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Category: Icons (Page 1 of 12)

Are Icons an Accretion? A Response to Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund – Truth Unites


Recently, there have been intense debates between Protestants and Orthodox over icons. Gavin Ortlund, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai, California, has been a very vocal advocate for the Protestant position on icons. In early December 2022, he uploaded a lengthy podcast “Icon Veneration is CLEARLY an Accretion!” [1:14:54]. Then on 20 January 2023, Pastor Ortlund uploaded “Icon Veneration in the Early Church? Response to Craig Truglia” [42:06]. (The bulk of this article will be in response to the first podcast unless noted otherwise.) Ortlund argues that icons are not a part of early Christianity but a later development or in his words an “accretion.” The argument that icons are an accretion has significant implications: (1) it implies that icons being an innovation contradict Orthodoxy’s claim to have kept the Faith unchanged; and (2) it suggests that the veneration of icons is the result of a reversion to pagan forms of worship.

We have much to be grateful for Pastor Ortlund joining the Protestant-Orthodox dialogue. Gavin Ortlund, has a Ph.D. in historical theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, which makes him well-qualified to represent the Protestant side. Unlike many apologists who have a sketchy understanding of church history, Gavin Ortlund has elevated the conversation with his careful scholarship, his knowledge of church history, and the irenic tone with which he engages the Orthodox and Roman Catholics.

In this article I will present evidence that address Pastor Ortlund’s concerns about the validity of icons. This article will discuss: (1) the historical evidence for early Christian veneration of icons, (2) the strength of the evidence presented, (3) Ortlund’s claim that the veneration of icons represents a regression to Greco-Roman pagan worship, (4) the development of doctrine and church history paradigms, and (5) biblical evidence that support the veneration of icons.

This blog posting is quite lengthy and covers considerable ground. This was necessitated by the wide-ranging and extensive critique of icons by Gavin Ortlund. The primary motive here is not so much to rebut Gavin Ortlund, but rather to enable Protestant inquirers to make the transition to Orthodoxy with a clear conscience and with intellectual integrity.


Gavin Ortlund’s Historical Argument Against Icons

In “Icon Veneration is CLEARLY an Accretion!”—18:50 to 56:19—Gavin Ortlund presents a three-stage narrative of the emergence of icons in the early Church. In the first stage, from the time of the Apostles to the Council of Nicea (325), Christians were actively opposed to the cultic use of images and statues. This opposition set the Christians apart from religious practices of Greco-Roman society (21:51). Pastor Ortlund concludes the first section noting the Ante-Nicene Church was “resounding” and “unanimous” in their opposition to images (30:41-31:40).

Then in the second stage, from the First Council of Nicea (325) to the Second Council of Nicea (787), Christianity undergoes massive changes. It is now a legal religion. Many church buildings are acquired and embellished with works of art. At the 33:06 mark, Ortlund describes the flood of former pagans entering the church bringing with them the habits and practices of their former paganism. At first, they acquired pictures of Christ and the Apostles, then they bowed down to these images in a manner much like their pre-Christian days. At this point for Ortlund, the cultic use of images has begun to surface in the Church and over time would become widespread precipitating the fierce iconoclast controversies of the seventh and eighth centuries.

The third period spans the seventh to twelfth centuries (600s to 1100s). From 600 onward, icons and icon veneration became widespread leading to the iconoclastic reaction. This controversy led to the various pro-icon and anti-icon councils: the anti-icon Council of Hieria (754), the pro-icon Council of Nicea II (787), and the pro-icon Council of Constantinople (843). While the Council of Nicea II (787) settled the matter in the East, in the West there continued to be resistance to the findings of Nicea II, e.g., Council of Frankfurt (794). Ortlund notes that even as late as the twelfth century there were reservations about Nicea II in Western Europe (55:28-56:15).

In this narrative Pastor Ortlund is articulating Protestantism’s Fall of the Church paradigm—the early Church began in simplicity and purity of faith, but then under Emperor Constantine became an institutionalized, corrupted, and worldly religion. Key to the Protestant paradigm of church history is the discontinuity in faith and practice which necessitates the repudiation of later accretions and a return to the purity of early Christianity. In addition to the historical argument, Pastor Ortlund is also making a theological argument—that the veneration of icons violates the Second Commandment. In many ways, Ortlund has made the veneration of icons the “hill to die on.” (In the context of his attempt to promote irenic ecumenism, the phrase “hill to die on” seems to be Ortlund’s way of speaking about theological matters on which there can be no grounds for mediating compromise, but rather unyielding opposition.) Icons represent the watershed divide between Protestantism and Orthodoxy. There is no middle ground on this issue. Thus, the present Protestant-Orthodox debate about icons and icon veneration is far from trivial and involves issues touching on the fundamentals of the Christian Faith.


The Year 600

For Gavin Ortlund, the year 600 serves as a point of demarcation. He mentions this specific date in his response to Frank Bilotto in the comment section. In using 600 as the cut-off point, Ortlund claims he is reflecting the scholarly consensus (see 42:17, 44:40, and 45:24). He argues that if icon veneration is a late practice, it cannot be part of the ancient apostolic practice and therefore must be an add-on or as he puts it: “an accretion.” Here Pastor Ortlund is using Orthodoxy’s claim to an unchanging Tradition against one of its key practices, icons. Therefore, if it can be shown that Christians were venerating images earlier than 600 then Gavin Ortlund’s argument from history is significantly weakened.


Full-Fledged Icon Veneration in 380s

Icon – Theodore the Recruit

One such evidence is Gregory of Nyssa’s “Panegyric to Theodore the Recruit.” Saint Gregory (c. 335 to c. 390) is a Church Father venerated as a saint by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Lutherans, and Anglicans. In 386, he delivered an oration dedicated to Theodore the Tyro (Recruit), a Roman soldier who was martyred in 306 because of his refusal to obey Emperor Galerius’ order to sacrifice to the idols. His martyrdom was held in high regard by the early Christians. Patriarch Nektarios of Constantinople (381-397) ordered that Theodore’s martyrdom be celebrated on the first Saturday of Great Lent with the distribution of kolyva (boiled wheat sweetened with honey) (OCA.org).

Kolyva – Boiled wheat offered in memory of the departed

The practice of offering kolyva in honor of a departed saint continues to be observed among the Greek Orthodox. My local Greek parish observes this practice. So, for me this little historical detail is not an oddity from the remote past but rather a living tradition with deep historical roots. I used to think that the kolyva was a quaint ethnic custom, but now I am keenly aware that this is a custom that links me to an early martyr and one of the great Cappadocian Fathers.

There are two significant aspects of Gregory’s oration: (1) it dates to the fourth century and (2) its description of fourth century devotional practices bears a strong resemblance to present-day Orthodoxy.

In his oration, Gregory tells his listeners:

Should a person come to a place similar to our assembly today where the memory of the just and the rest of the saints is present, first consider this house’s great dignity to which souls are lead. God’s temple is brightly adorned with magnificence and is embellished with decorations, pictures of animals which masons have fashioned with delicate silver figures. It exhibits images of flowers made in the likeness of the martyr’s virtues, his struggles, sufferings, the various savage actions of tyrants, assaults, that fiery furnace, the athlete’s blessed consummation and the human form of Christ presiding over all these events. They are like a book skillfully interpreting by means of colors which express the martyr’s struggles and glorify the temple with resplendent beauty. The pictures located on the walls are eloquent by their silence and offer significant testimony; the pavement on which people tread is combined with small stones and is significant to mention in itself.

These spectacles strike the senses and delight the eye by drawing us near to [the martyr’s tomb] which we believe to be both a sanctification and blessing. If anyone takes dust from the martyr’s resting place, it is a gift and a deserving treasure. Should a person have both the good fortune and permission to touch the relics, this experience is a highly valued prize and seems like a dream both to those who were cured and whose wish was fulfilled. The body appears as if it were alive and healthy: the eyes, mouth, ears, as well as the other senses are a cause for pouring out tears of reverence and emotion. In this way one implores the martyr who intercedes on our behalf and is an attendant of God for imparting those favors and blessings which people seek. (Sanidopoulos, text in English with emphasis added; cf. Pelikan p. 106; see also Migne’s Patrologia Graeca 46:737-740, text in Latin and Greek; and Cavarnos’ text in Greek).

Gregory’s panegyric to Theodore the Recruit is significant for several reasons. First, it tells us that the fourth-century churches had numerous images on their walls. Second, the early Christians venerated the relics of the martyrs. And third, the early Christians asked the martyrs to pray for them. From the phrase “the body appears,” i.e., the image of Theodore, followed by “one implores the martyr” in the next sentence we can infer that early Christians were looking at the icon of Saint Theodore and asking his prayers. The early Christians did not view the martyrs as having godlike powers, but as God’s servants who assisted them in their prayers. What Gregory described here parallels the present-day Orthodox experience of venerating an icon.

Gregory of Nyssa’s description of icon veneration in the fourth century may come as a surprise to some readers. Many are not aware of this sermon due to the fact that it is not among those published in the widely accessible Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series but in the less accessible Patrologia Graeca compiled by Jacques-Paul Migne. It was only because Jaroslav Pelikan made reference to Saint Gregory’s panegyric in his Imago Dei (p. 106) that I became aware of this early witness to icon veneration. The fact that Pelikan, a renowned scholar at Yale University, referenced Gregory of Nyssa’s oration seems to attest to the text’s veracity. Another attesting source is Quasten’s Patrology (Vol. III p. 278). Lectio-Divina.org has a useful discussion about the text for Gregory Nyssa’s oration on Theodore the Martyr. I have not found any suggestion that Gregory’s oration is spurious.

The veneration of martyrs as described by Gregory of Nyssa was not all that unusual. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) described how people prayed at the site of the martyrs’ relics and were healed (City of God Book 22 Chapters 8-10; NPNF Vol. 1 pp. 490-492; Latin version in Migne). Augustine wrote City of God shortly after the sacking of Rome in 410, which makes it almost contemporaneous with Gregory’s oration. The evidence seems to suggest that the practice of praying to the saints (the martyrs) was quite popular among the laity. The bishops, rather than oppose this practice, embraced it and sought to bring balance. Augustine recounts how Ambrose of Milan dissuaded Augustine’s mother from bringing baskets of food to the martyrs’ shrine but rather a heart full of prayer (Confessions Book 6 Chapter 2; NPNF Vol. 2 p. 90).

Augustine’s description of the early Christian veneration of the martyrs closely resembles Gregory’s panegyric dedicated to Theodore. The only difference is that Augustine made no mention of images. One way to understand this omission is to view icons as an incidental detail while attention is given to the prayer offered to the departed saint. When I venerate an icon of Christ and the saints, my mind is more on the prayer I am going to make than on the icon. When I ride the bus, my mind is more on my destination than on whether or not the bus has passed inspection or whether the bus driver has a valid driver’s license. In the ordinary life of an Orthodox Christian more is said about our need to pray than about the legitimacy of icons. Icons are important because they assist us in our prayer life and our worship of Jesus Christ. It is only because of the objections of the iconoclasts that Orthodox Christians have found it necessary to explain the need for icons.


