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Category: Mercersburg Theology (Page 2 of 5)

A Growing Exodus? Words of Encouragement for Hesitant Calvinists



No Entry? or No Leaving?

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

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

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


Does Galatians 2 Apply?

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian Football playing field.

Canadian Football playing field.  Source

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


Where is the True Church?

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

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

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

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


Who’s Your Bishop?

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

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

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

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

Athanasius the Great in bishop's vestments

Athanasius the Great holding the Gospel book

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

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

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

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


The Unity of the Church

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

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


Let’s go time traveling!

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

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


By What Authority?

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

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

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

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

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


Joining the Levite Club?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please don't swallow me!

Please don’t swallow me!

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



Away with Bishops?

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

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

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


A Word for Hesitant Protestants

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

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

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

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


Can We Still be Friends?

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


Friends talking and having a good time.

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

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


Enjoying a common meal!  Source

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

Robert Arakaki


Jurassic Park and the Protestant Quest for the Early Church


47274In the movie Jurassic Park is an unforgettable scene where a group of humans see living breathing dinosaurs towering over them, munching on leaves on the tree tops.  The dinosaurs were the product of careful biological engineering.  Scientists extracted DNA from dinosaur fossils, reconstructed the original DNA strand, inserted the reconstructed DNA into egg embryos, and then hatched the eggs.


Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is an apt metaphor of the recent quest among Protestant for the ancient Church.  Examples of this yearning include: Robert Webber’s ancient-future faith network, Peter Leithart’s Reformational catholicism, and the convergence church movement. These recent movements have earlier precedents in the 1800s, e.g., Mercersburg Theology and the Oxford Movement.  The Protestant quest for the ancient Church is similar to the paleontologists’ fascination with the lost past of dinosaurs.  Having broken away from the corruptions of Roman Catholicism, Protestants asserted they were now in a position to return to the purity and simplicity of ancient Christianity.

The desire to reconnect with the past is a natural one.  It is like an adopted child wanting to learn about his or her birth parents.  This interest in antiquity is also biblical.  The prophet Jeremiah wrote about seeking after the good way, the ancient paths (Jeremiah 6:16).  The book of Proverbs talked about respecting the “ancient boundary stone” put in place by the forefathers (Proverbs 22:28).


Reconstructing the Past

Extracting dinosaur DNA

Extracting dinosaur DNA

The novel Jurassic Park can be seen as a metaphor of the flaws within Protestant ecclesiology.  If one pays close attention to the story line of Jurassic Park one becomes aware that the dinosaurs are not real dinosaurs in the sense of being identical to those that existed in the Mesozoic era.  The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were laboratory creations, the product of careful scientific research.  In the same way there is a certain artificiality in the Protestant quest for the early Church.  Where the scientists in the laboratories of Jurassic Park worked from DNA extracted from dinosaur fossils, Nevin and Schaff worked in seminary libraries seeking to excavate ancient church texts.  More recently, Webber and Leithart used the same methods attempting to renew the church by selectively drawing on the church fathers and early liturgies.

Within Jurassic Park are nuggets of fascinating philosophical questions.  One fundamental problem was that the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were artificial creatures.  They are artificial because of modifications made to their bodies.  This gave rise to all sorts of problems and made them inherently unstable.

“You don’t know for sure?”  Malcolm said, affecting astonishment.

Wu smiled, “I stopped counting,” he said, “after the first dozen.  And you have to realize that sometimes we think we have an animal correctly made—from the standpoint of the DNA, which is our basic work—and the animal grows for six months and then something untoward happens.  And we realize there is some error.  A releaser gene isn’t operating.  A hormone not being released.  Or some other problem in the developmental sequence.  So we have to go back to the drawing board with that animal so to speak.” (Jurassic Park p. 111)

One example of genetic modifications built into the recent ancient-future and reformational-catholic churches is the absence of the episcopacy.  This is no mistake.  To adopt an episcopal structure would mean surrendering congregational autonomy so precious to so much of Evangelicalism.  In this sense they are still genetically Protestant.  Their clinging to Protestant church structures fundamentally separates them from the early Church founded by the Apostles.  The bishop was integral and fundamental to the early Church.  Ignatius of Antioch, a student of John the Apostle and the third bishop of Antioch, stressed the importance of obeying the bishop (see Letter to the Smyrneans VIII, IX).

Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. Without the bishop’s supervision, no baptisms or love feasts are permitted.

Yet the libertarian strand in Protestant theology will not allow for bishops in the historic sense. Many Protestants by reading only the Bible and ignoring the early church fathers end up projecting their Protestant bias onto church history.  But such an omission would be like a historian writing a book about ancient Rome with no mention of the Caesars!  Or a law professor teaching a course on American jurisprudence with hardly a mention of the Supreme Court.

Another quandary in the Protestant quest for the early Church is whether one could actually bring it back or just end up with a caricature.  A similar quandary existed for the scientists in Jurassic Park who had never seen a living dinosaur from the Mesozoic era.

Grant said, “How do you know if it’s developing correctly?  No one has ever seen these animals before.”

Wu smiled.  “I have often thought about that.  I suppose it is a bit of a paradox.  Eventually, I hope, paleontologists such as yourself will compare our animals with the fossil record to verify the developmental sequence.” (Jurassic Park p. 114).

The paradox here is whether these reconstructed dinosaurs were really dinosaurs or something else.  All that the scientists had to go by were fossils, not actual living dinosaurs from the Mesozoic era.  Similarly, for Protestants all they had to go by were ancient patristic texts but no living church tradition that goes back to the early Church.  This leaves them guessing as to what the early Church must have been like.

Similarly, there is a tension between people who have little patience for the deep questions and just want to get things done.

Hammond sighed. “Now, Henry, are we going to have another one of those abstract discussions?  You know I like to keep it simple. The dinosaurs we have now are real and—“

“Well, not exactly,” Wu said.  He paced the living room, pointed to the monitors.  “I don’t think we should kid ourselves.  We haven’t re-created the past here.  The past is gone.  It can never be re-created.  What we’ve done is reconstruct the past—or at least a version of the past.” (Jurassic Park pp. 121-122)

Lacking a living tradition that goes back to the Apostolic Church, Protestants end up having to reconstruct the early Church as they best understood it to have been. The Jesus Movement of the 1970s had house churches where people sat on the floor, played guitars and sang praise songs, and everyone with a Bible in their hands.  More recently, Evangelicals have discovered the writings of the early church fathers and are seeking to incorporate these discoveries into their congregations: reciting the Nicene Creed, celebrating the Eucharist weekly, vestments for the clergy, candles and incense.  Not being part of a living tradition they end up creating a “version of the past” trusting God to bless their sincere efforts to return to the early Church.  It is like lost travelers seeking to find their way home without knowing where home is on the map.


Lost World

The Lost World








The Lost World Scenario

An alternative scenario can be found in another book written by Michael Crichton, The Lost World.

“No, no,” Levine said earnestly.  “I’m quite serious.  What if the dinosaurs did not become extinct?  What if they still exist?  Somewhere in an isolated spot on the planet.” (Lost World p. 5)

The Protestant view of history assumes that there once was an apostolic Church but it no longer exists today.  But Protestants and Evangelicals need to ask the question: What if the apostolic Church still exists today?  What if there was a church where the errors of the papacy were avoided?  What if that church was within driving distance today?

For Evangelicals Eastern Orthodoxy is a Lost World.  Many Protestants and Evangelicals drive by these funny looking ethnic churches with strange names unaware of these churches’ connection to the early Church.  The estrangement of the Great Schism of 1054 resulted in Western Christians, both Roman Catholics and Protestants, not being aware of Orthodoxy’s existence and its distinctive approach to doctrine and worship.  The Protestant Reformers’ bitter struggle against medieval Catholicism gave Protestants a severe astigmatism that skewed their understanding of church history.  Protestants came to view the early Church through the prism of Catholicism imagining the Apostolic Church to be part a lost past.  But while the Protestants of the 1500s can be excused for having a distorted perspective on church history, the situation is quite different today.  Many Protestants in recent years are learning about the early church fathers and are having a firsthand encounter with Orthodoxy.

