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Do We Need a Photo ID of Christ?

A Response to Pastor Toby Sumpter



Rev. Toby Sumpter’s “A Plea & A Sketch of an Argument on Icons  is not a simplistic bashing of icons.  Rather, he has taken the trouble to engage the Christological issues underlying the iconoclastic debates.  Among the earlier objections to icons was the two-fold argument that either icons depict Christ’s divinity, and by doing so circumscribed the divine Being, falling into the heresy of monophysitism, or they depict only Christ’s humanity and by doing so separated his humanity from his divinity, falling into the heresy of Nestorianism.  The Orthodox answer, reflecting Chalcedonian Christology, is that icons depict the Person of Christ, who is both divine and human. Toby Sumpter takes Orthodoxy’s Chalcedonian premise that icons depict the Person of Christ as the starting point for his argument.  He reasons that if icons are inaccurate or lack sufficient details, then Orthodox Christians, despite their sincerity, are venerating something other than Christ.  He writes:

Thus, to be in accordance with Nicaea II and Theodore, the Orthodox position really must insist that the icons of Christ are in fact true representations of the man Jesus Christ and that whenever they have seen His icon, they have truly seen Christ.

. . . .

And here we arrive at long last at the problem. First, let us grant that if there had been photographers on site in Judea during the earthly days of Jesus it would have been fine to take pictures of Jesus, preserve those pictures, and venerate those pictures. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s argument is sound in principle. The question comes down to whether we have strong enough evidence to believe that the icons we now have are in fact accurate portraits of Christ. And very much related to that, did Jesus and the apostles intend for a central part of the ministry of the Church to be through the making and venerating of images? The actual historical evidence seems decidedly against this.

. . . .

In other words, there are hefty biblical and historical arguments against assuming that modern icons of Christ actually resemble the Jewish man they claim to. And if they do not, they are not in fact the hypostasis of Christ, and therefore we are left with millions of Christians praying in front of pictures of someone else. Either that someone else is real and exists (but we don’t know them[sic]) or else the canonized face of Jesus is the result of the composite imagination of artists.  (Emphases added)

In short, he attempts to show how the Orthodox position on icons, even with its Chalcedonian premise, is untenable and therefore leads to iconoclastic conclusions.


Misleading Question

Pastor Sumpter’s focus on accurate physical depictions of Christ is, from the Orthodox standpoint, entirely off-base.  By framing his question in terms of the need for accurate depictions of Christ’s physical features in icons, Sumpter assumes that the purpose of Orthodox icons is to depict the physical features of the human Christ, not his Person.  Here he confuses Christ’s physical nature with his Person in the icon.  In doing so, he inadvertently frames his question in a way that departs from the Chalcedonian focus on the Person uniting the two natures; thus, he reverts to the heretical alternatives that assumed icons relate to the natures of Christ.  The Orthodox understanding is that icons relate us to the Person of Christ.  However, Sumpter’s question by focusing on Christ’s physical features assumes that icons relate us to the human nature of Christ.  In other words, Pastor Sumpter’s question is not rooted in Chalcedonian Christology but rather reverts to the heretical alternatives that confused the natures for the Person.  Furthermore, implicit in Toby Sumpter’s iconoclasm is a decidedly heretical non-Chalcedonian Christology!

Pastor Sumpter’s argument was anticipated by Leonid Ouspensky, who wrote in Theology of the Icon:

Thus, iconoclastic thought could accept an image only when this image was identical to that which it representedWithout identity, no image was possible.  Therefore an image made by a painter could not be an icon of Christ.  (p. 124; emphasis added)

But the Orthodox, fully aware of the distinction between nature and person, maintain precisely this third possibility, which abolishes the iconoclastic dilemma. The icon does not represent the nature, but the person: Περιγραπτος  αρα ο Χριστος καθ υποστασιν καν τη θεοτητι απεριγραπτος, “Christ is describable according to His hypostasis, remaining indescribable in His Divinity,” explains St Theodore the Studite.  When we represent our Lord, we do not represent His divinity or His humanity, but His Person, which inconceivably unites in itself these two natures without confusion and without division, as the Chalcedonian dogma defines it. (p. 125; emphases added)

This articulation of icons’ otherworldly vantage point is shared by Paul Evdokimov in The Art of the Icon.  He writes:

Now the iconic likeness is radically opposed to natural likeness, to natural portraiture, and only relates to the hypostasis, that is, the person, and to his heavenly body. (p. 87)

Pastor Sumpter’s argument that the absence of exact correspondence between icon and the prototype invalidates icons is not new.  Theodore the Studite anticipated this in his apologia On the Holy Icons:

1. An objection as from the iconoclasts: “If everything which is made in the likeness of something else inevitably falls short of equality with its prototype, then obviously Christ is not the same as His portrait in regard to veneration.  And if these differ, the veneration which you introduce differs also.  Therefore it produces an idolatrous worship.”

Answer: The prototype is not essentially in the image.  If it were, the image would be called prototype, as conversely the prototype would be called image.  This is not admissible, because the nature of each has its own definition.   Rather, the prototype is in the image by the similarity of hypostasis, which does not have a different principle of definition for the prototype and for the image. (pp. 102-103; bold type added)

Theodore argues that the link between the icon and the prototype (Christ) is not found in essence (ousia) but rather in the person (hypostasis) being depicted.  In other words, iconoclasts erred when they located the connection in the essence (ousia) rather than the person (hypostasis).  In doing so, early iconoclasts deviated from the Chalcedonian principle of the enhypostatic union as the basis for Orthodox Christology and iconography.

Note: “enhypostatic” means “in-person.” It refers to the union of the two natures of Christ in his PersonThe Evangelical Theological Dictionary’s entry for “Hypostatic Union” has this definition: “In the incarnation of the Son of God, a human nature was inseparably united forever with the divine nature in the one person of Jesus Christ, yet with the two natures remaining distinct, whole, and unchanged, without mixture or confusion so that the one person, Jesus Christ, is truly God and truly man.”  (1984, Elwell ed.) This understanding comes from the Council of Chalcedon (451).

