A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Category: Icons (Page 2 of 11)

Orthodoxy on Your Radar Screen

For years Orthodoxy was invisible on the American religious landscape. Few people paid attention as they drove past Orthodox churches with exotic ethnic names on their way to the more familiar Protestant or Roman Catholic churches services. Odds are high that Orthodoxy was not on your radar screen. However, that has changed. Over the past several decades, American Christianity has undergone massive changes. The implosion of liberal mainline Protestantism, the introduction of the Novus Ordo Mass in Roman Catholicism, the shift to contemporary worship among Evangelicals, post-Evangelicalism, the YRR (Young, Restless, and Reformed) movement, and the growing numbers of Nones (not religious) and Dones (formerly religious) have rendered America’s religious landscape unrecognizable to those familiar with the America of the 1950s and 1960s.

These developments gave rise to a small but growing trend: Protestants and Evangelicals searching for the early Church, the historic Faith, and hungering for a more reverent liturgical worship. Many eventually converted to Orthodoxy. While small, this trend has been ongoing and steadily growing. The fact that Protestants and Evangelicals—many pastors, elders, lay leaders—have been converting to Orthodoxy caught the attention of church leader leading them to investigate Orthodoxy and formulate ways of responding.

A reader brought to my attention a 2017 committee report presented to the URCNA (United Reformed Churches in North America). The URCNA broke off in the 1990s from the CRCNA (Christian Reformed Churches in North America), which traces its roots back to Belgium and the Netherlands. The committee was chaired by the Rev. Adam Kaloostian of the SWUS classis of the URCNA. What struck me as I read the report was how seriously they were taking Orthodoxy. I did not always agree with the way they presented Orthodoxy, but I appreciated the way they treated the Orthodox Church with respect. Orthodoxy in America is no longer invisible but is now on the Reformed churches radar screen. Reformed churches are beginning to take notice of Orthodoxy in America and wondering what to make of it. [See the Report.]

 

Using the Radar for Detection and Identification

The radar was used during World War II for the purpose of detecting enemy aircraft or ships at a distance. At the time it was a brand new technology. While its scientific and technological basis can be traced back to the late 1800s, it was not until the 1930s that countries began to work in earnest in refining the technology to gain an advantage militarily. In the case of the Pearl Harbor attack, there was an early warning radar stationed on the North Shore of the island of Oahu. In the early hours of 7 December 1941, the two operators saw a large number of approaching aircraft. They called Fort Shafter with this worrisome information. The officer who received the report dismissed it, and the rest—as they say—is history.
The URCNA report can be considered an early warning to Reformed church leaders of a new religious phenomenon heading their way. It appears that ancient Christianity brought over by immigrants may finally be extending beyond its ethnic confines and drawing in people from the mainstream of American Protestantism and Evangelicalism. In addition to using the radar for detecting incoming objects, the military also needed a means for identifying friendly and hostile forces. This led to the creation of IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe). The URCNA report on Orthodoxy is like the military radar seeking to identify incoming objects as friend or foe. Hence, the Report’s seeking to evaluate Orthodoxy.

 

Using the Radar for Navigation

In addition to detection, the radar can also be used for navigation. In the case of navigation the radar is positioned on a moving vessel and the vessel is moving towards a desired destination. Radar technology has advanced considerably since its early days. Range measurement—in the form of concentric rings—makes it possible to estimate how far away detected objects are. Gain control can be adjusted to enable the operator to detect remote objects and/or sea clutter or rain. Parallel index lines can help the ship’s captain assess the distance at which the ship will pass a fixed object on a particular course. Vector mode, past position, and mark are all useful means for navigating one’s way through a busy and confusing waterway. However advanced the radar technology may be, it won’t be of much help unless one also has in hand a good map.

In the same way, Christians trying to make their way through the confusing and turbulent waters of modern day post-Christian society are in need of good navigation tools and accurate maps if they wish to find safe harbor. Many confused Evangelicals and Protestants feel adrift, caught up in a huge theological storm in which their boat (church) is taking on water. They may not know it but safe harbor can be found in historic Orthodoxy.

Church history can serve as a map for Evangelicals and Protestants troubled by the present situation. I once told a bible college student doing a research project on why local Hawaii Evangelicals were converting to Orthodoxy: “If you don’t know where you’re from, you won’t know where you’re going.” By that I meant by knowing church history, you will be in a better position to discern whether what your church believes and practices is in line with historic Christianity or a deviant heresy.

 

An Assessment of the URCNA Report

The primary intent of this article is not to refute the URCNA report (Report) but rather to make a few points for inquirers to consider and to stimulate further conversation between Reformed and Orthodox Christians. The Report has four sections: (1) Mystery, (2) History, (3) Beauty, and (4) Experience. There is one more section that discusses how Reformed churches should deal with members curious about Orthodoxy. One strength of the Report is the ample citations from Orthodox sources. One does not find vague generalizations or bizarre caricatures but a quite accurate depiction of the Orthodox point of view. Another strength is the awareness that Orthodoxy is not the same as Roman Catholicism (see page 22).

The “Bibliography / Suggested Resources” listed towards the bottom of the Report is quite good. It’s balanced and quite comprehensive. If there is a glaring omission to the list, it would be the absence of the 1672 “Confession of Dositheus,” which comprises Orthodoxy’s formal position on the Reformed tradition. I have a few additions for the book list: Jaroslav Pelikan’s five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, JND Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, Alister McGrath’s Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, and Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor. I recommend these works because they will provide the inquirer with the historical context for understanding Orthodoxy and the Reformed tradition.

 

Section 1 – Mystery

The Report did a good job of describing Orthodoxy’s understanding of God as Mystery. The writers of the Report are to be commended for their humility in admitting that they—the Reformed community—could do a better job of embodying the mystery of God’s love. They noted that people with emotional wounds and scars will desire something more than abstract ideas about God. They recommended that Reformed churches spend more time in practical fellowship—weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice—in order to enable those who are hungering for something more to experience the “mysteries of the Christian life” (p. 6). However, it should be noted that it is not just the emotionally wounded Calvinists who are drawn to Orthodoxy. Among the converts to Orthodoxy are often pastors, elders, and seminarians who have experienced the best the Reformed world has to offer.

