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Is Orthodoxy Eastern?


image-03-smallA reader recently commented on the article “Crossing the Bosphorus.”

But I think that the idea of crossing the Bosphorus is perhaps overly dramatic and may not be an entirely helpful metaphor.

We need to remember that the Orthodox faith was at one time not confined to the East, where it has been faithfully kept, but that it was also once upon a time the faith in the West.

I coined the phrase “crossing the Bosphorus” (becoming Orthodox) in imitation of the more widely known “crossing the Tiber” (becoming Roman Catholic).  I like the phrase partly because the image of Hagia Sophia (the Church of the Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople has long captured the imagination of many, drawing them to Orthodoxy.

But the underlying point of the comment contains an important truth – Orthodoxy cannot and must not be confined to a particular city, region, or ethnicity.  Orthodoxy is catholic.  The word “catholic” comes from the Greek καθολου for “all together” or “general.”  In the early creeds the term “catholic church” was used to describe the Church’s universality as opposed to the individual local congregation.  Later the term “catholic church” came to denote the true Church as opposed to the various heretical or schismatic off shoots.  (See JND Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrine p. 190)

The Church’s catholicity is grounded in the Great Commission when Christ sent the Apostles into all the world to disciple nations and to baptize them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20).  The late Metropolitan Philip on the occasion of the receiving the 2,000 Evangelicals into Orthodoxy declared in his homily:

And he commissioned the disciples.  He said to them: Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . .  Not only Greeks.  Not only Antiochians.  Not only Russians.  Or Serbians or Romanians.  Go and make disciples of all nations.  Baptizing them in the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.   (0:54-1:24)

So in light of the Church’s catholicity “crossing the Bosphorus” captures only a small part of Orthodoxy’s universality.  “Crossing the Bosphorus” (the Patriarchate of Constantinople) can be substituted with “crossing the Orontes” (the Antiochian Patriarchate), with “crossing the Dnieper” (Kiev, the ancient capital of Slavic Orthodoxy) or with “crossing the Moskva” (the Patriarchate of Moscow).

Protestant inquirers into Orthodoxy can easily get distracted by the variety of ethnic representations. This is especially so in the US where various ethnic branches of Orthodoxy are zealous to preserve their own particular heritage — the small “t” traditions.  It is critical for Protestant inquirers to realize Orthodoxy IS the Christian faith in the best “universal” or catholic sense. Centuries before Rome broke away in 1054 there was a great unity amidst all the diversity. The faith Tradition passed down by the Apostles was believed from Britain, France, Russia, Syria, Africa, Greece and Italy. Do not let the ethnic trees cause you to miss the beauty and unity of the Forest!



The term “crossing” can have more than one meaning.  In one sense it can refer to people converting to Orthodoxy.  In another sense it can refer to Orthodox missionaries going to lands where Orthodoxy is non-existent or barely known.  In the 1700s Orthodox missionaries – Saints Herman, Innocent, Jacob, and Juvenaly — traversed the vast Siberian tundra then crossed the Bering Strait to bring Orthodoxy to the native peoples of Alaska.

Saint John Maximovitch

Saint John Maximovitch

Another example of crossing is Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco (1896-1966).  In the 1930s and during World War II he served as bishop of Shanghai.  Then when the Communist took over China he was forced to flee.  He spent a short time in a refugee camp on the island of Tubabao in the Philippines.  Eventually, he became the bishop of San Francisco.  What is remarkable about Saint John Maximovitch’s ministry is how it spanned the vast Pacific Ocean, encompassing both Asia and America.  Another remarkable ministry by Saint John was his collecting the lives of the saints and his desire to make known the ”western” saints.  Thanks to him many of the pre-Schism Western saints became known to the Orthodox faithful.


Bishop John in Tubabao, Philippines

Bishop John in Tubabao, Philippines










One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church

A useful rule of thumb is whoever was recognized as a saint prior to the Schism of 1054 regardless whether they lived in the western half of the Roman Empire or its eastern half is an Orthodox saint.  This is because they were part of the one Church.  Rome’s departure in 1054 was a great loss but the Church continued to be the one Church, not two churches or two halves.  We ought not let the more recent antagonisms with Roman Catholicism obscure the fact that at one time the Pope was an Orthodox patriarch and the Latin West was Orthodox.  As Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco said: “The West was Orthodox for a thousand years, and her venerable Liturgy is far older than any of her heresies.”  source

In Orthodoxy a saint is recognized as a saint through a designated feast day in the Church’s liturgical calendar, a troparion (hymn) in honor of the saint, and an icon of the saint.  When one is baptized or received into Orthodoxy the common practice is to take on the name a particular saint.  The patron saint becomes a model of Christian discipleship and one’s prayer partner.