In the icon, we encounter the Person of Christ.  Key to understanding the Orthodox veneration of icons is prayer.  There can be no veneration apart from prayer.  This is due to the fact that the veneration of icon is an act of prayer.  And key to prayer is calling on the divine Name of Christ.  This is because to invoke the divine Name is to call on the Person who bears that Name.  There is, within the Jewish tradition, a deep reverence for the divine Name.  I learned this when I bought a yarmulke for a friend of mine years ago.  I asked the lady at the counter what made it a holy object and she explained that God’s name was woven into it.  Similarly, because the icon of Christ not only depicts the Word made human flesh, but also bears the name “Jesus” given to him at his birth, it becomes a holy object.  Ouspensky writes:

The icon is joined to its prototype because it portrays the person and carries his name.  This is what makes communion with the represented person possible, what makes him known.  (Ouspensky p. 127; emphasis added)


In an icon, the Hypostasis, Christ’s person, “enhypostasizes” not a substance (the wood and colors) but the likeness.  It is the likeness alone and not the board that is the meeting place where we encounter the presence.  This likeness is fundamental to an understanding of the real nature of the icon.  (p. 195; italics in original)

In other words, Toby Sumpter’s insistence on the need for an exact visual (photographic) representation of Christ diverts him from the Chalcedonian emphasis on the Person of Christ to the heretics’ misguided emphasis on the human nature of Christ.  Rather than refute Nicea II, he merely rephrases the earlier iconoclastic arguments in the form of a question.

Given Pastor Sumpter’s earlier exhortation that we do our homework, it comes as a surprise that he apparently has not read Ouspensky’s Theology of the Icon, which anticipates his objection.  Nor, it seems, did he read Theodore the Studite carefully.  And, even more telling is the fact that he failed to grasp the categories used in Chalcedonian Christology.  His confusing nature with person led to his misleading question and his erroneous iconoclastic conclusion!  A muddled Christology is a bad starting point for doing theology.


Depicting Christ

One important question is whether there is evidence of visual depictions of Christ that can be traced back to the time of Christ.  The Orthodox understanding that icons form part of Holy Tradition implies that icons have been present in Christianity from the start.  Ouspensky wrote: “Thus, the Church maintains that authentic images of Christ have existed form the very beginning.” (p. 58)

One important early witness to icon making is Eusebius’ Church History.   In the fascinating passage about a statue made in memory of Jesus’ healing the woman with the issue of blood is a passing reference to paintings being made of Christ and the Apostles.

Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Saviour, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers. (Book VII Chapter 18, NPNF Vol. I p. 304; emphases added)

Eusebius’ statement about the “likeness” of Christ and his Apostles being “preserved in paintings” points to icons having been a longstanding practice in the early Church.

King Abgar with miraculous icon of Christ

King Abgar with miraculous icon of Christ

There is, in the Orthodox Tradition, the icon known as the Acheiropoietos (Made Without Hands).  This particular icon is commemorated on August 16.  The sticheron (hymn) for this particular feast day goes: “After making an image of Your most pure image, You sent it to the faithful Abgar, who desired to see You, who in Your divinity are invisible to the cherubim.”  In other words, the Acheiropoietos icon is not incidental to Orthodoxy, but integral.  The story behind this unusual icon is related in the Festal Menaion for the month of August:

King Abgar, a leper, had sent to Christ his archivist Hannan (Ananias) with a letter in which he asked Christ to come to Edessa to heal him.  Hannan was a painter; and in case Christ refused to come, Abgar had advised Hannan to make a portrait of the Lord and bring it to him.  Hannan found Christ surrounded by a large crowd; he climbed a rock from which he could see him better.  He tried to make His portrait but did not succeed “because of the indescribable glory of His face which was changing through grace.”  Seeing that Hannan wanted to make His portrait, Christ asked for some water, washed Himself, and wiped His face with a piece of linen on which His features remained fixed.  He gave the linen to Hannan to carry it with a letter to the one who had sent him.  In His letter, Christ refused to go to Edessa Himself, but promised Abgar to send him one of His disciples, once His mission had ended. (Note 2 in Ouspensky p. 51)

Christos Acheiropoietos

Christos Acheiropoietos

If taken at face value, this anecdote about the Acheiropoietos icon rebuts Pastor Sumpter’s claim that early icons of Christ are the result of human imagination and therefore without historical basis.  But, while the Acheiropoietos icon has been accepted by Orthodoxy, its provenance is problematic to non-Orthodox scholars.  The earliest historical references date back to the fifth century, e.g., the Doctrine of Addai and Evagrius Scholasticus in his Ecclesiastical History (Ouspensky p. 52).  Christopher Jones in “The Letters of Abgar” ended on a cautious note: “We also have little corroborating evidence that they did happen.  So, like many thorny problems in ancient history, we can only look on our meager sources and wonder.”

Luke the Evangelist and the Icon of Mary and Christ

Luke the Evangelist and the Icon of Mary and Christ


Another witness to the antiquity of icon-making is the tradition that Luke the Evangelist in addition to writing Luke and Acts also painted the first icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child.  The Orthodox Church commemorates Luke’s painting the icon of Mary and her giving her approval of the painting on the feast day of Our Lady of Vladimir (Ouspensky pp. 62-3).


Very early icon of Mary with Christ

Very early icon of Mary with Christ


Unusual icon - Christ without beard

Unusual icon – Christ without beard


The Wikipedia article “Depiction of Jesus” notes the historical development of visual depictions of Christ.

The depiction of him in art took several centuries to reach a conventional standardized form for his physical appearance, which has subsequently remained largely stable since that time. Most images of Jesus have in common a number of traits which are now almost universally associated with Jesus, although variants are seen.

Coptic icon

Coptic icon

A review of Orthodox icons compared with other ancient icons from the Latin, Coptic, and Ethiopian traditions shows striking similarities despite stylistic differences.  This underlying similarity points to a broad catholic visual tradition in the early Church.  For an overview of the various icons depicting Christ, see Betsy Porter’s website and Columbia University’s “Faith, Imagined – Early Christianity.”  This consensus among the historic churches serves as evidence against Pastor Sumpter’s assertion that icons of Christ to be the product of the imagination of artists.  Moreover, the recognizability of the icons of Christ challenges Pastor Sumpter’s insistence on the need for exact visual correspondence with Jesus’ appearance “according to the flesh.”



Do We Need a Photo ID of Christ?