Are Icons a Reversion to Pagan Idolatry?

One criticism Protestant iconoclasts have made about icons is that it would lead to the saints being viewed as resembling the pagan deities. However, Gregory of Nyssa makes clear that the martyrs were God’s servants. The Latin version has the phrase “satellite Dei” (attendant of God).

. . . supplicants offer prayers as if they were the messengers of God praying, as if they were invoking the receiver of gifts when he wills.

. . . supplices preces offerunt tanquam satellite Dei orantes, quasi accipientem dona cum velit, invocantes. (Migne p. 739)

Unlike Greco-Roman paganism which assumed that the various deities had power in themselves to grant the wishes of those who supplicated them, this passage assumes that there is one supreme God. The underlying assumption here is that the Church Triumphant in heaven is praying on behalf of the Church Militant on earth. The idea of the martyrs interceding on behalf of the living can be found in the book of Revelation: 6:9-11, 7:9-15, and 20:4-6.

In the fourth century, the Roman Empire underwent a profound religious conversion. Christian monotheism had taken firm roots in the mindset of the Christian converts. It appears that Protestant iconoclasts have likened Orthodox icon veneration to Greco-Roman paganism solely on the basis of the external similarities. For the Protestant critique to have merit, the Protestant iconoclasts must show how the early Christian martyr cults paralleled Greco-Roman paganism with respect to internal beliefs as well as external forms. This, they have yet to do.

Another evidence that the early Christian practice of praying to the saints was not a reversion to paganism can be seen in Augustine’s explanation how the miracles done by means of the martyrs testify to their faith in Jesus Christ.

For whether God Himself wrought these miracles by that wonderful manner of working by which, though Himself eternal, He produces effects in time; or whether He wrought them by servants, and if so, whether He made use of the spirits of martyrs as He uses men who are still in the body, or effects all these marvels by means of angels, over whom He exerts an invisible, immutable, incorporeal sway, so that what is said to be done by the martyrs is done not by their operation, but only by their prayer and request; . . . . (City of God, Book 22, Chapter 9, NPNF Vol. 2 p. 491; emphasis added)

Sive enim Deus ipse per se ipsum miro modo, quo res temporales operantur æternus, sive per suos ministros ista faciat ; et eadem ipsa quæ per ministros facit , sive quædam faciat etiam per Martyrum spiritus, sicut per homines adhuc in corpore constitutos ; sive omnia ista per Angelos, quibus invisibiliter, immutabiliter, et incorporaliter imperat, operetur ; ut quae per Martyres fieri dicuntur, eis orantibus tantum et imperiantibus, non etiam operantibus fiant; . . . . (De Civitate Dei, S. Augustini, Liber Vigesimus Secundus, Caput IX, in Migne p. 771; emphasis added)

The phrase “not by their operation” indicates that the saints do not have power in themselves but that the miracles were the result of their prayers to God. Here we learn how early Christians such as Augustine were able to accept the practice of praying to the martyrs without the early Church regressing to paganism. There was indeed a danger that the Christian laity in their sincerity might unwittingly syncretize their Christianity with pagan practices. Augustine’s mother’s practice of bringing baskets of food to the martyrs’ shrine is an example of that potential danger and Ambrose’s kindly pastoral advice showed how the early bishops directed the enthusiastic laity towards a devotional practice that was Christ-centered.

Therefore, in suggesting that the early Christians praying to the saints signified a reversion to paganism, Protestant iconoclasts have passed hasty judgment on the basis of outward form while being unaware of the profoundly Christian content of the early Christians’ veneration of the saints. Praying to the saints was not an add-on but rather the outworking of the profound implications of the Incarnation and Christ’s Resurrection. We see this in the opening line of City of God, Book 22, Chapter 9 from which the quote is taken:

To what do these miracles witness, but to this faith which preaches Christ risen in the flesh, and ascended with the same into heaven?” (NPNF Book 22 Chapter 9, vol. 2 p. 491).

The martyrs’ union with Christ in conjunction with Christ’s resurrection made possible their interceding on behalf of those still living on earth. Underlying all this is a profoundly sacramental worldview that many Protestants are not familiar with.


Partial Evidence for Icon Veneration

While Gregory’s panegyric is impressive evidence for the early veneration of icons, the argument would be a much stronger if there were other similar witnesses. But those who study early Christianity often find it necessary to work with what scarce evidence is available. Therefore, if we want to find evidence prior to the 380s, we will have to take into account partial-evidence that date back to the second and third centuries. These partial evidence bear witness to aspects of icon veneration: the presence of images in early churches, prayers to the martyrs, and relics being venerated. Rather than assert that the veneration of icons as a complete package goes back as early as the second century, I propose that the various aspects of icon veneration existed in embryonic form early on then developed and converged into icon veneration by the fourth century. In this way, the case can be made for icon veneration being part of early Christianity and not an accretion.


Baptistry – Dura-Europos Church circa 250

Roman Catacombs circa 200

Early Christian Images

Archaeologists discovered images in a Jewish synagogue and Christian church in the Syrian town of Dura Europos dating back to circa 250. Even earlier evidence are the images found in the catacombs that have been dated to the late 100s to the early 200s. The significance of these images lies in the fact that Christians across the Roman Empire were comfortable with images in their places of worship prior the Emperor Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity in 313. In other words, the presence of images in Christian churches cannot be attributed to new converts importing pagan practices as Protestant iconoclasts have alleged.

An ironic witness to the cultic use of images in the early Church is the outspoken curmudgeon, Tertullian (155 to 220). In his treatise On Modesty, Tertullian complained about the image of the Good Shepherd on the communion chalice:

“. . . to which, perchance, that Shepherd, will play the patron whom you depict upon your (sacramental) chalice.” (ANF Vol. 4 p. 85; emphasis added; NewAdvent).

Tertullian’s complaint is about an actual practice in the early Church. We learn that in the second century Christians were displaying images not only on the walls of the places of worship but also on the implements used in the Eucharist. While the presence of these images does not confirm the veneration of icons early on, they suggest the possibility. In many Orthodox parishes it is customary for the communicant to kiss the chalice immediately after receiving Holy Communion. It is possible that Christians in Tertullian’s time were doing something similar.


Tassilo Chalice c. 770-790

Tassilo Chalice c. 770-790


Protestant apologists have argued that the presence of images in these early places of worship at best support aniconism, not iconodulia. Where aniconism accepts the presence of images in churches for didactic purposes, it holds that early Christians did not bow down to these images or pray to them—the core of iconodulia. This is why Gregory of Nyssa’s Panegyric to Theodore the Recruit is so significant. It represents a missing piece of the puzzle that enables us to understand an early Christian practice in the late 300s, long before the cut-off point of 600. We see here the various strands of evidence coming together into one integrated practice.


An Early Prayer to Mary

Another partial evidence in support of the veneration of icons is the early Christian practice of praying to the Virgin Mary. (See my article: “An Early Christian Prayer to Mary.”) In the early 1900s, the John Rylands Library came into possession of a collection of very early papyri. Among the papyri are fragments of the New Testament that date to the early second century, just decades after the last books of the New Testament canon was written (Papyri 52). Relevant to our discussion is Papyrus 470 which dates to around 250 and contains an early liturgical prayer to the Virgin Mary—Sub Tuum Praesidium (Under Your Protection). The text reads:

Beneath thy compassion,
We take refuge, O Theotokos [God-bearer]:
do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:
but rescue us from dangers,
only pure one, only blessed one.

It is striking that Christians as early as the third century were praying to the Virgin Mary asking for her intercession. While praying to Mary is a familiar practice for Orthodox Christians, hardly any Protestants do the same. Again, it should be noted that this practice predates Emperor Constantine. Rather than assert that Sub Tuum Praesidium was accompanied by an image of Mary, I suggest that the two devotional practices stood alongside each other then gradually converged into one integrated practice. This to me is the best way to make sense of the early evidence. Rather than insist dogmatically that the veneration of icons was present from the very beginning, I am open to a development of belief and practice. In this way, it can be said that the veneration of icons has roots going back to the very early days of the Church and not some later accretion as Gavin Ortlund alleged. To validate the icon-as-accretion argument, evidence must be presented that an external, alien devotional practice was grafted onto early Christianity. This calls for several kinds of evidence: (1) a description of the alien devotional practice which originated from Greco-Roman paganism, (2) the name of the person or group who introduced this alien practice and an approximate date where the innovation occurred, and (3) an account of the spread of this alien practice until it became widespread among Christians.


St. Polycarp Before the Crowds

Polycarp’s Relics

Polycarp is regarded as one of the Apostolic Fathers, early Christians who had personal knowledge of the Apostles. In 155, Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John, was arrested and was burned at the stake. What is of interest to us is how the early Christians handled Polycarp’s bodily remains with great reverence and celebrated the anniversary of his martyrdom.

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

We learn two important facts from The Martyrdom of Polycarp. One is the reverence with which the early Christians handled his relics. The other was the fact that the early Christians celebrated the anniversary of his martyrdom. In The Martyrdom of Polycarp, we see elements of what would become the cult of the martyrs. It was widely believed that those who died a martyrs’ death stood in the presence of God interceding for those still living on earth. This belief can be traced to the Book of Revelation 6:10-11, 7:13-14, and 20:4-6. The cult of the martyrs is founded on the belief that the Church Militant on earth is surrounded by the Church Triumphant in heaven. This belief can be found in the Apostles Creed which affirms “the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints.” J.N.D. Kelly in Early Christian Doctrines described how the early cult of the martyrs would develop over time into the “communion of saints”—the blessed state of being in fellowship with the Virgin Mary and martyrs, meeting and conversing with them (Kelly pp. 488-490). This suggests that Saint Gregory’s oration celebrating Theodore’s martyrdom, given in 386, has roots going back to Polycarp’s martyrdom in 155.

What links icon veneration to the venerating of relics and offering prayers to the Virgin Mary and the saints is the sacramental worldview in which the spiritual realm overlaps the material world we inhabit. Hebrews 12:1 informs us that we are surrounded by an invisible multitude of saints (the great cloud of witnesses). The disenchanted worldview of modernity in which the spiritual and material are viewed as disparate and separate from each other has had a profound impact on Protestantism. Magisterial Protestants would say that at best icons in churches serve an educational purpose but do not mediate the presence of Mary and the saints. Underlying Protestant aniconism is a secular worldview in which the spiritual-material divide is bridged via an intellectualized faith but personal communication with the departed saints is ruled out. This has resulted in many Protestants admiring the saints as remote historical figures, not as intimate elder brothers and sisters in Christ. While images of saints might be permitted, Protestant pastors will discourage their parishioners from praying to the saints. Tragically, today’s Protestants have become estranged from their spiritual ancestors. See Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, especially the appendices: “Worship in a Secular Age” and “Sacrament and Symbol.” In it he presents the Orthodox worldview in a manner that is clear and comprehensible to theologically astute Protestants and Evangelicals.