Latin Fathers

Among the Latin Fathers are Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, and Jerome.

Ambrose of Milan (c. 340-397) was the bishop who brought Augustine to Christ.  Augustine in his Confessions (6.4.6) recalls how Ambrose’s powerful sermons and his exegesis of the Old Testament brought a pagan skeptic to faith in Christ.  Ambrose persuaded Emperor Gratian to remove the statue of the pagan goddess Victory from the Senate halls.  He excommunicated Emperor Theodosius for his role in the massacre in Thessalonica, putting the emperor under discipline until he did public penance.  He also introduced antiphonal chanting into the Latin church.



It may come as a surprise to some that despite the many criticisms made of Augustine, especially in discussions about Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, he is recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church.  Fr. George Papademetriou wrote “Saint Augustine in the Greek Orthodox Tradition” in which he explained how Augustine is a saint of the Church despite the numerous recent criticisms of his theology.  For example, while Augustine may have taught the double procession of the Holy Spirit in no way did he ever advocate changing the Nicene Creed.  Saint Photius pointed out that Augustine’s understanding of the Holy Spirit’s two fold procession was a minor position and that we are obliged to follow the consensus patrum (consensus of the Fathers).

Orthodox readers who question whether Augustine is recognized as a saint need to keep in mind that his feast day falls on June 15 of the liturgical calendar.  The dismissal hymn for that day goes:

O blessed Augustine, you have been proved to be a bright vessel of the divine Spirit and revealer of the city of God; you have also righteously served the Saviour as a wise hierarch who has received God. O righteous father, pray to Christ God that he may grant to us great mercy.   source

Interested readers can read John Stamps’ “When Tradition Fractures” for an insightful discussion of Orthodoxy’s fraught relations with Augustine of Hippo.

There is a need for Orthodox scholars fluent in Latin.  Orthodoxy needs multilingual theologians fluent in both Greek and Latin.  The patristic consensus cannot be confined to any one language or region.  For example, the Vincentian Canon is a Latin phrase: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (i.e. only “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”) is the catholic Faith of Christianity.  Saint Vincent lived in the town of Lerins (near modern day Marseilles, France).  Orthodox theology being grounded in the patristic consensus will be enriched as scholars, hierarchs, and laity read the Latin Fathers.  The same can also be said of the Orthodox understanding of the patristic consensus being enriched by Syriac Fathers like Saints Ephraim the Syrian and Isaac the Syrian Bishop of Nineveh.


Celtic and British Saints

Icon - St. Patrick

Icon – St. Patrick

In addition to Saint Patrick – Enlightener of Ireland, the Orthodox Church honors Brendan the Navigator, Venerable Bede, Saint Columba – Abbot of Iona.  For those of us who live in the English speaking world one of Orthodoxy’s hidden treasures lies in the numerous Celtic and British saints.  As I read through the list of names I was surprised to see so many familiar names that I never associated with Orthodoxy.



It is the practice in Orthodoxy that when one becomes Orthodox one takes on the name of a saint.  Many recent converts have taken on the names of “eastern” Orthodox saints being unaware of the “western” Orthodox saints.  Those presently inquiring into Orthodoxy or about to become Orthodox can reaffirm their western cultural roots by taking the name of a “western” Orthodox saint.


Icon - All Saints of the British Isles

Icon – All Saints of the British Isles   Source

Saint Alan (Eilan), Hermit of Cornwall (d. circa 7th century)

Saint Brigid of Kildare, Ireland (d. 523)

Saint Chad (Caedda), Missionary, Bishop of Lichfield and Mercia (c. 672)

Saint David of Wales, Archbishop of Mynyw (Menevia), confounder of Pelagians (d. 601)

Saint Donald of Scotland, Holy Confessor (d. circa 8th century)

Saint Dorothy (Ida, Ita), Hermitess in Limerick, Ireland (d. 570)

Saint Edward the Passion Bearer, King of England (d. 979)

Saint Edwin Martyr, King of Northrumbia (d. 633)

Saint Gerald, Abbot, Bishop of Mayo, Ireland (d. 731)

Saint Gwen (Teirbron) of Britain, evangelist of Brittany (d. 5th century)

Saint Gwen (Wenna) of Talgarth, Martyr, Evangelist of Cornwall (born circa 463)