Depiction by Richard Neave

Depiction by Richard Neave

What did Jesus of Nazareth actually look like?  The fact that the palace guards sent by the Jewish leaders had to rely on Judas to point out Jesus suggests that Jesus’ physical appearance was not markedly different from other Jewish men of his time (see Mark 14:43-46).  Recently, a retired medical artist, Richard Neave, attempted to reconstruct Jesus’ appearance relying on the science of forensic medicine.  However, this concern with capturing Jesus’ physical appearance is at odds with Orthodoxy’s priorities.

Orthodox iconography is based on the assumption of there being a new heaven and new earth under Christ’s rule.  Ouspensky writes:

We therefore do not know what the first icons of Christ and of the Virgin were like.  But the little that remains of primitive art leads us to surmise that the first images were not purely naturalistic portraits, but rather images of a completely new and specific Christian reality. (p. 65)

Christian iconography attempts to convey what is visible to the human eyes and also that which is invisible, i.e., the spiritual content of that which is being presented.  This can be seen in ancient catacomb art, which combined direct images with abstract symbols.

Another characteristic trait of Christian art, which can be seen already in the first centuries, is that the image is reduced to a minimum of details and to a maximum of expression.  Such laconism, such frugality in methods, corresponds to the laconic and subdued character of Scripture.  . . . .  Similarly, the sacred image portrays only the essential.  Details are tolerated only when they have some significance.  (Ouspensky p. 78)


Dangerous Implications

Pastor Sumpter’s argument that the absence of historical accuracy with respect to the historical Jesus invalidates Orthodox icons has dangerous implications.  If his argument is valid, then one can likewise argue that if we do not have the exact words of Christ, but rather mediated and redacted versions, then the Gospel accounts are likewise invalid, and that we are reading the words of mere men.  This quest for the true and genuine sayings of Jesus of history reflects an aspect of higher critical biblical scholarship.  One of the unfortunate consequences of higher critical skepticism is a distrust of the veracity of Scripture and the belief that behind the “Christ of faith” is the supposedly true “Jesus of history.”

If exact visual correspondence is needed between icons and Jesus’ human face, then it could also be argued that valid prayer requires that we use Jesus’ name in the original Aramaic.  This would also imply that our Anglicized version of the Greek “Iesous” is likewise incorrect and invalid, and that God does not hear our prayers, no matter how sincere they may be.  This kind of logic lies behind Islam’s insistence that proper performance of the salat (five daily prayers) be done in Arabic, no matter the native language of the worshiper.


“Blessed are the Eyes that See What You See”

Pastor Toby Sumpter laid out a string of proof texts to bolster his position that faith in Christ requires no visual content.  However, a review of Scripture shows that seeing is not antithetical to believing, and that the two complement each other.  When John the Baptist’s faith was wavering, Jesus told John’s followers: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard.” (Luke 7:22)  Jesus told his disciples that in comparison to the Old Testament saints who lived prior to the coming of Christ and had to go by the prophetic promises of the coming of Christ, they were blessed to be able to see Christ with their own eyes and hear the words of Christ with their own ears. (Luke 10:23-24)  Paul, in defense of his apostolic ministry, asked the Christians in Corinth: “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”  (1 Corinthians 9:1)  The Risen Christ commanded the Apostle John: “Write, therefore, what you have seen . . . .” (Revelation 1:19)  Jesus told Nathaniel: “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.  You shall see greater things than that.  . . . .  I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:50-52)  And then, there is the verse we Orthodox love to quote to our non-Orthodox friends: “Come and see.” (John 1:46)



Icon corner – a place for prayer – Source


How Orthodox Relate to Icons

Can Orthodox Christians pray to God without icons?  The answer is an unequivocal Yes!  Icons are meant only to aid us in prayer.  They make visible the invisible reality of heaven.  They remind us of the spiritual dimension, and so strengthen our faith in Christ.  It is not as if icons were essential for our making contact with God.  Implicit in Toby Sumpter’s critique is the assumption that icons are much like telephones and that the wrong area code can result in a disastrously misdirected phone call.

Key to effective prayer is faith in Christ.  But key to faith in Christ is right Christology.  Having a heretical Christology derails one’s prayer and worship life.  In Orthodoxy, especially in the Liturgy, the Christological and Trinitarian dogmas frame our prayers and our prayers express the dogmas of the Church.  In order to pray genuinely one must be in a relationship with Christ, which is to have Christ as one’s God and Savior.  Orthodox prayer is not like magic where one needs to perform special rites and utter magical formulas for something to happen.  Christian prayer is grounded in God’s mercy to us sinners and in our response to him.  Without faith, that is, without a personal commitment to Christ, the veneration of icons is an empty ritual; the presence of faith makes the veneration of icons a sacramental encounter with the Risen Christ.  Paul Evdokimov writes:

In a nutshell, the icon is a sacrament for the Christian East; more precisely, it is the vehicle of a personal presence.  (p. 178; italics in original)

Ouspensky writes:

The icon is not an image of the divine nature.  It is an image of a divine person incarnate; it conveys the features of the Son of God who came in the flesh, who became visible and could therefore be represented with human means. (p. 127)

In another passage, Evdokimov described the icon as being “charged with a presence.” (p. 178)  He notes that where the Christian West approach icons from the standpoint of anamnesis (memory), Orthodoxy stresses instead the epiphanic (revelatory) presence in icons. (p. 180)

Where the Reformed Christian may view religious pictures as having primarily a pedagogical function, i.e., as a stimulus to mental reflection, the Orthodox Christian sees icons as having a far more sacramental purpose, i.e., as a stimulus to prayer, a uniting of the spiritual with the physical, and beyond that, as a means to deepening one’s communion with Christ and the saints, who are far more present than we imagine.

The Christian painter renounces the naturalistic representation of space, so noticeable in the Roman art of this time.  The Christian painter depicts neither depth nor shadow in his work.  . . . .  They are almost always represented face on, as we have already said.  They address the viewer and communicate their inner state to him, a state of prayer. (Ouspensky pp. 78-79)

Christ the Pantocrator

Christ the Pantocrator

In the context of Orthodoxy, it is impossible for an icon of Christ to mislead one into false worship.  The possibility of a misdirected veneration is prevented by the safeguards within Orthodoxy.  First, regular attendance at the Liturgy will result in familiarity with the icons of Christ and the other saints.  Icons are liturgical art.  One learns about who Jesus is through the Gospel readings and through receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  Second, icons of Christ depict him with a cruciform halo.  This distinguishes Christ from the saints, who also have haloes.  Third, icons of Christ typically have the Greek initials: “IS CS”, which stand for: “IesouS ChristoS” and the Greek: “O ΩN” which means: “Who Is,” a reference to the biblical phrase: “He who was, and who is, and who is to come” (Revelation 1:8).  Furthermore, Orthodox icons typically have written on them the name of the saint depicted.  With these safeguards, and living under the pastoral care of the local Orthodox priest, it is not likely for such an error to occur.


