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Category: Roman Catholicism (Page 1 of 4)

Response to James White (1 of 4)

James White – Alpha and Omega Ministries  source


As I listened to James White’s 13 April 2017 podcast “Can a Consistent Eastern Orthodox Christian Be the Bible Answer Man?,” I was struck by the numerous fallacies that so often mar Protestant critiques of Orthodoxy.  The quotes below are organized topically, not chronologically.  The intent here is to promote good reasoning and courteous interaction in Protestant-Orthodox dialogue. Please see my earlier posting: “How NOT to Do Anti-Orthodox Apologetics” for a description of fallacies and faulty reasoning.


Sola Fide and the False Dilemma Fallacy

At the 3:39 mark, James White brings up one of Protestantism’s core doctrines sola fide – justification by grace alone through faith alone.  He insists that the omission of that one word “alone” opens the door to the legalism and works righteousness of Roman Catholicism.  Here we see the conflating of two fallacies: hasty generalization and false equivalence.  Just because Orthodoxy refrains from using “alone,” that does not mean that their reasons are the same as or identical to Roman Catholicism.  First, it must be shown what the Orthodox understanding of salvation actually is.  Second, that doctrine must be compared with the Roman Catholic understanding to see if they are identical. They are not — as any historic theological investigator without an axe to grind will quickly see.  By casting the question in terms of Protestantism versus Roman Catholicism, Mr. White presents the listener with a false dilemma.  This is the fallacy where something is presented as an either-or situation, when in fact there is one additional option.

At the 33:42 mark, we hear the recording of Hank Hanegraaff reciting the Nicene Creed.  At the 35:15 mark we hear the line: “Who for us and our salvation descended from heaven. . . .”  At that point, Mr. White interjects:

Flesh it out!  They didn’t at that point.  That’s why it isn’t sufficient.  If you say that’s the basis for mere Christianity then there’s no place for the Gospel.

For James White, because the Fathers at the Council of Nicea failed to articulate sola fide the Nicene Creed is theologically insufficient. Here he passes judgment on the universal confession of the Early Church! By what standards? By that of the sixteenth century Reformation?!?!

At the 1:10:05 mark, Hank Hanegraaff is heard saying that he has been saved “by grace alone through faith.”  Here James White leans eagerly on the edge of his chair then theatrically slumps in disappointment when he does not hear the word “alone.” He notes:

This is purposeful folks.  This is not “through grace alone by faith alone.”  “Through grace alone by faith” that is . . . that’s not even . . . he’s accurately dealt with James 2 in the past.  This is Eastern Orthodoxy speaking.  This is a knowing, unwillingness to affirm the language of sola fide (1:10:35).

False Dilemma Fallacy   Source

When James White (or anyone else) asserts: “there’s no place for the Gospel,” he commits the false dilemma fallacy presenting the listener with a stark black-and-white choice between salvation and damnation. When Mr. White insists that the Gospel be understood in terms of “justification by faith alone,” he makes the false equivalence fallacy.  Sola fide here is presented as the untouchable touchstone for true Christianity.  It may be for Protestants, but did any of the Church Fathers make a similar assertion? Was sola fide part of the historic Christian Faith?

In Protestant-Orthodox dialogue sola fide must be proven from Scripture, not just from the biblical text but from the way the text has been understood historically.  It should be kept in mind that Protestant Reformer John Calvin had no qualms about citing the Church Fathers.  Calvin was not a simple-minded Fundamentalist.  It must be shown how the doctrine “salvation through grace alone by faith alone” is the core meaning of what Apostle Paul in Galatians 1:6-9.  At 1:45:48-1:46:01, James White interjects:

And wouldn’t you say that in light of Galatians chapter 1 that justification is one of those dividing lines? . . . . It’s right there: “Let him be anathema.”  False brethren.  You can actually make an argument. ??  There’s stronger evidence that that was an apostolic dividing line.

False Analogy – Apple vs. Orange

Protestants often fall into the false analogy fallacy when they assume that Paul’s argument with the Judaizers about the Jewish Torah in first century Asia Minor is the same as the Protestant-Catholic controversy over earning merits in sixteenth-century Europe.  While there are overlaps in terminology, the issues and contents of the two debates are significantly different.

Noted Anglican biblical scholar NT Wright has written and spoken about how the Protestant Reformers have misread or misunderstood Paul.  See R. Alan Strett’s interview with NT Wright in Criswell Theological Review.

See Seraphim Hamilton’s “Those Whom He Justified He Glorified: Paul’s Argument in Romans 1:17-3:31.” On Behalf of All.

These articles show how Mr. White’s false dilemma of Protestant versus Roman Catholic understanding of justification by faith oversimplifies the theological issues within Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians.  He compounds the confusion through the false equivalence fallacy: Orthodoxy = Roman Catholicism.

In closing, Orthodoxy must be treated by Protestants as a faith tradition distinct and separate from Roman Catholicism.  While they have much in common, they also diverge significantly. Furthermore, Protestants cannot take sola fide (justification by faith alone) for granted in Reformed-Orthodox dialogue. Does the phrase “faith alone” appear in the Bible?  Where?  Did the early Church Fathers universally teach justification by faith alone? One cannot cherry pick the Church Fathers. To persuade the Orthodox, Protestant apologists need to show that justification by faith alone was part of early Christianity, not a sixteenth century doctrinal innovation.  As they dialogue with the Orthodox, Reformed Christians and other Protestants need to be open to the historic Christian Faith as understood by the Orthodox.  Let’s have a frank and friendly dialogue!