Saint Herbert, Hermit of Derwentwater (d. 687)

Saint Kenneth (Cynedd), Hermit Confessor of Wales (d. circa 6th century)

Saint Kevin (Caoimhin), Abbot of Glendalough, Ireland (d. 618)

Saint Laurence, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 619)

Saint Mildred, Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet (d. 732)

Saint Richard, King of Wessex (d. 772)

Holy Virgin Martyr Winifred of Wales (circa 650)










Moses the Black

Moses the Black

African Saints

One of the more well known African saints is Moses the Black.  He lived a life according to the passions of the flesh until his conversion to Christ.  After his conversion he lived as a monastic and served as abbot of a monastery until his martyrdom by Berber pirates.

Also among the African saints is the pair: Irene and Sophia.  Little is known about them but the Church remembers them.  More well known is Mary of Egypt.  One Sunday during Lent is designated the Sunday of Mary of Egypt.  On that day the Orthodox Church remembers how God’ grace transformed a woman caught in the pleasures of the flesh into one of the greatest saints of all time.  Other well known African saints include Athanasius the Great, Saint Katherine, and Anthony the Great.




Child Honoring the Chinese Martyrs

Child Honoring the Chinese Martyrs

China and Japan

China has the honor of the Martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion (1900).  The icon of the Chinese Martyrs show a large group comprised of adults and children.  Standing in the front is Father Mitrophan (Ji Chong or Tsi Chung) with his wife Tatiana and their three sons: Isaiah, Sergiy, and Ioann.  The oldest son was 23 years old at his death and the youngest 8 years old.

Another Asian saint is Saint Nicholas of Japan, Equal to the Apostles.  Born Ivan Kasatkin in 1836 in the province of Smolensk, he later studied in St. Petersburg.  He received his missionary calling in the form of a request from the Russian consulate in Japan for a priest who would minister to the spiritual needs of the Russian community there, the Japanese, and other foreigners stationed in Japan.  He translated the Bible and Liturgy into Japanese.  After more than 50 years of missionary labor he planted 266 Christian communities before he reposed in 1912.


Crossing the Bering Straits

Orthodoxy first came to the American continent from the west, that is, from Russia.  The early Orthodox missionaries “crossed the Bering Strait” in order to bring the Good News of Christ to the native peoples of Alaska.  The Alaskan saints comprised four missionaries (Saints Herman, Innocent, Juvenaly, and Jacob) and one native born martyr (Peter the Aleut).

Martyrdom of Saint Juvenaly and his native guide.

Saint Juvenaly was born in Nerchinsk, Siberia in 1761.  He worked as a mining engineer and was married.  After his wife died in 1791 he entered a monastery in St. Petersburg.  In 1794 Fr. Juvenaly and others had reached Kodiak.  The following year Father Juvenaly baptized some 700 Chugatchi then crossed the Kenai Bay.  In 1796 he and his native assistant were martyred by the Yup’ik.  He was the first Orthodox Christian to receive the crown of martyrdom and is remembered as “Protomartyr.”


Peter the Aleut

Peter the Aleut  source


Another Alaskan saint is Peter the Aleut.  He was born in Kodiak in the late 1700s.  While in his teens he accompanied Russian fur trappers to northern California.  In 1815, while hunting in his kayak south of San Francisco he was captured by Spanish soldiers.  He refused to be rebaptized insisting that he was already a Christian.  In their zeal to convert Peter the Roman Catholic priests cruelly dismembered his hands and feet.  Today he is known as the “Martyr of San Francisco.”



It may surprise some to learn that Orthodoxy has American saints.  In addition to Saint John of San Francisco, there is Saint Raphael of Brooklyn and Saint Alexis Toth of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  Saint Tikhon before he became Patriarch of Moscow served in North America striving to build up the scattered Orthodox immigrant community into a strong self-sustaining church.  Saint Tikhon is known as ”Enlightener of America and Confessor of Moscow.”  In his last sermon in America he said:

The Light of Orthodoxy is not lit for a small circle of people…. It is our obligation to share our spiritual treasures, our truth, our light, and our joy with those who do not have these gifts. This duty lies not only on pastors and missionaries, but also on lay people, for the Church of Christ, in the wise comparison of St. Paul, is a body, and in the life of the body, every member takes part.  source


Is Orthodoxy Eastern?