A Conversation About Icons

Orthodox Crossing Themselves

Orthodox Venerating an Icon

It is a common practice for Orthodox Christians to venerate the icon of Christ upon entering church on Sunday morning.  A Protestant visiting an Orthodox church for the first time might have this conversation with his Orthodox friend:

Protestant Visitor: What did you just do?  Why did you kiss that picture?

Orthodox Christian: I wanted to show my love and respect for Christ my Savior.

Protestant Visitor: But that’s just a picture!

Orthodox Christian: It’s more than a picture.  An icon is like a window into heaven.

Protestant Visitor: So you’re not kissing a picture but Christ himself?!

Orthodox Christian: Yes. You got that right.

Protestant Visitor: That’s weird!  Christ is up in heaven. He can’t be here in that picture.

Orthodox Christian: I guess that’s why you’re Protestant and I’m Orthodox.  I believe Christ is up in heaven and in the icon.  Christ is everywhere present.


The Disenchanted World of Modernity

Reformed Christians, and much of Protestantism, live in what Max Weber described as a “disenchanted world” of modernity (pp. 148, 155), where rational thinking prevails, and magic and mystery have been driven out.  For this reason, Reformed Christians are willing to allow for icons as creative expressions or visual illustrations, but balk at icons as sacramental vessels of divine grace.  This difference in worldview underlies the disconnect sketched in the dialogue above.  Converts to Orthodoxy have abandoned Weber’s “disenchanted world” for an earlier Christian worldview, where creation is viewed as sacramental, charged with divine grace, and not mere matter.  In Orthodoxy, common objects like olive oil, basil leaves, palm branches, are blessed and used to reveal God’s merciful presence, along with the water of baptism, and the bread and the wine of Holy Communion.  In Orthodoxy, the redemption of fallen creation, or rather the reenchantment of the world, begins right here and now.  In the Divine Liturgy, material creation is taken and blessed, and then offered up, or rather reintegrated with the kingdom of heaven.  In the Liturgy, the kingdom of God is not something we hear about but rather a reality we encounter through the worship of the Holy Trinity.

Robert Arakaki



Eusebius of Caesarea.  Church History.  Book VII, Chapter 18.

Leonid Ouspensky.  1978.  Theology of the Icon. Volume I.  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Paul Evdokimov.  1990.  The Art of the Icon: a theology of beauty.  Translated by Fr. Steven Bigham.  Oakwood Publications.

Theodore the Studite.  1981.  On the Holy Icons.  Translated by Catharine P. Roth.  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Max Weber.  1946.  “Science as a Vocation.”  In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology.  H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, translators and editors.  Oxford University Press.

Betsy Porter.  Betsy Porter – Art and Iconography: Icons of Jesus and Scenes From His Life. Viewed 12 April 2016.

Columbia University.  “Faith, Imagined – Early Christianity.”

Howard Jacobson.  “Behold! The Jewish Jesus.”  The Guardian.

Faces of Jesus: Forensic Image.”  [Depiction of Jesus by Richard Neave.]

Christopher Jones.  “The Letters of Abgar V.” The Gates of Nineveh.wordpress.com

Wikipedia.  “Depictions of Jesus.” Viewed 12 April 2016.

Do Your Homework?

A Response to Pastor Toby Sumpter


So much to read!


In “A Plea & A Sketch of an Argument on Icons” Pastor Toby Sumpter exhorts Protestants interested in icons and Orthodoxy to do their homework before making any move to Orthodoxy.  Reading through his admirably comprehensive list of references my first reaction was: “How many people have the time to do all this reading?!”  Second reaction was: “OMG!  This is way more than a typical seminary syllabus reading list! Is he expecting people to write a doctoral dissertation before converting to Orthodox?”

Here is what he wrote:

First the plea: do some serious study of the actual issues and arguments from both sides. This will take some time to do well. But if you are currently a Protestant considering taking the plunge, do yourself, your family, your current church family, and the catholic tradition the honor of really studying this topic. Can you summarize John of Damascus’ defense of icons? Can you explain where his defense is flawed (according to the Orthodox)? Can you summarize the iconoclastic argument of Constantine V? And what was flawed about his argument? Now sketch the contributions of Nicephorus the Patriarch of Constantinople and Theodore the Studite (abbot of the monastery at Studium). What did the Second Council of Nicaea actually decide? Be specific and trace the conclusion from Nicaea, Chalcedon, through John of Damascus, Nicephorus and Theodore. Now, are you familiar with the Western Carolingian response to the Second Council of Nicaea? Evaluate the claims in light of what you’ve already considered. Do your Protestant heritage the honor of reading the original Reformers on images. Summarize the views of Luther, Melanchthon, Oecolampadius, Bucer, and Calvin on the making and veneration of images. Finally, do some reading on the history of iconography itself. How widespread were [sic] the use of icons in the first three centuries? Does that matter? When the icon “triumphed” after Second Nicaea what stylistic changes did the icon undergo between then and the modern day? What does that mean?

So much for my plea. And related to all of this, spend time as you read and study comparing your notes with trusted counselors and friends, not just people who will smile and nod, but the kind of people who challenge you to think critically and carefully.

Running the obstacle course

Running the obstacle course

Toby Sumpter’s reading list is a lot like a military obstacle course that tests the strength and endurance of the strong and weeds out the weak.  This high level of expectations for Protestant inquirers is not realistic.  And more to the point they are unfair.  It makes me wonder if Pastor Sumpter is engaging in intellectual intimidation of Protestants interested in icons.


Missing Links?

Serious readers might be disappointed Toby Sumpter did not provide links to his references.  Serious inquirers would benefit from links that help them get started in doing research on such a complex issue like icons and Protestantism.  Since he expects his readers to invest time and energy doing the reading, the least he could do would be to help them get started.

Below are links to a few sources mentioned by Pastor Sumpter and other articles that I consider important for getting a good grounding on the issue of icons, the Reformed objection to icons, and the Orthodox response to these objections.