This is why the first visit to an Orthodox Church is often such a surprise for many Evangelicals.  Orthodoxy represents what many Protestants are seeking after, the early Church before Roman Catholicism.  The Orthodox Liturgy is part of living tradition that goes back to the days of the Apostles.  At first glance many would find this hard to accept especially the icons, the elaborate liturgical ceremonies, and ornate vestments worn by priests.  All these are so radically different from the austere minimalism that mark Reformed, and especially, Puritan worship, or the exuberant expressiveness of charismatic worship.

Dura Europos Synagogue 3rd century

Images in Dura Europos Synagogue 3rd century

But when approached from the standpoint of the Old Testament pattern of worship transformed by the New Covenant of Jesus Christ, the Divine Liturgy makes perfectly good sense.  The vestments worn by Orthodox priests are patterned after those worn by the Old Testament priests.  If Jesus Christ is the Passover Lamb who takes away the sins of the world then it makes sense to view the Eucharist as the culmination of the Old Testament sacrificial system.  A careful reading shows that icons have a biblical basis in the Old Testament (Exodus 26, 2 Chronicles 3). Recent archaeological findings have shown that early Jewish synagogues had images on their walls.  All this explains why a conscientious re-reading of Scripture and an open minded study of church history have led thousands of Protestants: pastors, professors, devout laymen  to the conclusion that the Orthodox Church is indeed what it claims to be: the very Church founded by Christ himself, not some later knock off imitation.  Visit Journey to Orthodoxy.com


Testing the Lost World Hypothesis

Protestant ecclesiology assumes a major discontinuity in history.  Protestant church history is based on the idea that there once was a pure and apostolic Church but that early Church fell into spiritual darkness.  It was not until the Reformation that Martin Luther recovered the Gospel and spiritual light returned to Europe.  Protestants believe that using the principle of the “Bible alone” they will be able to reform (reconstruct) the Church as it was meant to be.  These assumptions are foundational to defining Protestant identity.  The Protestant view of history is crucial for explaining why Protestants are different from Roman Catholics (they follow the ‘Bible alone’) and why they remain separate from Roman Catholics (they have Gospel in the pure form of justification by ‘faith alone’).

Orthodoxy presents a significant challenge to the Protestant paradigm of church history.  It is the Lost World that did not become extinct.  Orthodoxy claims a historical continuity that goes back to the first century but it looks so different from what Evangelicals imagine the early Church to have been like.  Evangelicals can test Orthodoxy’s claim to historical continuity by studying the church of Antioch.

Many Evangelicals greatly admire the Apostle Paul the great missionary but only a few know the name of his home church.  Every missionary has a home church from which they were sent.  According to Acts 13:1-3, Paul received his missionary calling at the church of Antioch.  In this brief passage we learn during the Liturgy the Holy Spirit directed that Paul and Barnabas be set aside for missionary work.  The Church of Antioch – the Apostle Paul’s home church — continues to exist to this day.  The current Patriarch of Antioch, John X, can trace his apostolic succession back to the first century.  The Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, which received two thousand Evangelicals into Orthodoxy in 1987, has direct ties with the Apostle Paul’s home church.  This is a spiritual lineage that any Evangelical would be proud to have!

Another way an Evangelical can test the Lost World hypothesis is by tracing the form of worship used in the church of Antioch.  We learn from that same passage (Acts 13:1-3) that the worship in Antioch was liturgical worship.  The Greek word for “worshiping the Lord” (NIV) or “ministered to the Lord” (KJV) is “leitourgounton” from which we get “liturgy.”  This is why Orthodox Christians refer to their Sunday worship as “the Liturgy.”  The worship of the first Christians in Jerusalem was liturgical.  This can be seen in Acts 2:42 which referred to the Liturgy of the Word (the Apostles’ teaching) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the breaking of bread).  On most Sundays we use the fifth century Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and about ten times a year we use the fourth century Liturgy of St. Basil the Great.  These liturgies which were inherited or passed on from the bishops before them are part of the Tradition of the ancient Church.  In October we use the first century Liturgy of St. James.  The liturgy was named after the Lord’s brother who served as bishop of Jerusalem and in that capacity presided over the first church council recorded in Acts 15.  This historical continuity in Orthodox worship stands in stark contrast with the rapidly evolving forms of worship in Protestantism and Evangelicalism. The historic pattern of worship is pretty much lost in much of Evangelicalism.  In the more progressive churches the order of worship changes from week to week depending on the decisions made by the praise and worship team.  In the more ‘traditional’ Protestant churches the order of worship found in the back of the hymnal is never used by the congregation.  