Robert Arakaki



Does Isaiah 22 Prove the Papacy?

Whatever you (sing.) bind on earth will be bound in heaven (Matthew 16:19)

In a recent email, a Protestant inquirer, investigating the claims of Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, brought up Isaiah chapter 22 which seems to support the Roman Catholic papacy.  He wrote:

I feel drawn to Catholicism again. However, I will remain realistic about Catholicism’s current situation and crisis: post-Vatican II Catholicism is a mess. While I sympathize with the traditionalists, I don’t wish to affiliate myself with a radical fringe of zealots who appear at times to lack the central Catholic virtue of charity. However, I simply can’t explain away the papacy. Although your explanation of the “Rock” passage was quite convincing, the Latins would claim that whether or not the rock refers to Peter’s confession or his personage, the promise of the keys of the kingdom established a monarchical papacy centered around the Petrine see of Rome. They claim that this imagery also bears an unmistakable connotation of authority and the office of vicarship and they highlight the similarities between the passage in the Gospel of St. Matthew and the book of Isaiah, chapter 22. (Emphasis added.)


My Response

Jesus’ Promise to Peter

In Matthew 16, one of the more important passages in the Bible, Peter makes the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the long awaited Messiah.  In response, Jesus declares him blessed, gives him a new name “Peter,” and bestows on him the power of the keys.

18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19; NIV, emphasis added.)

This passage has been one of the most highly contested in the Bible.  Roman Catholic apologists have used it to assert papal supremacy, and Protestants have responded with counter-arguments.  One longstanding issue was what Jesus intended when he bestowed on Simon the new name “Peter” and what he meant when he declared that upon “this rock” he (Christ) would build his church.  More recently, the keys have become a matter of debate.


Scott Hahn’s Discovery

One of the challenges of understanding Jesus’ promise to give Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (τὰς κλεῖδας τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν) is what exactly the keys referred to.  Scott Hahn argues that Isaiah 22 gives an important clue for understanding Christ’s promise to Peter in Matthew 16.

20 In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. 21 I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the people of Judah. 22 I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. (Isaiah 22:20-22; NIV, emphasis added.)

For Scott Hahn, Christ giving Peter the keys was comparable to the king bestowing the keys on his vizier.  The vizier in ancient Israel was the second in command much like the way in today’s White House the second most important person is the Chief of Staff, not the Vice President.  Because only one vizier serves the king Hahn proceeded to reason that this supports the monarchical understanding of the papacy.


Isaiah 22 in the Historical Context

The prophetic oracle in Isaiah 22 was given to two viziers to King Hezekiah: Shebna (v. 15) and Eliakim (v. 20).  For both men the message is one of judgment: Shebna will be thrown away (v. 17) and Eliakim will be like a peg in the wall sheared off (v. 25).  For more historical background on the two men and their relationship to King Hezekiah, one should read Isaiah 36-37 and 2 Kings 18.

Being clothed with a robe and sash, and given a chariot were part of the ceremonial vesting of the vizier before he took office.  A similar vesting ceremony can be found in Genesis 41:41-43 in which Pharaoh gave Joseph his signet ring, dressed him in fine linen, put a gold chain around his neck, and gave him a chariot to ride in.  No mention of a key is made but the similarities are clear.  A similar vesting ceremony is hinted at in the book of Esther (Esther 3:1, 6:7-10, 8:2, 10:3).  Mention is made of a royal robe, a chariot, and a signet ring, but not of a key.  Thus, a comparative analysis of ancient Near Eastern political practices from Egypt during the Hyksos pharaohs 1720 to 1550 BC, the Judaean kingdom circa 700 BC, to the Persian kingdom circa 400 BC shows common elements in the installation of the vizier but the bestowal of a key seems to be a practice confined to Israel.  The phrase – what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open – is a poetic way of saying that as vizier Eliakim would have the final say, that is, no one could reverse his decisions.


What do the Keys Refer to?

The paucity of references to “keys” in the Bible makes for a challenging exegetical question.  There are two Old Testament references: Isaiah 22:22 and Judges 3:25.  There are six New Testament references: Matthew 16:19, Luke 11:52, and Revelation 1:18, 3:7, 9:1, and 20:1.  The word “key” has a range of meaning.  Judges 3:25 refers to a literal, physical key to the Moabite king Eglon’s private chamber.  In Luke 11:52 Jesus used “key to knowledge” to refer to the Jewish rabbis’ teaching authority, i.e., to interpret and apply the Torah.  Key can refer to power over something, e.g., Jesus’ victory over death and Hades (Revelation 1:18), an angel having the power to open the Abyss (Revelation 9:1), and Archangel Michael named as the angel having the key to the Abyss (Revelation 20:1).


Do Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16 Line Up?

The validity of Scott Hahn’s pro-papacy apologia rest on the two passages being parallel to each other.  But do they line up?  A closer examination shows that while there are some parallels between the two, there also exist divergences.  Christ’s promise to Peter has two elements:

  •  The keys of the kingdom of heaven, and
  • The power to forgive sins.