Secondary Sources

Philip Schaff – History of the Christian Church Vol. IV “Medieval Christianity” pp. 447-470, § 100 to § 104 (19th century Protestant church historian) [Note: the link takes you to a PDF file that has a differentiation page numbering.  Reader is advised to search by section numbering, e.g., “§ 100.”]

Jaroslav Pelikan – Imago Dei (20th century church historian, Lutheran scholar, convert to Orthodoxy)

Robert Letham – Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy – A Reformed Perspective (Reformed)

Steven BighamEarly Christian Attitudes toward Images (Orthodox)

Primary Sources – Church Fathers

John of Damascus – On the Divine Images

Theodore the Studite – On the Holy Icons

Primary Sources – Reformers

John Calvin – Institutes: Book I Chapter XI

Martin Luther – Larger Catechism: First Commandment

Primary Sources – Early Church Councils

Synod of 754 (Iconoclastic)  — NPNF Vol. XIV pp. 543-548

Council of 787 (Pro-Icons) – NPNF Vol. XIV pp. 549-577; Caroline Books pp. 578-583

A Caveat – A good bibliography does not assure good understanding of the issue. It is of little value if one reads the text in a superficial manner, i.e., “scanning-with-a-bias/ax to grind.”  There is a tendency among some Protestant apologists to quickly scan early church texts and quote passages out of context to make the point they want to make.  Protestant readers who read the early church fathers need to guard against imposing their theological biases on the early Church.  The early Church was neither Protestant, nor was it Roman Catholic.  Many Protestant readers of the Church Fathers are like American tourists who, when visiting a foreign country, judge the local culture by their own  American standards, rather than appreciating the distinctive character of that foreign culture. This calls for careful and attentive reading of the early church fathers and the early church councils by Protestant readers.


tbp361Running the Gauntlet

Notice the unfairness hidden behind the benign pastoral counsel to “compare your notes with trusted counselors and friends.”  These Reformed friends and counselors are not going to be objective about icons.  Protestant inquirers need to be aware of the fact that icons are, for the most part, a highly charged topic between Reformed and Orthodox Christians today.  Among certain Reformed churches a display of interest in icons and Orthodoxy can lead to censure and other forms of church discipline. Strangely, this is true even in one liturgical-sacramental Reformed group willing to read and cherry-pick (borrow) much from Orthodoxy!  Protestant inquirers, especially those in the Reformed tradition, need to approach the issue of icons and Orthodoxy with eyes wide open.  My advice to those who find themselves between a rock and a hard place is to take the Nicodemus approach.  That is, to study the matter in private and make contact with Orthodox Christians discreetly, like the way Nicodemus came to Jesus at night (John 3:1-2).


A Proposal: Reformed-Orthodox Forums

Screen-shot-2015-05-01-at-9.37.40-AMFor several years I was blessed to have been part of a local group of Christians in Hawaii that met on a monthly basis.  It was a diverse group of people coming from Evangelical, Charismatic, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches.  The diversity of perspectives was enriched by the fact there were former Protestants who had converted to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and thus were able to see more than one side of a theological issue.  From time to time, we would have debates over important issues like sola scriptura and the veneration of saints. Pastor John Armstrong organized a similar forum between Evangelicals and Orthodox in 2008 (see Vimeo podcast).

I propose that interested readers organize similar forums in their own areas.  It would be responsibility of presenters to do the “heavy lifting” (reading the sources recommended by Pastor Sumpter).  Those who don’t have the wherewithal to do the reading prescribed by Pastor Sumpter could benefit by listening to the presenters present their findings.  These face-to-face encounters are likely to be more fruitful than just posting comments on the Internet.


How Much is Enough?

One hidden danger in Toby Sumpter’s reading list is the assumption that head knowledge is enough.  Reading books about icons is not enough.  Protestant inquirers should make the effort to visit an Orthodox Sunday worship service (Liturgy).  While in the service they will find that icons play an important but supportive role in Orthodox worship.  The two major focal points of Orthodox worship are: (1) the Gospel reading in which the congregation hears the words of Christ, and (2) the Eucharist in which Christ offers his body and blood for the life of the world.  After the Sunday service the inquirer should talk with Orthodox church members about what icons mean to them and why they venerate icons.  It would be a good idea to talk to both converts and cradle Orthodox.  And of course, inquirers should meet one on one with the local priest.

Where Toby Sumpter’s approach is rational and doctrinal, the approach I am sketching here is similar to the way anthropologists approach the culture and practices of a “foreign” culture sympathetically in order to better understand it.  Orthodoxy at its core is not a system of abstract doctrines but a faith lived out in community and in worship.


The Key Question

Greek New Testament

Greek New Testament

For those whose time and life situation is constrained I would say that the key issue is: Are icons biblical?  This is the bottom-line question.  More specifically, Is Orthodoxy’s veneration of icons in violation of the Second Commandment?  The Reformed position is: Yes.  The Orthodox position, on the other hand, is that the Second Commandment applies to the pagan idolatry of Egypt, the land the Israelites had just left.  The Orthodox note that later in the book of Exodus and other books of the Old Testament God gave instructions for the making of images in the Tabernacle and the Temple, i.e., in the place of worship central to the Jewish life.  I wrote an article “The Biblical Basis for Icons” that dealt with this question.  I am confident that the majority of Protestant readers will be able to compare the two ways of reading the Old Testament texts and make up their minds.


Strategic Study

For Protestant inquirers who have more time on their hands I would advise them to approach Toby Sumpter’s massive reading list strategically.  You don’t have to read everything to find the truth of the matter.  If you are a Reformed Christian, read the leading theologian of the Reformed tradition, John Calvin, and his key work, Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Then read the two church fathers regarded by the Orthodox as the leading apologists for icons: John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite.  In addition to the doctrinal approach, inquirers should examine church history.  Which position reflected the general view of the early Church?  Was the early Church iconoclastic from the start?  Or was there early evidence for images in Christian and Jewish worship?  Which church council came to represent the historic Christian position on icon?  Then consider the issue from the standpoint of church unity.  Have the Orthodox across the various jurisdictions been united in the acceptance of icons?  Have the Protestants likewise been united in their opposition to icons? That Lutherans and Anglicans have been open to icons while Reformed Christians have not should make one pause and reconsider.  The absence of consensus and historical continuity in iconoclasm are indications that it is not part of historic Christianity.