What sets Orthodoxy apart from Calvinism is not so much apophatic theology, but how Orthodox theology is deeply grounded in worship and prayer. There is an ancient Christian saying: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” It is through prayer that we come to know God. While Calvinists do take prayer seriously, prayer seems to be detached from Reformed doctrine. The Reformed tradition abounds with theologians who wrote books on theology and the Bible, but where are the Reformed mystics, holy men, or saints? It was perhaps in reaction to the abuses in medieval Roman Catholicism that led to a spiritual egalitarianism that had little or no place for such radical transformation of lives. This neglect of the mystical dimension of worship for rational theology has caused many Reformed Christians to be drawn to the mystical depths of Orthodoxy and her Liturgy.

The Report concluded the first section with a call for “a robust and consistent Reformed piety [that] is saturated by delight in the mysteries of God.” This is very commendable but it should be noted that this particular paragraph says nothing about the mystery of the Eucharist. This oversight contributes to the hunger for mystery that is drawing many Reformed Christians to Orthodoxy. It is a sad fact that in the majority of Reformed churches the Lord’s Supper is celebrated only occasionally. Moreover, the early Christians believed in the real presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Yet in many Reformed churches today the mystery of the Eucharist has been replaced with a symbolic understanding. The debate between Princeton’s Charles Hodge and Mercersburg’s John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff in the mid-1800s over the Eucharist shows how far Reformed churches in America have drifted, not just from the early Church, but also from John Calvin as well. Many would be shocked to learn that Calvin held that thinking of the Lord’s Supper as “naked and bare signs” an “error not to be tolerated in the Church” (“Confession of Faith concerning the Eucharist” in Reid p. 169).

 

Section 2 – History

Another reason why Reformed Christians are turning to Orthodoxy is the hunger for the early Church. The Report’s response is twofold: (1) to challenge Orthodoxy’s claim to unbroken historical continuity and (2) to show that Reformed churches have a historical continuity that is just as valid as Orthodoxy.

The Report pointed to icons as proof against Orthodoxy’s claim to unbroken historical continuity (p. 13 ff.). This is not surprising as icons represent the most visible point of difference between Orthodoxy and Calvinism. The controversy over icons is far from simple. The differences go beyond aesthetics to doctrine, authority, and practice. For the sake of brevity, I will note two weaknesses in the Report: (1) the Report failed to take into account the images found in the Christian church in Dura Europos dated by archaeologists back to 250 and (2) there is no attempt by the Report to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the Second Commandment in Exodus 20 and the making of images in Exodus 26. The presence of images in the Tabernacle described in Exodus, Solomon’s Temple, and in the early church in Dura Europa and the Roman catacombs all point to the acceptance of images in Jewish and Christian worship. If the Reformed tradition wishes to argue that icons in churches is an innovation, they will need to present evidence showing when this innovation emerged, who introduced this novel practice, and how this resulted in a radical departure from ancient Christian worship.

It must be kept in mind that Orthodox Tradition is dynamic, not static. The continuity in Tradition is much like a little mango seedling growing into a huge fruit-bearing mango tree. What we see here is development and growth, not evolutionary mutation from one species into another. Reformed inquirers need to keep in mind that church history is a complicated and messy affair. It is not straightforward and simple. If Christian theology was static, we would not have theological terms like “Trinity,” “Incarnation,” and Christ having “two nature.” More will be said about this in my discussion about Robert Godfrey’s historical critique of the iconoclasm controversy. My advice for Reformed inquirers is that as they compare the beliefs and practices of the early Church against Reformed and Orthodox churches today and determine which of the two most closely resemble the early Church.

 

Section 3 – Beauty

The report did a commendable job on the appeal of the beauty in Orthodox worship. They responded by noting that there is beauty as well in the Reformed emphasis on simplicity in worship:

Since a hallmark of Reformed churches since the Reformation has been simplicity of worship and since Reformed church décor is often designed to minimize distraction from the preached word, converts like the one just cited describe their transition as one from worship that is ugly and bland to worship that is beautiful and vibrant (p. 19).

The question that needs to be asked with respect to the Reformed emphasis on simplicity in worship is: “Where does the Bible teach simplicity in worship?” This emphasis on simplicity is not grounded in Scripture but more in the Reformers’ emotional reaction to medieval Catholicism and to the overzealous Puritans who went even further than the original Reformers.

While granting that the aesthetics of Orthodox worship does appeal to many people, the Report makes two criticisms of Orthodox worship. First, they make the claim that that the aesthetics of Orthodox worship is not so much rooted in heavenly worship but rather represents “a particular version of artistic expression . . . of the Byzantine Empire” (p. 23; italics in original). Second, they assert that the sensuous beauty of Orthodox worship fails to provide true beauty in the apparent outward ugliness of the Cross (p. 24). Note here the Report’s apparent assumption—that early Christian worship emerged out of a radical break from Old Testament Jewish worship and drew its inspiration from Greco-Roman paganism. The problem with this position is that it completely ignores what the Old Testament Scriptures had to say about worship. And more significantly, it ignores the divine injunction that the Old Testament place of worship be constructed according to pattern shown Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 25:40, 26:30). Old Testament worship is based on divine revelation. Early Christian worship sought to retain the received tradition of worship divinely given by God to Moses, not in emotional reactions to some prior tradition.

The Report notes that the Reformers in Geneva sought a liturgy “according to the custom of the ancient church.” (p. 16) However, it should be kept in mind that they were attempting to recover a lost tradition by relying on the tools of humanist scholarship, studying the ancient texts then applying the results of their study to their churches. The sad fact of the matter is that this methodology is at best unstable and shifting as can be seen in the prevalence of the symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper and the widespread acceptance of contemporary praise music by Reformed churches.