Isaiah’s prophecy to Eliakim has two elements:

  • The keys to the house of David, and
  • The power to make final decisions.

The first element shows a rough similarity.  The keys of the house of David bestowed on Eliakim in Isaiah 22 can be viewed as a prophetic type that is fulfilled when Christ bestowed the keys of the kingdom of heaven on Peter in Matthew 16.  When we compare the second element, the power of the keys, we find a divergence.  What Jesus gave to Peter was not so much administrative but priestly authority, the power to grant absolution.  Scott Hahn can make a typological argument – the first element: the keys of the house of David are equivalent to the keys of the kingdom of heaven, but to assert that the second element: the power to open and close doors are equivalent to the power of binding and loosing is something of a stretch.

It should be noted that the Orthodox Study Bible (OSB) has a different reading for Isaiah 22:22:

I will give him the glory of David, and he shall rule, and no one will oppose him. (OSB)

This difference reflects the fact that where, for example, the New International Version (NIV) relies on the Hebrew Masoretic text, the OSB uses the Greek Septuagint.  I checked my copy of the Septuagint found no mention of the Greek word for key (κλεὶς).  For Orthodox Christians, this is worth noting as Orthodoxy gives the Greek Septuagint priority over the Hebrew Masoretic text.  In other words, if Hahn were to apply Isaiah 22:22 from the Septuagint to Matthew 16:19 to justify the monarchical papacy, he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.


Isaiah 22 Fulfilled in Revelation 3:7

The New Testament is the Old Testament fulfilled.  Jesus claimed that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17).  So where do we find the New Testament fulfillment of Isaiah 22?  I argue that the fulfillment of Isaiah 22:22 is found in Revelation 3:7.  Let’s compare the two passages with bold fonts for the first element (the key) and italics for the second element (the power of the keys).  Isaiah 22:22 reads:

I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. (NIV)

Revelation 3:7 reads:

These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. (NIV)

Where Matthew 16 provides a rough parallel to Isaiah 22, a much closer fit can be found in Revelation 3:7.  The first and second elements in both passages parallel each other.  So, if one wants to argue for a New Testament fulfillment of Isaiah 22 the best place to look is in Revelation 3, not in Matthew 16.

How does Isaiah 22 inform our reading of Revelation 3?  The answer is simple and straightforward.  Isaiah 22 provides some useful cultural information but nothing like a magic decoder ring.  In Isaiah 22 the key was a symbol of authority and the language about shutting and opening meant having irreversible authority.  So in Revelation 3:7, when Jesus says he holds the key of David he is asserting his being the Messiah who has supreme authority.  The power of the keys can also refer to Christ’s sovereignty over history.  The power of the keys in Revelation 3:7 lays the foundation to verse 8: “See, I have placed before you, an open door that no one can shut.”  Jesus has given the church in Philadelphia an “open door,” an opportunity of some sort.  This understanding of the power of the keys is much more straightforward than Scott Hahn’s convoluted attempt to make the keys stand for the monarchical papacy.  What we have here is an attempt to force a round peg into a square hole.  It can be done, but the peg is going be damaged in the process.


Whatever you (plural) bind on earth will be bound in heaven (Matt. 18:18)


The Power of the Keys Given to the Apostles

In Matthew 16:19, Jesus noted that with the keys came the power to bind and to loose.  “To bind and loose” is a rabbinic term for rabbis’ authority to declare things permitted or forbidden.  Where in Judaism Moses was the Lawgiver and the Jewish rabbis had the authority to bind and loose members of the Jewish community, Jesus as the Inaugurator of the New Covenant bestowed covenantal authority upon his Disciples to “bind and loose” over the New Covenant Community – the Church.  The Orthodox Study Bible notes for Matthew 18:18-20 has this to say about “binding and loosing”:

The authority to bind and loose sins is given to the apostles and transmitted to the bishops and presbyters they ordained.  This authority is given for the sake of the salvation of the sinner.  The sinner, “seeing that he is not only cast of out of the Church, but that the bond of his sin will remain in Heaven, he may turn and become gentle” (JohnChr). (Emphasis in original.)


Exegetical Red Herring

To focus on the word “key” detracts from the main thrust of Jesus’ promise to Peter, the power to bind and loose, i.e., the authority to absolve sins.  The critical exegetical question here is whether the power to bind and loose that Christ bestowed on Peter in Matthew 16:19 was to one single person (which would support the monarchical model favored by Roman Catholics) or to the Twelve (which would support the conciliar model favored by Orthodoxy).  If we ask whether the “you” in Matthew 16:19 is in the singular (σοι) or plural form (ὑμῖν), the answer is the former.  So, if one makes “key” the focus of one’s investigation, then the evidence will point to the monarchical understanding.  However, if we focus on the power to bind and loose, we find evidence of more than one person being granted this power.  Matthew 18:17-18 shows the same power of binding and loosing given to a collective group.  The pairing of binding “δήσῃς” and loosing “λύσῃς” in Matthew 16:19 have their parallel in Matthew 18:18: binding “δήσητε” and loosing “λύσητε.”  Significantly, the two verbs in Matthew 18:18 are in the second person plural which supports the Orthodox conciliar understanding of ecclesial authority.  The difference between the second person singular and plural is evident to one reading the King James Version which uses “thy,” “thee” and “thou” to indicate second person singular and “you,” “ye,” and “your” to indicate second person plural.

