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Guilty of Bibliolatry?

Holy Bible



Recently an inquirer, interested in Orthodoxy, wrote to express his frustrations about a conversation he had with Protestants:

The problem that I kept encountering while discussing Orthodoxy with these fundamentalist Protestants is that the center of their faith is a book and not the Incarnate God-man, Jesus Christ. For example, one said: “It’s funny how he keeps trying to point to Christ and talk about how Christ is more important than Scripture. But without Scripture we don’t know Christ. He’s putting the cart before the horse. You can’t have Christ if you don’t go to God’s infallible Scripture to find Him. There is no Christ, no Christianity, no Christology, no soteriology and no other theological field of study apart from God’s infallible Word. God chose to reveal His Son through Scripture.” What is being said is only partly true, yet it is also deceptively heterodox, particularly the first sentence in red, which is what I’m calling out as iconoclastic bibliolatry! In essence, I perceive a sincere belief in the Incarnation of God the Word, yet they are saying that it is the written word that makes the Incarnation of God a reality, instead of the Incarnate Word and His theanthropic organism, the Church, that prove the veracity of Scripture; things are completely backwards and upside down, an inside out anti-Sacramental, iconoclastic bibliolatry. Please correct me if I’m wrong!



Extreme Protestantism

What one sees in the excerpt above is an extreme form of Protestantism.  The original Protestant Reformers, while they asserted sola scriptura, were also receptive to other sources of knowledge.  They formulated their arguments using Scripture, philosophy, natural science, and common sense.  They amply quoted the Church Fathers, especially when they supported the Reformers’ positions.  Luther in his famous Here I Stand speech appealed to both Scripture and reason:

Martin Luther “Here I Stand!”

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.  (Emphasis added.)  [Source]

Calvin’s Institutes is filled with citations from the early Church Fathers.  So while the Reformers appealed to Scripture, their understanding of sola scriptura allowed for other sources of knowledge.  What one finds in the Fundamentalists mentioned above is something different, a version of sola scriptura that excludes all other forms of knowledge.  This is a radical departure from historic Protestantism and results in cultic Protestantism.  They are not Protestants in the historic or normal sense of the word.

While the approach taken by the Magisterial Reformers is superior to Evangelicalism, problems remain. Under the Reformers’ seeming willingness to hear and even submit to the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils is an acknowledgment that there is wisdom greater than our own reading of Scripture. Sadly, this is not what we find happening in practice.  The history of Protestantism reveals the gradual unraveling of sola scripturaKeith Mathison’s in The Shape of Sola Scriptura notes the divergence between the classic sola scriptura of the Reformers and the later solo scriptura favored by Evangelicals.  The later version eschewed all other external sources, positing instead the individual Christian interpreting the Bible for himself.


Cultic Protestantism

Sola scriptura places a heavy burden on the Christian.  In rejecting the papacy, Protestantism imposes on the individual Christian the responsibility for understanding Scripture.  This gives rise to an independent spirit: “Nobody tells me what the Bible means!”  It also paradoxically gives rise to a spirit of dependency in which one comes to rely on the pastor, favorite radio preachers, or denomination for understanding Scripture.  It is the latter that gives rise to cultic Protestantism.

The term “cult” has often been used pejoratively to refer to a religious group one does not like.  For this article, I define “cult” in terms of sociological traits: (1) authoritarian in structure, (2) personalistic – centered on the group’s leader, (3) lacking accountability to an independent tradition or authority, (4) suppression of critical thinking, (5) little or no tolerance for internal diversity – group think, (6) an embattled, hostile perception of the outside world, and (7) anger and hostility directed against those who have left the group.

A cult takes certain elements of a healthy church and distorts them in very unhealthy ways.  In terms of architectural design, both a house and a prison have walls and doors; but where a house is designed to allow easy access and exit while protecting the residents from inclement weather, a prison is designed to prevent inmates from leaving (escaping) and is designed to maximize control over their movements.  Institutions like an army encampment or a monastery can bear a strong resemblance to a prison or an internment camp, but with the former the element of free will and consent are preserved.  People trapped in a cult or abusive relationships are enclosed psychologically by threats of punishment or external danger.  Oftentimes, all one’s close relationships are within the cult which means that leaving will result in social abandonment – life alone bereft of meaning and direction.  When engaging in theological discussions it is wise to discern whether one is talking with someone who belongs to the historic mainstream or to a cultic form of Protestantism.

