospitality than to rigidly keep the fast.

Please don't swallow me!

Please don’t swallow me!

In Orthodox spirituality discipline is leaven with grace and mercy. There are frequent warnings about the spirit of Pharisaism. After several years of attempting to keep the fasts I’ve had to eat a lot humble pie but I don’t think I’ve become a “camel gulper.”  😉



Away with Bishops?

In a subsequent blog article —  “Better Than Anointed Lords“– Pastor Sumpter posted a lengthy excerpt from Philip Schaff’s “Principle of Protestantism” which employs similar rhetorical techniques. It is evident that Schaff has a low opinion of Orthodoxy when he calls attention to the “dead Armenian and Greek denominations.” Philip Schaff’s ad hominem attack against Orthodoxy in the 1800s is no less ferocious than Pastor Sumpter’s.

No, we need something higher and better than anointed lords and consecrated gentlemen. Such aristocratic hierarchs and proud bearers of apostolic succession precisely, like the pharisees and highpriests of Judaism, have themselves again and again secularized the Church, rocking it into the sleep of lifeless formalism or religious indifference. [Emphasis added.]  

Schaff’s attack on the office of the Bishop is breathtaking. Throughout church history there have been good Bishops and bad Bishops, but that is no reason to dispense with the episcopacy. There have been good Pastors and bad Pastors, but that is not reason for dispensing with the office of the Pastor!  Using this same logic if there are numerous bad sermons given on Sunday morning is that reason enough to drop the sermon altogether? Is not the more reasonable solution?? More dedicated Bishops, better Pastors, and high quality sermons? We need as the Apostle Paul advised Bishop Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6).


A Word for Hesitant Protestants

What I have tried to do in this blog article is to respond logically and calmly to Pastor Sumpter’s warnings and admonitions to Reformed Christians interested in Orthodoxy. It is understandable that someone of Pastor Sumpter’s theological convictions would express alarm over people converting to Orthodoxy. People have been crossing over for some time now from the Reformed tradition to Orthodoxy, and this tiny trickle has been growing into a noticeable stream of converts drawing the attention of concerned Reformed pastors.

In this blog article I gave reasons for becoming Orthodox, but I also recognize that some people are hesitant for relational reasons. They fear the breakup of long standing friendships and intimate family ties. These are good reasons to hesitate. Generally, the counsel by Orthodox Priests is that it is better for the husband or wife to delay their entry into the Church in order to give their spouse time to consider Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy seeks to keep marital and family ties intact. See my articles: “Family Concerns and Conversion to Orthodoxy” and “Called Together.”

For many inquirers the best approach is the “Nicodemus approach,” that is, to inquire quietly and discreetly about Orthodox Christianity. There are many excellent books and materials out there. Thanks to the Internet people can listen to Ancient Faith Radio or read the Early Church Fathers online. Another venue for quiet exploration is the Saturday evening Vespers service or visit an Orthodox Liturgy while traveling. One could even set up a one on one meeting with a local Orthodox priest. Many priests are converts to Orthodox and many of the priests who are “cradle Orthodox” have experience dealing with Protestant inquirers. And of course there’s the Contact Form on this blog and other similar blogs. 🙂

For hesitant Protestant inquirers my message to them is: “Don’t be afraid!  Trust in God’s sovereignty and his great mercy.”  We can’t control the times we live in but we can choose how we will live. In my blog article “Crossing the Bosphorus” I compared the different kinds of border crossings taking place today. With some families becoming Orthodox is like moving house, one loads up the truck, say your goodbyes, and move into your new home. For others becoming Orthodox will be like crossing hostile territory strung with barbed wires and guards on patrol. For these families becoming Orthodox will be much more difficult and costly. My aim here is to foster friendly dialogue and mutual respect on both sides. I believe there can be friendly dialogue between the Reformed and Orthodox traditions even as we disagree.


Can We Still be Friends?

In a recent blog posting “Evangelicals and Orthodox in Conversation” I pointed out the longstanding friendship between Pastor John Armstrong and Father Wilbur Ellsworth even as they diverged theologically. Ellsworth became Orthodox while Armstrong remained a convinced Reformed minister. [See video]


Friends talking and having a good time.

It’s more than a decade since I converted to Orthodoxy. I’m amazed that many of my friendships still carry over from my Protestant days. A few days ago I had dinner with a retired Congregationalist pastor, went to the local farmers’ market with a couple who belong to a United Methodist Church and another friend who is Roman Catholic. A few nights ago I went to a Thai food restaurant for dinner with a friend from the missions committee of my former home church and caught up with a missionary couple whom I knew from the 1980s!

Much of this camaraderie is due to the mutual respect we have for each other even as we differ theologically. Also, I emphasized the personal aspect of friendship but exercised caution when it comes to church functions. I’ve attended funerals at my former home church; and I attended their centennial anniversary but I told them I would not be attending their Sunday Services. I can’t because it would be like seeing an old girlfriend one still has feelings for. Love and commitment calls for wisdom in setting boundaries. The point I want to make is that friendships can continue even as we change church membership.


Enjoying a common meal!  Source

As I wrote earlier in this blog article, Orthodox Christians welcome the opportunity to share a common meal with their Reformed friends and family members!  This is the right application of Galatians 2 to the present situation. Let us not be like the early Judaizers who disinvited themselves from the common meal with Gentile fellow believers in Christ. We may not always agree theologically but we can still be friends.

Robert Arakaki


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