15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.  16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.  17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.  18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (KJV)

However, a reader of the NIV will not be able to spot the shifts in number due to the NIV’s usage of the modern “you” which includes both the singular and the plural under the same word form which necessitated my inserting [plural] into the excerpt below.  [More recent NIV translations usage of gender inclusive language, e.g., “your brother and sister,” forced the translators to render “him” as “them” muddying the waters even further!  Perhaps the NIV translators should consider using the Southern y’all in the next edition.]

15 If your brother sins against you, go and point out his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won him over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If he still refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18 I tell you the truth, whatever you [plural] bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you [plural] loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (NIV)

Since Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish audience it comes as no surprise that we find Jesus using the Hebraic expression of binding and loosing.  This means that to locate similar passages elsewhere it helps not just to look for formal (word-for-word) equivalent but also for dynamic (meaning-for-meaning) equivalent.  A parallel passage can be found in John’s Gospel in one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.  In John 20:21-23 we read:

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you [plural] forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you [plural] do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Here Jesus is speaking not to Peter alone but to Peter and the Disciples.  John, writing to a non-Jewish audience, refrained from using Hebraisms and instead has Jesus talking plainly about bestowing upon the Disciples the power to forgive sins.  Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament entry for κλεὶς (kleis) (vol. III pp. 752-753) likewise notes the parallel between Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23.  What is important to note here is that John used the second person plural endings for the verb “forgive” (ἀφῆτε) in verse 23.  One might expect that Jesus would bestow this authority exclusively to Peter but here he gives it to the Disciples.  Jesus breathing on the Disciples indicates that the power to forgive sins is not so much a juridical power but more of a prophetic charisma that results from union with the Risen Christ.  This charismatic and conciliar understanding of the power to “bind and loose” is much closer to Orthodoxy than to Roman Catholicism with its papal monarchy and legalistic ethos.

While it might be asserted, as Scott Hahn did, that the situation in Matthew 18:15-18 is like the king’s cabinet with the Prime Minister having the final say, this is projecting the modern parliament onto the ancient Church through reasoning by analogy.  What is striking is what Scripture does not say: (1) in Matthew 16:19 Jesus did not give the power of the keys exclusively to Peter and (2) Jesus did not subordinate the authority of the Twelve to Peter in either Matthew 18:18 or John 20:23.  This leaves Prof. Hahn’s Prime Minister/Cabinet analogy more a conjecture than a reasoned argument.

Furthermore, if the parliamentary model holds true then we would see Peter having the final say at the Jerusalem Council.  However, it was James the bishop of Jerusalem who said: “It is my judgment” and instructing the Council “we should write to them.” (Acts 15:19-20)  To argue that James was merely echoing Peter’s views is to argue from silence.  Similarly, we would expect the First Ecumenical Council (Nicea I, 325) to have been presided over by the bishop of Rome or his representative.  In fact, Nicea I was presided over by Emperor Constantine or Bishop Hosius of Cordova (Spain) (NPNF 2nd Series Vol. 14 p. xiii).  Pope Sylvester had sent two legates to the Council, but they did not preside over it. To sum up, the empirical, historical evidence does not agree with the pro-papacy argument.  One gets the sense that pro-papacy apologists are trying to force the messiness of church history into their neat model of the monarchical papacy.



The pro-papacy argument using Isaiah 22:22 to explain Matthew 16:19 would be persuasive if there exists a strong parallel between the two passages.  However, the stronger parallel is in Revelation 3:7.  Another weakness is that the pro-papacy argument focuses on the keys, not on the power that go with the keys.  When we look at the power that comes with the keys we find a divergence.  Where Matthew 16:19 refers to the power to bind and loose, Isaiah 22 refers to opening and closing doors.  This means that the crucial cross-passage for Matthew 16:19 would be Matthew 18:18 in which Jesus spoke about the power to bind and loose, not Isaiah 22 which spoke of a different kind of power.  In Matthew 18 Jesus used the second person plural to describe the power to bind and loose.  This means that power of the keys that Jesus gave to Peter in Matthew 16:19 is given to the other Apostles as well in Matthew 18:18.  This undercuts the argument for the Roman papacy and supports Orthodoxy’s conciliar understanding of the Church.

Matthew 18 has greater relevance for understanding Matthew 16 than Isaiah 22.  The Isaiah 22 passage is much further removed in terms of time and genre, whereas Matthew 18 has the same source (Jesus) and is in the same book as Matthew 16.  Matthew 18:18 can be seen as a follow up and expansion on Matthew 16:19.  Scott Hahn’s pro-papacy argument derived from applying Isaiah 22 to Matthew 16 is to put it bluntly a stretch.  It suffers from gaps in its logic (focusing on the similarity in the keys while ignoring the dissimilarity with respect to the power of the keys) and it fails to take into account two superior sources for understanding Matthew 16:19, Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23.  To sum up, the attempt to prove a pro-papacy position through Isaiah 22 has serious flaws and therefore not convincing.   While this article refutes the pro-papacy argument, it does not let Protestants off the hook.  The power of the keys point to the bestowing of covenantal authority to the Church for the liturgy, sacraments like confession, and the bishops’ teaching authority.  This bestowing of covenantal authority which began with the Twelve continues to the present day in the Orthodox Church through its episcopacy.