Were the Early Apologists Anti-Icon?

The Apologists stand between the Apostolic Fathers, who had personal knowledge of the original Apostles, and the Church Fathers, who lived after the Apostles. They sought to defend Christianity to the pagan authorities and philosophers in the second and third centuries. Thus, the Apologists represent an important source for understanding early Christianity. It should be kept in mind that for Orthodoxy the Apologists with a capital “A” are saints, e.g., Athenagoras, Justin Martyr, and Melito of Sardis. However, not all early theologians are regarded as Apologists or Church Fathers. One good example is Clement of Alexandria, whom the Orthodox regard with cautious admiration.

Protestant apologists have argued that the Apologists were fiercely anti-icon. They have piled up quotes upon quotes seeking to show that the early Christians were anti-icon, often with no regard to the context. Gavin Ortlund (26:17) cites Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata, Book 7 Chapter 5, which has the sentence:

Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine. (ANF vol. 2 p. 530)

Yet, a few lines down that same page, Clement writes:

But how can He, to whom the things that are belong, need anything? But were God possessed of a human form, He would need, equally with man, food, and shelter, and house, and the attendant incidents. (ANF vol. 2 p. 530; emphasis added)

Without taking into the account the context in which Clement was writing, one would think that Clement here is denying the Incarnation—a preposterous notion. The way around this is that the early Christians were referring to God the Father in their critique of pagan idolatry, not to Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God. Similarly, Clement was deriding the pagan notion of finite gods being located in specific locations in contrast to the infinite, transcendent God of the Bible. Read uncritically, Clement’s objection to using architecture and the arts in the worship of God would seriously undermine the making of the Tabernacle in the book of Exodus. The God of the Bible did not abhor matter as the Greek Platonists did but in the fullness of time sent his Son to become man. In the Incarnation the Infinite God became finite man for our salvation. This would be the linchpin of John of Damascus’ theological defense of icons (On the Holy Images 1:16). All too often Protestant apologists have used the early Christian Apologists for convenient prooftexts. They cite the Apologists with little regard for the context from which the quotes were taken. I hope to do an article on the Apologists’ iconoclasm in the future.


Connecting the Dots

In response to Gavin Ortlund’s claim that the veneration of icons is a late accretion, I have presented several pieces of evidence. The first is Gregory of Nyssa’s panegyric which describes the veneration of icons. The oration which dates to the 380s is far earlier than the 600s, the period that Ortlund assumes icon veneration to have originated. Then I showed several partial evidence: (1) archaeological evidence of images in Christian places of worship that date to the second and third centuries, (2) a third century prayer to the Virgin Mary, and (3) the veneration of Polycarp’s relics dating back to the mid second century. These partial evidence suggest that icon veneration described by Saint Gregory has roots going back even earlier to the third and second centuries.

The fact that Gregory’s oration predates Pastor Ortlund’s cut-off point of 600 by more than two centuries rebuts his claim that icon veneration is an accretion. The partial evidence presented can be understood to be aspects of icon veneration that go back even earlier to the second and third centuries. It is suggested that in the early Church there were various devotional practices that would converge by the 300s into icon veneration. Thus, the various evidence taken together support the antiquity of icon veneration.

Gavin Ortlund quoted Richard Price’s The Acts of the Second Council of Nicea which asserted that the veneration of icons did not “go back to the golden age of the fathers.” [“Craig Response toTruglia” at the 5:14 mark]

Here Gavin Ortlund is invoking the authority of secondary sources. However, greater weight must be given to primary sources, to the evidence. Gregory of Nyssa’s “Panegyric to Theodore the Recruit” seems to punch a gaping hole in the passage from Richard Price. I would be very interested in how Ortlund understands Saint Gregory’s affirmation of icon veneration and praying to the saints which dates back to the golden age of the fathers—300s and 400s.


Static Tradition versus Dynamic Tradition

The recent debate over icon veneration has taken place against the backdrop of two paradigms of doctrinal development: (1) the static paradigm and (2) the dynamic paradigm. In the static paradigm, it is assumed that present-day Orthodoxy ought to be identical with the doctrines and practices of the early Church. If a discrepancy can be found between the two then the modern counterpart must be judged inferior or even invalid. Many Orthodox Christians seem to hold to a static paradigm of Holy Tradition. This obliges Orthodox apologists to argue for the full-blown practice dating back to the second or third centuries. It sets a very high standard of evidence. Faced with the scarcity of evidence, some have argued from silence—that the full-blown practice has been there all along but out of sight.

The static paradigm of church history is quite popular among Protestants. Many Protestants hold the New Testament Church as their ideal and view church history after the first century as a period of decline—especially with Emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity. The magisterial Reformers sought to recover the original, pure Christianity prior to the later corruptions of Medieval Catholicism. The English Puritans in the 1600s and the American Restorationist movements of the 1800s went further in seeking to recreate a pure Christianity by stripping away unbiblical accretions. It behooves us to be aware of the influence of the static paradigm of doctrinal development as we debate the validity of icons and icon veneration.

The dynamic Tradition paradigm assumes that the early Church’s core beliefs would over time become more explicit and its practices would take on more elaborate forms. The assumption here is that despite the differences in outward form there remains an inward continuity. This pattern of development can be seen in the way the Last Supper evolved into the Eucharist; the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 set a precedent for the First Ecumenical Council (Nicea, 325); and the full-fledged doctrine of the Trinity goes back to the baptismal formula in Matthew 28. Likewise, church polity coalesced early on into the monarchical episcopate as the universal norm. For Orthodox apologists, the advantage of the dynamic Tradition paradigm is that it allows for the incomplete and partial evidence that often frustrate church historians. With this paradigm I do not have to make the strained argument that the veneration of icons was present in the early Church but hidden from view until the 600s and 700s. I can argue that there are precedents dating back to the early Church that evolved in form while retaining the original meaning. This approach enables me to affirm continuity in Tradition without jettisoning the scholarship and methods I acquired as a church history major at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA).

There is a biblical basis for the dynamic paradigm of Tradition. Jesus promised his disciples that he would send them the Holy Spirit:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth . . . . (John 16:13; RSV)

This passage serves as a guarantee against a catastrophic apostasy derailing the early Church—the underlying premise of the Protestant paradigm of church history. It assures the Christian that there will be a continuity of truth that links the present-day Church with the original Apostolic Church. Just as the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostles and the New Testament writings, so likewise the Holy Spirit inspired the bishops, the Apostles’ successors, in the safeguarding of Apostolic Tradition. This verse does not confine the Holy Spirit’s inspiration to the Bible. The Holy Spirit inspired apostles, pastors, and teachers, leaders who shepherded the Church (Ephesians 4:11). The ordained clergy does this through the correct interpretation of Scripture and by defending the Church against heresy. In like manner, the Holy Spirit inspired and guided early church councils against false teachings (Acts 15:28). Orthodoxy’s broader understanding of the Holy Spirit and divine inspiration opens the way for church history as sacred history. The miracle of the Incarnation did not end with Christ’s ascension to heaven but continued through the Church, the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12).

Additional support for the dynamic paradigm can be found in the Parable of the Mustard Seed:

The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. (Matthew 13:31-32; RSV)

This parable was fulfilled in the fourth and fifth centuries, the golden age of early Christianity. This period saw the early Church flourishing in worship and doctrine, e.g., the Liturgies of Saint Basil and Saint John Chrysostom, the Ecumenical Councils which gave us the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian formula, and the proliferation of theologians known as Church Fathers and Desert Fathers. It was during this fruitful period of church history that Gregory delivered his panegyric to Theodore which described the early Christians’ use of icons in their veneration of the martyrs. The legacy of the golden age of early Christianity continues on in present-day Orthodoxy whereas it has become a forgotten past in other traditions. Some Protestant critics might respond that the present form of Orthodoxy with all of its complexity is a Medieval accretion of the earlier period. However, it should be noted that mainstream Protestantism has also been receptive to elaborate confessional formulas and liturgies. It was only with the rise of Puritanism in the 1600s and the Restorationist movements in the early 1800s that Protestants became averse to elaborate liturgies and theological formulas. The stripping away of developed theology and worship favored by these two movements stem from their being creatures of modernity than their Christian heritage.

The dynamic paradigm is based on the Pentecostal reading of church history—church history being the result of the Holy Spirit’s flowing into human history. By assuming the Holy Spirit’s continued presence beyond the Book of Acts to the present day, the dynamic paradigm of doctrinal development sanctifies church history. Looking back on my time as a church history major at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, I am struck by how secular my approach to church history was. Without faith in the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we become vulnerable to thinking that theology is largely an intellectual enterprise in which theologians debate other theologians and church history largely the outcome of power struggles among rival factions.

However, when I began to shift towards a sacramental understanding of the Church, I came to view the Church as a supernatural entity endued with the life of Christ. Another shift came when I understood the Church to be the holy commonwealth entrusted with Apostolic Tradition. The Holy Spirit’s presence in history opens the way for the dynamic approach to doctrinal development. This paradigm of church history allows us to see the Holy Spirit at work as informal devotional practices such as prayers to the martyrs converged with the images inside early churches. In this paradigm we see the Holy Spirit guiding the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s formal endorsement of the veneration of icons and inspiring John of Damascus’ erudite apologia for icons based on the Incarnation.


Church History Like a Mango Tree


Young Mango Plant

Mature Mango Tree

I have used the image of a mango plant that over times grows into a huge fruit-bearing tree to illustrate the dynamic paradigm of doctrinal development. See my article: “Responding to Rev. John Carpenter – Round 2.” While the mature mango tree looks radically different from the tiny mango plant that just sprouted out the ground, there is an essential continuity between the two. The fruit and flowers may not be visible to the eye in the young mango plant, but given time the inherent potential in the mango plant will become visible to all and to the benefit of everyone. They are organically inherent to the mango tree and therefore cannot be considered accretions. An accretion would be a belief or practice exterior and alien to early Christianity. (See also Newman’s Development of Doctrine Chapter VIII; Application of the Third Note of a True Development – Assimilative Power; §1 Number 7, where he uses the metaphor of a seed growing into a stalk, a shrub, then a full-grown tree.)

Gavin Ortlund’s complaint about icon veneration being an accretion leads me to believe that he holds to the static paradigm of doctrinal development. Yet in his other videos, it is clear that he is sensitive to historical development in doctrine and practice. This is to be expected of someone who has a doctorate in historical theology. In light of that, I find his resistance to the possibility of doctrinal development with respect to the veneration of icons puzzling. From the standpoint of the dynamic paradigm of Tradition, Ortlund’s criticism is premature. It is like complaining that the fruit and flowers of a blooming mango tree are alien accretions that must be pruned as soon as possible, which would leave us with a big barren tree bereft of beauty and sweetness.