A third way an Evangelical can test the Lost World hypothesis is by tracing the form of church government.  The early form of church government was episcopal – rule by bishop.  Ignatius of Antioch, the third bishop of Antioch and a disciple of the Apostle John, wrote a series of letters on his way to martyrdom in Rome in 98 or 117 about the importance of obeying the bishop.  In his letters he exhorted people not to celebrate the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) apart from the bishop (Letter to the Smyrneans VIII and IX).  All this is so different from Evangelicalism which favors congregational autonomy or the Presbyterian classis.  Protestants may be averse to the episcopacy due to their opposition to the Roman Catholic Church but the fact remains that the episcopacy was the norm in the early Church.  The notion of a universal papal supremacy was a distortion that Protestants rightly objected to.  Orthodoxy also object on the basis that papal supremacy is contrary to Tradition. This supports the Lost World hypothesis that the Orthodox Church is the same church as the early Church.


Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park

GMO Churches?

Robert Webber’s ancient-future worship movement and Peter Leithart’s reformational-catholicism are examples of a GMO churches.  “GMO” refers to “genetically modified organism.”  Like the Jurassic Park scientists working to re-create dinosaurs, contemporary theologians and pastors are seeking to re-create the ancient Church based on their research.  Their motives may be sincere but the means they used are highly problematic.  Sola Scriptura, because it denies Holy Tradition a regulative function in the interpretation of Scripture, has given rise to all sorts of novel doctrines and worship practices resulting in ever multiplying church divisions.  As a result there is no integrating center for Protestantism despite their longing for the unity of the ancient Church.

A carefully guarded and transmitted Holy Tradition gives Orthodoxy doctrinal stability and historical continuity that Protestantism never had.  The transmission of Holy Tradition is done through apostolic succession, one bishop passing on the Faith to his successor.  Another significant factor has been Orthodoxy’s practice of closed communion — only those who are Orthodox and in good standing can partake of the Eucharist.  The Eucharist in addition to being the source of unity for Orthodoxy also protects the Orthodox against heterodox innovations.  To use an analogy from biology, closed communion prevents unchecked interchange of unwarranted ideas and practices.

All this confronts sincere and serious Evangelicals with a profound question: Is the early Church of the Apostles really gone for good or is it still alive here and now in the Orthodox Church?  This in turn presents them with a crucial choice: Do I place myself within the life and communion of the Church that has roots going back to the Apostles – or do I persist in the quest to reconstruct the early Church?  In recent years thousands of Protestants and Evangelicals have completed their quest for the ancient Church by taking the bold step of joining the Orthodox Church.  Interested readers can learn more about these journeys to Orthodoxy by checking out the titles and links recommended below.  The ancient Church founded by the Apostles has never gone away, it is here in the Orthodox Church.  By the mercies of God, we bid you: “Come and see.”

Robert Arakaki



Becoming Orthodox by Peter Gillquist

Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells by Matthew Gallatin

Facing East by Frederica Mathewes-Green

Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity With the Temple, the Synagogue and the Early Church by Benjamin Williams

The Orthodox Church by Kallistos (Timothy) Ware

The Orthodox Way by Kallistos (Timothy) Ware

Blog: Journey to Orthodoxy

Blog: Letters on Orthodoxy

Blog: Liturgica


Taking the Incarnation Seriously


Coptic Icon of the Nativity

In a recent blog posting Pastor John Armstrong wrote about his paradigm shift on the Incarnation.  I found his article very helpful for illustrating the different ways Protestants and Orthodox approach the Incarnation.  Armstrong wrote:

For now I have been thinking about how the Orthodox Church has a doctrine of salvation that includes the whole world, or the teaching of cosmology. Simply put the Orthodox do not treat the incarnation, the cross, and resurrection as separate events when explaining our salvation. I have concluded that this approach has to be correct because it fills in some holes in our Western way of thinking that is too individualistic. It also challenges the tendency in the West to center on legal categories when it seeks to explain the cross and God’s love. (Emphasis added.)