Protestants’ Vulnerability

The goal of this article has been to convince Protestants who take the Bible seriously and who feel compelled by Scott Hahn’s pro-papacy argument from Isaiah 22 that there is another way of reading Matthew 16:19 that is faithful to Scripture, consistent with church history, and does not rely on convoluted arguments.  Many Protestants and Evangelicals know little about church history and have been brought up to uncritically accept anti-Catholic propaganda.  This makes them vulnerable to Roman Catholic apologetics, especially with respect to the papacy.  Former Protestants like Scott Hahn who know their Bible backwards and forwards, trained in theology, knowledgeable in church history, and well versed in patristics make formidable opponents.  The challenge for Protestants is to develop a Protestant approach to the Petrine primacy that takes into account the biblical and historical evidences.  As a former Protestant who earned his M.A. in church history from one of Evangelicalism’s leading seminary, I would say that doing this would be very difficult to pull off.  However, there is an alternative to surrendering to the Roman papacy and that is to embrace Ancient Church that exists today in Orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy recognizes the bishop of Rome as the first among equals but rejects the claim to papal supremacy.  It affirms the conciliar nature of the Church but rejects the monarchical papacy.

Robert Arakaki


Recommended Reading

Does Combining Isaiah 22 With Matthew 16 Lead Us To A Papacy?”  Triablogue

Scott Hahn on the PapacyCatholic-Page

Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament κλεὶς (kleis) Vol. III pp. 744-753.


Was the Reformation Necessary?

This is a relaunch article.  It marks the end of my blog vacation and the OrthodoxBridge moving to Ancient Faith Blogs.  


Luther posting the 95 Theses

Luther posting the 95 Theses

This Saturday will mark the 498th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church (Wittenberg, Germany) sparking a huge theological debate that would radically alter the religious landscape of Europe.Within a few decades the once unified European society was divided among competing Christian churches.


As we draw near to the 500th anniversary of Protestantism it would be good for Christians – Protestants and non-Protestants — to reflect on its origins and its legacy.  And to ask the question: Was the Reformation Necessary?  To answer this question, we need to first understand what justification was given for the Reformation.  One of the finest apologia was written by John Calvin.


Historical Context

In 1543, Calvin wrote “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” in anticipation of Emperor Charles V’s convening the Diet of Spires (Speyer).  Altogether there were four Diets (parliamentary assemblies) held at the town of Speyer situated on the river Rhine in Bavaria.  During that period the Reformation was seen as a minor faction outlawed at the Diet of Worms (1521) and politically a nuisance.  It is likely that the Reformation would have been quashed then and there if it were not for the fragile state of Europe’s political unity.  The four Diets at Speyer trace the growth of the Reformation from a dissenting view into a separate church body independent of Rome.

At the first Diet of Speyer in 1526 in a moment of political and military weakness, Charles V was forced to accept the principle allowing each local ruler to rule as he wished: “every State shall so live, rule, and believe as it may hope and trust to answer before God and his imperial Majesty.”  This decision in effect suspended the Diet of Worms and allowed the Lutherans to coexist with the Roman Catholics.  (In 1526 the Turks were advancing in Hungary and later that year would lay siege to Vienna necessitating vigorous military action by the Emperor.)  In 1529, Charles V was strong enough to seek the reversal of the 1526 resolution.  While most complied, six rulers along with fourteen free cities objected.  They drew up an appeal which would be known as the “Protest at Speyer”; the signatories would become known as “Protestants.”  A third diet of Speyer was convened in 1542 for the purpose for rallying support against the Turks.  The Protestant princes withheld support until the Emperor agreed to the Peace of Nuremberg (1532).  A fourth Diet at Speyer was convened in 1544.  This time Charles V needed support against two fronts, against Francis I of France and against the Turks.  It was in this the context that Calvin composed “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.”  By 1555 the Emperor would be forced to give legal recognition to the Lutherans in the Peace of Augsburg.

Source: James Jackson

Source: James Jackson


Historically, Calvin’s “Necessity of Reforming the Church” was not a game changer.  However, Theodore Beza (1519-1605) considered this essay one of the “most powerful” of the time (Beza, p. 12).  This review seeks to be sensitive to the fact that Calvin’s essay was written in the context of a Protestant versus Roman Catholic debate while assessing Calvin’s apologia for the Reformation from the standpoint of the Orthodox Faith.  References and page numbers are from J.K.S. Reid’s Calvin: Theological Treatises (1954).


Iconoclasm and True Worship

Calvin’s first justification is the use of images in churches which for him impedes “spiritual worship.”

When God is worshipped in images, when fictious worship is instituted in his name, when supplication is made to the images of saints, and divine honours paid to dead men’s bones, and other similar things, we call them abominations as they are.  For this cause, those who hate our doctrine inveigh against us, and represent us as heretics who dare to abolish the worship of God as approved of old by the Church (p. 188).

