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An Orthodox Response to Michael Reeves’ “Eastern Orthodoxy: An Evangelical Assessment”

Prof. Michael Reeves: “Eastern Orthodoxy: An Evangelical Assessment” Source


Protestant conversions to Orthodoxy are attracting the attention of Evangelicals, prompting their leaders to examine it and critique it. Recently, Michael Reeves, President of the Union School of Theology in London, gave a presentation on Orthodoxy. His Evangelical credentials are impressive. He has served as a minister at All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London and has served as Head of Theology for the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship.  [Source]

Prof. Reeves is to be commended for having read Church Fathers like Athanasius the Great, Gregory Palamas, Dionysius the Areopagite (aka Pseudo-Dionysius), as well as researching the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II, 787). Some may find Prof. Reeves’ meticulous analysis pedantic and difficult to listen to. Others may dismiss Reeves on the ground he misrepresents Orthodoxy. Patience and humility are essential for maintaining Reformed-Orthodox dialogue. We are living in an unusual period of church history. Only a few years ago, conversations between Evangelicals and Orthodox were almost unheard of. At present we have an opportunity for the two traditions to learn from each other.

If I have a complaint about Prof. Reeves’ presentation, it would be that he could have been forthright about his theological bias. His critique of Orthodoxy is not objective, but one shaped by a particular theological tradition—the Western, Augustinian tradition. His bias appears throughout his lecture, e.g., his favoring the Augustinian understanding of God’s incomprehensibility (22:06-23:54), his complaint that Orthodoxy has a weak view of the Fall along with the absence of the idea of total depravity (41:24-30), and his rejection of synergism (45:11). Where Western Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, rely almost exclusively on Augustine of Hippo, Orthodoxy draws on a much wider range of Church Fathers.


Why Orthodoxy Appeals to Evangelicals

Reeves notes that Evangelicals are drawn to Orthodoxy’s mysticism (1:14), its rootedness (2:12), or its mystical beauty (2:29). He sees Orthodoxy’s obscurity as another reason for its appeal. At the 2:41 mark, Prof. Reeves observes:

And also, somewhat more humdrum perhaps, I think some of the converts you see from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy are fleeing particular Western problems to an unknown that can be molded. So Roman Catholicism is more of a known quantity, Eastern Orthodoxy is a slightly more less defined and slightly less known quantity. And therefore you can flee it into a religion that can be more comfortable according to what you want (2:41-3:18; emphasis added).

I was amused when I heard Prof. Reeves’ description of Orthodoxy as a “comfortable religion.” Orthodoxy’s ascetic disciplines such as the weekly Wednesday and Friday fasts, the annual forty-day Lenten fast, and the requirement of going to confession, make Orthodoxy much more demanding than Evangelicalism. Furthermore, his characterization of Orthodoxy as “an unknown that can be molded” is simply ridiculous. Inquirers into Orthodoxy (catechumens) will soon learn about Orthodoxy’s ascetic disciplines, its dogmas, its rejection of heresies, its way of worship, and the authority of bishops.

It should be noted that there is one more reason that Orthodoxy appeals to Evangelicals: doctrine. Orthodoxy’s doctrinal stability offers relief to Evangelicals weary of trendy fads, or to those troubled by the many conflicting denominational doctrines, the abandonment of traditional Christian morality, and theological liberalism.


The Two Strands of Orthodoxy

For his presentation, Prof. Reeves selected two main talking points—or what he calls “core doctrinal points”—to Orthodox theology: icons and apophatic theology.

Pantocrator Icon – Hagia Sophia


It is quite understandable that Reeves selected icons for assessing Orthodoxy. Icons represent the most visible difference between the two traditions. Reeves is under the impression that icons are central to Orthodox identity (6:57). While icons are very much a part of Orthodoxy, even more central to Orthodox identity is the Eucharist. Orthodoxy believes that in the Eucharist we truly receive Christ’s body and blood, and that it is through the Eucharist that we are united to Christ and the Church. Thus, the Eucharist is more suitable for helping Evangelicals understand Orthodoxy and its approach to icons. If one accepts the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, one can then grasp the sacramental nature of icons—how icons are truly windows to heaven. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is based on the Incarnation—the Word becoming flesh for our salvation. The Incarnation teaches embodied grace, that God’s grace can be conveyed through material substance such as water, wine, bread, oil, incense, and physical gestures like the sign of the Cross, etc. This is quite different from Evangelicalism, which emphasizes God’s grace conveyed through words—the Bible and the sermon.