The Incarnation is one area where Reformed and Orthodox Christians frequently talk past each other not being fully aware of the differences separating them.  When I became Orthodox I criticized some of my friends for not taking the Incarnation seriously, and some felt insulted by this.  As bible believing Evangelicals they strongly believed in the Incarnation, so how could I accuse them of not taking the Incarnation seriously?  I felt frustrated because I did know quite how to explain the reasons for my criticism.  Over time I became aware that the differences were paradigmatic, that is, the role/function of the Incarnation in the Protestant theological system is quite different from its place in Orthodoxy.

Evangelicals do believe in the historicity of the Incarnation, but theologically they view it as a preliminary step, secondary to the big event of Christ’s atoning death on the Cross.  For many Protestants all salvation is assumed in Christ’s death.  Humanity’s chief problem was solved; the sinless Son of God took on our guilt on the Cross and if we believe in Christ our sins will be forgiven — our legal standing before God will be restored (righteousness) thereby entitling us to certain benefits in the kingdom of God, e.g., eternal life, resurrected bodies, a place in heaven, the right to ask God for things (intercessory prayer) etc.

But for Orthodoxy the Incarnation is just as significant for our salvation as Christ’s dying on the Cross, as well as his third day resurrection.  We are saved by the person of Jesus Christ, not just by that one thing he did on the Cross.  In baptism we are united to Christ’s death and his resurrection, we receive the Holy Spirit and are incorporated into his Body (the Church).  We cease to be autonomous beings and now live in the context of the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church.  In the course of the liturgical cycle of the major feast days of the Orthodox Church we participate in the mysteries of Christ’s Incarnation, his Nativity, his presentation in the Temple, his Baptism in the River Jordan, his Transfiguration, his ascent to Jerusalem, his entry into Jerusalem, his death on the Cross, his Resurrection, and his Ascension.  In the Incarnation the Eternal entered into history.  The life of Christ recounted in the Gospels is not a sequence of events but transcends the limitations of chronological time.  Through the Church’s liturgical life we participate in the baptism at the River Jordan or Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor as if we were there.  The Orthodox Holy Week services are more than Sunday School lessons.  In these services we participate in Christ’s last week on earth.  This is ontologically possible because of the Incarnation.  We are no longer separated by two thousand years of time, because we are in the Body of Christ, the Church.

Despite the differences in theological paradigms it appears the lines of communication are becoming clearer between Reformed and Orthodox Christians.  We are no longer talking past each other.  Below is an excerpt from a recent Facebook thread that I participated in (emphasis added).  I wrote:

Charles, In Protestantism the focus is on an event – Christ’s dying on the cross for our sins. In Orthodoxy the focus is on a Person and the life He lived — the arc of Christ’s life beginning with his taking on human nature, his birth, his growing up, his ministry and teachings, his death on the Cross, his third day resurrection, his ascension into heaven, his sending the Holy Spirit, and his glorious Second Coming. Jesus is the Second Adam who recapitulated our life. When I was a Protestant I couldn’t quite figure out how all the events fit together. It seemed that the Cross was the essential thing for our salvation but all the other things weren’t as important. With Orthodoxy’s emphasis on the Incarnation — the God-Man entering into human history — all the pieces fit together into one coherent picture. –Robert

Charles replied:

Robert, I agree that Protestantism in general can focus on the cross a little too much. That is why I am glad that I am Reformed =D.  I agree that the cross isn’t the only component to the gospel–it is crucial to also take into account the estates (humiliation and exaltation) and offices (prophet, priest, and king) of Christ. The period between the Incarnation and the Crucifixion would signify the estate of humiliation, and the period between Resurrection, Ascension, Intercession, and the 2nd Coming would be the estate of exaltation. So in essence, I guess we would disagree about the role of the Incarnation–to the Eastern Orthodox, it seems that it is the core. For me (and Reformed theology), it seems that the Incarnation is merely a step in the process for eschatological inauguration, fulfillment, and realization. -Charles

So while Charles and I agreed to disagree, a genuine dialogue did take place between the Reformed and Orthodox traditions.  This is a small but important first step in Reformed-Orthodox dialogue.