Ironically for all their insistence on biblical worship, the Reformed tradition overlooked the role of Tradition in worship. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23 reminded the Corinthian Christians that the Eucharist was traditioned (delivered) to them from Paul who received the Eucharist from Christ himself: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread . . . .” For the early Christians, the Eucharist did not come from the exegesis of the New Testament text but rather from a received Tradition that went back to the Apostles who were taught by Christ. There is evidence that the early Christian understood the Eucharist as part of Tradition. An examination of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (d. 98/117), e.g., Letter to the Smyrnaeans, showed that the early Christians believed in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist and the importance of the bishop presiding over the Liturgy. The Reformed tradition on the other hand started from scratch in the 1500s and came up with a version of the Lord’s Supper that diverged from the early Church.

While appreciative of the link between beauty and eschatology in Orthodox worship, the Report criticizes Orthodoxy for what it sees as a tendency to an “over-realized eschatology” (p. 20). This is an interesting criticism. I would be interested in learning on what basis an eschatology can be considered over-realized. I suspect that behind this criticism is an implicit secular worldview in Reformed theology that detaches Sunday worship from the eternal heavenly worship and reduces Sunday worship to verbal proclamation of that which the listeners will not partake of until the Second Coming of Christ. My response is that Reformed theology underestimates the radical implications of the Incarnation. The Incarnation provides the basis for Orthodoxy’s sacramental approach to material creation. The eternal Word has entered the cosmos turning mere creation into sacraments of the kingdom of God. Because of the Incarnation mere humans become vessels of the Holy Spirit, fallen sinners are transformed into creatures of glory, the “ordinary” Sunday Liturgy becomes an extension of the heavenly worship, in the sacrament of confession we come before Christ the Judge of all humanity, the bread and wine offered in the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ, and wood and paint become icons—windows to heaven. In the Reformed secular framework, the kingdom of God remains at a distance, but for the Orthodox the kingdom of God has arrived. This is realized eschatology.

 

Section 4 – Experience

This section opens with testimonies by former Calvinists who found in Orthodox worship a beauty and spiritual fulfillment that they did not experience in the Reformed tradition. I am in agreement with the Report’s assessment that happy spiritual experiences are not sufficient in themselves. Beauty in worship must be grounded in truth, in faithful worship of the one true God.

I was pleasantly surprised by the Report’s endorsement of the Christus Victor understanding of salvation until I took a closer look at the way this confession was worded.

We readily admit that the proclamation of these broader elements of redemption may be inappropriately neglected, not only in churches which indeed have a narrow view of gospel blessings, but even in churches that explicitly confess a rich and broad understanding of the gospel. Preaching and liturgy absent of communicating the Lord’s victory through Christ over all of humanity’s enemies is surely deficient, and we do well to be self-critical if we have lapsed into such an imbalance. Rounded preaching and worship includes the gospel themes of restoration from ruin, repair of brokenness, victory over Satan, the glorification, and the like. [Emphasis added.]

The insertion of qualifiers such as “may” and “if” in effect empties the confession of its force. It would much like someone telling me: “Please forgive me if I may have done any wrong to you.” Such an apology is really a non-apology. It would have been much more meaningful if the Report admitted that the Christus Victor motif had in fact been neglected and that the Reformed tradition could learn something from Orthodoxy in this area.

In the section “Experience,” the committee notes:

Practically, we are concerned that when professing Christians flee to EO [Eastern Orthodoxy] for a kinder, gentler gospel, some are taking that path to evade accepting and confronting the horrific nature and extent of their sin, and cultivating a godly sorrow for it that leads to repentance (p. 28; emphasis added).

I found it amusing that the Report would accuse Orthodoxy of purveying a “kinder, gentler gospel” (p. 28). In Orthodoxy I am reminded more frequently of the danger of Hell (Hades) and of the need to repent of my sins. These reminders come not so much from the pulpit as in the liturgical services and in the various prayers found in Orthodox prayer books. Every year, just before Orthodox Lent begins, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Sunday of the Great Judgment in which Matthew 25:31-46 is read out loud to the entire congregation.

Be that as it may, the real issue that Report seems to have glossed over is Protestantism’s core dogma sola fide (justification by faith alone). Page 27 of the Report asserts that the “courtroom model” is the dominant framework taught in Scripture but does not support this position with evidence. There is no doubt that Scripture uses the courtroom model to explain Christ’s death. But, what is at issue here is whether the courtroom model is the central and dominant motif of Scripture, or one of many motifs of salvation found in the rich tapestry of Scripture. As a church history major at Gordon-Conwell I was puzzled by the relatively minor role of the courtroom model in the early Church Fathers’ explanation of Christ’s death on the Cross. Reading the early Church Fathers and the ancient liturgies made me conscious how my Protestantism blinded me to other motifs used in Scripture: ransom, liberation, enlightenment, ascension, healing, restoration, etc.

While the forensic paradigm may not be as prominent in Orthodoxy, it does take sin seriously. Orthodoxy with its view of sin as corruption and spiritual illness gives greater emphasis to the horrific effects of sin on the human soul. Orthodox Christians are confronted with the darkness within and the intractable self-centeredness in their preparation for confession. While forgiveness is an essential part of the sacrament of confession, Orthodoxy understands confession primarily as the healing of the soul.

In the subsection “Longing for Certainty” (p. 30 ff.), the Report raises some important questions about the Orthodox Church’s claim to be the true Church in light of other churches that also claim an ancient pedigree, e.g., the Oriental Orthodox. Christians concerned about historical continuity to the early Church will confront the fact that there are other churches that make a similar claim. Implicit to the Report’s skeptical stance is the assumption that no church body today can truly claim historical continuity with the early Church. But to take the position that there exists no historical link with the early Church has disturbing implications. One implication is that there is no one true Church, that all churches are man-made denominations and that each church preaches only a fragment of the Gospel. The absence of a true Church opens the door to theological chaos, relativism and syncretism, leaving us bereft and adrift from the true knowledge of God.