Cults rely on techniques of manipulation: seduction, isolation, indoctrination, and domination.  This is similar to an abusive relationship in which the man dates a woman, and then gradually and subtly compels her to sever ties with friends and family.  These comprise the initial stages of seduction and isolation.  The stated rationale is his love and concern for her.  The woman learns to see the world the same way as the man; this is the indoctrination stage.  She is discouraged from thinking independently, becoming reliant on the man for news of the outside world; this is the group think stage.  In time the relationship takes a downward spiral into spiritual darkness and violence; this is the domination stage.  The relationship has become a prison that is very difficult to leave.  Exit is not presented as an option.

I know a man who was torn between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism.  He told me that one night he was walking by a park and saw a group singing and having a good time.  It turned out to be a church group that met at the park and in people’s homes.  He got into a discussion with the pastor (group leader) who would frequently ask him: “Where does it say that in the Bible?”  This innocent question resembles the initial stages of seduction and isolation.  A person who is spiritually hungry and seeking the truth is led down a one-way street in which the conversation is confined to what one sees in the Bible.  Other sources of knowledge are subtly excluded.  Here the rules of the game are subtly rigged without the other player knowing it.  The seeker then has to contend with the pastor’s interpretation of the Bible.  If one is ignorant of church history or has not had much education in critical thinking, one becomes vulnerable to the pastor’s “superior” insights into the Bible.  I don’t know if this group was a cult or not.  However, intellectual honesty calls for the inquirer to be made aware of the methods and sources being employed.  Fairness requires that the players be made aware of the rules of the game.  Healthy spirituality calls for a balance between the rational intellect and emotional/intuitive discernment, between individual freedom and collective authority.

So when I read the quote in the reader’s e-mail I was struck by the subtle psychological manipulations taking place.  Rather than take seriously the inquirer’s attempt to take a Christ-centered approach to Christianity, his interlocutors belittled his theological method and attempted to steer him towards an extreme version of sola scriptura.

It’s funny how he keeps trying to point to Christ and talk about how Christ is more important than Scripture. But without Scripture we don’t know Christ. He’s putting the cart before the horse. You can’t have Christ if you don’t go to God’s infallible Scripture to find Him. There is no Christ, no Christianity, no Christology, no soteriology and no other theological field of study apart from God’s infallible Word. God chose to reveal His Son through Scripture.

What we see here is a full-fledged theological system with an implicit theological method: the Bible as the exclusive source for theology.  What is not mentioned is the method by which Scripture will be interpreted.  The exclusion of creeds, church history, theologians, and church fathers prevents one from being able to entertain alternative points of views.  This leaves people not familiar with church history and with scant knowledge of the Bible at a disadvantage when discussing the Bible.  In cultic Protestantism the “correct” interpretation of Scripture lies with the group leader.  Rival interpretations are suppressed, sometimes through peer pressure or subtle sermonizing directed at the critic, other times through more open and coercive means like direct reprimand or even expulsion.

Orthodoxy offers a quite different approach to the interpretation of Scripture.  I wrote several articles that deal with this.  One article shows that what the Bible teaches is not the Bible alone, but the Bible in the context of Apostolic Tradition.      And how the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church through the centuries in its reading of Scripture.


The Bible Alone?

Probably the best way to counter extreme Protestants is to ask them: “Where does the Bible say ‘the Bible alone’?”  They will likely respond with bible verses about the Bible being divinely inspired, infallible, and authoritative, but none of these verses will say that we are rely only on the Bible to the exclusion of other sources.  A careful reading of the Bible will show that God allowed people to utilize human reason and other sources aside from Scripture.


The Bible often points to the beauty of creation as evidence of there being a Creator God (Psalms 8:3-5, 19:14).  Paul likewise referred to Creation’s witness to God in Romans 1:20.  While Creation’s witness to God is incomplete, it is a sign of wisdom for one to learn from God’s creation.  God’s gift to the Jews was the divine wisdom found in the Torah (Psalm 19:7-10).  When the Jews turned away from God, God used Creation as a witness against them (Isaiah 1:2-3).


The Prophet Isaiah made this appeal: “’Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18).  This was not blind obedience but an appeal for the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah to think about their present circumstances and future outcomes.  A careful reading of Apostle Paul’s letters shows his familiarity with the techniques of argumentation used by philosophers and religious scribes of his time.  Nowhere in his letters did Paul urge on his readers blind faith.


In his speech before the philosophers in Athens Apostle Paul quoted two Greek philosophers: Epimenides and Aratus (Acts 17:28).  Paul cites Epimenides in Titus 1:12 and Menander in 1 Corinthians 15:33.  The ease with which Paul could quote the pagan Greek philosophers and poets shows his familiarity with pagan Greek culture.  The Apostle Paul was a bi-cultural Jew; he grew up in the world of Hellenism and received his rabbinical training in Jerusalem under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).  Paul was by no means a narrow minded Fundamentalist!