The critique was directed against Roman Catholicism which at the time was heavily influenced by the Renaissance.  While there may have been excesses in the churches of Calvin’s time, his remedy was drastic – the removal of all images from churches.  This is something no Orthodox Christian could endorse especially in light of the fact that iconoclasm was condemned by an Ecumenical Council (Nicea II, 787).


Strasbourg Cathedral - France  Source

Strasbourg Cathedral – France Source


Calvin’s argument here is highly polemical with very little theological reasoning involved.  Calvin’s failure to rebut John of Damascus’ classic defense of icons based on the Incarnation and the biblical basis for the use of image in Old Testament worship present a gaping hole in his argument for the necessity of the Reformation.  See my critique of Calvin’s iconoclasm in “Calvin Versus the Icon.”


Spiritual Worship versus Liturgical Worship

Calvin’s next target is what he deemed “external worship” and “ceremonies” (p. 191).  Calvin argues that there was a time when liturgical worship was useful (i.e., during the Old Testament) but that with the coming of Christ liturgical worship has been abrogated.

When Christ was absent and not yet manifested, ceremonies by shadowing him forth nourished the hope of his advent in the breasts of believers; but now they only obscure his present and conspicuous glory.  We see what God himself has done.  For those ceremonies which he had commanded for a time has now abrogated forever (p. 192; emphasis added).

This argument is a form of dispensationalism.  While there are differences between Jewish and Christian worship, Calvin pushes it to the breaking point.  Calvin’s dismissal of liturgical worship overlooks the fact that early Christian worship was liturgical.  Evidence for this can be found in Volume VII of the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series p. 529 ff.

Calvin objects to external ceremonial worship on the grounds that it leads to the failure of people to give their hearts and minds to God (p. 193).

For while it is incumbent on true worshippers to give heart and mind, men always want to invent a mode of serving God quite different from this, their object being to perform for him certain bodily observances, and keep the mind to themselves.  Moreover, they imagine that when they thrust external pomps upon him, they have by this artifice evaded the necessity of giving themselves (p. 193).

For Calvin true Christian worship consists of the preaching of Scripture and the inculcation of right understanding of the Gospel.

For the Orthodox Calvin’s derisive assessment of the Liturgy is hard to swallow.  The Liturgy lies at the core of Orthodox life.  On most Sundays we use the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom which dates to the fifth century and on 10 Sundays we use the older Liturgy of St. Basil which dates to the fourth century. Calvin’s argument here rests on the assumption that early Christian worship was basically Protestant in form (Reformed).  This is highly questionable in light of the church fathers and historical evidence.  Most likely the theological motive for Calvin’s anti-liturgical stance is his spiritual versus physical dichotomy.

In short, as God requires us to worship him in a spiritual manner, so we with all zeal urge men to all the spiritual sacrifices which he commends (p. 187).

Protestantism’s emphasis on the sermon and its downplaying of the embodied aspects of worship: bowing, prostrations, processions, candles, incense, etc. can be seen as originating from this dichotomy.  There is no evidence that the early Christian worship was informed by this mind/body dichotomy.  Where Calvin takes an either/or approach, Orthodoxy takes a both/and approach holding that the symbolism and ritual actions that comprise the Liturgy help us better understand Scripture.


Reforming Prayer

Calvin strongly objects to the intercession of the saints and to the practice of praying in an unknown tongue (pp. 194-197).  He notes that there was a Catholic Archbishop who threatened to throw in prison anyone who dared to pray the Lord’s Prayer in a language other than Latin (p. 197)!  Calvin’s motive was to emphasize Christ as the sole mediator.  For him the invocation of the saints is idolatrous (p. 190).  Similarly, he condemns relics, religious processions, and miraculous icons.

Now it cannot without effrontery be denied, that when the Reformers appeared he world was more than ever afflicted with this blindness.  It was therefore absolutely necessary to urge men with these prophetic rebukes, and divert them, as by force, from that infatuation lest they might any longer imagine that God was satisfied with bare ceremonies, as children are with shows (p. 191; emphasis added).

This leads Calvin to call for the reforming of worship and devotional practices so as to restore what he calls “spiritual worship.”  In this particular passage Calvin seems to advocate church reform by preaching and if that did not work by force.

It is hard to know to what extent medieval Roman Catholic devotional practices had fallen into excesses during Calvin’s time but an Orthodox Christian would be taken aback by the sharpness of Calvin’s critique.  Praying to the saints is an ancient Christian practice.  The Rylands Papyrus 470 which dates to AD 250 contains a prayer to the Virgin Mary asking for her help.  The ancient Christian practice of praying to the saints is based on Christ’s resurrection and the communion of saints.  While certain bishops sought to temper the excesses in popular piety surrounding the commemoration of the departed the idea of worshipers here below – the church militant — being surrounded by the departed – the church triumphant – became part of the Christian Faith.  Excess in popular piety is best held in check through faithful participation in the liturgical life of the Church and submitting to the pastoral care of the priesthood.