In his presentation on icons, Michael Reeves examines John of Damascus, then Gregory Palamas. He describes John of Damascus’ argument that the Incarnation provides the basis for the veneration of icons (9:10-11:20). Reeves then notes that the Orthodox theology of icons reaches its full development with Gregory Palamas’ teaching on Christ’s transfiguration on Mount Tabor (11:30-17:30). The Transfiguration of Christ, in which His visible, picturable human flesh emanated the divine glory, implies that physical matter like wood and paint can also transmit the divine glory (16:49).

I was surprised at the attention Reeves gives to Gregory Palamas. Gregory Palamas is more usually associated with the fourteenth century hesychasm (inner silence) controversy, not the eighth century iconoclasm controversy. While Gregory’s writings on the uncreated energies could certainly be used to defend the veneration of icons, Orthodoxy for the most part has not made much use of Gregory Palamas to defend icons.  I found an excerpt of Gregory Palamas’ teaching on icon and was struck by his reserved understanding of icons, which was in keeping with the general Orthodox approach to icons.

You must not, then, deify the icons of Christ and of the saints, but through them you should venerate Him who originally created us in His own image, and who subsequently consented in His ineffable compassion to assume the human image and to be circumscribed by it.  [Source]

A child venerating icons. Soruce

It would be helpful if Prof. Reeves were to provide us with excerpts from Gregory Palamas that support his position.

Reeves makes the point that the Palamite teaching on the uncreated light leads to Orthodox Christians gazing at icons in order to experience the divine glory.

You can spend time gazing upon an icon, Mary, or Gregory Palamas through that. What you’re wanting to see is to see the uncreated light of God’s glory. That’s what you’re wanting to experience. (17:15-31)

Here Michael Reeves completely misunderstands and thus misrepresents how Orthodox Christians relate to icons. Orthodox Christians are encouraged to have icon corners, where they spend time in prayer before the icon of Christ and the saints, but they are not encouraged to gaze at icons. Basically, we pray to the person depicted in icons. Likewise, icons are not the focal point in the Liturgy. Attention rather is given to the prayers, the hymns, the Scripture readings, and to the Eucharist. We do not fixate on icons; that’s not healthy Orthodox spirituality. Reeves’ misunderstanding of Orthodoxy here apparently stems from his limited exposure to lived Orthodoxy.


Apophatic Theology

Where Western Christianity favors cataphatic theology—theology through words and thoughts, Orthodoxy favors apophatic theology—theology without words. Prof. Reeves contrasts the Western Augustinian approach to knowledge of God against the Eastern apophatic approach (22:06 ff.). Paraphrasing Pseudo-Dionysius, Reeves describes apophatic theology:

God is literally above essence. He is super essential. Now, what’s that going to do to your knowledge of God? If that’s your way you do theology? Having fenced off what God is not, you haven’t yet said what He is. And so what God is has not been defined. God is left in this theology, ultimately in the darkness of unknowing. (27:35-28:07)

Michael Reeves fails to take into account that in Orthodoxy the individualized monastic prayer of hesychasm is complemented by the corporate prayer in the Liturgy. In the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, we find cataphatic theology complementing apophatic theology:

It is proper and right to hymn You, to bless You, to praise You, to give thanks to You, and to worship You in every place of Your dominion. For You, O God, are ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, existing forever, forever the same, You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You brought us out of nothing into being, and when we had fallen away, You raised us up again. You left nothing undone until you had led us up to heaven and granted us Your Kingdom, which is to come. For all these things, we thank You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit: for all things we know and do not know, for blessings manifest and hidden that have been bestowed on us. (Emphasis added)

Here in the Anaphora (prayer of consecration) the Orthodox priest declares God’s unknowableness while also confessing God as Trinity working to save fallen humanity. [Video of the Anaphora at 1:35] Orthodoxy affirms both theology with words and theology without words. Where we part ways with Western Christians is with respect to the adequacy of theology with words. Western Christianity abounds with books on systematic theology and detailed statement of faiths. This is largely absent in Orthodoxy, which places greater emphasis on prayer. That is why the climax of Orthodox worship is not the sermon but the Eucharist.