We find in the Bible theological arguments based on historical narratives.  Stephen in Acts 7 traced the history of the Jews from Abraham to Solomon.  Paul in Acts 14:16-23 traced the history of the Jews from the Exodus event to King David.  In his speech before the Areopagus (Acts 17), Paul traced human history from Genesis 1 to 11.  In Acts 26, we find Paul presenting his personal history to King Agrippa as a way of presenting and defending the Gospel.

There is nothing in the Bible that says we cannot learn from history after the book of Acts.  As a matter of fact we would expect to see evidence of God’s sovereignty in the history of Christianity.  We would expect to see the fulfillment of Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church into all truth (John 16:13).  The argument that the Orthodox Church has kept Apostolic Tradition throughout church history is congruent with the way the Bible uses history.  Extreme Protestants are loathe to argue from church history preferring to cherry pick bible passages and constructing an elaborate theological system based on the inner meaning of the Bible that they alone are privy to.

Visions and Dreams

If the extreme Protestants are right, then all it would take for Saul of Tarsus to become a Christian would be reading the Old Testament.  Instead, God walloped Paul with a blinding vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-5).  Apostle Peter in his Pentecost sermon quoted the passage by Joel about young men seeing visions and old men having dreams (Acts 2:17).  In Acts 10, we read how it took a vision from God to convince Peter it was kosher to visit the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius.  Miraculous events like these, while not typical, show that knowledge of God can take place outside Scripture.  What matters is that these miraculous events were consistent with Scripture’s witness to Jesus Christ.


When Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch if he understood the passage in Isaiah, the eunuch answered: “How can I unless someone explains it to me.” The Orthodox understanding is that Christ is the master Teacher who taught the Apostles the meaning of the Old Testament (Luke 24:44-49).  Philip as an ordained deacon had the authority to give the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53:7-8 to the eunuch Acts 6:5-6).  In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul exhorted the Christians to stand firm on Apostolic Tradition in both the written and oral forms.  Extreme Protestants, on the other hand, will turn a blind eye on oral tradition.  If pressed, they will insist that we don’t know what this “oral tradition” is and that it has been lost early on when the Christian Church fell into spiritual darkness.  This is the Apostasy or Blink-On/Blink-Off theory of church history.

The Orthodox Church insists that it has faithfully preserved both oral and written Tradition from the time of the Apostles.  What many Protestants overlook is the role of the Church in preserving the written Word of God before the invention of the printing press.  We owe a great debt to the early Christians who faithfully copied the Bible and who protected the Bible against unbelievers who sought to destroy it.  Moreover, we owe a debt to the early Church Fathers, who defined the biblical canon, ensuring that inspired Scriptures were made part of the Bible and spurious works excluded.  We also owe a debt to the Church Fathers who guarded the Bible against heretics who distorted the meaning of the Bible.

To sum up, what we find in the Bible is a rich array of methods people used for discerning God’s will.  We do not find the proof texting method much preferred by extreme Protestants.  So, if one enters into a conversation or discussion and is asked: “Where does it say that in the Bible?”; the best reply is: “Where does it say in the Bible, ‘the Bible alone?’  And since the Bible does not teach that, this means we have the freedom to use our rational intellect to work through the evidence available to us like reason, church history, and the Church Fathers.”

Extreme Protestants have fallen into the same error as the Pharisees.  In John’s Gospel we find Jesus explaining the role and purpose of the Bible.  Jesus told the Pharisees:

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39; RSV)

The Bible is like a street sign that points to the desired destination; it is not the destination.  The scribes and Pharisees devoted so much energy studying Scripture that when the promised Messiah arrived they failed to recognize him.  Similarly, extreme Protestants have become so fixated on reading the Bible in their own way that they fail to take into account Jesus’ promise to establish his Church (Matthew 16:18), protect the Church against the powers of Hell (Matthew 16:18), guide the Church by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13), and make the Church “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).  They overlook the Old Testament promises of the Eucharistic sacrifice (Isaiah 56:6-7), a new priesthood for the Messianic Age (Isaiah 66:20-21), and the worldwide offering of incense in the Messianic Age (Malachi 1:11).  The priesthood, incense, and the Eucharist can be found in Orthodoxy today, but are nowhere to be found in extreme Protestantism.  They can claim that they have the Bible but so too do cults like the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons, and the Seventh Day Adventists (all which originated in the 1800s).  Many extreme Protestant groups have sprung up only recently.  The earnest seeker of God’s truth need to ask: “Where is the Church that Christ promised?  Where is the right worship of God promised in the Old Testament prophecies?