The Report’s skepticism about Orthodoxy’s claim to historical continuity raises an important theological question about church history: Do we believe in Jesus’ promise that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all truth? (John 16:13) Do we believe that the miracle of Pentecost was confined only to the book of Acts and the first century, or that the miracle of Pentecost continued into the following centuries? This question becomes acute in the case of the Ecumenical Councils. Either one believes that the Holy Spirit guided the Ecumenical Councils or we believe that the decisions made at the Ecumenical Councils were that made by mere men. Reformed inquirers must settle the question: How does the Holy Spirit guide the Church? The Report states that Reformed churches have always confessed the great creeds of the ancient Church (pp. 16-17). However, it should be noted that for the Reformed tradition the ancient creeds are fallible human attempts to interpret Scripture (p. 14). On the other hand, Orthodoxy believes that the Ecumenical Councils definitively and authoritatively settled some of the major theological issues. This acceptance of the Ecumenical Councils has given Orthodoxy a theological unity and stability sadly lacking among Protestants and Evangelicals. The Reformed tradition has a multiplicity of Reformed creeds, many of them comprehensive and detailed in scope. Yet the sad fact remains that the Reformed tradition has become theologically incoherent as a result of the inroads of liberal theology and numerous church splits. The URCNA’s origin in a split from the CRCNA is evidence of this.

 

Icons

The URCNA report’s assessment on icons is found in two places: in the report itself (pp. 22-23) and in the appended report by W. Robert Godfrey “The Roman Catholic Church and History” (“Appendix on Icons” pp. 21-27). The brevity of the first discussion of icons (pp. 22-23) is due to its being part of the larger section: “Part III. Beauty” (pp. 18-25). The Report’s concern here is more with the sensory appeal of Orthodox worship—the gold overlay, candles, the smell of incense, and icons—as opposed to the four bare walls of Reformed worship.

Those drawn to the beauty of EO [Eastern Orthodoxy] have demonstrated an emotional/existential angst on account of which they flee to the refuge of EO worship. When surrounded by the gold and the icons, and when engulfed with the sweet smells of incense, converts have felt better about the struggles of life. The sensory atmosphere enables them to forget the troubles of the pilgrim life, if only for a moment, as they get caught up in the cosmic and eschatological beauty that they feel is breaking into their worship. (p. 23)

Artist depiction of Exodus 26:31

The Report criticizes Orthodoxy for relying excessively on the cultural aesthetics of imperial Byzantium. What the Report failed to address is the fact that so much of the aesthetics of Orthodox worship is traced first to Scripture, to Exodus chapters 25 to 31. While Calvinists have repeatedly pointed to the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4-5), they failed to take into account the two contexts of the Second Commandment. The immediate context, the First Commandment (Exodus 20:2-3), forbids the Israelites from worshiping other gods. The Second Commandment is an application of the First.  It pertains to the worship of other gods, not about how to worship Yahweh–that would come later.  The broader context, the rest of Exodus has instructions about how to worship Yahweh.  It contains instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, a luxurious, aesthetically rich structure decorated with tapestries, gold overlay, and images. Close attention must be given to Exodus 26:1 and 31 which specifically instructed the Israelites to make images of the cherubim for the Tabernacle.

Make the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim worked into them by a skilled craftsman. (Exodus 26:1)

Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman. (Exodus 26:31)

Depiction of Interior of Solomon’s Temple

The curtain with the image of the cherubim was to be hung over the entrance to the Holy of Holies (Exodus 26:33). That the image of the cherubim was prominently and centrally situated in the Tabernacle and not relegated to the sidelines speaks to the prominent role of images in Old Testament worship. This tradition of making images continued in Solomon’s Temple (see 1 Kings 6:29-33). It should also be noted that Solomon did not slavishly replicate Moses’ Tabernacle; embroidered tapestries were replaced with wooden panels with images of carved cherubim and overlaid with gold. Given the explicit endorsement of the use of images in the Old Testament place of worship, it comes as no surprise that Orthodox worship continues the biblical pattern. The bigger question that needs to be asked is why the Reformed tradition has strayed so far from Scripture with its characteristic four bare walls. This exegetical blind spot has yet to be addressed by the Report, Reformed apologists, and by the Reformed tradition as a whole. The Reformed critique of Orthodox worship goes far beyond conflicting aesthetics to the fundamental question as to which tradition has maintained fidelity to the biblical pattern of worship as presented in the Old Testament. These are not new issues or arguments but old ones that have been dealt with by the Church, most notably by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II, 787). Why the Report chose to ignore and refuse to interact with the language of the Seventh Ecumenical Council is both interesting and telling.

I was disturbed by the Report’s claim that for the Orthodox icons possess more beauty than true preaching of the word (pp. 22-23). This is the first I heard of this. If an Orthodox person were to make such a statement, I would take issue with them pointing out that the Liturgy is really comprised of two liturgies: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. One cannot have one or the other; the proclaimed word of the Gospel leads to the incarnated Word in the Eucharist. As a matter of fact, if one comes late to church and misses the reading of the Gospels one ought not partake of the Eucharist, because hearing the Gospel is an important aspect of preparing for Holy Communion. How could one be properly prepared to receive the Body and Blood of Christ if one has not received his word presented in the Gospel reading?

 

The Apparent Novelty of Depicting Christ in Icons

Probably the most significant critique of icons is to be found, not in the Report itself, but in Robert Godfrey’s report which was appended to the Report. The bulk of Godfrey’s report focuses on the iconoclast controversy and engages in an extensive critique of the second Council of Nicea (787). He takes issue with the direct representation of Christ noting that this did not happen until 400 (p. 22). Godfrey cites two well respected Orthodox authorities: Kallistos (Timothy) Ware and Jaroslav Pelikan to make his case. Godfrey’s argument here must be addressed by the Orthodox.