Michael Reeves is concerned that apophatic theology creates a “super idol” that leaves us in the “darkness of unknowing.” (27:11) He suggests that Orthodoxy’s apophaticism has a problem similar to the Arian heresy: the lack of true knowledge of God. The Arian position that the Son is not God implies then we do not have a genuine revelation of God. In a similar way according to Reeves, the problem with Orthodoxy’s apophaticism is that if God is unknowable then even with the Incarnation we will end up without a genuine knowledge of God. However, Reeve’s position is not without the same problem as well. In his presentation on Gregory Palamas, Reeves failed to mention the historical context, that is, Palamas’ controversy with Barlaam of Seminara. Gregory Palamas developed his understanding of the uncreated light of Tabor in response to Barlaam’s disavowal that direct knowledge of God could be possible. In rejecting Gregory Palamas, Reeves seems to be taking the Barlaamite position that at best we can have knowledge about God, but we cannot have direct knowledge of God.

When Prof. Reeves selected apophatic theology for his presentation, I was both surprised and not surprised. I was not surprised, as early on I had encountered books and essays about Orthodoxy’s apophatic approach to knowing God. Yet, I was surprised because little mention is made of apophatic theology in the everyday life of Orthodox Christians. On a daily basis, Orthodox Christians are more concerned with following a prayer rule than with constructing theological systems. Prof. Reeves misunderstands the role of apophaticism in Orthodox life.

The theology of the Orthodox Church is found primarily in its worship—the Divine Liturgy. In Orthodoxy, theology is not so much written down as it is sung and prayed. Orthodox worship consists of the Sunday Liturgy, Sunday morning Matins, Saturday evening Vespers, the occasional Memorial services, as well as the Holy Week services that culminate in the glorious Pascha (Easter) Service. As an intellectual, I am nourished by the prayers and services of the Church. I have found that the spiritual realities discussed in theological works can be apprehended through the cultivation of prayer and the denying of the flesh. Without these spiritual disciplines, all one has is head knowledge, and head knowledge detached from prayer is dead knowledge. True theological knowledge is life-giving. True theology transforms the soul and leads to deification. Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth century desert father, once wrote:

If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.

Apophatic theology is difficult for the average Christian to grasp. My advice to Evangelical inquirers is not to worry about understanding this doctrine. Rather, using your personal faith in Christ as a starting point, ask whether Orthodoxy can help deepen your spiritual life. Attend the Orthodox Sunday services (liturgy), listen to the prayers and hymns, incorporate Orthodox prayers into your daily devotions, and determine whether Orthodoxy has a deepening effect on your relationship with God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.



One criticism Prof. Reeves makes of the Orthodox doctrine of deification is that it has changed over time, especially under Gregory Palamas (17:52-21:02). To explain the doctrine of deification, many Orthodox Christians make reference to Athanasius’ statement that the Son of God became man so that men might become sons of God (On the Incarnation §54; NPNF Vol. IV p. 65). Orthodoxy understands salvation in Christ as involving a transformation much like a sword when thrust into a fire takes on the properties of the fire, becoming hot and glowing, while still remaining a sword. According to Reeves, the Incarnation involves Christ bringing to humanity his knowledge of the Father (18:49). By sharing his knowledge of the Father, Christ brings us into a relationship with his Father, something that we might today call adoption (19:06; 19:20). This relational knowledge of the Father results in our transformation and glorification. Reeves defines deification as “sharing in the divine communion” (19:30) but he seems to shy away from the more ontological understanding of deification as presented in 2 Peter 1:4: “become partakers of the divine nature.” (RSV) Reeves’ unwillingness to address the ontological aspect of deification in this biblical passage strikes me as rather puzzling.

Reeves argues that with Palamas deification shifts from relational knowledge of God to being filled with the uncreated light. The logical result is that deification is no longer a “relational ideal.” (20:10-15). He goes on to note that here deification is no longer relational but more like “receiving the force of divine glory” (20:29). I take issue with Reeves’ claim that deification under Palamas is receiving an impersonal force. At the heart of the hesychast controversy was the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This is not a mantra, but a prayer—a person-to-person dialogue. The Orthodox Church encourages her members to say the Jesus Prayer. It is believed that through continuous prayer the Christian will unite himself or herself with Christ and in the process will be transformed into Christ’s likeness (deification).