Also, in comparison to Roman Catholicism Orthodoxy has been more receptive to the use of the vernacular in the Liturgy.  The Church of Rome’s inflexible stance on Latin as the language of worship changed with Vatican II.  An Orthodox Christian would find it puzzling that the acceptance of the vernacular was accompanied with a new liturgy, the Novus Ordo Mass.  Why not retain the historic Mass but translate it into the local vernacular?  This is what is done in many Orthodox parishes in the US.  Many Orthodox parishes celebrate the ancient St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy in English or a mixture of English and non-English.

While not a prominent part of contemporary Reformed-Orthodox dialogue it should be noted that not only does Orthodoxy today continue to venerate icons, we also have relics and miraculous icons.  While the danger of fraud exists, Orthodoxy has safeguards to discern the validity of these supernatural manifestations.  What is concerning about Calvin’s critique is the way it rejects the sacramental understanding of reality so fundamental to Orthodoxy.  Also, concerning is the secularizing effects of Calvin’s position.  The Protestant Reformers did not deny the supernatural but confined it to Scripture.  For example, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were efficacious because of the power of the “Word of God” (signaled by the capitalized form for the Bible) invoked during the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Another implication of Calvin’s emphasis on personal faith is the interiorizing and psychologizing effects on Protestant spirituality.  The personal interior dimension of Christianity took priority over the collective ecclesial aspects of the Christian life.  Thus, Calvin’s quest to reform prayer comes with a high cost that many Protestants may not be aware of.


The Ground of Salvation

It was justification by faith that sparked the Reformation.  When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses he called into question the practice of selling indulgences.  In the ensuing debates the focus shifted to the ground of salvation.  The sale of indulgences was based on the Western medieval theory of the church as a treasury of merit and the power of the keys.

They say that by the keys the treasury of the Church is unlocked, so that what is wanting to ourselves is applied out of the merits of Christ and the saints.  We on the contrary maintain that the sins of men are forgiven freely, and we acknowledge no other satisfaction than that which Christ accomplished, when, by the sacrifice of his death, he expiated our sins (p. 200).

Much of the debate surrounding justification by faith was framed and constrained by the judicial, forensic paradigm to the exclusion of other soteriological paradigms.  While much of Calvin’s rebuttal of his opponents rested on the forensic theory of salvation, one can find a non-forensic understanding of salvation in his writings.

This consideration is of very great practical importance, both in retaining men in the fear of God, that they may not arrogate to their works what proceeds from his fatherly kindness; and also in inspiring them with the best consolation, lest they despond when they reflect on the imperfection or impurity of their works, by reminding them that God, of his paternal indulgence, is pleased to pardon it (p. 202).

Calvin’s emphasis here on God’s paternal love for humanity is surprisingly close to what Orthodoxy affirms.

The issue of the ground of our salvation and the faith versus works tension was never a major issue in Orthodoxy.  Unlike Western Christianity, Orthodoxy never went into detail about how we are saved and the means by which we appropriate salvation in Christ.  Where Orthodox soteriology remains rooted in patristic theology, medieval Catholicism took a more legal and philosophical turn with unexpected innovations like the sale of indulgences and the understanding of the Church as a treasury of merits.  The Orthodox understanding of salvation is informed by the Christus Victor (Christ the Conqueror) motif as is evidenced by the annual Pascha (Easter) service and by the understanding of salvation as union with Christ.  The theme of union with Christ is much more intimate and relational than the idea of imputation of Christ’s merits which is more impersonal and transactional in nature.  Unlike certain readings of sola fide (justification by faith alone), the Orthodox understanding of the relationship between faith in Christ and good works is more organic and synergistic.  We read in Decree 13 of the Confession of Dositheus:

We believe a man to be not simply justified through faith alone, but through faith which works through love, that is to say, through faith and works.

Soteriology is one of the key justifications for the Reformation.  In claiming to bring back the Gospel the Protestant Reformers introduced a much more narrow understanding of the Gospel.  The debates over justification would be consequential for Protestantism.  Justification by faith was elevated into dogma.  Some Protestants insist that unless one holds fast to the distinction between imputed righteousness and infused righteousness one will not have a “proper” understanding of the Gospel and if one did not have a “proper” understanding of the Gospel one was not truly a Christian!  The early Church on the other hand dogmatized on Christology but remained flexible and ambiguous on how we are saved by Christ.  It was not until the medieval Scholasticism introduced these categorical precision that the Catholic versus Protestant debates over justification became a possibility.  One unforeseen consequence of these debates is that personal faith in Christ soon became equated with intellectual assent to a particular forensic theory of salvation.  Another consequence is that it erects walls between Protestantism and other traditions like Orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy being rooted in the church fathers and the Ecumenical Councils would not view the Protestant Reformers’ “rediscovered” Gospel in sola fide (justification by faith alone) as sufficient justification for the Reformation but more as a theological innovation peculiar to the West.


Reforming the Sacraments

For Calvin the reform of the church entailed the reforming of the sacraments, removing man-made additions and returning to the simplicity of biblical worship.  This is his justification for reducing the number of sacraments from seven to two.  Calvin is reacting to several developments: (1) liturgical additions not found in the Bible, (2) the adoration of the Host, (3) withholding the communion chalice from the laity, and (4) the use of non-vernacular in worship.  For Calvin the pastor medieval Catholic worship resulted in the laity being reduced to passive bystanders looking on with dumb incomprehension.  Calvin seeks to replace this magical understanding of the sacraments with one based on an intelligent understanding of Scripture in combination with a lively faith in Christ.