In conclusion, Orthodoxy is more than eastern, it is a universal faith.  To say Orthodoxy is eastern is often a shorthand reference to Orthodoxy’s deep roots in Byzantine culture and its indebtedness to the Greek Fathers.  In that sense one can use the phrase “Eastern Orthodox.”  But to imply that Orthodoxy is restricted to a particular region or a particular culture is misleading and can lead to a distorted understanding of Orthodoxy.

So, “No, you don’t have to ‘cross the Bosphorus’ to become Orthodox.”  That’s one way.  Many have entered into Orthodoxy through Greek Orthodox parishes that are under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.  Another way is to “cross the Moskva” by converting to Orthodoxy through a ROCOR parish.  Or “cross the Orontes” through the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese.  This is what the two thousand Evangelicals did in 1987.

Unlike Roman Catholicism which has one spiritual center: Rome, Orthodoxy has many spiritual centers.  What unites us is the Apostolic Faith – “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”  Orthodoxy in the US has an opportunity to manifest the catholicity of Orthodoxy.  The challenge for many Orthodox parishes founded by immigrants is to go beyond their ethnic roots and embrace the larger Orthodox Tradition.  One small step can be the inclusion of icons of American, African, or Asian saints in the sanctuary.  Another small step can be children or adult class presentations on the lives of the saints.  The honoring of the saints on their feast days requires the blessing of the bishop.  The honoring of the North American saints is an important step towards a unified American Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox Church in America honors the North American saints on the second Sunday after Pentecost.  The kontakion (hymn) for that day goes:

Today the choir of Saints who were pleasing to God in the lands of North America

Now stands before us in the Church and invisibly prays to God for us.

With them the angels glorify Him,

And all the saints of the Church of Christ keep festival with them;

And together they all pray for us to the Pre-Eternal God.



The Twelve Gates of New Jerusalem

A prophetic description of Orthodoxy’s catholicity can be found in Revelation 21:13. In that passage New Jerusalem is depicted as having twelve gates: three on the east, three on the north, three on the south, and three on the west.   Access to New Jerusalem from all four points of the compass points to the universality of the Gospel and Christ’s reign.  They also point to the catholicity of the Church as it welcomes peoples from all over the world into the kingdom of God.

Robert Arakaki


Christian Unity Amidst Reformation Wars & Seminary Wars


“Missional ecumenicist” John Armstrong has two parallel passions: church unity and church missions.  Pastor Armstrong’s Protestant catholicism (small c) is characterized by his gracious, warm-hearted relationships, openness, and appreciation for both Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions.  He is relatively new to the Reformed tradition having come from a broad Evangelical background.  He wrote:

I entered the Reformed Church in America, about ten years ago, out of growing conviction that I could find a “broader way” of expressing my Reformed faith in both catholicity and ecumenism. I wanted a church home that had a meaningful catholic history and some ecclesial stability without all the stops and strictures of the rigidly conservative Reformed Church expressions that I see in the U.S.

Pastor Armstrongrecently wrote two interesting series of blog postings.  One lengthy series (twenty two articles!) — “Must the Reformation Wars Continue?” — sought to bring closure to the controversy over sola fide (justification by faith alone) that divides Protestants from Roman Catholics.  This was followed by another series, “Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love?”  In it Pastor Armstrong challenged the official reasons for Prof. Douglas Green’s “retirement” from Westminster Seminary.  He also delved into the conflictual culture at Westminster.  At first glance the two series of articles appear unrelated but in fact both address conflicts that divide the body of Christ and hinder the mission of the Church.

Pastor Armstrong has good reason to be distressed by the bible wars tearing apart the Westminster Seminary community.  He calls for the promotion of a culture of “radical love” that will lead to healing and reconciliation among the various parties.

Conflict is not new to Westminster Seminary.  Westminster is an off shoot of Princeton Seminary which succumbed to theological liberalism in the 1920s.  The struggle to uphold sola scriptura has given rise to a series of retreats: from Princeton to Westminster, then from Westminster to Redeemer in Houston.  John Armstrong sings the praise of Redeemer Seminary in Dallas as being what Westminster used to be.  Furthermore, the controversy surrounding Prof. Green is all too typical.  Just a few years earlier, Westminster Seminary was wracked by controversy over Prof. Peter Enns’ discussion of biblical inspiration and modern scholarship.  This led to Enns ouster in 2008, followed by a third of the board of trustees resigning.  Going back to the 1970s, there was controversy over Prof. Norman Shepherd’s understanding of the covenant.  This gives rise to the question: Why has Westminster Theological Seminary been so prone to conflicts rooted in the tension between doctrinal orthodoxy and rigorous scholarship?