Closing Thoughts

Don’t let Pastor Sumpter’s long reading list intimidate you.  One does not have to become an expert theologian.  It is possible for busy lay people to discern the truth about icons and Christianity.  Growing numbers of Protestants, lay and clergy, have come to the conclusion that icons are indeed biblical and part of the historic Christian Faith.  In accepting icons they encountered the rich heritage of the ancient Church.

Robert K. Arakaki


Additional Readings







Corpus Formation versus Canon Formation

Apostle John on Patmos

Corpus Formation – Apostle John on Patmos Writing the Book of Revelation


A Response to Pastor Toby Sumpter

On 3 March 2016, Pastor Toby Sumpter posted on Reformation21An Apostolic Case for Sola Scriptura.” In this article he argues that canon formation of the New Testament proves the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.  He writes:

In fact, there is a strong case to be made that the apostles and first Christians knew what books would form the New Testament canon very early on. The reason they knew was because the task of writing the New Testament Scriptures was one of the central purposes of the office of apostles. (Emphases added)


The center of the evidence for a largely completed canon by the death of the apostles is grounded in understanding the office of apostle itself. (Emphasis added)

Toby Sumpter’s attempt to prove a very early New Testament canon (before AD 100 or even during the lifetime of the Apostles) makes sense in light of recent Reformed and Orthodox apologetics debate over sola scriptura.  One major criticism of sola scriptura is the argument that if it took several centuries for the New Testament canon to emerge then that means the early Church functioned quite well without sola scriptura.  This in turn raises the question whether sola scriptura is necessary.

All too often Protestant attempts to defend sola scriptura confuse the writing of the New Testament texts (corpus formation) with that writing being recognized as uniquely inspired (canon formation).  While closely related, the two are not the same.  Among conservative Christians there is little debate about the New Testament texts having been written in the latter half of the first century. The difference lies more with the Church’s recognizing the texts as divinely inspired, that is, as Scripture.

Where did this list come from? Who made it?

Where did this list come from? Who made it? Source

There are two competing theories of how canon formation took place.  A prolonged canonization process would suggest the Church functioned under oral Apostolic tradition for the first few centuries and without sola scriptura. (Remember, John Mark did not write his synoptic gospel first for at least twenty years.)  A compressed canonization process would leave little room for oral Apostolic Tradition.  A very early completion to the canonization process would give rise to a listing of authoritative New Testament (canon) to guide the early Church in matters of faith and practice.  If one takes the extreme position – as does Toby Sumpter – that the New Testament canon was completed while the Apostles were still living then there was zero room for oral Apostolic tradition to guide the early Church.  This is because the early Church had a complete list of Scripture from the get go (as argued by Toby Sumpter).



Chart showing the mainstream understanding of canon formation – Source


The New Testament Project?

Pastor Sumpter puts forward the interesting theory that in light of the Great Commission the Apostles devoted themselves to the production of canonical Scriptures for the Church.

Here, I argue that the apostles were quite conscious of this goal. Jesus had entrusted to them the “testimony” not merely for a small band of Jews in Jerusalem, but they were to be witnesses throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. How would that testimony reach the ends of the earth intact without devolving into an elaborate telephone game? The apostles and their assistants almost immediately began writing. This is because the apostles knew that their office was responsible for preserving and passing down the authoritative testimony of the gospel of Jesus. This is why every New Testament book was written or sponsored by an apostle. (Emphases added)

From the above excerpt we find Pastor Sumpter making at least three claims: (1) that the Apostles were conscious of their responsibility to write canonical Scripture, (2) that Jesus made writing part of the Great Commission, and (3) that the Apostles in obedience to this mandate began writing canonical Scripture right away.  But does Scripture support any of these claims?

First, if the Apostles were “quite conscious of this goal,” then we would expect to find them discussing their responsibility to produce an authoritative collection of writings that testify to Jesus Christ.  Where’s the evidence?  A careful search of the Gospels, the book of Acts, and the letters by Paul and other Apostles leaves us empty handed.  We find is that the Apostles did write but wrote when the occasion called for it (Romans 15:15; 1 Corinthians 4:14, 5:9-11; 2 Corinthians 2:3-4, 13:10; Galatians 1:20; Philippians 3:1; 2 Thessalonians 4:9, 5:1; 1 Timothy 3:14; Philemon 19-21; 1 Peter 5:12; 2 Peter 3:1; 1 John 1:4, 2:1; Jude 3).

Second, there is no evidence that Jesus made writing part of their apostolic calling.  When we look at the Great Commission passage in Matthew 28, and other similar passages: Mark 16:15-20, Luke 24:45-49, John 20:21, and Acts 1:1-8, we find not a single shred of evidence indicating that Jesus ever did so.   As a matter of fact, in the longer ending to Mark’s Gospel Jesus commands the Apostles: “Go into all the world and preach (κηρυξατε) the good news to all creation.”  Likewise, in Luke 24:47 we read: “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached (κηρυχθηναι) in his name to all nations.”  The Greek κηρυσσω has the sense of public proclamation by voice; it would be a stretch to say that it means writing.  According to Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament one of key qualifications of a herald (κηρυξ) was a good voice (vol. III p. 686).  The sole exception is the book of Revelation where Christ tells John: “Write (γραψον), therefore, what you have seen, what is now, and what will take place later.” (Revelation 1:7, cf. 21:5)  However, this command applies only to the book of Revelation.  If Toby Sumpter’s argument did hold up, we would have seen other earlier commands for the other New Testament texts but no such evidence for this can be found.  

Third, there is the fact that none of the New Testament texts have been dated back to the 30s or 40s. The earliest New Testament texts are either Paul’s letter to the Galatians or 1 Thessalonians.  Scholars estimate that Galatians was likely written after AD 52 and that 1 Thessalonians has likewise been estimated to have been written in the early 50s.  Mark’s Gospel is believed to have been written around the time of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.  Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel have been estimated to have been written circa AD 80.  Furthermore, much of Paul’s letters were written in response to pastoral emergencies.  The evidence here point to a gradual and sporadic production of New Testament texts.  This would fit in with a theory that writing was a secondary aspect of apostolic ministry.  If Pastor Sumpter’s theory is valid then one has to ask: Why did the Apostles wait twenty to forty years to begin writing canonical texts?