Moreover, it is risky to dismiss out of hand the development of doctrine argument. So much of what is essential to Christianity emerged as a result of historical development. The biblical canon was not finalized until the fourth century. Athanasius’ Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter (367) and the Third Council of Carthage (397) listed the books comprising the New Testament. Until then, there was debate about which books were to be included or excluded from the New Testament. Christ’s divinity, which many Protestants and Evangelicals, accept without question was not formally recognized as dogma until the First Ecumenical Council in 325. What many do not realize is that the doctrine of Christ’s divinity is a hard-won prize that resulted from the defeat of various heresies in the 200s and early 300s. The full-fledged articulation of the Trinity as one Essence in three Persons did not take place until the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) in the late 300s. Early Christian worship reached fruition in the liturgies of Saint Basil the Great and Saint John Chrysostom in the late 300s and early 400s. It was in this context that Gregory of Nyssa’s Panegyric to Theodore bore witness to the veneration of saints and their icons. In other words, to dismiss out of hand the development of doctrine apologia for icons imperils the biblical canon, Christology, and Trinity. It would result in a severely truncated understanding of church history grounded in willful ignorance of historical evidence. What I am proposing here seeks to integrate faith with reason within the discipline of historical theology.


John Henry Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine

The concept of doctrinal development was made famous by John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), which he wrote when he was in transition from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. The concept of doctrinal development is more of a metatheory of theology than a specific doctrine. It is an attempt to understand how doctrine interacts with history and doctrine as a product of historical forces. This is a radical shift from the traditional approach to theology as logically related propositions and categories. The traditional Western theology derives much of its methodology from philosophy and relies heavily on deductive logic.

Newman’s essay on doctrinal development reflects the intellectual climate of the mid and late 1800s. Among the intellectual currents of the time were: (1) the ascendency of theological liberalism in the Church of England, (2) the emergence of church history as a rigorous academic discipline, and (3) Hegel’s teleological understanding of history. Newman’s thinking was not influenced by Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species, which was published shortly afterwards in 1859. While Newman was responsible for making the concept of doctrinal development widely known, he was not the first theologian to take an evolutionary approach to theology. A similar approach was being used in the Reformed tradition at the same time. In 1844, just one year before Newman published his essay, Philip Schaff presented his evolutionary approach to church history in his inaugural speech at the Mercersburg Seminary. His inaugural address would be published in The Principle of Protestantism (1845).

Newman’s proposal of doctrinal development was first resisted by the hierarchs of the Roman Catholic church. However, by the 1960s the Catholic church would acknowledge this principle in the document Verbum Dei.

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. (Verbum Dei §8)

The concept of doctrinal development can be cause for concern. Pope Francis’ invoking of doctrinal development in his authorization of female acolytes is grounds for concern among the Orthodox and serves as a warning about using the concept uncritically.

There has not been much interaction by Orthodox theologians with Newman’s theory of doctrinal development (Lattier 2012, p. xiv). Overall, Orthodoxy’s attitude to Newman’s doctrinal development has been skeptical and even hostile (see Lattier 2011). While the early Church Fathers affirmed an unchanging Tradition, there were Church Fathers—for example, Gregory Nazianzus (Orations 31:25-27)—who appealed to the Church’s growing understanding of the divinity of the Holy Spirit (J.H. Walgrave). This allows for a cautious openness by Orthodox Christians to the dynamic paradigm of church history.

The concept of doctrinal development is best used as a way of understanding church history. It should not be used as a methodology for doctrinal formulation. In Orthodoxy the emphasis has been on theology as the faithful reception of Tradition than theology as a creative intellectual project. In the wrong hands the concept of doctrinal development can be misused with dubious or even catastrophic results. Theological liberals find the idea of doctrinal development appealing as it offers justification for new practices that are essentially adaptations to contemporary culture. It can even be used to justify drastic doctrinal U-turns. Newman used doctrinal development to justify papal supremacy (Chapter 4 Section III). The Mercersburg theologians, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff, used the organic, evolutionary approach to church history to argue for the eventual reuniting of Protestantism with Roman Catholicism. See Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism (pp. 216-217). A dynamic approach to church history without Holy Tradition as the authoritative framework is highly problematic.


Additional Support from Scripture

As noted earlier, the conversation between Protestants and Orthodox over icons has undergone a shift. Where before the debate was about the presence of images in Old Testament places of worship, the focus has shifted to the veneration of images. Protestant apologists have for most part conceded that the Bible does allow for images in places of worship, e.g., Moses’ Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple. However, they now argue that these images served either decorative or didactic purposes but in no way were used for the worship of God. Likewise, they have acknowledged that in the Old Testament people have bowed down to other humans as a form of social respect but in no way connected to worship. The Protestant apologists insist that evidence be shown in support of veneration in the context of worship. While biblical evidence for veneration of objects or people in connection with the worship of God is scarce, they do exist. For example, there are two psalms that talk about bowing down to the Temple.

But I through the abundance of thy steadfast love

will enter thy house,

I will worship toward thy holy temple

In the fear of thee. (Psalm 5:7; RSV; emphasis added)

[8 ἐγὼ δὲ ἐν τῷ πλήθει τοῦ ἐλέους σου εἰσελεύσομαι εἰς τὸν οἶκόν σου,

προσκυνήσω πρὸς ναὸν ἅγιόν σου ἐν φόβῳ σου.] [LXX Source]

חוַֽאֲנִ֗י בְּרֹ֣ב חַ֖סְדְּךָ אָב֣וֹא בֵיתֶ֑ךָ אֶשְׁתַּֽחֲוֶ֥ה אֶל־הֵיכַל קָ֜דְשְׁךָ֗ בְּיִרְאָתֶֽךָ: [Source; Emphasis added]


Then, there is Psalm 138:2 [137:2] which reads:

I bow down towards your holy temple

And give thanks to thy name for thy

Steadfast love and thy faithfulness;

For thou hast exalted above everything

Thy name and thy word. (Psalm 138:2; RSV; emphasis added)

[2 προσκυνήσω πρὸς ναὸν ἅγιόν σου

καὶ ἐξομολογήσομαι τῷ ὀνόματί σου

ἐπὶ τῷ ἐλέει σου καὶ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ σου,

ὅτι ἐμεγάλυνας ἐπὶ πᾶν ὄνομα τὸ λόγιόν σου.] [LXX Source; Emphasis added.]

באֶשְׁתַּֽחֲוֶ֨ה אֶל־הֵיכַ֪ל קָדְשְׁךָ֡ וְא֘וֹדֶ֚ה אֶת־שְׁמֶ֗ךָ עַל־חַסְדְּךָ֥ וְעַל־אֲמִתֶּ֑ךָ כִּֽי־הִגְדַּ֥לְתָּ עַל־כָּל־שִׁ֜מְךָ֗ אִמְרָתֶֽך [source; Emphasis added.]:

The biblical principle here is that bowing towards a physical object such as Solomon’s Temple was permissible because the Temple was where God’s presence dwelt. The fact that the Greek word proskuneo (to bow down in worship) points to something other than mere social honorifics. It comes as no surprise then that the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council used proskuneo in its affirmation of icons.

Another important example of veneration in the Bible can be found in Daniel 2:46-47 where King Nebuchadnezzar bows down to the Prophet Daniel.

46 Then King Nebuchadnez′zar fell upon his face, and did homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him. 47 The king said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.” (RSV; emphasis added)

46 τότε Ναβουχοδονοσορ ὁ βασιλεὺς πεσὼν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον χαμαὶ προσεκύνησε τῷ Δανιηλ καὶ ἐπέταξε θυσίας καὶ σπονδὰς ποιῆσαι αὐτῷ.

47 . . . δηλῶσαι τὸ μυστήριον τοῦτο . . . . [LXX Source; Emphasis added.]

מובֵּ֠אדַיִן מַלְכָּ֚א נְבֽוּכַדְנֶצַּר֙ נְפַ֣ל עַל־אַנְפּ֔וֹהִי וּלְדָֽנִיֵּ֖אל סְגִ֑ד וּמִנְחָה֙ וְנִ֣יחֹחִ֔ין אֲמַ֖ר לְנַסָּ֥כָה לֵֽהּ]:[Source; Emphasis added.]


What is striking about Daniel 2:46 is that it uses the same Greek word as Psalms 5:7 and 138:2 (proskuneo). What is even more striking is that even more than bowing down to Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar ordered the offering of sacrifice and incense to Daniel. The Hebrew word sagad in Daniel 2:46 is much more forceful than Psalms 5:7 and 138:2 which use the more generic shahah. Keil and Delitzsch note that the word סְגִ֑ד (sāgad) (a Hebrew word borrowed from Aramaic) was used exclusively for divine homage (p. 112). It is worth noting that nowhere in the text is there any condemnation of Nebuchadnezzar for doing this. The absence of condemnation is likely due to the fact it was Yahweh, the one true God—Daniel’s God—who was being honored. In verse 47, we read of Nebuchadnezzar acknowledging that Daniel’s God is “God of gods and Lord of kings.” The tolerance with respect to Nebuchadnezzar’s bowing to Daniel is likely forbearance of the sincerity of a polytheistic pagan who for the first time has encountered the one true God.

The New Testament, however, seems to present us with discontinuity. We read about the Apostle Peter dissuading Cornelius the Centurion from bowing down to him in Acts 10:25 [πεσὼν ἐπὶ τοὺς πόδας προσεκύνησεν] and Saint John being rebuked by the angel in Revelation 22:8-9 [ἔπεσα προσκυνῆσαι ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ποδῶν τοῦ ἀγγέλου]. Protestant iconoclasts have used these two passages to argue against bowing to icons while ignoring bible passages that point in a different direction. We should not read these verses woodenly, but rather use them to discern biblical principles of worship. The basic principle here is biblical worship can include bowing down towards objects or people closely associated with the one true God, e.g., Solomon’s Temple and the Prophet Daniel. Likewise, biblical worship disallows acts of worship in which the creation/Creator difference is confused, e.g., Cornelius bowing down to Peter and John bowing to the Angel. Orthodoxy’s veneration of icons is grounded in the understanding that the worship of the one true God can include honor being showed to objects manifesting the divine Presence. By refuting the aniconic reading of Scripture, it is hoped that this sub-section will assure inquirers that there is a biblical basis for the venerating of icons and the saints.