Though our Protestant brothers rarely see it, this readiness to debate almost any detail of Bible and theology, and to separate from each other if our views differ slightly, is all too typical of the Protestant mentality.  This way of thinking is evidence of how conservative Protestants take the Bible and matters of faith seriously. But there is also another presupposition beneath these bible wars. It is the understanding that true Christian piety requires not only the laying aside of the Church Fathers’ interpretation of Holy Scripture – but the expectation that Scripture must be studied anew to learn afresh what the Spirit is teaching the Church. But if the Church Fathers received the Scriptures from the Apostles, identified and defined the biblical canon, and gave us the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology in the early Creed, why are Protestants so quick to reject and ignore the Church Fathers?  For Orthodox Christians this laying aside of the wisdom of the early Church Fathers guided by the Holy Spirit is dumbfounding.  Did not Christ himself promise that he would send the Holy Spirit who would guide the Church into all truth?  (See John 16:13.)


Luther Invoking Sola Scriptura at the Diet of Wurms

Luther Invoking Sola Scriptura at the Diet of Worms – “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scripture or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone . . . .”

Protestantism’s approach to the Bible – sola scriptura — is rooted in two ideals.  One is the ideal of Scripture liberated from Church Tradition.  This was needed in order to withstand the demands of the Roman Church that Luther and other Reformers submit to the Papacy.  The other ideal is sola scriptura combined with rigorous scholarship.

The latter reflects the Protestant Reformation’s roots in the seminary and the academy.  Martin Luther was a seminary professor and John Calvin studied law at the leading French universities.  This openness to human reason also led to the expectation that Protestantism and its seminaries could confidently interact with the academy and the public square via sola scriptura. The Protestant ideal of sola scriptura with rigorous scholarship held so long as European culture was predominantly Christian but with the rise of modern science and the Enlightenment a radically different epistemology emerged.  This new way of thinking sought to be grounded in empirical observation of the natural order and guided by human reason independent of divine revelation.

Thus, it is no surprise then that liberal theology with its naturalistic bias and the emphasis on scientific scholarship emerged in the German universities.  It was in Germany that the modern university emerged that influenced higher education in the US in the 1800s and the 1900s.  Similarly, the higher critical method invented in the German universities was brought over to America where it swept major theological schools like Princeton.  Protestant theology being “liberated” from Holy Tradition preserved and passed on through the Church became vulnerable to innovative doctrines and practices.

The disputes at Westminster Seminary are not between Methodists and Baptists, or Pentecostals, Anglicans and Presbyterians. They are taking place within the same Presbyterian denominations. These bible wars are the consequence of Protestant seminaries’ exclusion of Holy Tradition’s normative role in the study of Scripture.  In addition to giving rise to a plethora of Protestant denominations, sola scriptura creates a theological rigidity that makes it difficult for Protestant seminary professors and other Christian scholars to think critically.  It creates a sort of invisible Procrustean bed for Protestant scholarship.  When seminary professors seek to apply rigorous scholarship with results that challenge or give rise to questions about certain established doctrinal distinctives bible wars erupt.

As I bounced back and forth between the two series of articles I found myself wondering: If Pastor Armstrong in his zeal for Church unity is so eager to end the Reformation wars by smoothing away the rough edges of the sola fide issue, where does he stand on Rome’s claim to universal magisterium?  While the appeal of Roman Catholicism may lie in a form of broadness and stability that Evangelicalism and Protestantism clearly lack, Pastor Armstrong has yet to address the Pope’s claim to universal magisterium, i.e., his claim to be the authoritative expositor of the Christian Faith.  Furthermore, I do not see much evidence that Pastor Armstrong has engaged Orthodoxy’s insistence that Scripture be read in the context of Holy Tradition, that is, the Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils.

I voiced these concerns earlier in a four part series “Contra Sola Scriptura.”  In my review of Dr. Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura I noted similar problems much like that which roils the Westminster Seminary community today.

With respect to Protestantism over the past five centuries Mathison has had to concede that it has not worked well (p. 290).  When we look at the Reformed tradition, which we can assume had the best understanding of sola scriptura, we find similar practical difficulties.  Which particular Reformed denomination has been most faithful to the principle of sola scriptura? PCUSA, PCA, OPC, RCA, EPC, BPC, CPC, CPCA, WPCUS, ARPC, RPCA, RPCGA, or CREC?  Has sola scriptura proven to be a source of doctrinal unity or division in the Reformed churches?