Orthodox Altar

Guilty of Bibliolatry?

Tim Challies, a Reformed pastor, noted that conservative Protestants, that is, those who affirm the inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture, have often been accused of bibliolatry by theological liberals.  Then he presented what he considered to be genuine bibliolatry:

In brief, I can affirm that it is entirely possible for a person to idolize the Bible. If I were to place a Bible upon an altar, light some candles around it, and bow down before the Bible, I would be worshipping a collection of paper, ink and leather (or “pleather”). I would be idolizing a created object rather than worshipping God. This would be no better than worshipping the image of a man or animal carved from wood or stone. But this is not what is most often meant when a person accuses another of idolizing the Bible. [Source]

When I read Pastor Challies’ definition of bibliolatry, I was struck with a strong sense of irony.  In every Orthodox Church on the altar is the Gospel book surrounded by candles!  During the Liturgy, the priest will cense the Bible, and he will bow towards the Bible showing his reverence for the Word of God.  On Sunday morning, just before entering the sanctuary, I bow before the icon of Christ and kiss the Gospel book.  There is a certain irony in the fact that Protestants have accused Orthodox Christians of Mariolatry but not of bibliolatry!  Here Orthodoxy goes beyond Protestantism in its outward bodily reverence for Scripture.  Yet these acts of reverence do not betray any sort of “idolatrous worship” of Mary or of Holy Scripture!

Historically, Scripture was understood as a sacred deposit to be safeguarded by the Church.  Before the printing press very few people had their own personal copy of the Bible.  One had to go to church on Sunday morning to hear the Gospel and other books in the Bible read out loud.  With the advent of the printing press in the 1400s people began to have their own personal Bibles.  This was good in that many could now read the Bible and become intimately acquainted with the Bible.  However, the downside of this is that many began to treat the Bible as their own personal possession independent of the Church.  This gave rise to an independent spirit in which one became confident one could understand the meaning of the Bible independent of the Church.  In Orthodoxy, the right understanding of Scripture is maintained through Tradition, e.g., the Nicene Creed which is recited every Sunday, the Divine Liturgy, the Ecumenical Councils and the early Church Fathers.  In Orthodoxy, Holy Tradition frames Scripture and for that reason Scripture cannot be understood on its own but in the Church.

Holy Tradition prevents Orthodoxy from becoming a cult: (1) every priest and parish are accountable to a bishop the recipient of Apostolic Tradition; (2) every bishop is accountable to Holy Tradition and their respective synod of bishops; (3) lengthy catechism classes ensure one understands Holy Tradition; and (4) an open door policy in which those who disagree with the teachings of the Church are allowed to leave rather than be coerced into conformity.  Added to this is Orthodoxy’s reluctance to make definitive statements on specific individual’s eternal destiny.

The Church Fathers give us insight into how Christians can have the Faith apart from sola scriptura.  Irenaeus of Lyons, a second century Church Father, wrote about illiterate barbarians who, despite the absence of written Scripture, have received the true Faith through oral tradition (AH 3.4.2).



So, are these Protestants guilty of bibliolatry as my inquirer friend asked?  My response is: (1) it all depends on what one means by “bibliolatry” and (2) in light of its negative connotations the term “bibliolatry” does not contribute to edifying dialogue.  The term’s utility is further diminished by the elasticity of its meaning.  Conservative Protestants have been accused of bibliolatry by liberal Protestants, and by Pastor Challies’ definition even Orthodox Christians can be accused of bibliolatry.

A more useful approach is to ask whether or not Christians may avail themselves of other sources of knowledge besides the Bible.  If one takes the position that Christians are to rely solely on the Bible to the exclusion of other sources of knowledge, then one has adopted an extreme form of Protestantism.  This opens the door to cultic Protestantism and to spiritual abuse.  Healthy spirituality, while open to the outside world, also has boundaries.  Orthodoxy has relied on Holy Tradition for the delineating of this boundary.  Protestantism has long struggled with defining its boundaries, and as a consequence has suffered numerous splits over where the line is to be drawn between orthodoxy and heresy.  Liberal Protestantism has extended its boundaries to the point where radical Enlightenment skepticism undermined basic Christian tenets.  Extreme Protestantism, in contrast, constricted its boundaries so narrowly that it creates totalitarian cults.  Popular Evangelicalism has eagerly and uncritically embraced aspects of popular culture into its worship and the way it articulates its beliefs.