Paradigm Shifting

My paradigm shift began when I did some reflecting on the Nicene Creed.  I noticed that the particular location of the word “salvation” in the Creed.  The Nicene Creed states: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man. . . .”  The Creed then proceeds to recount Christ’s suffering, his death on the Cross, his third day resurrection, his ascension to heaven, and his future return in glory.  I thought to myself that if a Protestant were to write the Nicene Creed they would state that Christ came down from heaven, took on human flesh, then died on the Cross for our salvation etc.  As I followed the grammatical structure of the Nicene Creed I began to see that our salvation stems from a whole series of things that Jesus Christ did as the God-Man.  Reciting the Nicene Creed Sunday after Sunday had a powerful influence on my thinking.  It shook me out of my more narrow Protestant thinking and reoriented me to the holistic thinking of the early Church.

Pastor Armstrong’s “it fills in some holes in our Western way of thinking” describes well what happens when one encounters a better paradigm.  One does not reject the earlier data as one experience a better and more comprehensive understanding of how the data relates to other data.  I found in the Nicene Creed a theological paradigm at odds with an often exclusive Protestant penal substitutionary model of salvation.  Salvation history is more than just the singular event of the crucifixion; salvation encompasses God’s sovereign mercy in the flow of human history culminating in the coming of the God-Man Jesus Christ who through the Incarnation entered into the flow of human history.


Holy Thursday Service at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.

Holy Thursday Service at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.

Doing Theology Through Worship

One thing that struck me on my journey to Orthodoxy was how much of its theology is done through worship. In the West much of theology is done through books and sermons; in Orthodoxy much of its theology is articulated in its liturgical services.  Much of what I learned about the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation came, not from a book, as from Orthodox hymnography.  Liturgical worship in Orthodoxy has a theological function unparalleled to that in the Reformed tradition.  There seems to be nothing similar to it in the Reformed tradition.  I learned much of my Reformed theology from books, not hymns.  It is as if “Reformed hymnography” is an oxymoron.

This is why inquiring Protestants will be invited to attend the Orthodox services.  This is not about a “warming of the heart” experience that “confirms” a religion as some cults would claim.  We invite people to the services because one simply cannot grasp the fullness of the Orthodox Faith by just reading theological books.  One or two visits will not suffice; it takes several months of faithful attendance before one begins to grasp how Orthodoxy does theology.  One does not become an expert on Orthodoxy after attending a few services.  It takes time to absorb all that’s goes on during an Orthodox service. So, you will be asked, “Come and See.”  It is in the Liturgy that one sees Orthodox theology in action.

In the liturgical hymns and prayers of the Church we learn about the significance of the Incarnation.  One frequent theme is the paradox of the Incarnation, e.g., the Infinite God becoming a finite human being or the unapproachable Judge approaching sinful humanity in humble mercy.  We find this paradox in the prayer below sung during the fifth week of Lent:

The angelic nature was wholly surprised at the great act of thine Incarnation; at beholding the Unapproachable (in that he is God) becoming Man approachable by all, walking among us, and hearing from all, Alleluia.  (Triodion, Saturday of the Fifth Week, Nassar p. 11; underscore added)

Christmas is a natural occasion for celebrating Christ’s two-fold nature.  In the example below we see the paradox of the invisible God becoming visible for our salvation, and the infinite Son becoming confined to the womb of a Virgin.

Today the invisible Nature doth unite with mankind from the Virgin.  Today the boundless Essence is wrapped in swaddling clothes in Bethlehem.  Today God doth guide the Magi by the star to worship, indicating beforehand his three-day Burial by the offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Wherefore, we sing to him saying, O Christ God, who wast incarnate of the Virgin, save our souls.  (Menaion – Sunday after Christmas, Nassar, p. 412; underscore added)

Another example of the Incarnation’s importance to Orthodoxy can be seen in the service for Christ’s circumcision.  Here the Incarnation is linked to Christ as the perfect Jew who fulfilled the Law and in so doing paved the way for the New Covenant.