…Dr. Mathison lists three reasons why sola scriptura hasn’t worked so far: (1) the Reformation took place long after the initial schisms, (2) sola scriptura was soon replaced by a distorted version “solo scriptura” espoused by Evangelicals, and (3) the rise of the Enlightenment (p. 290).  But his defense of sola scriptura against the charge of hermeneutical chaos suffers from a serious gap.  None of these explanations account for the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 where Luther and Zwingli met to debate the meaning of words of Christ: “This is my body.” Their failure to work out the practical implications of how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper constitutes one of Protestantism’s earliest failures.  This tragic event took place just ten years after Luther’s 95 Theses with the result that the Protestant movement soon was divided into three factions.  Calvin was unable to forge a theological consensus beyond his own circle of followers.  In Chapter 3, “Martin Luther and John Calvin,” Mathison makes no mention of Ulrich Zwingli, the great Swiss Reformer.  This shows a serious gap in Mathison’s historical analysis.  The Marburg Colloquy is an early occurrence of the impracticality of sola scriptura for the magisterial Reformation and is something Mathison needs to address.


Zwingli and Luther at the Marburg Colloquy - 1529

Zwingli and Luther at the Marburg Colloquy

In a 2007 article, Pastor Armstrong shows he too is familiar with the classical Protestant version of sola scriptura that allows for reason and experience.  He also shows awareness of the criticism that sola scriptura gives rise to division.  He wrote: “I fear for a Protestant future that continues to promote sectarianism as essential to sola Scriptura.”  In response to Roman Catholics who asserted Rome’s magisterium Armstrong asserted that sola scriptura “rightly defined” and “rightly used” will address these concerns.  But IS this prescription adequate for dealing with the instabilities and divisions that arise from Westminster’s attempt to uphold sola scriptura?

Orthodoxy’s approach is to interpret Scripture within the framework of Holy Tradition.  While Orthodoxy is receptive towards modern biblical scholarship, it holds the Ecumenical Councils and the patristic consensus to be normative over modern biblical scholarship.  This I suggest will avoid the dilemma of the Scylla of Protestantism’s sola scriptura versus the Charybdis of Roman Catholicism’s infallible papacy.  The Orthodox approach to the reading of Scripture is grounded in the stability of ancient Holy Tradition that balances out Protestantism’s sola scriptura.  Orthodoxy’s conciliarity, i.e., giving priority to the Ecumenical Councils over any bishop, balances out Roman Catholicism’s claim to papal supremacy.  It is here that Reformed-Orthodox dialogue can be fruitful and can be useful for those distressed by the bible wars in Protestant seminaries.  (See Seraphim Hamilton’s article “Looking at Critical Scholarship Critically” which discussed biblical scholarship and the more flexible approach to inerrancy in Orthodoxy.)

Contrary to what most Protestants hoped for, sola scriptura flings wide open the door for theologians and bible scholars to formulate new interpretations and doctrines – yet is incapable at the same time of sorting through the rival interpretations. It thus breeds division and chaos rather than unity and communion of the saints that Pastor Armstrong longs for.

Finally, we should note that Protestantism’s problem with division goes beyond Scripture and hermeneutics.  Protestantism’s church divisions are also rooted in its lacking historic continuity.  We noted a few month ago Pastor Andrew Sandlins’ angst over future generation of Reformed Protestants: What will they believe and teach his grandchildren and great grandchildren? And what form of worship will they be using? He laments that the unwillingness of younger leaders to learn from their elders leaves the future of Reformed Protestantism in doubt. But, ironically, it appears that the younger generation learned all too well the lessons of the Protestant Reformers who repudiated Tradition!  Unanchored to Tradition they are at risk of drifting with the tide of contemporary culture becoming ever more separated from their historic roots.  Looking at today’s Evangelical landscape, it appears that future generations of Protestants will drift even further from the Holy Tradition established and embraced by the Apostles:

Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)

What Jude referred to as “our common salvation” was rooted in the Faith that was traditioned (handed over or delivered) to the saints (the early Christians).  Thus, early Christian unity was rooted in a traditioned Faith, not in sola scriptura.  We invite Pastor Armstrong to consider the possibility that the resolution of seminary wars and the healing of divisions is to be found in the embrace of Holy Tradition.  It is commendable that this ardent “missional ecumenicist” has been engaging the Roman Catholic faith tradition, we invite him to enter into a Reformed-Orthodox dialogue as well.  We welcome the pastoral wisdom and warm hearted ecumenicism Pastor Armstrong can bring to the table.