My response to Godfrey’s allegation that icons depicting Christ represent a break in historic continuity is that icons must be understood in terms of the development of Tradition. The Christian Tradition is not static but dynamic. While the Christian Tradition underwent development in the centuries following the first century, it retained a certain fundamental continuity. The element of continuity can be seen in the acceptance of visual representations in early Christian churches that has roots in early Jewish worship. The element of development can be seen in the gradual acceptance of the direct depiction of Christ’s face. The novelty of the direct depiction of Christ—circa the fifth and sixth centuries—can be seen as a consequence of the early Church gradually coming to terms with the radical implications of the Incarnation. Another likely factor is that Greco-Roman paganism had been superseded by a Christianized Roman Empire.

The Incarnation was a revolutionary event with disconcerting implications. If God truly became human with a tangible body and visible visage—as John of Damascus argued—then direct representation of the Word-made-flesh is permissible. We find other similar scandalous implications stemming from the Incarnation. For example, the Incarnation opened the way for the divine Son to die on the Cross for the sins of humanity. The idea of a suffering Messiah was an early stumbling block for many first century Jews. In time the Incarnation would clash with Jewish monotheism. Early Jewish monotheism could not contain the mystery of the Incarnation. The breakthrough was made with the Unoriginate Father who eternally begets the Son, and later the Holy Spirit who proceeds eternally from the Father. In time the theological formula would emerge of God as one Ousia (Essence) in three eternal Persons (Hypostases). Thus, the Good News of Christ was preserved and defended through what appears to be theological innovations that ultimately carried out a conserving role for the Christian Faith. While Christian monotheism has roots in Jewish monotheism, it marks a break with Jewish monotheism with the development of the dogma of the Trinity. A static view of the development of doctrine would rule out “innovations” like “ousia” (essence), “hypostasis” and “propospon” (person), “consubstantial” (homoousios), and “Trinity.”

Thus, if one were to take a static view of the development of Christian theology, one would be compelled, not only to reject the direct visual representation of Christ in icons, but also to reject the doctrine of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. Without the precise dogmatic boundaries set forth by the Ecumenical Councils, Christianity becomes susceptible to the return of ancient Trinitarian and Christological heresies. It should not surprise us that this is precisely what has happened in Protestantism. By dispensing with the dogmatic authority of the Ecumenical Councils in their adherence to sola scriptura, many Protestant denominations became receptive to the early heresies, e.g., Arianism in many liberal mainline Protestant denominations and Modalism among Oneness Pentecostalism. See Christianity Today article: “Christian, What Do You Believe? Probably a Heresy Says a Survey.

The Incarnation has startling implications for church history. The miracle of Pentecost implies that the Incarnation did not terminate with Christ’s Ascension to heaven. Rather, the Incarnation entered into the flow of human history via the Church, the Body of Christ. Orthodoxy believes that the visible Church is truly the Body of Christ and that this visible Church is indwelt by the Holy Spirit who guides her into all truth (John 16:13). Orthodoxy believes that the Ecumenical Councils were not mere human gatherings but divinely guided by the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Church in her formulation of the biblical canon, likewise inspired the Ecumenical Councils in their refutation of heresies. The premise of an ongoing Pentecost creates a radically different paradigm for understanding church history. If one accepts the idea of the Church as the Body of Christ then one becomes receptive to the idea of the development of Christian Tradition. An ongoing Pentecost provides a safeguard against the early Church straying from the Apostolic Faith into heresy and corruption as so many Protestants assume about church history. The Protestant tenet of sola scriptura is hostile to the development of Christian Tradition. The early Church and its Councils are accepted provisionally—so long as they are in agreement with the Protestant reading of Scripture. When the early Church clashes with a Protestant’s individual reading of Scripture, e.g., the veneration of icons, then the authority of the Bible is invoked and the early Church is dismissed out of hand.

Baptistry – Dura-Europos Church

To summarize, the element of continuity can be seen in the early Church having images in places of worship as did the Jewish synagogues. Archaeologists have found images on the walls of both the church and synagogue in Dura Europos. These have been dated to as early as 250. The element of development can be seen in the gradual acceptance of the direct representation of Christ’s face after 400. It was this that apparently sparked the iconoclast controversy that would be resolved in the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 and reaffirmed by the subsequent council of 843. The theological debates over icons should not be viewed as being about church decoration but rather the continuation of earlier Christological and Trinitarian debates. The iconoclasts’ conservatism represents a failure to appreciate the implications of the Incarnation. Tragically, Reformed hostility to icons, which takes the form of four bare walls, does not hearken a return to the early iconoclasts who were tolerant of visual representations in churches, but to the more radical iconoclasm and the anti-Incarnation theology of Islam.

 

 

Finding Safe Haven — [Source: Sunrise at Storm Bay, Kiama – Kieran O’Connor]

IFF–Identify Friend or Foe?

Using the analogy of the radar, I would like to suggest that the negative findings of the URCNA report are mistaken identification. It would be like a radar technician mistaking the long, lost home port for an unknown threat. Whether or not Orthodoxy is really an enemy to true Christianity or a misidentified friend depends on the following questions: (1) Is Orthodoxy biblical?; (2) Is Orthodoxy consistent with early Christianity?; and (3) Is Orthodoxy Christ-centered?

The intent of the Reformation has been the recovery of the true Church. Thus, Protestants have long been on a quest for the true Gospel and the true Church. The Reformers believed that guided by the principles of sola fide (justification by faith alone) and sola scriptura (Scripture alone), they would be able to recover the apostolic Church lost as a result of the corruptions of Roman Catholicism. Despite centuries of sincere application of Protestantism’s two guiding principles, Protestant Christianity has come nowhere near to recovering the unity of early Church. Indeed, they have contributed more to weak doctrine and fragmentation. This can be seen in the URCNA’s own history, its splitting off from the CRCNA in reaction to theological liberalism in the CRCNA. Many Protestants and Evangelicals are distressed by the current state of affairs in their churches and denominations. This has led many to become open to Orthodoxy.