We can be thankful that fundamentalist bibliolatry has not often plagued the more educated descendants of the Magisterial Reformation, e.g., Lutherans and Reformed Protestants. Yet the difficult question must be asked: “Who is more at fault for this willful high-handedness? Those familiar with the Church Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, Holy Tradition, and who know the difference between sola and solo scriptura.  Or, the provincial and less historically informed Fundamentalists?” This is not unlike asking who is more culpable of criminally abusing a 14-year old sexually curious girl?  Her 17-year old boyfriend who loves her, or her 40-year old gym teacher?  To whom much is given, much is required.


Redeeming the Time

One needs to exercise caution when entering into theological debates.  Debates have a very different quality from a dialogue or conversation.  In a debate one side wins and the other side loses.  One wins by outwitting the opponent with an irrefutable argument or by presenting a fact that the other side does not know about.  The weakness of debates is that they rarely result in people changing their minds.  It takes more than one single argument for people to change their religious beliefs and affiliation.  Formal debates are useful in that they present audiences different points of view for them to consider.  Personal conversations are a much better way for inquirers interested in Orthodoxy.  I often engage in lengthy theological discussions with inquirers at the local Orthodox parish.  I do this to help people who are sincerely interested in becoming Orthodox, but have reservations.  With sincere inquirers I don’t hesitate to enter into detailed bible discussions.  If they are not at seriously interested in becoming Orthodox, I will seek to avoid debates.

I learned this lesson when I got into a debate with several members of Calvary Chapel.  After a while, I came to the conclusion I was wasting my time and theirs.  It can be fun, swapping bible verses and arguing what the verses mean, but for the most part very little serious learning was happening.  It was more like a theological tennis match than a serious quest for God’s truth.  The quest for God’s truth must take place in an atmosphere of holy reverence and prayer.  I recently came across a quote on a FaceBook page that read: “Every hour that has passed is gone forever, and we must give an account of each minute of that hour.”  This is similar to Apostle Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:16: “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”  In light of the Final Judgment, we must beware of wasting our time in trivial activities like tossing bible verses back and forth for the fun of it.  Jesus warned:

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36-37; RSV)

A good example of people worshiping the Bible in place of Christ can be found in the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel.  Wise men from the East guided by the star came to Jerusalem in search of the Jewish Messiah.  The chief priests and the scribes quoted to them Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.  Then guided by natural revelation (the star) and Scripture (Micah) the wise men found the Christ Child and worshiped him (Matthew 2:1-12).  It is dumbfounding that those who knew Scripture so well did not seek out Christ.  The sin of bibliolatry here was knowing Scripture but failing to do God’s will.  For Protestants the danger is that of revering Scripture over the Church, “the pillar of truth” founded by Christ.  Cyprian of Carthage wrote:

He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. (ANF Vol. V p. 423)

The Bible and the Orthodox Church go together.  The Orthodox Church has been reading Scripture and proclaiming the Gospel in its worship services from Day One.  It has preserved and passed on Scripture for the past two thousand years.  It reads the Bible within the framework of the Church Fathers, the successors to the Apostles.  This preserves the inner meaning of Scripture.  For the spiritually hungry seeker the Orthodox Church provides a safe haven for knowing Scripture.

Robert Arakaki


Tim Challies.  2006.  “Feedback Files – Bibliolatry.www.challies.com  (5 July)

S.M. Baugh.  2008.  “Is Bibliolatry Possible?” Resource Center – Westminster Seminary California.

Naomi Epps.  N.D.  “8 Signs Your Friend’s In An Abusive Relationship.”  BlackLoveADvice dot Com

—-  N.D.  “9 Ways Groups Become Cults.”  Criminal Justice Degrees Guide dot Com


Evangelicalism Falling to Pieces?

2016 State of American Theology Study,” a survey sponsored by Ligonier Ministries and carried out by LifeWay Research, gives an intriguing and sometimes disturbing overview of what Americans believe.  Care was taken to ensure that the 3,000 people who took part in the survey reflected the U.S.’s diverse population.

screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-11-34-35-amThe results of the survey have generated considerable discussion among Protestants.  In a recent article in First Things, Matthew Block bemoaned the spread of heretical beliefs among American Evangelicals.  He notes that among “Evangelicals” – those who hold to core Evangelical beliefs – 71 percent believed Jesus to be a created being and 56 percent believed the Holy Spirit to be an impersonal force.

Mr. Block’s article just scratched the surface of the survey.  Other significant findings include: (1) the majority of Americans (60 percent) agree with the statement “Heaven is a place where all people will ultimately be reunited with their loved ones;” (2) 49 percent of Americans agree with the statement “Sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin;” and (3) 77 percent of Americans agree “an individual must contribute his or her own effort for personal salvation.”  (See the Research Report pages 3-5)  To put it another way, 60 percent of Americans are universalists, almost half do not think fornication to be sin, and more than three quarters believe in salvation by works.