Orthodoxy takes pain to ensure that honor must ultimately be attributed to God, not to the objects mediating his grace. For Orthodoxy, the primary locus of the divine-human encounter is the Liturgy, especially the Eucharist. For the Orthodox, the Eucharist is not a mere symbol of Christ’s Body and Blood but is actually the Body and Blood of Christ. Receiving Holy Communion facilitates our union with Christ and our participation in the life of the Trinity. Underlying the Orthodox veneration of icons is a sacramental worldview which assumes that the spiritual reality of heaven can overlap with our physical reality here on earth. Likewise, icons mediate the personal presence of the saints depicted. The saints are part of the invisible cloud of witnesses mentioned in Hebrews 12, who are with us and are praying for us. The Liturgy unites the Church Militant here on earth with the Church Triumphant in heaven in the worship of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Participating in the Liturgy brings healing to the alienation and inner emptiness of secular modernity and restores us to the ultimate reality of the Kingdom of God.

Protestantism possesses something of a sacramental worldview. When Protestants affirm that in the Bible God in some mysterious but very real way speaks to humanity, they are evincing a sacramental understanding. Here the divinely-inspired Scriptures mediates between the earthly and heavenly realities. Orthodoxy extends this sacramental understanding beyond the Bible to the Church as the Body of Christ, the Real Presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, and to icons and prayers to the saints. Protestants and Evangelicals who are hungering for divine grace are drawn to the ancient liturgies, the Eucharist, and the Church Fathers, but many balk at venerating icons. However, icons are no mere trivia. Where the Eucharist comprises the center of Orthodoxy, the icons serve as the outer perimeter that safeguards the holy Mysteries. Many Protestant inquirers have struggled with the issue of icons. This author likewise has had to struggle with the issue of icons. Reformed iconoclasm may seem to be an impregnable barrier to Protestant inquirers but it can be surmounted through careful research, critical analysis, and prayerful reflection. Just as important is attending the Liturgy on Sunday morning. It is in the Liturgy that the Protestant inquirer can best observe and experience the role of icons in Orthodoxy. Come and see! (John 1:46)



Far from being a late accretion, Gregory of Nyssa’s panegyric to Theodore the Recruit shows that full-fledged icon veneration was present in the early Church as early as 386, long before 600 when Pastor Ortlund assumes the practice to have been introduced. Additional partial-evidence—images in early Christian places of worship, an early prayer to the Virgin Mary, and the veneration of Polycarp’s relics—were presented to show that icon veneration has roots going as far back as the second and third centuries. To rebut the Protestant argument for aniconism, biblical passages—Psalms 5 and 138, Daniel 2—have also been presented. These passages show objects and persons being venerated in the religious sense—not merely in the sense of reverence as social convention or images as educational decorations. The intent here is to show that icon veneration is rooted in Scripture and a genuine part of Christianity.

In constructing an apologia for the Orthodox veneration of icons for this article, I have reverse-engineered the historical development of icon veneration. Unlike the usual approach in which a long list of quotations is presented, I have had to connect various partial evidence into a pattern. I have taken this approach largely in consideration to the scarcity of evidence. With respect to Christology, Trinitarian doctrine, and the real presence in the Eucharist there exist an abundance of texts. These comprise the theological core of Orthodoxy. The veneration of icons serves as its protective perimeter. However, icons have become so intertwined with the other components of Holy Tradition that they now are part of the dogmatic structure of Orthodoxy.

Gavin Ortlund’s argument that icon veneration is an accretion shows how Protestant-Orthodox conversation about icons has advanced. (See my earlier article responding to John B. Carpenter’s attempt to engage Orthodoxy on icons.) I would like to thank Pastor Ortlund  for elevating the tone and intellectual quality of the discussion regarding icons and icon veneration. Unlike before, many Protestants and Evangelicals now have some knowledge of the early Church, the Church Fathers, and the Ecumenical Councils. The conversation has shifted to other topics: the anathemas of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II, 787), the theological rationale for icon veneration by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and the validity of John of Damascus’ theological defense of icons based on the Incarnation. The disagreement over icons is far from trivial. They are profoundly consequential for our understanding of the Incarnation, our salvation in Christ, and the nature of Christian worship. Despite Gavin Ortlund’s pursuit of irenic ecumenism, the divide between Protestants and Orthodox over icons may be too wide for both sides to find common ground. It is hoped that by addressing Protestant objections to icons, this article will provide inquiring Protestants with good reasons to embrace the ancient Faith.

Robert Arakaki



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No Bowing Allowed?


Venerating the Icon of Saints Peter and Paul

A reader recently wrote:

My greatest struggle with Orthodoxy is the veneration of saints, angels, and Blessed Mary. In the Book of Revelations there is a scene that plays on 22:8 where John bows to an angel and the angel rebukes him. Typically, Roman Catholic and Orthodox say that he was rebuked for trying to worship the angel (not venerate). The problem though (in my view) is that is the Beloved Apostle. He devoted his life to the God of Israel and when Jesus came to Jesus the Messiah (also God). He wrote one of the four Gospels. He would not worship an angel. It seems to me that that was veneration that he was offering and not adoration, but he was still rebuked for bowing. I can’t see how John would commit idolatry and worship the angel. He would try to veneration though. So if we cant bow to angels how can we bow (in veneration) to images?


My response

I took a look at Revelation 22:8.  The text says: “I John am he who heard and saw them.  I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me . . . .” I also checked the Greek text and found that there were two verbs used here: “epesa proskunesai.” (ἔπεσα προσκυνῆσαι NA28)  The first verb “epesa” takes the aorist past tense of “fall down” and the second verb “proskunesai” (to worship) takes the infinitive form indicating the reason or motive for the action.  You are right that John would not want to worship an angel but the infinitive of intent for “proskunesai” indicates that that was what he had intended when he fell down. Basically, the physical act of bowing is not intrinsically wrong.  What was wrong was the intent behind the bowing, that is, bowing as an act of worship.  The basic problem with your argument then is that it fixates on the first verb and ignores or overlooks the second verb.  This misreading of Revelation 22:8 is not good exegesis.  In other words, Orthodoxy, which is open to veneration, is on much solid scriptural ground than Protestantism, which shuns veneration.

Bathsheba kneeling before David – painting by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout

If we look at Scripture we can find instances where people bowed to show respect to another person.  In Genesis 33:6-7, we read that Jacob’s wives and children bowed before Esau during the family reconciliation.  In 1 Kings 1:16 and 23 (RSV), we read that King David’s wife, Bathsheba, and the Prophet Nathan bowed down before the king.  Verse 16 says that Bathsheba “bowed and did obeisance to the king.”  In the book of Acts, the Philippian jailer fell down before the Apostle Paul asking “What must I do to be saved?”  Paul did not rebuke the jailer because the jailer was attempting to show respect to the man he earlier treated as a lowlife criminal.


Philippian jailer kneeling before the Apostle Paul and Silas

Bowing in ancient times was a common practice with a range of meaning, from social courtesy to religious devotion.  It seems that Protestantism has become hypersensitive to the physical act of bowing in their reaction against Roman Catholic medieval piety and in their attempt to purify the church.

The key difference between veneration and worship would be offering a sacrifice.  This is what we find in Acts 14 when Paul and Barnabas learned to their horror that the citizens of Lystra were about to offer a sacrifice of oxen to them, believing Barnabas to be an incarnation of Zeus and Paul an incarnation of Hermes (Acts 14:11-15).  Similarly, in Orthodoxy we may bow to show respect to Mary and the saints, but the core of the Liturgy is the Eucharist in which the bloodless sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood is offered to God alone.  During the Liturgy the Orthodox faithful also offer up our whole lives to Christ our God, which is in accordance with Romans 12:1.  The important thing to keep in mind is that the center focus of Orthodoxy is the worship of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Mary and the saints are peripheral.  Not that they are ignored (as so often happens in Protestantism) but they are peripheral much like the supporting cast who surround the star of the show.  Protestant spirituality can be likened to a Jesus-and-me spirituality.  For many Protestants converting to Orthodoxy is a lot like a girlfriend who gets taken to her boyfriend’s home and meets all of his relatives.  If she is serious about her relationship with the boyfriend, she is going to have to accept his larger family as well.

Bowing in Japan

The Protestant objection to bowing has disturbing cultural implications.  If bowing is so intrinsically wrong, then Asians who become Christians are obligated to refrain from bowing to their parents, which would be taken as highly disrespectful and offensive.  Furthermore, this position runs contrary to the Ten Commandments which enjoined honoring one’s father and mother—at least in the way Asians who apply it.  





Protestantism’s Roots in Modernity

I suspect that the Protestant reservation about bowing stems from their being Western and their being modern.  Modernity has resulted in a flattening of social relations and a break from traditional culture which assume hierarchical relations.  This flattening effect can be seen in the Reformed tradition’s rejection of the episcopacy and their not addressing ministers as “Father.”  This way of thinking is tragic and contrary to history.  It is contrary to Christianity’s roots in Judaism and to the Tradition of the Church Fathers. Even early Protestant creeds used the language of hierarchy in social relations, even explicitly speaking about “inferiors and superiors.” See the Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 126 to Q. 133 which expounds on the Fifth Commandment.

In the eyes of Moderns, secularist and even Christians, all hierarchies are considered unjust and corrupting, and therefore to be scorned and done away with. Protestants have been at the forefront of espousing republicanism and the abolition of monarchies.  Oliver Cromwell, a devout Puritan, led the movement to abolish the episcopacy in England and for a time headed the short-lived republican Commonwealth of England. This leveling influence can also be seen in Hawaii’s history where the leading haole (White) Congregationalist church (descended from the New England Puritans) openly supported the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Protestantism’s new social dynamic had unintended consequences for faith and practice.  Where the early Reformers retained a sacramental worldview and respected social hierarchies, later generations of Protestants reduced the sacraments to mere symbols, eliminated the office of the bishop, and expressly forbade the honoring of saints calling it sinful.  Protestantism’s sola scriptura elevated the sermon to a position of prominence in the Sunday service and relegated the Eucharist to the periphery.  But it did not end there; in recent years the sermon has undergone further changes.  Where before the Protestant pastor would strive to give the unvarnished truth of God’s word based on careful exegesis, now the sermon has devolved into an inspiring or comforting message to please the audience. Many Protestant pastors have become religious entrepreneurs.  Church members have become customers whose loyalty the pastor must retain in order to keep the religious enterprise going.  This is religious commercialism where the customer is king and evangelism involves marketing a useful product.  In this new religious context the Gospel—the Good News of Christ—is no longer the eternal truth of God but what suits the taste of the current market.  


Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church – Warrenville, IL

In contrast to Protestantism’s constantly evolving forms of worship is the Orthodox Church’s adherence to the historic forms of worship.  A visitor to an Orthodox Sunday service will get to see the fourth century Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.  Orthodoxy’s liturgical style of worship retains a sense of dignity and hierarchical ordering long gone from from much of Protestantism.  One notable example of this are the Small Entrance and the Great Entrance when the priest and the acolytes process around the interior of the church.  Orthodoxy’s rubrics and protocols provide a much needed corrective to the casual informality of modernity.  