O most compassionate Lord, while yet God after thine essence, thou didst take human likeness without transubstantiation; and having fulfilled the law thou didst accept willingly circumcision in the flesh, that thou mightest annul the shadowy signs and remove the veil of our passions.  Glory to thy goodness, glory to thy compassion, glory to thine ineffable condescension, O Word.  (Menaion – The Circumcision, Nassar p. 423; underscore added).

Orthodox hymnography interweaves the Incarnation into Palm Sunday in an absolutely stunning way I never imagined when I was a Protestant.  In the Palm Sunday hymn the Incarnation is subtly introduced by means of comparing the exalted heavenly throne with the lowly earthly throne.  There is nothing in Protestant theology that would disallow this blending but it is striking that the theme of the Incarnation is not usually heard when Protestants celebrate Palm Sunday.

The Word of God the Father, the Son who is coeternal with him, whose throne is heaven and whose footstool is the earth, hath today humbled himself, coming to Bethany on a dumb ass. (Menaion – Palm Sunday, Nassar pp. 733-734)

Orthodoxy’s liturgical cycle can have a tremendous formative influence on one’s theological thinking.  Pastors frequently lament how hardly anyone remembers their sermons.  This is not so much the pastor’s fault as the inherent limitations of didactic teaching.  We are not brains on a stick but embodied souls; as creatures made in God’s image we need to be engaged with our whole being in our worship.  This is the advantage of liturgical worship.  After hearing the hymns about the Incarnation sung repeatedly the theology gets engraved both consciously and subconsciously on our souls.  All this is complemented by icons, incense, prostrations, and Scripture readings which interweave with each other to form the fabric of Orthodox worship.



Both Protestants and Orthodox affirm the historicity of the Incarnation.  (Protestant Liberals who reject the historicity of the Incarnation have left the historic Christian Faith.)  This has resulted in two quite different understandings of the Christian faith.  First, with respect to God’s saving grace in Christ Protestants tend to view salvation as a point in time, an event — Christ’s death on the Cross; Orthodoxy on the other hand views salvation as an arc – Christ’s descent from heaven, his life and death, and his ascent to heaven.  Second, with respect to salvation Protestants tend to define it as accepting a message about what Christ has done for us on the Cross.  Among Evangelicals it has been reduced to “making a decision” to accept Christ.  Orthodoxy views salvation as union with Christ.  In Orthodoxy accepting Christ as Lord and Savior means undergoing baptism.  Life in union with Christ means life in the Church, the body of Christ.  The Incarnation means the embodiment of divine grace: in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Church, the sacraments, the Eucharist, etc.  There is a certain subjectivity in the Protestant understanding of the sacraments as an outward sign of an inward grace.  But the fact is even in the presence of an unbeliever the sacraments of the Orthodox Church are vehicles of divine grace in a very real sense.  The efficacy of the sacraments is the result of the Church being the body of Christ.


ripples-in-waterPastor Armstrong’s recent paradigm shift on the Incarnation is significant.  It will likely have a ripple effect on his Reformed theology.  He noted taking the Incarnation seriously opens the way to understanding salvation as union with Christ and in turn to the real presence in the Eucharist.  These two themes are prominent in Mercersburg theology.  While not as prominent as other theological schools, Mercersburg Theology probably represents the strongest point of contact between Reformed Protestantism and the early Church.  I anticipate that Pastor Armstrong’s paradigm shift will stimulate further Reformed-Orthodox dialogue.  Paradigm shifts can have unexpected cascading effects.  In my case and other Reformed Christians Mercersburg theology became a bridge that took us to the early Church then eventually into the Orthodox Church.  It will be interesting to see how Pastor Armstrong’s theological paradigm shift will unfold over time.

Robert Arakaki

See also my earlier article: “Do Protestants Take the Incarnation Seriously?


Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware.  2002.  Festal Menaion.  St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press.

Seraphim Nassar.  1993.  Divine Prayers and Services of the Catholic Orthodox Church of Christ.  Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.  Englewood, New Jersey.


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