Robert Arakaki


Further Readings

John H. Armstrong.  “The Protestant Principle: What “Sola Scriptura” Means and Why It Matters.”  24 January 2007.

John H. Armstrong.  “What Can Be Done To Seek Unity Between Catholics and Evangelicals?” 7 April 2014.

John H. Armstrong. “Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love?” (Part 3).  10 July 2014.

Seraphim Hamilton.  “Looking at Critical Scholarship Critically: A Response to Greg Carey.” In On Behalf of All.  17 June 2014.

Robert Arakaki.  “Contra Sola Scriptura 1: Book Review: The Shape of Sola Scriptura.” In OrthodoxBridge.  4 June 2011.

Robert Arakaki.  “Contra Sola Scriptura 2: If Not Sola Scriptura, Then What?  The Biblical Basis for Holy Tradition.”  In OrthodoxBridge.  12 June 2011.

Robert Arakaki.  “Contra Sola Scriptura 3: Where Does Sola Scriptura Come From?  The Humanist Origins of the Protestant Reformation.”  In OrthodoxBridge.  1 July 2011.

Robert Arakaki.  “Contra Sola Scriptura 4: Protestantism’s Fatal Genetic Flaw: Sola Scriptura and Protestantism’s Hermeneutical Chaos.” In OrthodoxBridge.  January 2012.

Robert Arakaki.  “Aging Protestants, Deep Sighs, and Holy Tradition.” In OrthodoxBridge.  14 April 2014.


Look Both Ways before You Cross












A staunch Protestant apologist Douglas Beaumont recently published “Tiber Treading No More.”  In it he describes how he ended up becoming Roman Catholic despite his valiant efforts to refute it.  The tone of the article is positive and kind.  As I read it I did not sense any harboring of ill will or grudges against Protestantism.  Beaumont’s exodus out of Protestantism was the result of his investigation of foundational theological issues, sola fide and sola scriptura, and the inability of Protestantism to provide satisfactory answers.

In the article Douglas Beaumont briefly mentions how he first investigated Orthodoxy.  He met with some Orthodox priests, attended the services, and even signed up for an introduction to Orthodoxy class.  I wish he had written more about his exploration of Orthodoxy than just three brief paragraphs!  Eventually, he turned away from Orthodoxy and began to move towards Roman Catholicism.


The Real Issues

Three reasons were given why he turned away from Orthodoxy: (1) its cultural divisions, (2) its inability to convene another ecumenical council, and (3) its non-Western character.

Beaumont expressed concerns about the cultural divisions in Orthodoxy.  He was afraid of what would happen if he were to move away from the local Orthodox parish he had been attending.  I’m not sure what he has in mind.  That he would be denied access to the Eucharist?  That he would be given the cold shoulder?  I wish he had been more clear.  I can report that this Asian American Christian from Hawaii has communed at Greek Orthodox, OCA, Bulgarian, and Antiochian Orthodox parishes all across the US.  So for me Orthodoxy’s cultural divisions have not been as big an issue as Beaumont makes it to be.  Thousands of other Protestant converts to Orthodoxy have had a similar experience. I will say that I do want to see more all English Orthodox liturgies all across the US. But this is really a minor issue.  It seems that he confined himself to just one parish.  Beaumont could have searched out the various Orthodox jurisdictional options and seen for himself the underlying doctrinal and liturgical unity that they all share.


Vatican Ii Council

Vatican Ii Council

Douglas Beaumont claims Orthodoxy lacks the unity that the Pope gives Roman Catholicism. While a common charge, it is a very debatable issue. Vatican II introduced radical changes to Roman Catholicism.  The Tridentine Mass of 1570 was replaced with the Novus Ordo Mass of 1970. The Mass which once unified the faithful soon became a source of conflict and confusion.  A number of traditionalist groups sought to retain the Latin Mass and were eventually excommunicated by the Pope.  Others who were distressed by the modernizing features in the Vatican II Mass eventually found refuge and stability in the Orthodox liturgy.  Just as there has been an exodus of Protestants to Catholicism, so also there has been an exodus of Catholics converting to Orthodoxy. Thus, the vaunted organizational unity of the papacy disguises the fractured state of worship among Roman Catholics.  This is further compounded by the discrepancy between the modern Vatican II Mass and the ancient liturgies.