Many leaders of the Protestant churches upon learning of their parishioners’ interest in Orthodoxy have opened an investigation into Orthodoxy. Oftentimes what they find disturbs them, because it is at odds with Protestantism and with their understanding of early Christianity. They assume that early Christianity was originally Protestant in belief and practice. This is the core assumption of Protestant historiography. Protestant church history and Protestant theology stands or falls on the validity of this premise. The URCNA report represents a sincere attempt to defend the sixteenth century European theology of the Reformation against the ancient Church which exists in its present form in Orthodoxy. In this article I have sought to point out where the Report is mistaken in its critique of Orthodoxy and to point out that Orthodoxy is indeed the home port that Protestants have been yearning for over the centuries.

 

Quiet inquiry

The final section of the Report suggests ways for Reformed churches to deal with members drawn to Orthodoxy. One positive aspect of the final section is the latitude given to Reformed Christians quietly exploring Orthodoxy. The policy here is to allow with patient tolerance members exploring Orthodoxy.

While the person remains a member of one of our local churches, if they are exploring EO [Eastern Orthodoxy], reading, even attending an occasional service, patience on our part is an excellent virtue to exercise. As long as a person is not given over to promoting beliefs and practices inconsistent with their Reformed profession, let us seek to extend as much latitude as possible.

The advice that one not debate Orthodoxy with fellow Reformed Christians is a sound one, and one that I would give to inquirers. Quiet inquiry can take the form of visiting a Vespers service on Saturday evenings rather than Sunday mornings when one’s absence might be noticed. It could also take the form of visiting Orthodox Sunday services while traveling out of town. Or, one could arrange to meet with an Orthodox priest one-on-one in private.  There are private Facebook groups that provide a safe place where Reformed inquirers can give voice to their questions and concerns without fear of reprisals.   If one develops the conviction that Orthodoxy may be right in its claim to be the true Church founded by the Apostles, then attending Sunday services at a nearby Orthodox parish would be a logical next step. Inquiry into Orthodoxy should be done quietly, cautiously, and in a spirit of humility. Transitioning from the Reformed tradition to Orthodoxy is a radical step that should be done with care and much prayer. See my article “Crossing the Bosphorus.”

There is much that is commendable in the Reformed tradition. Many of us who converted to Orthodoxy do not regret our time in the Reformed tradition. We learned much that is valuable. Nonetheless, the Faith taught by the Apostles, kept by the Church Fathers, defined by the Ecumenical Councils, and celebrated in the Eucharist is far richer, profound, and healing.

Robert Arakaki

 

Further Reading

Report of the Committee Appointed by URCNA Classis SWUS to Study Eastern Orthodoxy.
Confession of Dositheus.” The Voice: Christian Resource Institute.
Robert Arakaki. “Crossing the Bosphorus.OrthodoxBridge.
Robert Arakaki. “Calvin Versus the Icon: Was John Calvin Wrong?Liturgica.com
Robert Arakaki. “Christian Images Before Constantine.” OrthodoxBridge.
Fr. Wilbur Elsworth. “The Reformed Road to Orthodoxy.Journey to Orthodoxy.
Keith Mathison. “Princeton vs. Mercersburg: Some Primary Sources.” Ligonier Ministries.
JKS Reid. “Confession of Faith concerning the Eucharist.” In Calvin: Theological Treatises, pp. 168-169.
David Rockett. “So-Baptist Jock, Then Happy Reformed-Calvinst 34 Yrs Finds The Orthodox Church!Journey to Orthodoxy.
Jeremy Weber. 2018. “Christian, What Do You Believe? Probably a Heresy About Jesus Says Survey.” Christianity Today (October 16).

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Why Orthodoxy Appeals to Evangelicals

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

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

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

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

 

The Two Strands of Orthodoxy

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

Pantocrator Icon – Hagia Sophia

Icons

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

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

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

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

A child venerating icons. Soruce

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

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

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

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

 

Apophatic Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Deification

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

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

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

 

Theological Faux Pas

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

 

Lord Have Mercy!

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

 

Two Acts Versus Three Acts of Salvation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Assessment and Advice

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

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

Robert Arakaki

 

References and Recommended Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vladimir Lossky. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.

George Maloney. A Theology of “Uncreated Energies.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

Aniconism Versus Iconoclasm?

Baptistry – Dura-Europos Church – circa AD 250

 

CS Comments on “John Carpenter – Round 2”

Folks,

I received a comment from CS in regards to my recent article: “Responding to Rev. John Carpenter – Round 2.”  In light of the number of questions he asked and the length of my answers to his questions, I made the decision to post both as a separate blog article.  You may find the original comment here.

To assist the reader, I have put CS’s comment in block quotes and italicized them.  My responses will be in the normal font format.

Robert Arakaki

 

“The Incarnation changes everything.” Fr. Josiah Trenham

[1] Did something change between the Old and New Testament?

CS writes:

I think the dilemma of the icon venerator is the question of “did something change with images between the old and new covenant or not?”

If something changed, then you cannot use Old Testament images or continuity with the Synagogues as an argument for icon veneration. Because icon veneration is something wholly new.

If something did not change, then you must show that the practice of veneration of images is present within the Old Testament church and to a degree within Jewish tradition during the time of Christ.

Icon venerators often mix arguments from these two positions together in the hopes that the uninformed reader will be confused and dazzled enough to give in.

In this article, you seem to take the view that our relationship with images did not fundamentally change in the new covenant. Well, somebody forgot to inform John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite of this.