While reading the survey findings it is important to note that two groups were being surveyed: Americans in general and Evangelicals.  Thus, it behooves the reader to make sure that the percentages enumerated are applied to the right group.  For example, the findings in the previous paragraph pertain to Americans in general, not American Evangelicals in particular.  One need not be surprised if a substantial percentage of the American public are said to hold deviant beliefs; however, it should be a matter of concern if a similar percentage of Evangelicals hold deviant beliefs.  For example, in the section “Ethics” (Statement No. 39) it was found that only 52 percent of self-identified Evangelicals agreed with the statement that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin – a startling shift away from historic Christian morality.


On the other hand, in another section (Statement No. 18) it was found that the more often one attends church the more likely one is to disagree with the statement that one can contribute to one’s salvation through good works – affirming salvation by grace alone, through faith alone which are core Protestant beliefs.  It should be noted that the graphics are not accompanied by percentages.  For scrupulous researchers this is quite frustrating.

Some Caveats

Readers who wish to examine the survey research and analysis are advised to visit the following sites: (1) the 26 page Research Report (White Paper) which summarizes the findings (2) the 103-slide PowerPoint presentation of survey results, (3) Bob Smietana’s easy-to-read overview, and (4) Ligonier Ministries’ analysis.

I found the survey very informative but noticed one important omission, the religious identity of the respondents.  In the latter half of the PowerPoint presentation, the responses were broken by region, ethnicity, economic status, and age, but not by religious affiliation.  It would be helpful to know how Evangelicals stand in relation to liberal mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, and secularists.  This kind of demographics profile would help make sense of the data especially as America becomes increasingly pluralistic with the rise of the so-called “Nones” and the growth of the non-Christian population.

Another matter of concern is the confusing manner in which numbers are presented.  The Research Report finds that 95 percent of Evangelicals affirm the statement: “The Bible alone is the written word of God.”  In contrast, only 42 percent of the general American population believe that.  However, I find this puzzling because when I add 33 percent of “strongly agree” with 19 percent for “agree somewhat” I get 52 percent.  The inconsistent numbers presented raise questions about the validity of the survey.


p. 15   Link


Evangelicalism Falling Apart?

As a Protestant convert to the Orthodox Church, I found the responses on how Evangelicals understand the church striking.  The responses suggest that American Evangelicalism, at least in its corporate expression, is falling to pieces – becoming increasingly fragmented doctrinally and ecclesially.

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p. 19  Link


In response to the question: “Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church,” some 59 percent of Americans agreed, while 29 percent disagreed.  In the caption underneath the graphic, LifeWay noted that Evangelicals were less likely to agree, giving the percentages of 42 percent versus 63 percent.  First, even if 42 percent of Evangelicals agree that’s still quite a high percentage that has abandoned the traditional view of the Church.  Second, I have no idea what the number 63 percent refers to.  I don’t think it refers to those who agree versus those who disagree because the total should come close to 100 percent, not the 105 that results from adding 42 to 63.  This is where the LifeWay survey falls short.  Greater precision is needed in the presentation of the findings in order for readers to benefit from the research project.

This devaluing of church membership seems to support the rise of the “Nones” and the “Dones.”  See Mark Sandlin’s article “The Rise of ‘The Dones’ as the Church Kills Spiritual Community” in which he attempts to explain how the current dysfunction in Evangelical churches is alienating and driving away committed people.  In his explanation of the emergence of the “Dones” – unaffiliated believers, Mr. Sandlin writes:

The Church is killing spiritual community or at least killing it in an ever-growing portion of our population. The Dones’ experience with the Church killed their desire to ever go to that place of spiritual relationship in community again.

He elaborates:

The Dones are right. The communities making up far too many churches are much more soul sapping than they are spiritually nurturing.

This growing disenchantment with church life, while quite different from doctrinal orthodoxy, ought to be of concern to Christians.  Christianity’s future in America depends not just on right doctrine but also on life in community.

What really caught my attention were the responses to the question: “My local church has the authority to withhold the Lord’s Supper from me and exclude me from the fellowship of the church.”  Some 45 percent of Christians who attended church on holidays or more frequently “disagreed strongly,” while another 17 percent “disagreed somewhat.”  Those who agreed, strongly or somewhat, comprised only 29 percent.  It seems that Evangelicalism’s emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ has taken on more extreme forms, with many unwilling to accept the authority of the Church.

