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Category: Response (Page 1 of 9)

Responding to Pastor Jordan Cooper

“Five Reasons Why I am not Orthodox”

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

 

Objection 1 – Apophatic Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zwingli and Luther at the Marburg Colloquy – 1529

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Objection 2 — Theosis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Objection 3 – The Doctrine of Justification

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

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

 

Objection 4 – The Augustinian Theological Tradition

Augustine of Hippo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Objection 5 – Orthodox Icons

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

Robert Arakaki

 

Resources

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

 

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.

 

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[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).

 

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