My response – Yes, something changed between the Old and the New Covenants – the Word became flesh. The Levitical sacrificial system was superseded by Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross. Jesus was the ultimate Passover Lamb who died for the sins of the world. No longer were men obliged to go to the Jerusalem Temple and offer up sacrifices for their sins. Circumcision was superseded by baptism into Christ. Christian baptism—while it has roots in the Jewish reception of converts—represents a new form of covenant initiation, especially when it superseded Jewish circumcision. That is why the Christian Judaizers, who were theological conservatives, resisted the radical implications of the Gospel, which the Apostle Paul expounded on in Galatians and Romans.

Your insistence that it must be shown that Jews in the Old Covenant kissed and bowed down to images in order for icon veneration to be valid is misplaced. By that reasoning, you might as well have insisted that there be evidence for the universality of baptism in Old Covenant Judaism. And you might as well have insisted that there be evidence of the Jewish Passover meal consisting of consuming someone’s body and blood. It must be recognized that in Christianity elements of Old Covenant Judaism were received and transformed in light of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection.

The Incarnation gave rise to a new form of worship – the Christian Eucharist. In the Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood are offered in the Sunday worship throughout the world. The real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, while it represents continuity with the Jewish Passover, also represent something new. Why else were so many offended by Jesus teaching about eating body and drinking his blood in John chapter 6? This new kind of worship reflects the transformatory influence of Christ’s Incarnation, his death on the Cross, and his third-day Resurrection. Father Josiah Trenham (5:15 mark of the video) aptly put it: “The Incarnation changes everything.”

You implied that my position was that our relationship with images did not change. That is incorrect. I wrote that Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection transformed the Jewish martyrs cult and their approach to images. When you sarcastically remarked that someone forgot to tell John of Damascus that our relationship with images did not change, you seemed not to have read the quote from John of Damascus that the momentous event of the Incarnation opened the way for the making of images of Christ. “When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His form.” It seemed to me that you read my article in haste and superficially. I would urge you to reread my article again more carefully, paying attention to the implications of Christ’s Incarnation for the relations between the Old and New Covenants.

 

——————————-

[2] Aniconism versus Iconoclasm?

CS writes:

You said:

“Thus, the likely reason for the absence of images was prudence, not iconoclasm. To openly depict Christian images might invite investigation and prosecution in times of persecution. It is somewhat surprising that Rev. Carpenter cites Bigham in support of Reformed iconoclasm (see footnote no. 45), but then failed to take note of the explanation that Bigham gives for the absence of images. “

Rev. Carpenter is not arguing for iconoclasm. The fact that Dura Europas has images is perfectly fine and acceptable with his position. That is why it did not need to be addressed.

At this point, your article is starting to present a straw man. This happens every time an EOA [Eastern Orthodox Apologists] finds themselves in a tough spot. They revert back to arguing against iconoclasm. You need to argue that it is correct to bow down before images and venerate them, not that it is merely ok to create images. Carpenter does not object to the latter as this is obviously present in the old testament.

And again you state:

“Reformed apologists like Rev. Carpenter will need to present archaeological evidence that shows that the norm among early churches were four bare walls like modern-day Reformed churches.”

Why must Rev. Carpenter defend a view that he does not hold? Please address Carpenter’s actual position.

You said:

“This belief that Orthodoxy’s claim “unbroken continuity” leaves absolutely no allowance or room for any development has been a significant impediment to Reformed-Orthodox dialogue.”

When you are unable to prove a consistent teaching from 33 AD (or even 200 AD) as you advertise to converts, you punt to development of doctrine. Just an observation.

My Response – Thank you for providing the missing quotes.  This makes your comment much clearer. [Added 9-Feb-2019]

In his article Rev. Carpenter disavows iconoclasm by defining it in a very narrow fashion – active opposition to icons. This definition is not only overly narrow but unconventional. This is why I took the effort to present the definition of ‘iconoclasm’ in the Oxford Dictionary. By presenting unconventional definitions Rev. Carpenter is rigging the rules of the game in his favor. In the paragraph just above the sub-section title “A False Binary?” I pointed out the word game that Rev. Carpenter is playing and my refusal to play by his rules. I stated clearly that I would be following the conventional definition of “iconoclastic,” rather than Rev. Carpenter’s idiosyncratic definition of ‘iconoclastic.’ In light of the conventional definitions like that provided in the Oxford Dictionary, Rev. Carpenter is clearly an iconoclast. This is why I cited the major confessions of the Reformed tradition that make it clear in no uncertain terms that they oppose images in churches.

Aniconism as a conceptual spectrum ranges from moderate aniconism which allows for religious images (not necessarily with active devotion) to rigorous aniconism which opposes religious images. This is useful for understanding the variety of views held in early Judaism and Christianity. Iconoclasm likewise is a conceptual spectrum. It ranges from doctrinal opposition to active opposition that involves physical destruction of religious images. This is useful for understanding the various forms that iconoclasm takes. Aniconism is not necessarily opposed to iconoclasm. Pertinent to our discussion is the fact that rigorous aniconism overlaps with doctrinal iconoclasm. Rev. Carpenter attempts to avoid this by applying an unconventional definition of iconoclasm (involving only the active destruction of religious images) to himself. But let us call a spade a spade; if you hold to rigorous aniconism, you are also a doctrinal iconoclast. Calvinists, like Rev. Carpenter, may not have destroyed any religious images lately, but they are bound to the Reformed confessions that explicitly oppose as a matter of doctrine religious images in churches. To me, in light of the Oxford Dictionary’s definition that iconoclasm involves the rejection and/or destruction of images, John Carpenter is an iconoclast. [This paragraph added 6-Feb-2019]

 

Eucharist – the core of Orthodox Tradition

Your demand for proof of clear evidence of icon veneration from AD 33 to AD 200 shows an unrealistic understanding of church history. It is important when studying early Christianity that one approach it with an attitude of humble respect, not arrogant demands for evidence. Rather than ask:

Where’s the evidence for the active veneration of icons between AD 33 to AD 200?”;

one should instead ask:

What evidence is there of Christianity between the period AD 33 to AD 200?