Reeves makes the argument that Gregory Palamas’ understanding of deification diverged from that of the early Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Athanasius. For the Orthodox, this is a serious charge in light of Orthodoxy’s insistence that the essential elements of its theology remain unchanged. I would need to hear more from Prof. Reeves on how he reached that conclusion. Reeves warns against reading modern Eastern Orthodox understanding of deification into the early Church Fathers, because they are not exactly the same (21:02). My guess is that it is Prof. Reeves himself who is reading Athanasius with Western Augustinian lenses. This would explain the divergence he sees between Athanasius and Gregory Palamas. It should be kept in mind that Athanasius’ organic understanding of the Incarnation and deification is integral to Orthodox soteriology, but lies on the margins of Western Augustinian/Calvinist forensics-based soteriology.


Theological Faux Pas

Reeves asserts that Gregory Palamas’ energies/essence distinction implies that there are two parts to God. (33:53) This is sheer nonsense and no Orthodox Christian would agree to this. I winced when Prof. Reeves seeks to refute Gregory Palamas by asserting that it was not the energies of God that was Incarnate but the essence of God (34:59). I winced because in good Trinitarian theology it was the second Person of the Trinity, the Son, who is of the same essence as the Father, who became Incarnate. Whenever any competent theologian discusses the Trinity, they need to handle the terms Essence, Persons, and Energies competently or else there will be confusion and misunderstanding.


Lord Have Mercy!

Michael Reeves cites Gordon-Conwell professor Donald Fairbairn’s observation that the Orthodox practice of repeatedly saying “Lord, have mercy!” in their services has a weakening effect on their relationship with God. To Fairbairn this suggests a lack of confidence in God’s mercy in light of God being unknowable (35:47). My first response is to ask: Is this based upon your interviews with Orthodox Christians? How large and representative was your sample population? My next response is that it is because we are confident in God’s love that Orthodoxy delights in saying: “Lord, have mercy!” We are constantly reminded of God’s love for us throughout the Liturgy all the way up to the closing prayer: “for He is good and loves mankind.” In the Reformed tradition, this confidence is shadowed by the doctrine of double predestination—God will have mercy on the elect, but not on the damned. While Calvinists cannot ask for God’s full mercy on all men—since by his supposed eternal decree, God has damned all non-elect to eternal hell and torment—the Orthodox call upon God’s mercy in intimate and cherished confidence knowing that God is a loving God abounding mercy to all. My advice to Evangelical inquirers is that they meet with Orthodox believers and ask them their understanding of the liturgical response—“Lord, have mercy!”—and how it shapes their understanding of God.


Two Acts Versus Three Acts of Salvation?

Prof. Reeves describes the Orthodox view of salvation as having a two-act schema: Creation, then Deification (43:11), versus the Western three-act schema: Creation, Fall, and Redemption (42:40-42:56). According to Reeves, in the Orthodox two-act schema not much is made of the Fall in the middle. It is there but it’s not such a prominent feature (43:19). This is a gross misrepresentation of the Orthodox Church’s understanding of salvation. The three-act schema can be found in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. An examination of the Anaphora, the prayers said for the consecration of the bread and wine, shows the three acts numbered in brackets: 1 – Creation, 2 – Fall, and 3 – Redemption:

[1] You brought us out of nothing into being, and [2] when we had fallen away, [3] You raised us up again. You left nothing undone until you had led us up to heaven and granted us Your Kingdom, which is to come.

A more detailed three-act schema can be found in the Anaphora of Saint Basil’s Liturgy, which the Orthodox Church uses ten times a year.

You have ordered all things for us. [1] For having made man by taking dust from the earth, and having honored him with Your own image, O God, You placed him in a garden of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Your commandments. [2] But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but because of Your tender compassion, [3] You visited him in various ways: You sent forth prophets; You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation have pleased You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants the prophets, announcing to us the salvation which was to come; You gave us the law to help us; You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages.

[2] For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, [3] so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ.

Here we see one of the basic differences between Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy. Where Protestant theology is principally scholastic theology, Orthodox theology is basically liturgical theology. This goes back to the ancient theological principle: lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith). In focusing on written texts to the exclusion of the Liturgy, Prof. Reeves ended up misapprehending and misrepresenting Orthodoxy. This focus on written texts is understandable in light of the influence of Roman Catholic Scholasticism on Protestantism. Without his knowing it, the Western theological tradition has biased Prof. Reeves’ assessment of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is not Western. Hence, it would not be appropriate to expect Orthodoxy to conform to the parameters of the Western Augustinian tradition.