Hierarchy and the Biblical Worldview

Hospital Hierarchy: Doctors, Residents, Nurses

How we worship God and how we live do matter.   They are intertwined to an extent far more than we realize.   Our understanding of society and human nature is impacted by our rituals and practices.  The small act of bowing is consequential because it embodies the Orthodox ethos and worldview.  To venerate the saints is to accept Orthodoxy’s hierarchical and sacramental worldview, where the heavenly realm overlaps with the earthly.  The Protestant rejection of bowing reflects a flat, egalitarian approach to social relations, and a utilitarian, non-sacramental approach to nature. 

Modern humanists of the Enlightenment who espouse egalitarianism don’t like the practice of veneration. They scorn it as “worshiping man,“ but they are wrong. It is not sinful to give honor to another human being but a practical acknowledgement of the way reality works. All men are not equal in every respect.  Hierarchies do matter.  There are hierarchical orders in our schools, in the workplace, in the military, in the hospitals, in our government.  Why, then, do Protestants insist that churches be devoid of hierarchical order?  We honor our graduates, our heroes, and those who made a contribution to society.  Why not face up to the fact that some Christians are indeed worthy of our appreciation, esteem, and honor?

Protestants should also face up to the fact that according respect to our elders and those above us is part of the biblical worldview.  In the Old Testament youths were exhorted to show respect to their elders.

Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:32; NIV)

In the New Testament, the laity was encouraged to honor the clergy.

Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor; especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.(1 Timothy 5:17; OSB)


Kissing Priest Hasnd

Becoming an Orthodox Christian involves not just learning and accepting a body of teachings, but also entering into a cultural ethos.  For Protestant inquirers, it means relinquishing their rugged self-independence and accepting the Church as our Mother.  An important mark of an inquirer’s readiness to become Orthodox is humility.  Calling a priest “Father” can be difficult for some Protestant inquirers but it marks an important milestone in their journey to Orthodoxy.  Calling a priest “Father” is an acknowledgment that the priest stands as a representative of Jesus Christ and has the awesome responsibility of pastoring Christ’s flock.   At his ordination the priest is invested with the authority of the Orthodox Church and acts as a representative of the bishop, who stands in apostolic succession. In light of this, addressing a priest as “Father” is an act of showing respect to the Lord Jesus.  It is also important to know that the priest’s authority is not arbitrary but is based upon and constrained by capital “T” Tradition.   His authority is valid so long as he remains faithful to Tradition.  The priority of capital “T” Tradition provides a much needed safeguard against arbitrary power and spiritual abuse.   


Icon – All Saints

Hierarchy and the Coming Age

Hierarchical ordering is not just for the present age but also for the age to come.  The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians described the coming age in which the resurrected saints will live in a glorified state.  

All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of animals, another of fish, and another of birds.

There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.  There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. (1 Corinthians 15:39-41; OSB)

It is worth noting that there will be different grades of glory among the saints.  This can be inferred from “one star differs from another star in glory.”  They all belong to the same category of being but differ with respect to status.  

When Orthodox Christians venerate the saints they are showing respect to their older brothers in the faith.  Undergirding the spirituality of venerating icons is element of prayer, of relationality.  When I venerate an icon I usually ask the saint to pray for me or for someone I have in mind.  Without prayer, venerating icons become a superficial, perfunctory ritual.  Underneath the venerating of the saints is a combination of affection and respect we show to our elder brothers and sisters in the Faith.  This awareness of the importance of showing respect to older siblings or to older peers in school or the work place can still be found in Asian cultures.  Present day Asians still have this appreciation for hierarchical order whereas this has largely disappeared in the West and in the U.S. where the culture of modernity has obliterated the old way of life.  


Making Faith Real

Let me close with a personal observation that the Orthodox practice of bowing to show respect brought a physicality to my spiritual life that I did not experience as a Protestant.  In many ways Protestantism is a cerebral religion and of which one unintended consequence is the mind-body split that weakens one’s spiritual development.  The deep-seated individualism in Protestant spirituality has given rise to the plethora of denominations undermining their sense of belonging to the Church Militant.  It has also led to Protestants suffering a spiritual disconnect with the Church Triumphant.  This can be seen in widespread historical amnesia among Protestants and their refusing to venerate the saints.   For me, becoming Orthodox has brought a deeper sense of belonging to the historic Church, a stronger sense of alignment with the biblical worldview, and an appreciation of integration into the cosmic order—the saints and the angels gathered before the throne of God as described in Revelation 7.  

To sum up, the Orthodox veneration of the saints and the angels are not something added on to Christianity but deeply rooted in the biblical worldview and very much a part of the historic Christian Faith.  The Protestant disavowal of the veneration of the saints marks a departure from the historic Christian Faith and created a new form of spirituality.  Thank you for your question which has led me to a deeper appreciation of a “minor” practice within Orthodoxy.  I hope that this response addresses your concerns and helps you to continue on in your journey to Orthodoxy.

Robert Arakaki



Douglas Cramer.  “Call No Man Father?”  Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.

John S. Morrill.  “Oliver Cromwell: English Stateman.”  Britannica.com

On Kissing the Priest’s Hand.”  OrthoChristian.

W. Stanford Reid. “John Calvin: One of the Fathers of Modern Democracy.”  Christian History Institute

Q. 126 to Q. 133 — Westminster Larger Catechism.



Responding to Pastor Jordan Cooper

“Five Reasons Why I am not Orthodox”

A reader asked for my thoughts about Pastor Jordan Cooper’s YouTube video “Five Reasons I am not Eastern Orthodox.” In this quite brief (15 minutes) video, Jordan Cooper concisely and eloquently gives his reasons for not converting to Orthodoxy. I very much enjoyed the thoughtful, irenic spirit of his presentation. While Pastor Cooper is an ordained Lutheran minister, his reasons for not converting echo the objections of many Reformed Christians. It is my hope that this article will stimulate a friendly and frank conversation between Protestants and Orthodox.


Objection 1 – Apophatic Theology

Pastor Jordan Cooper brings up apophatic theology (theology without words) as a great dividing factor between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity. He explains that apophatic theology uses the method of negation—stressing what God is not. In apophatic theology we strip away all thoughts and concepts of God. This way of doing theology is intertwined with Orthodox spirituality which stresses wordless, thoughtless prayer.

I was surprised and yet not surprised to hear Pastor Cooper bring up Orthodoxy’s apophaticism as an issue. I first learned about apophatic theology in my initial readings about Orthodoxy. However, in my journey to Orthodoxy as I met Orthodox Christians, attended the Sunday liturgies, and read the Church Fathers, the apophatic method was more in the background. As a matter of fact, when it comes to the typical week-by-week life of an Orthodox Christian, there is very little mention of apophatic theology.

There is a strong cataphatic (theology with words) element in Orthodoxy. When one hears the elaborate prayers said by the Orthodox priest in the Anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) one cannot but be struck by the way theological terms are laid upon theological terms in the description of who God is:

“You are without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, beyond words, unchangeable. You are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the great God and Savior of our hope, the image of Your goodness, the true seal of revealing in Himself You, the Father. He is the living Word, the true God, eternal wisdom, life, sanctification, power, and the true light.”

This tells us that Orthodoxy has no problem with cataphatic theology. Cataphatic theology is integral to Orthodoxy. I can understand why Pastor Cooper described Orthodoxy in this way, but it is simplistic and misleading. I suspect that his understanding of Orthodoxy comes primarily from reading books about Orthodoxy, rather than witnessing real-life Orthodoxy.

The real difference in theological method between Orthodoxy and Protestantism is threefold. The first major difference is that for Orthodoxy doctrine is something received, that is, passed down from generation to generation through the Church going back to the Apostles. In contrast, in Protestantism doctrine is based upon individual inductive reasoning with the biblical texts. Granted, individual Protestant theologians will often consult the Church Fathers. Yet the Holy Tradition of the Fathers have no prior claim but are merely advisory, and thus subordinate to his conclusions, either individually or in committee. The root source of this theological method is sola scriptura—a doctrine with no precedent in the early Church. None of the early Church Fathers opposed Scripture against Tradition, giving priority to Scripture over Tradition. The major Protestant confessions of the 1500s and 1600s were the result of the sharpest minds of a denomination coming together and hashing out their group’s statement of faith. This gives Protestant theology a humanly constructed or self-made nature. While the Reformers did not totally reject the idea of tradition and respected the early Church Fathers, they nevertheless subordinated these to the principle of sola scriptura. In many instances they set aside the Church Fathers for what they considered a “more” biblical teaching.

Zwingli and Luther at the Marburg Colloquy – 1529

This new way of doing theology led to a parting of ways from the ancient patristic theology and been at the root of Protestantism’s fragmentation for over 500 years. Rather than promoting unity, there has been a progressive splintering of Protestantism into several thousand separate individual denominations. One of the earliest failures of Protestant theology was the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 between Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Here were two Reformers deeply committed to sola scriptura but differed on the meaning of Scripture. Luther believed in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist while Zwingli believed that the Lord’s Supper was symbolic. They were unable to reach an agreement and went their separate ways resulting in one of the earliest denominational splits in Protestantism. Luther felt so strongly about his difference with Zwingli over the significance of the Lord’s Supper that he wrote:

Before I would have mere wine with the fanatics, I would rather receive sheer blood with the pope.

Father Josiah Trenham, author of Rock and Sand, gave a trenchant analysis of Protestant theology’s basic flaws:

By cutting the cords of Holy Tradition, and placing in its stead the doctrine of sola scriptura, the Protestants ensured theological divisiveness and fracture between themselves and their descendants and have only multiplied divisions, theories, and interpretations ad infinitum, with no end in view to this day. We may judge a tree by its fruit. The sola scriptura tree has borne the fruit of division and every conceivable heresy. (p. 275)

It is puzzling that Pastor Jordan Cooper did not bring up sola scriptura. One could say that sola scriptura is the crown jewel of Protestant theology and ought to be highlighted in any Protestant-Orthodox dialogue. Sola scriptura must not be overlooked, because it is foundational to Protestantism’s theology. Moreover, it has severed Protestantism from the patristic consensus and from the Ecumenical Councils, both of which are foundational to Orthodoxy. While Protestants have cited the Ecumenical Councils, they cannot claim to be in fellowship with the historic Church that gave us the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

The second major difference is that the Orthodox theology is liturgical theology. Theology books and statements of faith play a secondary in Orthodoxy. My journey to Orthodoxy did not really begin until I began attending on a regular basis an all-English Liturgy. It was after several months that I began to understand the Orthodox theological paradigm and more importantly dimly perceive the spiritual reality referred to in the Liturgy. In the Liturgy I began to sense the reality of God as Trinity in a way I had not in all the years I was a Protestant. As a Protestant I did indeed learn about God as Trinity, however, the Protestant teaching on the Trinity struck me as a convoluted abstraction. Orthodoxy does not attempt to explain the Trinity, but rather it invites the whole human person to be at the Liturgy, to participate in and experience the heavenly worship of the Trinity in all its fullness. This way of expressing and understanding doctrine reflects the ancient theological principle lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith).