Orthodoxy’s jurisdictional differences are more administrative in nature than doctrinal. Orthodox churches all use the same ancient liturgies — Saint John Chrysostom or Saint Basil the Great – on Sunday mornings. It is quite common for priest from different jurisdictions to fill in for each other.  For example in Hawaii, we have Father Jerome an OCA priest assigned to the ROCOR parish; when the local Greek Orthodox priest goes out of town Fr. Jerome will fill in.  This is a common practice and nothing out of the ordinary.  This issue of Orthodox “divisions” cannot be casually asserted as Roman Catholics are wont to do. Roman Catholicism’s administrative “unity” has often been overstated and its doctrinal diversity among its members understated.  The administrative divisions in Orthodoxy do not contradict the overwhelming theological unity rooted in ancient Holy Tradition.  Unlike Roman Catholicism which is using a new and innovative Mass, Orthodoxy retains the ancient liturgies used by the ancient churches.

Douglas Beaumont claimed that Orthodoxy lacks the ability to hold another council.  But this is not the case.  There is nothing to prevent present day Orthodoxy from holding another council that is authoritative and binding.  For example, the Council of Jerusalem was convened in 1672 to address the theological challenge of Reformed theology.  This council has been regarded as authoritative by Orthodox jurisdictions.  Also, it should be noted that preparations are being made right now for a major Orthodox council in 2016.  But the more important fact is that the Bishop of Rome was not the convener of any of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Frankly, this should not be an issue that would lead a Protestant to Rome.

Reception of the Evangelical Orthodox (1987)

Reception of the Evangelical Orthodox (1987)

Beaumont understood the division between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy in terms of the West versus the East.  The geographic distinction oversimplifies the differences between the two theological traditions.  The more critical difference is their adherence to the church fathers.  In my reading of Roman Catholic theology I noticed the strong influence of medieval scholasticism that diverged from the early fathers and Ecumenical Councils.  I sensed in Roman Catholicism a disconnect from the early church fathers.  Theologically, Roman Catholicism is more medieval and scholastic than patristic.  Thousands of “Western” Christians have become Orthodox in recent years.  In 1987, over two thousand Evangelicals were received into the Antiochian Orthodox Church.  Orthodoxy is not so much “Eastern” as it is the Church Catholic.


Advice for Exiting Protestants

There is a hunger among many Evangelicals and Protestants for something deeper theologically and more rooted in the ancient Christianity.  Where before people used to switch denominations but still remain Protestants, growing numbers today are leaving Protestantism altogether for Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy.  I have two concerns.  One is that they may be drawn to Rome’s external unity and unaware of her internal divisions.  The other is that they fail to ask which church has maintained continuity with the Church of the first millennium.

My advice to exiting Protestants is that they not be distracted by superficial issues.  Rather than compare Orthodoxy against Roman Catholicism they should first learn as much as they can about the early Church of the first millennium.  How did the early Christians worship?  What did they believe about Christ and the Trinity?  What did they believe about the Eucharist?  How did they do theology?  Then compare both Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church of today against the ancient Church and ask: Which church has faithfully kept the teachings of the Apostles?  Did any of the early church fathers hold to the transubstantiation view of the Eucharist?

I encourage inquiring Protestants to investigate the historic role of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope).  Did early popes exercise their magisterium (teaching authority) independently of the Ecumenical Councils and other patriarchates (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem)? Did any early pope claim the right to unilaterally alter the Nicene Creed and by his own authority – without any consensus whatsoever with the other patriarchal jurisdictions? Did any of the early popes claim an infallible and universal authority over all other bishops or was this a later development?  These are important questions because to become Roman Catholic is to submit to the papacy.  Orthodoxy views papal supremacy as a doctrinal novelty unknown in the early Church.


Orthodox Eucharist

Orthodox Eucharist

Exiting Protestants should take the time to observe and compare the liturgical life of the two traditions.  One thing that disturbed me when I investigated Roman Catholicism was the eagerness with which some liberal Catholics sought to administer the Eucharist to non-Catholics like me!  I knew the official teachings of the church and yet here were clergy

and religious not just questioning closed communion but actively disregarding it!  It seems there are two Catholicisms: an official Catholicism and a grassroots Catholicism that often ignores the teachings of the Vatican.  Another disturbing practice is the role of lay people serving as eucharistic ministers.  While an accepted practice in Roman Catholicism, there is no precedent for this in the early church.  Underneath Roman Catholicism’s external unity are troubling signs of rebellion, subversion, and syncretism.  I found in Orthodoxy a liturgical coherence and doctrinal stability that I did not see in Roman Catholicism.  This for me is powerful confirmation that Orthodoxy is indeed the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Robert Arakaki

See also: “Why I Did Not Become Roman Catholic: A Sort of Response to Jason Stellman”



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