My Assessment and Advice

Throughout his presentation, Prof. Michael Reeves maintained a positive tone towards Orthodoxy. In his assessment, Reeves did not pull his punches. He points to what he sees are its logical inconsistencies, its divergence from the patristic position, its susceptibility to certain heresies, and its divergence from “authentic” (Augustinian) Christianity. Overall, I found a certain abstract quality to Prof. Reeves’ assessment of Orthodoxy. My impression is that he read with care a number of Orthodox texts, analyzed them in terms of theological systems, and assessed them for logical consistency and conformity to Augustine/Calvin. I do not have the sense that Prof. Reeves had attended Orthodox services or that he had spent time talking with Orthodox Christians. Orthodoxy is not a theological system as it is a way of life.

My advice to Protestants curious about Orthodoxy is that they take notes from Prof. Reeves’ presentation, visit an Orthodox church, and use the notes to ask questions about Orthodoxy. Attend the Sunday Liturgy (preferably an all-English service) and listen to the prayers and hymns. Seek out former Protestants who have converted to Orthodoxy. These converts can serve as translators explaining the similarities and differences between Orthodox and Protestants terms. Ask how Orthodoxy has shaped their understanding of God, how they pray, and how they approach life. See for yourself if there is merit to Prof. Reeves’ assessment of Orthodoxy. It is also important that curious Evangelicals meet with an Orthodox priest, preferably one who is a convert. While there are many well-read converts, it is the priest who speaks with the authority of the Church. I close with a friendly, brotherly challenge to Prof. Reeves and other curious Evangelicals in the form of a biblical quotation from John 1:46. Philip in response to Nathaniel’s skepticism replies: “Come and see!”

Robert Arakaki


References and Recommended Readings

Michael Reeves. “Eastern Orthodoxy: An Evangelical Assessment—Michael Reeves.” Forum of Christian Leaders Online [45:59]  19 November 2018.

Bishop Alexander – Bulgarian Diocese OCA.  “Force Your MInd to Descend into the Heart.”  Voices from St. Vladimir’s Seminary – Ancient Faith Radio.  17 September 2014.

All Saints Orthodox Church – Linconshire, Lincoln.  “The Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom.”  [14:19 @ 1:35]

Athanasius the Great.  On the Incarnation.  New Advent and NPNF.

Rod Dreher.  “Meditation & The Jesus Prayer.”  The American Conservative.  15 July 2014.

Donald Fairbairn. Orthodoxy through Western Eyes. [Mentioned by Reeves at 35:47]

Stephen Freeman.  “Apophaticism.”  Glory to God for All Things.  9 December 2008.

Stephen Freeman.  “Belief and Practice.” Glory to God for All Things.  26 June 2009.

Michael Harper. A Faith Fulfilled. [Mentioned by Reeves at 1:14]

Hieromartyr Irenaeus the Bishop of Lyons.”  Orthodox Church in America.

John of Damascus.  “#202: John of Damascus for Icons.”  Christian History Institute.

Anna Keating. “Why Evangelical megachurches are embracing (some) Catholic traditions.” America. 5 May 2019.

Catherine Mowry LaCugna. God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life.  HarperSanFrancisco.

Robert Letham. Through Western Eyes: Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective. [Mentioned by Reeves at 32:55]

Vladimir Lossky. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.

George Maloney. A Theology of “Uncreated Energies.”

St Gregory Palamas on Holy Icons.” A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons.

St. Gregory Palamas the Archbishop of Thessalonica.”  Orthodox Church in America.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.  “Hesychasm in the Orthodox Christian Tradition.”  St. Andrew Greek Orthodox Church.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.  “Jesus Prayer – Breathing Exercises.”  OrthodoxPrayer.org



Memory Eternal! Billy Graham


Billy Graham and Metropolitan Hilarion (2014)


While I was at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1993, I was fortunate to see Billy Graham on one his visits there.  Rev. Graham helped found Gordon-Conwell in 1969 and later served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1989 to 1993.  In addition to his administrative duties, he was there that day to meet with the student body. When I first saw him outside chatting with some students, I was struck by how tall he was (6’2”).  Later inside the school chapel, I became concerned when he slumped into the chair. He explained to us that he was suffering from early stage Parkinson disease.  The conversation with the Gordon-Conwell student body was open, unrestricted, and wide ranging.  One striking remark was his regret that he never completed his theological studies.  Writing as one who found studies at Gordon-Conwell helpful to my journey to Orthodoxy, I wonder where rigorous theological studies might have taken Rev. Graham.