The third major difference is that Orthodoxy has a twofold approach to knowing God. One way is through the intellectual study of Scripture and the Church Fathers. The other way is through prayer. One of the early Desert Fathers, Evagrius of Pontus, taught: “He who prays is a theologian and he who is a theologian truly prays.” This maxim points to the belief that one can go beyond understanding concepts about God to a personal knowledge of God. In other words, cataphatic theology should lead to apophatic theology. Both go together; just as the human person, the created Imago Dei, cannot be reduced to mere intellect — but is a unity of body, soul and spirit. This latter way of doing theology—spiritual ascent via prayer—ultimately depends upon divine grace and mercy.

Pastor Cooper has set up a false dichotomy when he contrasts the Eastern theology without words against the Western theology by analogy. He notes that in the Western God is known through analogy (2:27). In this method God’s love is likened to human love but far greater. He cites Martin Luther who said if you want to know what God is like look at the babe in the manger. The weakness of theology by analogy is its implicit denial of direct knowledge of God. Ultimately, will we only know about God’s love or will we truly know God who loves us? The goal of Orthodox spirituality is union with Christ and life in the Trinity (John 17:21-23). Protestantism’s rejection of apophatic theology has led to a rejection of contemplative prayer. In Protestantism prayer is understood primarily as petition (asking God for things) than as union with God. This has had a limiting effect on Protestant spirituality. Theology by negation is an important part of Orthodoxy, but it does not represent the totality of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy prays with words and without words. In Orthodoxy theology without words refers to experiencing God through prayer. Prayer without words can be viewed as the more advanced form of prayer.


Holy Transfiguration – Christ conversing with the deified Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:23-33)

Objection 2 — Theosis

The second reason Jordan Cooper gives is the Neo-Platonism underlying Orthodoxy’s doctrine of theosis (4:03, 4:44). He points to Pseudo-Dionysius, the Palamite tradition, and the twentieth century theologian Vladimir Lossky as evidence. I have heard this criticism before, but this criticism to me seems based more on assertions than on evidence-based arguments. I invite Pastor Jordan Cooper or other Protestants to show me the evidence. Then I would ask them to explain how Neo-Platonism is so inimical to the Christian Faith.

Furthermore, Pastor Cooper needs to wrestle with the fact that Augustine of Hippo taught the doctrine of theosis.  In my article “Theosis and Our Salvation in Christ,” I cite an excerpt from Augustine’s exposition on Psalm 50.  In it he notes that we are deified by grace, not by nature, which is what Orthodoxy teaches.

See in the same Psalm those to whom he says, “I have said, You are gods, and children of the Highest all; but you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.” It is evident then, that He has called men gods, that are deified of His Grace, not born of His Substance. For He does justify, who is just through His own self, and not of another; and He does deify who is God through Himself, not by the partaking of another. But He that justifies does Himself deify, in that by justifying He does make sons of God. “For He has given them power to become the sons of God.” (John 1:12) If we have been made sons of God, we have also been made gods: but this is the effect of Grace adopting, not of nature generating. (Augustine Exposition on Psalm 50; emphasis added)

This is not a one-time exception.  Augustine also affirmed theosis at least two times in his City of God.  In this passage he explains how God intended Adam to achieve theosis through reliance on divine grace, not on proud self-reliance.

For created gods are gods not by virtue of what is in themselves, but by a participation of the true God. (Book 14.13; emphases added; see also NPNF Vol. 2 p. 274)

In the conclusion of City of God, Augustine affirms that theosis takes place through union with Christ.

There shall we be still, and know that He is God; that He is that which we ourselves aspired to be when we fell away from Him, and listened to the voice of the seducer, You shall be as gods, (Genesis 3:5) and so abandoned God, who would have made us as gods, not by deserting Him, but by participating in Him. (Book 22.30; emphasis added; see also NPNF Vol. 2 p. 511)

This leaves me wondering whether Pastor Cooper is going to criticize his favorite theologian of Neo-Platonism and of having a defective soteriology?  I would suggest that Augustine’s affirmation of theosis points to theosis as common ground between Western Christianity and Orthodoxy.

Pastor Cooper points out that the New Testament places the emphasis on the finished work of Christ, whereas the Orthodox Church does not (3:23). I am not sure on what he makes this claim. If one listens attentively to the Divine Liturgy one learns much about how God works in history to bring about our salvation in Christ. Every Sunday the Liturgy recounts the Incarnation, Christ’s saving death on the Cross, and his victorious third day Resurrection. What the Liturgy does is sum up the biblical narrative of salvation history. I suspect that when he speaks of the “finished work of Christ” he is using a Protestant theological code, that it is because of Jesus’ atoning death on the Cross we who believe in him have been forgiven and our legal status has changed from that of condemned criminals to children legally entitled to the benefits of God’s kingdom. This approach to soteriology narrows the focus to Christ’s death on the Cross, leading to an under appreciation of Christ’s Incarnation and his Resurrection. We are saved by the Person of Christ, not by just one thing He did. It was not until I encountered Orthodoxy that the pieces of the puzzle came together, enabling me to get a glimpse of a more complete picture. It troubles me that Pastor Cooper is implying this sixteenth century theological paradigm is superior to the soteriology presented in the ancient liturgies.


Objection 3 – The Doctrine of Justification

Pastor Jordan Cooper identifies the doctrine of justification as the major reason why he is not Orthodox. He points out that in the New Testament there is much legal language surrounding justification: acquittal, condemnation, judgment, all of which are courtroom language (7:41). He notes that this emphasis is lacking in Orthodoxy. Cooper asserts that Orthodoxy’s anti-Western prejudice leads away from the forensic language of the New Testament (9:24). My response: There is indeed forensic language in Scripture. However, it is important to keep in mind that Scripture contains a multitude of different ways of describing and explaining salvation in Christ: redemptive, imitative, transformative, covenantal, etc. Moreover, the Protestant reading of Scripture gives greater attention to the Apostle Paul, whereas in the Orthodox reading of Scripture greater priority is given to the Gospels. This is especially evident in the Scripture reading in the Liturgy. What troubles me is that the Protestant doctrine of sola fide, a theological novelty invented by Martin Luther in the 1500s, was never a part of the ancient patristic consensus. By turning sola fide into a dogma and a theological plumb line by which to assess the orthodoxy of other theological traditions Protestantism has become doctrinally schismatic. See my article “Response to Theodore – Semi-Pelagianism, Sola Fide, and Theosis.

Pastor Cooper notes that there is a need for greater balance between Orthodoxy’s participatory language and the biblical forensic language (8:04). I would point out that Orthodoxy’s theology is fundamentally liturgical, not scholastic. What we believe can be found primarily in the fifth century Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and the fourth century Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. The Orthodox priest is using forensic language when he says “for the remission of sins” over the bread and over the wine. I would ask Pastor Cooper: “Are you saying that the theology in these early liturgies is imbalanced and theologically deficient? Would it not be the case that you are using your Euro-centric, post-1500s theology as the theological norm by which to assess all other theological systems and find them wanting?”


Objection 4 – The Augustinian Theological Tradition

Augustine of Hippo

Pastor Cooper expressed his dismay at the anti-Western prejudice by certain Orthodox theologians. This anti-Western bigotry is to be deplored as small-minded and not characteristic of the true spirit of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is not Eastern; it is catholic in the sense of embracing and constituting the whole. Orthodox theology is catholic in scope embracing both East and West. It is the universal Faith for all nations. There is a need for Orthodoxy to better integrate the Latin Fathers with the Greek Fathers. The way has been opened by the Western Rite Liturgy and Orthodox Western Rite vicariates. It would be good if Orthodox seminaries offered classes on the Latin Fathers.

At the 12:15 mark, Jordan Cooper states that the Fall is clearly taught in the New Testament. I have no disagreement with that, but what I would question is whether the New Testament depicts the Fall as a catastrophic event as understood by Augustine. Unless there is indisputable textual evidence for a catastrophic Fall, what we have here is an interpretation, not a fact. In light of the fact that there are other interpretations of the Fall, it would help if Protestants were less dogmatic in their soteriology.  Could Pastor Cooper please give us the chapter and verse that explicitly teaches that the Fall was such a catastrophic event that resulted in humanity becoming a massa damnata (condemned mass) and as a result of inherited guilt an infant was eternally damned at birth? These are conclusions resulting from rigorously applying logic to certain theological premises. There is a certain attractiveness to Protestant theology’s quest to be logical and internally consistent; however, the results can be invalid and even harmful if the initial premises are faulty.

Pastor Cooper notes Orthodoxy’s less severe understanding of the Fall leads to greater emphasis on synergy. In contrast, the Western Augustinian tradition catastrophic understanding of the Fall leads it to give greater emphasis on divine grace in our salvation. However, it should be noted that what Cooper is doing here is doing theology on the basis of one Church Father while ignoring the patristic consensus. Pastor Cooper needs to beware of building his theology around one particular Church Father. To focus on just one Church Father is to risk theological sectarianism. The way to avoid this error is to embrace the patristic consensus, to faithfully read one Church Father against the broader context of the other Fathers. We should bear in mind the Apostle Paul’s rebuke to the Christians in Corinth for their factionalism when they claimed: “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:12; NKJV) In light of the fact that there is no patristic consensus regarding the consequence of the Fall, we ought to be refraining from turning our particular interpretation into a universal dogma. My view is that there is room for disagreement between the Augustinian and other understandings within Orthodoxy.

Augustine was not the only Latin Church Father. There was Ambrose of Milan, who brought Augustine to faith in Christ and who made use of Eastern melodies in the hymns he composed. The Western tradition includes Vincent of Lerins, Leo of Rome, Pope Gregory (aka Gregory the Great), Jerome, and Cyprian of Carthage. Going back to the time of the Apostolic Fathers, there was Clement of Rome and Irenaeus of Lyons, who, although they wrote in Greek, can be considered part of the Western tradition. To be fair, Pastor Cooper did mention Prosper of Aquitaine and Ambrose of Milan (11:58). In terms of spirituality, the Western Christian tradition can lay claim to Benedict of Nursia. These are saints recognized and venerated by the Orthodox Church. Thus, the Western tradition is far more diverse and richer than Pastor Jordan Cooper has led us to believe.

Augustine’s preeminence in Western theology is largely due to historical circumstances. With the Fall of Rome in the fifth century, Western Europe became isolated from the spiritual heritage of the Byzantine Empire which would continue the Roman Empire for another thousand years. During the Middle Ages, Scholasticism used Augustine’s writings as the basis for their theological project. It is from this theological framework that Protestantism would emerge. As a result of this historical circumstance, Protestant theologians by and large regard the early Church Fathers as exotic theological resources, not as foundational sources of theology.