Another problem with Sumpter’s theory is that so few of the Twelve wrote canonical materials.  Where are the writings of Apostle Thomas?  I would love to read his account of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Where is the writing of Apostle Peter’s younger brother Andrew?  And where are the writings of Thaddeus, Nathaniel, Philip, and the others?  Why is it that we don’t have their written testimony to the Good News of Christ?

We need to take into consideration the small number of New Testament authors.  From the Apostle Peter we have Mark’s Gospel and Peter’s two letters.  We have from the Apostle John the Gospel that bears his name, three letters, and Revelation.  We have Matthew’s Gospel and nothing else from him.  Then we have the Gospel authored by Paul’s companion, Luke, who also authored the book of Acts.  From the Apostle Paul we have a collection of a dozen letters.  Hebrews has been traditionally attributed to Apostle Paul.  This comes to a total of four apostolic composers of the New Testament corpus.   Why so few?  Where are the others?  That is a question that raises doubts about Toby Sumpter’s theory.

For an Orthodox Christian the small number of composers of the New Testament corpus is not a problem.  The Apostles were busy proclaiming the Good News of Christ, leading the early liturgies, and ordaining elders (Acts 6:2, 13:1-3, 14:23).  From time to time they would write a letter if the occasion called for a written response but writing was not a core function of an Apostle, preaching was.


An Exaggerated Problem

Like a Pillow Fight?

Like a Pillow Fight?

Pastor Sumpter sketches what he purports to be a “popular theory” that he will refute.

A popular caricature of the process of canonization (a somewhat problematic phrase in its own right) is that tons of early Christians wrote tons of stuff and that it was only after the deaths of the first generation of Christians or so) when the subsequent generation of Christians suddenly woke up and began scrambling to collect as many meaningful looking scraps as they could find, like grabbing flecks of confetti blowing around in the wind.  And the Holy Spirit led the Church to find all the right pieces and paste them all together just right (Emphasis added).


. . . which I summarize as: The complete canon of Scripture was not determined until centuries after the apostles, and the Church (led by the Holy Spirit) determined what the canon of Scripture was.  Therefore, the Scriptures derive their authority from the Church.

While a fascinating theory, it’s one I never heard of.  It would help if Pastor Sumpter had referenced his sources for this theory. Perhaps Pastor Sumpter’s “caricature” is really only “popular in certain select small Protestant splinter groups?  Should we not favor the more widely accepted understanding that there was widespread reception of Paul’s letters and the four Gospels early on followed by a more gradual and contested reception of James, 2 Peter, Hebrews, and Revelation, combined with the eventual exclusion of disputed but popular texts like the Shepherd of Hermas and 1 Clement.  This understanding of canon formation is similar to F.F. Bruce’s explanation which reflects the overwhelming mainstream of New Testament scholarship.  (See link.)

Just as important is the mechanism by which canon formation took place.  F.F. Bruce points out that it was not by means of a formal list that canon formation happened.  He writes:

One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognising their innate worth and general apostolic authority, direct or indirect.

He notes that the canon list created in the North African synods, Hippo Regius (393) and Carthage (397), did not impose something new on the churches but rather codified what had already been a general longstanding practice.


A Very Interesting Theory

Pastor Sumpter draws on E. Randolph Richards’ theory of how the New Testament canon came about.  Richards notes that it was a widespread practice for ancient writers to keep on hand copies of their correspondence.  Then he speculates that the New Testament canon was completed when Peter and Paul ended up in Rome before their martyrdom.  Sumpter summarized Richards’ theory as follows:

Given the fact that Peter ended up in Rome at around the same time as Paul, and Luke is there already with Paul, and Mark is on his way (2 Tim. 4:11), we have all the indications that one of the first apostolic New Testament canon committees was holding session there in Rome in the mid 60s A.D. And if all that weren’t enough, don’t forget the fact that Peter refers to Paul’s letters as Scripture right around the same time (2 Pet. 3:15-16). In other words, the apostles knew what they were doing.

Add in John’s gospel, letters, and apocalypse, and we’re there.  (Emphasis added.)

I don’t know what Toby Sumpter means by “we’re there” but I can tell you that it does not mean that he has proven his case!  All he has done is sketch out an internally consistent hypothesis that awaits supporting evidence.  What evidence is there that Peter and Paul were in Rome at the exact time in the mid 60s?  And that Peter and Paul actually collaborated on finalizing the New Testament canon?  And if he wants to really make his case, show how Hebrews and James came to be included in the New Testament canon in Rome in the mid 60s.  What we have here is an interesting – if not a self-serving speculation? – theory that awaits solid evidence.  This is far removed from the accepted mainstream of biblical scholarship.



Is the Muratorian Canon a List?

When we look closely at the Muratorian Canon (dated back to AD 170), what we find is not so much an authoritative listing of apostolic writings (which is what we would expect according to Pastor Sumpter’s theory) but an attempt to describe the books accepted by the early Church.  What is striking about the Muratorian Canon is evidence that point to a traditioning process.  In line 71 reference is made to the apocalypses of John and Peter being received:

We receive only the apocalypses of John and Peter, though some of us are not willing that the latter be read in the church. (tantum recipimus quam quidam ex nostris legi in eclesia; lines 71-72) (Emphasis added.)

The rather puzzling phrase that “some of us” were reluctant to have Peter’s apocalypse being read in church point to the autonomy of the local bishop and their liturgical authority.  And in line 81 we read that nothing from heretical writers like Arsinous, Valentinus, or Miltiades ought to be received by the churches.

… which cannot be received into the catholic Church – for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey. (arsinoi autem seu valentini vel mitiadis nihil in totum recipemus; line 81).  (Emphasis added.)

If Pastor Sumpter’s theory of canon formation held up, we would not be reading a lengthy description of books read out loud in the early Church.  Rather, we would be reading a short succinct listing of titles and the assertion that this is a copy of an authoritative codex listing the Apostles Peter and Paul’s writings as proposed by Randolph Richards.


Did Irenaeus Use a Canonical List?

One of the earliest witnesses to the New Testament canon is Irenaeus of Lyons (d. circa AD 195).  To combat the heretics Irenaeus defends the four-fold Gospel in Against Heresies 3.11.8-9 (ANF Vol. 1 pp. 428-429).   He writes:

It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are.  For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars. . . .