The Billy Graham I saw that winter afternoon in the early 1990s was a mature elder statesman, not the young firebrand preacher I had read about.  I came away from that meeting grateful for the opportunity to have met one of Evangelicalism’s great leaders.  With Billy Graham’s passing, Evangelicalism has lost one of its guiding personalities. Among the things we can appreciate are his moderation and theological stability in the midst of massive, wrenching changes sweeping through American Evangelicalism.  When we look at his character and conduct, it is admirable how Billy Graham’s life was untouched by sexual scandal.  He reportedly received a relatively modest salary from his organization and lived a relatively modest lifestyle.  We can only lament that American Evangelicalism has become unrecognizable to those of us who became Christians during the 1970s and earlier.

I also appreciate Rev. Graham’s openness to Orthodoxy.  His willingness to meet with Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2014 is striking evidence of the openness that Evangelicals can have with the Orthodox.  In many ways the spirit of theological conservatism combined with openness to other religious traditions that I saw in Billy Graham and experienced at Gordon-Conwell helped me begin my journey to Orthodoxy.  I approached Orthodoxy with friendly curiosity, not with fear and paranoia.  Today as an Orthodox Christian I am convinced that Orthodoxy has the fullness of the Faith, but I am also grateful for the many valuable lessons I learned from Evangelicalism: the need for personal faith in Christ, the importance of reading the Bible, and daily prayer.  These lessons I have retained as an Orthodox Christian.

Robert Arakaki


Robert Arakaki.  2014.  “Evangelicals Talking With Orthodox.” ReformedOrthodoxBridge

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  2018.  “In Memoriam: Billy Graham.

Michael Hyatt and John Maddex.  2018.  “6 Things Orthodox Christians Can Learn From Billy Graham.”  Ancient Faith Presents . . . .


Hank Hanegraaff Becomes Orthodox

How Should Evangelicals Respond?

Hank Hanegraaff – Bible Answer Man

Right – Hank Hanegraaff being received into the Orthodox Church – Palm Sunday 2017


On 9 April 2017, Hank Hanegraaff – also known as the “Bible Answer Man” – was received into the Orthodox Church.  His conversion to Orthodoxy surprised many Evangelicals.  Some have reacted negatively.  The blog site Pulpit & Pen posted “The Bible Answer Man, Hank Hanegraaff, Leaves the Christian Faith?”  In the article, Jeff Maples wrote a very negative assessment:

The Orthodox Church is a false expression of Christianity, much like the Roman Catholic Church, that is highly driven by graven images and denies the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and instead, trusts in meritorious works and a sacramental system for salvation. [Emphasis added.]

A “false expression of Christianity” – really??!!  But where are the facts to support his judgment?  My impression from reading Mr. Maples’ brief article is that he needs to write a longer article in which he presents the arguments and evidence for his harsh assessment of Orthodoxy.  Otherwise, he is just ranting and voicing unthinking prejudice.

Another negative but more tempered assessment can be found on the Reformed blog Triablogue’sHank Hanegraaff’s Promotion of Eastern Orthodoxy.”  Jason Engwer traces Mr. Hanegraaff’s gradual shift towards Orthodoxy through a detailed listing and notation of his podcasts comments.  Mr. Engwer is not happy with Mr. Hanegraaff’s recent conversion because: (1) Mr. Hanegraaff is not adhering to the fine points of Evangelical beliefs; (2) Mr. Engwer questions Orthodoxy’s claim to historic roots; and (3) Mr. Engwer believes that Evangelicalism is healthier than Orthodoxy.  Much of Jason Engwer’s beef against Orthodoxy is that it is not Protestant!  However, it is curious that Mr. Engwer did not raise the question whether Orthodoxy is biblical.  This ought to be the bottom-line question for any Evangelical.

Thoughtful Evangelicals should take the time to ask the following questions:

  • Is Protestantism the only valid expression of Christianity?
  • Does my salvation depend on my being Protestant?
  • What are the marks of genuine Christianity?
  • How do I know that my criteria for “genuine Christianity” are fair?