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This is contrary to the historic Protestant understanding of the three marks of the Church: the pure preaching of the Word, the pure administration of the sacraments, and church discipline (See Belgic Confession, Article 29).  What is concerning about this rejection of church discipline is that it constitutes a rejection of the Church as the Mother of the faithful.  It may surprise Evangelicals to learn that John Calvin believed this.  Calvin wrote:

“For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder,” so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother. (Institutes 4.1.1)

Calvin’s high view of the Protestant (Reformed) Church, reflects his qualified view of the Ancient Church. (Calvin alternately praised and scorned the the early Church Fathers — depending on whether they were in agreement with him.)  Cyprian of Carthage, a third century Church Father wrote:

He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. (On the Unity of the Church §6)

The implication here is that in dispensing with Christian life in the visible Church — whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox — Evangelicalism has become doubly estranged from its historic Christian roots: both in the Reformation and the early Church.  As Evangelicalism, especially its Anabaptist variants, take on more extreme positions, it becomes a religion that neither the early Reformers nor the early Church Fathers would recognize as Christian.

Scripture and Creeds

One surprising finding is the positive regard Americans have towards creeds.  There was a largely negative response, 58 percent, to the statement: “There is little value in studying or reciting historical Christian creeds and confessions.”  This suggests an openness to using historic creeds or doctrinal statements to offset the emphasis on private interpretations of Scripture.

The next question then becomes which creed ought to be used?  Each Protestant denomination has its own creed or confessions.  For example, a Lutheran might tout the Augsburg Confession (1530), a Reformed Christian the Westminster Catechism (1646), and the Anglican the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563; see Note 1).  For those interested in the early Church there are the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Sola Scriptura?

The authority of Scripture cannot be understood apart from the interpretation of Scripture.  It was found that half of the American population (51 percent) believes that “the Bible was written for each person to interpret as he or she chooses.”  The Research Report (p. 14) noted that only 30 percent of Evangelicals agreed with this.  That as many as a third of Evangelicals hold this view, (as opposed to half of the American public) while positive, should still be a matter of concern.  Augustine of Hippo wrote:

If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.

Augustine here was warning against private interpretation of Scriputre.  It is curious then that so many Protestants love this quote as IF Augustine agrees with their own doctrines and view or the gospel! This is simply not true. As a fourth-century Bishop of the Church, Augustine held firmly to an episcopal form of church government – the local church under the rule of the bishop. This is in sharp contrast to the presbyterian and congregational polity favored by modern Protestants. Augustine believed in authoritative Apostolic Tradition, the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, the sacrament penance, Mary’s perpetual virginity, the possibility of falling from grace, prayer to the saints and praying or the departed — all common practices of the ancient historic Church but which have been rejected and vilified by many of today’s Protestants and Evangelicals. See Joe Wilcoxson’s “Was St. Augustine a Protestant?” This narcissistic private reading of Augustine and the consequent distorted understanding of church history is tragic to say the least.

Much of the independent reading of Scripture can be traced to low-church Evangelicalism.  As a remedy to this Matthew Block prescribes high-church Protestantism.  Where popular Evangelicalism favors solo scriptura — reading the Bible independently of outside sources, historic Protestantism favors sola scriptura — reading Scripture with the creeds and in the larger Church (See Note 2).  Mr. Block writes:

If we are going to address the rise of heresy in our churches, then Christians must rededicate themselves to reading the Bible in community—with the local church, yes, but also with the Church throughout history. If the Bible is truly the authority Evangelicals say it is, then we must also recognize that God has exercised that authority over Christians other than ourselves. The history of the Church, in its creeds and confessions, is a witness to other Christians who have been shaped by and wrestled with the Word of God. (Source)

However, Matthew Block fails to explain why Lutheranism, especially his brand of Lutheranism, offers the best remedy for the ills uncovered by the LifeWay survey.  For all its affirming the authority of Scripture, Protestantism has historically suffered from fragmentation, in terms of doctrine, worship, and polity.  Ultimately, Protestantism’s denominationalism is rooted in the private reading of Scripture implicit in sola scriptura.  For example, one who joins a Lutheran church is following Martin Luther’s reading of Scripture.  With the proliferation of mega-churches and many smaller community churches private interpretation of Scripture has become pervasive among Protestant churches today.  Wheaton College Professor of Theology, Beth Felker Jones, attributes the doctrinal confusion to the rise of pastor-centered churches:

I fear that we’re spending too much time in cults of personality around charismatic superstar pastors, who often focus more on their personal theological idiosyncrasies and pet ideas than on basic Christian orthodoxy. (Source)

Much of Matthew Block’s prescription for the ills of Evangelicalism is sound but does not go far enough.  He prescribes the classical Protestantism of the 1500s but an alternative is Ancient Christianity of the first millennium, e.g., the Seven Ecumenical Councils and the Church Fathers.