Although not abundant, the evidence from the early writings indicate that early Christian worship was liturgical, that the Eucharist was the center of early Christian worship, and that the early Christians believed in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. This is why I closed my article urging Rev. Carpenter to focus on the Eucharist as the point of difference between the Reformed tradition and Orthodoxy. There is ample evidence to make for a fruitful dialogue about how the Reformed tradition and present day Orthodoxy compare against early Christianity. Furthermore, the Eucharist lies at the core of Orthodox Tradition. If Rev. Carpenter can show that the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist diverges from the early Church or that a radical rupture in historical continuity with respect to the Liturgy took place then he will have presented a serious challenge to Orthodoxy’s claim to have a direct link to the early Church. On the reverse side, Rev. Carpenter will need to show how the Reformed understanding of the Eucharist and the real presence is much closer to the early Church than Orthodoxy. This is where Reformed-Orthodox dialogue should be focused on. Icons, while integral to Orthodox Tradition, do not comprise the central core of Tradition. The veneration of icons can be considered consequences from the Church’s growing appreciation of Christ’s sacramental presence in the Eucharist which resulted from his Incarnation and Resurrection.

 

——————————-

[3] Essence/Energies Distinction & Did the Incarnation happen in the Old Testament?

CS writes:

Some icon venerators tie in the essence/energies distinction for why icons should be venerated. My response is, did the essence/energies distinction not exist in the Old Testament?

My response: The essence/energies distinction existed in the Old Testament just as the Holy Trinity existed in the Old Testament. The idea of God as Trinity was implicit in the Old Testament, became more explicit in the New Testament Scriptures, then was formalized as dogma in the First and Second Ecumenical Councils (325 and 381). The essence/energies distinction in the Church’s understanding of God has a similar trajectory. The Christological and Trinitarian controversies led the Church Fathers to appropriate terms used in Greek philosophy and invest new meanings into words like ‘ousia’ (essence) and ‘prosopon’ (person). It would not be until the 1300s that Gregory of Palamas brought greater precision to our understanding of God as ‘energies.’ God has always been essence, person, and energies, what changed is humanity’s understanding of what God is. Here again is an example of why the idea of the development of doctrine is so important and useful. Without the development of doctrine, we would likely still be debating over ancient heresies like Arianism which denied Christ’s full divinity, modalism which denied the divinity of each Person of the Trinity, Pneumatomachianism which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and Barlaamism which denies that it is possible for man to have a direct experiential knowledge of God through prayer. Key to the development of doctrine is the belief that the Holy Spirit guided the Church in its understanding of God. Without this premise one would have a secularized understanding of church history of one faction triumphing over another faction and theological terms like ‘Trinity’ and ‘homoousios’ serving as mere human invention.

 

Christ Anapeson – Reclining Infant Jesus. Source

Some icon venerators tie in the incarnation for why icons should be venerated. My response is, did God not incarnate (physically manifest) in the Old Testament in multiple theophanies? If you claim he did not and those were merely holograms, well that goes against Eastern Orthodox teachings on the theophanies, no?

My response: Yes, God did manifest himself physically in the Old Testament but these events were for a limited duration. The Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:7 noted that in the Incarnation, Jesus “emptied himself” (RSV).   In the Incarnation, God the Son became human in the fullest sense of the word: spending nine months in his mother’s womb, being born as we all were born from our mother’s womb, spent his early years as an infant, grew up and matured as children do, have a career, hungered and thirsted, acquired a circle of friends, and ended life by sharing in the universal human experience of dying. In the words of Irenaeus of Lyons, Christ recapitulated human existence for our salvation. That is, he as the Second Adam repeated or lived the life that the First Adam failed to lived. As the Second Adam, Jesus lived the perfect life on behalf of all humanity. The Second Adam then died on behalf of all humanity on the Cross so that those who joined themselves to him would share in his resurrection. This is why Christ’s incarnation, while similar to Old Testament theophanies, is so radically different. It is because of the Virgin Mary’s conceiving Christ in her womb that he shared in our ontology. In the Old Testament theophanies there was a close likeness to human nature but no physical linkage that made God consubstantial with our human nature until the Virgin Mary gave her assent in the Annunciation (Luke 1:37). There is an Orthodox prayer that says of the Virgin Mary: “by your wondrous conceiving you united God the Word to human beings.” Your question leads me to think that you have not grasped the radical implications of the Incarnation. I would urge to read Athanasius the Great’s theological classic On the Incarnation. Understanding the Incarnation is essential to having a sound Christology.

 

CLOSING COMMENT

Dear CS,

I would urge you to read my article again carefully. Reading with haste can lead to superficial understanding and misrepresentations. Second, I would urge to familiarize yourself with early church history, especially with the evidence available to us. Third, I would urge you to reflect on the implications of the Incarnation for our salvation and how it opened the way for created matter to become vessels of divine grace. As a result of the Incarnation the world is no longer secular inert matter but potential channels of divine grace. Water blessed in the name of the Trinity becomes the laver of regeneration birthing us into the kingdom of God. Bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ. Images painted on wood become windows to heaven. Sinful men and women become holy saints partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

Robert Arakaki

 

For Further Reading & Listening

Ben Witherington.  No date.  “The Church in the House in Dura Europos.”

—-.  No date.  “Church House in Dura-Europos.” Byzantine Legacy.

Carly Silver.  2010.  “Dura Europos: Crossroad of Cultures.”  Archaeology.

—-.  No date.  “#202: John of Damascus for Icons.”  Christian History Institute.

Fr. Thomas Hopko.  2010.  “Doctrinal Development.” [47:17]  Speaking the Truth in Love: Anicent Faith Radio.

St. Vincent of Lerins.  Before 450.  “Homily: The Development of Doctrine.”  Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto (Canada).

 

« Older posts Newer posts »