I recommend that Evangelicals read books like Peter Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox, Robert Letham’s Through Western Eyes, and James Payton’s Light From the Christian East.  Fr. Gillquist writes from an Orthodox perspective, Letham and Payton from the perspective of sympathetic Protestants.  It is important to get the facts rather than to rush to judgment based on a hostile Protestant critique. I ask all readers to learn about Orthodoxy from seasoned, recognized Orthodox writers, not from hostile sources.

Many Evangelicals are probably wondering: “Why would someone who knows the Bible so well decide to become Orthodox?  Is Hank Hanegraaff still a Christian?”  The answer can be found in the words of Mr. Hanegraaff himself:

And I suppose over that period of time I have fallen ever more in love with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It’s sort of like my wife—I have never been more in love with my wife than I am today, and I’ve never been more in love with my Lord Jesus Christ than I am today. I’ve been impacted by the whole idea of knowing Jesus Christ, experiencing Jesus Christ, and partaking of the graces of Jesus Christ through the Eucharist or the Lord’s Table. And that has become so central in my life, but as far as the statement that you mentioned, that I’ve left the Christian faith—nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact I believe what I have always believed, as codified in the Nicene Creed, and as championed by mere Christianity.

After reciting the entire Nicene Creed, he concluded, “In other words, I am as deeply committed to championing mere Christianity and the essentials of the historic Christian faith, as I have ever been.”  [Source; Emphasis added.]


It is clear that Hank Hanegraaff’s continues to love Christ and the Bible, and that he cares deeply about Christ’s Church.  Many other Protestant and Evangelical converts to Orthodoxy have found this to be the case as well.  What we have found in Orthodoxy is a historically-grounded framework for understanding the Bible (i.e., Holy Tradition) and a reverent approach to worship (i.e., the Divine Liturgy).  In these times of upheaval and shifting doctrines, we have found safe haven in the Orthodox Church.


Is Orthodoxy Biblical?

Another related question a thoughtful Evangelical might ask would be: “Does conversion to Orthodoxy entail a weakened commitment to the authority and inspiration of Scripture?”  My answer to the question is that Orthodoxy is indeed biblical.  It may come as a surprise to some that what they think of as unbiblical, e.g., icons, Holy Tradition, and honoring Mary are indeed profoundly biblical. I certainly was surprised when I became open to other ways of reading the Bible. I have written a number of articles that have dealt with these topics.

I became Orthodox, not in spite of the Bible, but because of the Bible!  Orthodoxy is biblical Christianity without the Protestant add-ons.


Is Protestantism Biblical?

It may come as a shock to Evangelicals to discover that some of their core doctrines are based on a misreading of the Bible.  Evangelicals read the Bible diligently, but they read it with a particular slant.  It is this slant that causes them to misread the Bible.

For example, nowhere does the Bible teach “the Bible alone.”  There are numerous passages about the authority, inspiration, and truthfulness of Scripture, but there is nothing about the Bible as the sole source for faith and practice.  What the early Reformers did was to impose this axiom onto the Bible all the while ignoring passages that affirmed Holy Tradition.  Once the question popped in my head: “Where does the Bible say ‘the Bible alone’?” I was able to read Bible with an open mind and with surprising results.  It was like becoming aware that I was wearing glasses all the time and that the lenses were bending the light in a particular way.

Jason Engwer in the Reformed blog site Triablogue faults Hank Hanegraaff for affirming Scripture as “my rule of faith and practice” but not using the qualifier “alone.”  Could it be because the phrase “bible alone” is not found in the Bible? It is a Protestant add-on. Hank Hanegraaff has by no means watered down his commitment to Scripture and is in fact living up to his title “Bible Answer Man”!

Tabernacle in Exodus

Many Evangelicals are so used to coming to church on Sunday mornings and seeing four blank walls.  But if they were to read Exodus 26:31, 1 Kings 6:29-31, and 2 Chronicles 3:14 they would realize that the Moses’ Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple were richly endowed with sacred images.  That so many pastors skip over these biblical passages reflect Protestantism’s hidden tradition that promotes a certain way of viewing the Bible.  The use of images in churches is an ancient practice that goes back to the catacombs and even has roots in Judaism.  Nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to have four bare walls for our place of worship which raises the question which is more biblical: Orthodoxy with icons or Protestantism with bare walls?