Like Calvin modern day Evangelicals hold to two sacraments but many will be surprised by how Calvin understood the sacraments.  Calvin did not do away with infant baptism, nor did he insist on total immersion.  While Calvin rejected the medieval Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, he did not embrace a purely symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper.

Accordingly, in the first place he gives the command, by which he bids us take, eat and drink; and then in the next place he adds and annexes the promise, in which he testifies that what we eat is his body, and what we drink is his blood.  . . . .  For this promise of Christ, by which he offers his own body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine, belongs to those who receive them at his hand, to celebrate the mystery in the manner which he enjoins (p. 205; emphasis added).

Calvin adopts a view somewhere between the extremes of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the later Protestant Evangelical “just a symbol” understanding of the Lord’s Supper.  However, his “under the symbols” seems to implicitly deny that the bread and the wine undergo a change in the Eucharist.  It is at odds with the understanding of the early church fathers.


Assessing Calvin’s Apologia

There is a funny story about a Protestant who wanted to convert to Orthodoxy.  He runs up to an Orthodox priest and says: “I’m a Protestant, what must I do to become Orthodox?”  The priest answered: “You must give up your Roman Catholicism!”  The point here is that many of the problems in Protestant doctrine and worship reflect its origins in Roman Catholicism.  It also reflects the fact that Western Christianity has broken from its patristic roots in the early Church.  Another way of putting it is that Protestants are innocent victims of Rome’s errors and innovations.

To sum up, Calvin justifies the Reformation on three grounds: (1) doctrine, (2) the sacraments, and (3) church government, claiming that the goal was to restore the “old form” using Scripture (i.e., sola scriptura).

Therefore let there be an examination of our whole doctrine, of our form of administering the sacraments, and our method of governing the Church; and in none of these three things will it be found that we have made any change in the old form, without attempting to restore it to the exact standard of the Word of God. (p. 187; emphasis added)

Calvin and the other Reformers had no intention of dividing the Church or of creating a new religion.  They desired to bring back the old forms using the Bible as their standard and guide.  The results have been quite different from what the Reformers had expected.  The next five centuries would see within Protestantism one church split over another, new doctrines, new forms of worship, and even new morality.  One interesting statement in Calvin’s apologia is the sharp denunciation of “new worship” (p. 192).

. . . God in many passages forbids any new worship unsanctioned by his Word, declared that he is gravely offended by such audacity, and threatens it with severe punishment, it is clear that the reformation which we have introduced was demanded by a strong necessity” (p. 192; emphasis added).

In light of the fact modern day Protestant worship ranges from so-called traditional organ and hymnal worship that date to the 1700s, to exuberant Pentecostal worship, to seeker friendly services with rock-n-roll style praise bands, to the more liturgical ancient-future worship one has to wonder if the Protestant cure is worse than the disease the Reformers sought to cure!

It is encouraging to see a growing interest among Reformed Christians in the ancient liturgies and the early church fathers.  This points to a convergence between two quite different traditions.  However, they remain far apart on icons, praying to the saints, and the real presence in the Eucharist.  These are not minor points. Calvin’s essay “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” makes clear these are part of the basic rationale for the Reformation.

As Protestantism’s five hundredth anniversary draws near it provides an opportunity for Reformed and Orthodox Christians to assess the Reformation and ask: Was the Reformation Necessary?  My answer as an Orthodox Christian is that while the situation of medieval Catholicism in Luther and Calvin’s time may have warranted significant corrective action, the Protestant cure is worse than the disease.  For all its adherence to Scripture the Reformed tradition as a whole has failed to recover the “old form” found in ancient Christianity.  Its numerous church splits put it at odds with the catholicity and unity of the early Church.  Orthodoxy being rooted in the early Church, the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and in Apostolic Tradition has avoided many of the problems that have long plagued Western Christianity.  Orthodoxy has never had a Reformation.  It has had no need for the Reformation because it has remained rooted in the patristic consensus and because it has resisted the innovations of post-Schism medieval Roman Catholicism.  The fact that Orthodoxy has never had a Reformation is something that a Protestant should give thought to.

Already a conversation about the necessity of the Reformation is underway.  Three major Reformed leaders: Don Carson, John Piper, and Tim Keller did a videotaped conversation: “Why the Reformation Matters.”  The Internet Monk published: “Reformation Week 2015: Another Look – God’s Righteousness.”  The Reformed-OrthodoxBridge hopes to provide a space where the two traditions can meet and converse in an atmosphere of civility and charity.

Robert Arakaki



Theodore Beza.  “Life of John Calvin.”

James Jackson.  “The Reformation and Counter-Reformation.”

The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. “Diets of Speyer.”

J.K.S. Reid, ed.  1954.  Calvin: Theological Treatises.  The Library of Christian Classics: Ichthus Edition.  Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Additional Resources

Internet Monk (Chaplain Mike).  2015.  “Reformation Week 2015: Another Look – God’s Righteousness.”

The Gospel Coalition. 2015.  “Keller, Piper, and Carson on Why the Reformation Matters.

Ligonier Ministries (Robert Rothwell). 2014.  “What is Reformation Day All About?


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