The first thing to note is that Irenaeus takes the four-fold Gospel as an undisputed given.  This points to an early development in canon formation with respect to the Gospel.  Upon closer examination we find that Irenaeus gives us a lengthy description of the four Gospels.  This is significant because he does not appeal to an official list of canonical Scripture which is what we would expect if Toby Sumpter’s theory held up.  The formal listing represents a later stage of canon formation.  In the early days of the Church the transmission of Scripture was part of a traditioning process.  Irenaeus writes:

For if what they [the heretics] have published is the Gospel of truth, and yet is totally unlike those which have been handed down to us from the apostles, any who please may learn, as is shown from the Scriptures themselves, that that which has been handed down from the apostles can no longer be reckoned he Gospel of truth (AH 3.11.9, ANF p. 429; emphases added).

[Note: the Latin original has “ab Apostolis nobis tradita sunt” and “ab Apostolis traditum est veritatis Evangelium.” (Bold added) Source]

One important element in Pastor Sumpter’s argument is the notion that the production of written apostolic texts lay at the core of the Great Commission project.  This implies that missionizing without written Scripture would be gravely deficient but this is not what we find in Irenaeus.

To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition . . . .

Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed . . . . (AH 3.4.2; ANF p. 417; emphases added)

It is important for Protestant readers to recognize that Irenaeus was not denigrating the importance of written Scripture but that his emphasis was on Apostolic Tradition in both written and oral forms.  Irenaeus did not assume a tension between written and oral Apostolic tradition; nor did he assume a hierarchical ordering in which written tradition was superior to oral traditions.  Rather he assumed written and oral Apostolic traditions to be complementary to each other.


Athanasius the Great

Athanasius the Great

Athanasius’ Festal Letter

In AD 367, almost two centuries after the Muratorian Canon and Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius the Great issued his annual Paschal (Easter) letter to the Diocese of Alexandria.  It is here that we see the formal listing of canonical Scripture (NPNF Vol. IV, pp. 551-552).  That Athanasius needed to distinguish between canonical and apocryphal books shows how much the early Church relied on the process of reception.  This would not be the case if there had been a precise list from the start as would be the case in Pastor Sumpter’s theory.  Evidence for the traditioning process can be seen in the way Athanasius described the reception of Scripture texts:

. . . . as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers o the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine. (Letter 39, NPNF Vol. IV pp. 551-552; emphases added).

When we compare Athanasius’ approach to the biblical canon with early approaches we find a gradual transition from informal reception of Apostolic writings by local bishops to formal definition by the Church Catholic.  Contrary to what Pastor Sumpter assumed, the early Church did not confer apostolic authority onto the New Testament texts; rather the early Church through its bishops recognized the New Testament texts as apostolic and rejected all others as spurious.

This raises serious concerns about Pastor Sumpter’s own theory and the purported problem that he seeks to address.  Sumpter’s theory assumes a static listing of canonical scripture right from the time the Apostles Peter and Paul were alive.  One, there is no evidence of such a hard and fast listing early on.  What we do see is an early general consensus over the core of the New Testament with a few writings over which a general consensus would emerge centuries later.   Two, there is no evidence for the “rival theory” that there was a blizzard of competing texts that forced church authorities to arbitrarily define as Scripture.  Pastor Sumpter is welcome to defend his theory of canon formation by showing us the historical evidence that support his theory.  What I have done is give an alternative theory of canon formation which is more in keeping with the general scholarship and is supported by evidence from the Muratorian Canon, Irenaeus of Lyons’ Against Heresies, and  Athanasius the Great’s Festal Letter of AD 367.


Cappadocian Fathers

Alexandrian and Cappadocian Fathers


Where’s the Bishop?

One missing element from Prof. Richards and Pastor Sumpter’s model of canon formation is the role played by early bishops.  There’s no mention of the bishops at all in Sumpter’s article.  This is a serious flaw given the importance of the bishop in early Christianity.  Early bishops were ordained by the Apostles to lead the church and to preserve and pass on the Apostles’ teachings.  They were tasked with preserving the Apostolic teaching whether in written or oral form.  In the early days, the bishop had the authority to determine what would be read as Scriptures in the Sunday liturgy.

The apostolic basis of the early episcopacy explains the quick acceptance of the Petrine and Pauline corpus of the New Testament.  As disciples of the Apostles the bishops were able to distinguish genuine apostolic teachings from heretical counterfeits.  The need for synods where bishops gathered to decide on Hebrews, James and 3 John point to the importance of the early Church being guided by the Holy Spirit in the reception of these texts.  What we do not find in the early sources is a top-down imposition of a canonical list.  What we find are bishops gathered in synods seeking to reach a consensus as to what was apostolic.



This lengthy response is warranted by Toby Sumpter’s theological agenda – to prove that sola scriptura was part of early Christianity and not a late sixteenth century Protestant invention.  Pastor Sumpter’s article is regrettably rife with guesswork, inference, and surmise.  What we have found in our review of his article is an elaborate theory lacking in evidence.  Given the lack of supporting evidence, the best thing for Pastor Sumpter is to admit that sola scriptura is a sixteenth century Protestant innovation.  It represents a new approach to doing Christian theology that breaks from historic Christianity.

In contrast to Toby Sumpter’s speculative approach, I have taken an evidence based approach showing that the formation of the New Testament canon cannot be understood apart from the traditioning process.  Evidence have been presented from Scripture, the church fathers, and church history for the Orthodox understanding of the New Testament canon formation, that is, through the traditioning process.  The Orthodox Church through its bishops can trace its lineage back to the original Apostles.  Through the past two millennia the Orthodox Church has faithfully preserved the physical text of Scripture as well as the right interpretation of the Scripture.

The debate over canon formation is far from a trivial matter.  Canon formation requires an apostolic Church, a Church where its leaders have been ordained by the Apostles and their successors, and have in their possession Scripture through the traditioning process.  Protestants lacking this historical traditioning process end up bootlegging sacred Scriptures.

Robert Arakaki



Athanasius the Great.  “Festal Letter XXXIX.”  NPNF Vol. IV, pp. 551-552.

F.F. Bruce.  “The Canon of the New Testament” in Bible-Researcher.com

Irenaeus of Lyons.  Against Heresies.  ANF Vol. I.

The Muratorian Fragment.” Bible-Researcher.com

E. Randolph Richards.  1998.  “The Codex and the Early Collection of Paul’s Letters.”  Bulletin for Biblical Research 8 (1998) 151-166.


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