The main problem here is not so much Augustine, but rather those who have turned their interpretations of Augustine’s teachings into fundamental dogmas of the Christian Faith. Would Augustine have agreed with them and become Protestant? Western Christians err when they elevate to the level of dogma Augustine’s catastrophic understanding of the Fall, his forensic understanding of Original Sin, his forensic understanding of justification, and his teaching of the double-procession of the Holy Spirit. All these should be regarded as theological options within the scope of Holy Tradition. It is dangerous to the unity of the Faith if one were to utilize Augustine as the theological plumb line for Christian theology. That function belongs more properly with the Ecumenical Councils and with the patristic consensus.

There is considerable value in the Western tradition. For example, in the OrthodoxBridge blog site I frequently refer to the theological principle lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith). This saying, which has been attributed to Prosper of Aquitaine, has helped me to view the ancient liturgies as having something akin to dogmatic authority in doing theology. It also helped me to understand that when a theological tradition modifies its way of worship, its beliefs will likewise undergo a shift. Another Western principle I have found so helpful is the Vincentian Canon:

Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. (That Faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all) The Commonitory (ch. 2) Vincent of Lérins

In my journey to Orthodoxy I found the Vincentian Canon useful for assessing the validity of Protestant teachings like the rapture, pre-millennialism, the born again experience, the Lord’s Supper as purely symbolic, and even the more foundational doctrines like sola fide (faith alone) and sola scriptura (Scripture alone). The Vincentian Canon helped me to make sense of the overwhelmingly massive corpus of early Church writings. The Orthodox Church is not as anti-Western as Pastor Jordan Cooper makes it out to be. It should be noted that during Great Lent the Orthodox Church uses the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, a liturgy that has been attributed to Pope Gregory the Great. I would challenge Pastor Cooper and other Protestant pastors to tell us what ancient Western liturgies they use today.

Pastor Jordan Cooper notes that he is indebted to Augustine for his understanding of the Trinity, especially as presented in De Trinitate (10:05). One of Augustine’s controversial contributions to theology is his teaching on the double procession of the Holy Spirit. Many Orthodox Christians vehemently reject this teaching. My stance is more tempered. I regard Augustine’s double procession of the Holy Spirit something that falls into the category of adiaphora—not an essential doctrine. In my opinion it is a tolerable theological option so long as it is not imposed upon the Nicene Creed promulgated at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381. Kallistos Ware noted in The Orthodox Church (1997):

For all these reasons there is today a school of Orthodox theologians who believe that the divergence between east and west over the Filioque, while by no means unimportant, is not as fundamental as Lossky and his disciples maintain (p. 218).

Prior to my becoming Orthodox, I was Western in my theology. I did hold Augustine of Hippo in high regard having read his Confessions, City of God (De Civitate Dei), and The Trinity (De Trinitate). However, I was more committed to John Calvin. A critical part of my journey to Orthodoxy consisted in the critiquing of John Calvin and other Reformed theologians. I did not so much reject Augustine as I moved away from Protestant Augustinianism. What Pastor Cooper referred to as Augustinian theology is really Protestant Augustinianism—the result of the Reformers cherry picking Saint Augustine. As I became acquainted with the ancient liturgies and the broad patristic consensus I became aware of other theological positions besides Augustine.

One of the knotty problems in Protestant theology is Hell and the Final Judgment. The strong need to be logical in their theologizing has led Western Christians to some rather unpleasant conclusions, e.g., unbaptized infants being condemned to Hell, the millions of people who have had no exposure to the Christian message likewise being condemned to Hell, and those who grew up in a loving Christian family going to Hell because they are not part of the predestined elect. In reaction there arose some questionable theological alternatives, e.g., the teaching that everyone will go heaven (universalism) or the suffering in Hell will not be eternal as the condemned ones will eventually be annihilated (annihlationism). What I found appealing about Orthodox soteriology is its bold confidence in Christ’s Resurrection, its humble uncertainty about the eternal destiny of individuals, and its emphasis on our calling to participation in the life of the Trinity over attaining legal/moral perfection. I found myself drawn to the teaching that the suffering of Hell is the suffering of rejecting God’s love. God does not send people to Hell as they choose to live apart from God. People end up in Hell as a result of their free choice. This paradigm avoids the two extremes of Western eschatology: (1) Hell as a torture chamber for the non-elect and (2) Heaven as a place where everyone ends up regardless of their free choice.  See Alexandre Kalomiros’ “River of Fire.”

I would say that one can convert to Orthodoxy and still hold on to Augustine of Hippo. However, this love of Augustine must be balanced by the recognition that the patristic consensus and the Ecumenical Councils take priority over any single theologian. Furthermore, any convert to Orthodoxy must guard against being contentious in commending Augustine to others. Likewise, I would urge Orthodox Christians to treat Western converts with charity and humility. Let me reiterate: Anti-Western bigotry is contrary to Orthodoxy’s catholicity. There is value in the Western patristic tradition. The goal on both sides must be to deepen and enrich Orthodoxy’s catholicity. Orthodoxy needs to be receptive to enriching our understanding of the patristic consensus if we are to effectively reach out to Western Christians.


Objection 5 – Orthodox Icons

Jordan Cooper’s fifth reason for not becoming Orthodox is the central role played by images (icons) in Orthodox worship and spirituality (12:23, 13:35). First, no Orthodox Christian would say that icons are the focus of the Liturgy. The central focus of the Liturgy is the Eucharist in which the faithful receive Christ’s body and blood. Second, icons do not play a central role in Orthodox spirituality. If anything, it is the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”—that is given prominence in Orthodox spirituality.

I suspect that Pastor Cooper was overwhelmed and distracted by the visual prominence of icons in Orthodox churches which led him to make this sincere but off-based criticism. Initial reactions to a new and unfamiliar presence of icons in Orthodox churches and homes do not mean a Protestant visitor rightly grasped the role and significance Icons play in the life of Orthodoxy. Indeed, misunderstanding is quite common. This is why it is so important for those who are curious about Orthodoxy or who wish to critique Orthodoxy to attend numerous Orthodox liturgies. It is also important that they talk with the local priest. Without engaging the priest in dialogue there is the danger of prejudging or misinterpreting Orthodoxy. Protestants visiting Orthodox church services are often like monocultural American tourists who travel abroad to strange exotic cultures, take a few pictures, buy a few souvenirs, then come home thinking themselves experts on the culture they just visited. It is one thing to have icons on one’s bookshelf, it is another thing to have a prayer corner with icons. Icons are meant to be aids to prayer.

Pastor Cooper notes that the early Church did not seem to have the strong view of images as necessary (14:01). This strikes me as taking a primitivist approach to the early Church like the nineteenth century frontier Restorationist movement. Orthodoxy is not about theological primitivism, but rather the faithful transmission of Apostolic Tradition. Where Pastor Cooper seems to have a static understanding of Apostolic Tradition, Orthodoxy has a dynamic understanding. This dynamic understanding of Tradition is based on Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would guide His Church into all truth (John 16:13). It is thanks to the Ecumenical Councils that we have the term “Trinity” and the mature Christology that explicitly affirmed Christ’s divinity and his two natures in one Person. From a primitivist standpoint these are extra-biblical novelties, but for Orthodoxy these represent the flowering of Apostolic Tradition. So likewise the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s affirmation of the veneration of icons represents the further development of the Christian Faith. These are not theological options but rather the consensus of the early Church. To reject the authority of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II, 787) would be to weaken one’s respect for the authority of the earlier Ecumenical Councils. One cannot pick and choose among the Ecumenical Councils. Doing so would entail denigrating the authority of the early Church, rejecting the ancient Christian Faith and embracing instead a novel, modern theological framework, which is what Protestantism is.



In many instances Pastor Cooper’s reasons for not becoming Orthodox can be traced to a superficial understanding of Orthodoxy. It is evident that he has done quite a bit of reading on Orthodoxy; however, this puts him at the beginning stage of understanding Orthodoxy. Even if he has read Lossky and other prominent theologians, one cannot read one’s way into Orthodoxy. The better way is through attending Orthodoxy’s Divine Liturgy and talking one-on-one with a priest. With respect to Pastor Cooper’s commitment to Augustine, I would say that there is room for Saint Augustine in Orthodoxy, but not for dogmatic Augustinianism. Central to Orthodox theology is the consensus of the Church Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, and the liturgies of the Church. If Pastor Jordan Cooper wishes to object to Orthodoxy, he will eventually have to explain why he is rejecting the patristic consensus for one Church Father. Pastor Cooper needs to wrestle with the fact that his Augustinianism is regional (Western Europe) in terms of geography, Medieval in terms of historical roots, and reflects the cultural values of one particular region (Western Europe). Therefore, Protestant theology cannot lay claim to catholicity. In Orthodoxy’s patristic consensus is a theological tradition that is far richer, older, and wiser than Protestant Augustinianism. In Orthodoxy’s spiritual tradition is the promise of genuine transformation (theosis) and direct knowledge of God through union with Christ. This promise of transformation can be seen in the lives of the saints. Pastor Jordan Cooper may point to various Protestant theologians and their books, but I will point to the Orthodox saints like Saint Mary of Egypt, a repentant sex addict who devoted the rest of her life to prayer and fasting in the desert; Saint Xenia of Petersburg, who lived a carefree life until her husband’s unexpected passing then lived the rest of her life as a holy fool; and Wonder Working Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who in addition to his miracles, is known for his welcoming of the Western saints into Orthodoxy.

Robert Arakaki



Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.  “Western Rite.”
Robert Arakaki.  “Orthodox Christians on Penal Substitutionary Atonement.”
Robert Arakaki.  “Contra Sola Scriptura (4 of 4): Protestantism’s Fatal Genetic Flaw: Sola Scriptura and Protestantism’s Hermeneutical Chaos.
Robert Arakaki.  “Contra Sola Scriptura (3 of 4): Where Does Sola Scriptura Come From? The Humanist Origins of the Protestant Reformation.”
Robert Arakaki.  “Response to Theodore — Semi-Pelagianism, Sola Fide, and Theosis.
Robert Arakaki.  “Theosis and Our Salvation in Christ.
Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Loeb Classical Library.
Augustine of Hippo.  City of God.
Augustine of Hippo.  The Trinity.
Peter Brown.  Augustine of Hippo: A Biography.
Pastor Jordan Cooper.  “Five Reasons I Am Not Eastern Orthodox.”
Alexandre Kalomiros.  “River of Fire.”
Vladimir Lossky.  The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.
Josiah Trenham.  Rock and Sand.
Kallistos (Timothy) Ware.  The Orthodox Church. (1997 edition)
Vincent of Lerins.  Commonitory 2.


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