In their reaction against Roman Catholicism, Protestant Reformers unwittingly threw the baby out with the bathwater.  With the novel doctrine sola scriptura, Protestantism became unmoored from the Church Fathers.  This resulted in Protestantism drifting from its roots in historic Christianity.  With the novel doctrine sola fidesalvation by grace alone through faith alone – Protestantism created a new doctrinal standard by which they could judge themselves to be “true Christians” and any who differed from them to be unsaved and lost.  The key defining element in early Christianity was Christology; the Protestant Reformers with sola fide created a new dogma with divisive consequences.

A thoughtful Evangelical must take into consideration the fact that none of the Church Fathers taught the Protestant dogma: salvation by grace alone through faith alone.  While there were several theories in the early Church about how Christ saves us, there was no one dominant theory. Among the early motifs were: Christ the Great Physician, Christ the Second Adam, Christ the Conquering King Victorious over Death. The early Church taught that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ; but no one taught salvation as a private experience independent of the sacraments or life in the Church. A sober and honest Protestant must ask himself: “How could the Holy Spirit fail to teach ANY of the Church Fathers this supposedly essential doctrine?” Nonetheless, the entire Church was united in the belief that Christ saves us by his death on the Cross and his third day Resurrection. This understanding of the Gospel is especially evident in the Orthodox sacrament of baptism, its Sunday worship service (the Liturgy), and especially in the Easter (Pascha) service.


Don’t Be Afraid!

How should Evangelicals and Protestants respond to Hank Hanegraaff’s conversion to Orthodoxy?  My answer is: With charity, curiosity, an open mind, and a willingness to learn about Orthodoxy.  My hope is that they do not succumb to fearful paranoia or unthinking prejudice.  Behind these negative reactions is fear.  We need to bear in mind the words of the angels: Be not afraid!

Jeff Maples sees Hank Hanegraaff’s conversion as indicative of Evangelicalism’s “dismal state.”  I agree with this assessment.  Many who became Orthodox were very much aware of the unsettled drift, fragmentation, and prideful individualism that pervade Evangelicalism and Protestantism. However, another way to look at it is to see it as the culmination of Evangelicalism’s strengths.  Among the recent Evangelical converts to Orthodoxy are pastors, seminarians, evangelists, missionaries, church elders, Sunday School teachers, and dedicated reliable lay people.  They represent the best of Evangelicalism!   Growing numbers of Evangelicals have become Orthodox, not because of a loss of faith in the Bible but rather from disenchantment with Protestantism’s hermeneutical chaos – one Bible but so many rival interpretations!  They take the Bible and truth seriously.  Many have been drawn by Orthodoxy’s reverent approach to worship.   We don’t know the full story of Hank Hanegraaff’s journey to Orthodoxy, but it is sure to be an interesting one!


Come And See!

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

It is providential that Hank Hanegraaff joined the Orthodox Church this past Palm Sunday.  This means that in a few days time, curious Protestants and Evangelicals will have the opportunity to visit Hank Hanegraaff’s new church on Easter Sunday.  Orthodox churches can be found all over.  Just use Google or Google Maps to find the nearest Orthodox parish.  They have the chance to witness the highpoint of Orthodox worship, Easter (Pascha).  Visitors should be aware that most Orthodox churches celebrate Easter on Saturday midnight.  If they come on Easter Sunday, instead of a worship service they may find themselves witnessing an Easter egg hunt or a church picnic.  But if you do attend the Pascha (Easter) service you will hear the joyous “Christ is Risen!” and the answering reply “He is Risen Indeed!”

Robert Arakaki



—-.  “’Bible Answer Man’ Hank Hanegraaff Joins Orthodox Church.”  In Pravoslavie.  10 April 2017.

Jeff Maples.  “The Bible Answer Man, Hank Hanegraaff, Leaves the Christian Faith?” In Pulpit & Pen. 10 April 2017.

Jason Engwer.  “Hank Hanegraaff’s Promotion of Eastern Orthodoxy.”  In Triablogue.  8 April 2017.

Rod Dreher.  “Bible Answer Man Embraces Orthodoxy.”  11 April 2017.

—-.  “Hank Hanegraaff Converts to Orthodox Christianity.” In Finding the True Faith.  11 April 2017.


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