What the best of Protestant pastors must confess is this: Luther’s appeal to his own views can easily become the appeal of all sincere Protestants — who can appeal like Luther did to his own conscience and take his own stand even if it differs from Luther’s.  Protestantism is full of little Luther’s taking their own stand for biblical truth giving rise to denominational differences that trouble Protestants who desire a visible unity for the Church.

Implications for the Future of Protestantism

The LifeWay survey poses significant challenges for Rev. Peter Leithart recent First Things article, “Is There a Future for Protestantism?”  In this article Rev. Leithart approaches Protestantism doctrinally and sociologically.  He asserts that as a sociological entity Protestantism does indeed have a future.  He optimistically sketches a future where non-liturgical churches will adopt liturgies, non-sacramental churches will start having weekly Eucharist, and become more open to the rich heritage of historic ancient and medieval Christianity.   The problem is that Rev. Leithart fails to present empirical evidence to support his claims.  If anything, the evidence presented in the LifeWay survey and the analysis by Ligonier Ministries point to the spread of deviant doctrines and a growing disregard for church discipline and common worship on Sunday mornings.  What we see here is more wishful thinking than facts-based realism.

Safe Harbor

Unlike Protestantism, which has been marked by denominational fragmentation, and even more disturbing, the inability to provide doctrinal and liturgical stability, Orthodoxy is marked by a stability that has endured for two millennia.  Protestants tired of constantly changing doctrines might want to seek shelter in the Orthodox Church.  The words of John Chrysostom, the fourth-century church father, still resonate today:

Just as a calm and sheltered harbour provides great security to the ships moored there, so does the temple of God: when people enter it, it snatches them away from worldly affairs as from a storm, and gives them the capacity to stand and listen to God’s words in calm and security.

This place [the Church] is the bedrock of virtue and the school of spiritual life…

You need only set foot on the threshold of a church and at once you are liberated from the cares of daily life.  (Source)

More Reforms Needed?

It is regrettable that Rev. Leithart insists on rejecting Orthodoxy and its ancient patrimony of ancient liturgies, Church Fathers, Desert Fathers, Ecumenical Councils, and bishops who can trace their lineage back to the original Apostles.  He calls for even more reforms for Protestant churches, but who knows where it will take them?  Already much of what passes for “Protestant” churches today would be unrecognizable and abhorrent to the original Protestant Reformers.  Those troubled by the predicaments and quandaries of Protestantism should heed the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

This is what the Lord says:

“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


Note 1: Some Anglicans might dispute that the Thirty Nine Articles are a creed, pointing out that Anglican rely on the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed.  However, the fact that several sources refer to the Thirty Nine Articles as a “doctrinal statement” indicates that it delineates the distinctiveness of Anglican identity in a way that the three aforementioned creeds do not.

Note 2: Keith Mathison coined the phrase solo scriptura to highlight modern Evangelicalism’s divergence from historic Protestantism’s sola scriptura.  See my review of Prof. Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura.


Is There a Future for Protestantism?” by Rev. Peter Leithart.  First Things 13 October 2016.

Survey Finds Most Americans Are Actually Heretics” by G. Shane Morris. The Federalist 10 October 2016.

Evangelicals, Heresy, and Scripture Alone” by Matthew BlockFirst Things, 4 October 2016.

Evangelicals’ Favorite Heresies Revisited by Researchers.” by Caleb Lindgren.  Christianity Today 28 September 2016.

Americans Love God and the Bible, Are Fuzzy on the Details” by Bob Smietana.  LifeWay-Research, 27 September 2016.

An Orthodox Remedy for Evangelicalism’s Heresy Epidemic” by Robert Arakaki.  OrthodoxBridge, 11 January 2015.


2016 State of American Theology Study – Research Report by LifeWay Research.

PowerPoint Presentation by LifeWay Research.

State of Theology: Key Findings by Ligonier Ministries.

Orthodox Resources

A Pocket History for Orthodox Christians by Father Aidan Keller.

An Online Orthodox Catechism by Bishop Alfeyev Hilarion.

Protestant Reformation in the Old Testament?


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

From Anastasiya:

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

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

See also Anastasiya Gutnik’s comment 26 June 2016



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

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


Protestantism in the Old Testament?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Coptic Icon of Pentecost

Coptic Icon of Pentecost


The Church — Individuals versus Corporate Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Arakaki

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