Orthodox-Reformed Bridge

A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Page 3 of 89

Paul’s Letter to Philemon and the Book of Sirach

Onesimus and Paul while Paul is writing to Onesimus’s masters, Philemon and Apphia.

One of the shortest books in the New Testament is the Apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon, a Christian who lived in Colosse. Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus who ran away. In the course of time, Onesimus met the Apostle Paul and committed his life to Christ. In the social world that Paul lived in, slaves were considered the property of the owner. So, as much as Paul wanted Onesimus by his side (see verse 13), he was obligated by Roman law to return the runaway slave to his owner. Paul sent the runaway slave—who was probably dreading his master’s wrath—with a letter that would become part of the Bible.

In the letter Paul explained that Onesimus had embraced the Christian Faith just as his master did. This meant that the runaway slave was no longer just property but a fellow brother in Christ. Paul wrote to Philemon:

For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but now much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Verses 15-16; NKJV)

Christ’s lordship had revolutionary implications for social relations in the first century Roman Empire and for many other societies as well. A dynamic of equality was introduced based on Christ’s lordship and Christian charity. This is different from secular equality promoted by modern society today, which is based on the notion of human rights. It also differed from that of the ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks who were citizens (members of the polis) prided themselves on their freedom, that is, their ability to engage in rational discourse with fellow citizens and share in the duties of the city. The ancient Greeks looked down on the slaves who had no freedom but lived under compulsion. Paul did not throw his weight around as an Apostle but rather sought to gain Philemon’s voluntary consent. He writes in verse 14:

But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.

The attitude we find here contrasts sharply with the hierarchical society of ancient Greco-Roman society. The Christian Gospel (Good News) proclaimed the kingdom of God in which all Christians were slaves of Jesus Christ and were obligated to follow Christ’s new commandment, that is, to love each other as he loved them (John 15:9-12). The social impact of the Gospel can be seen in early church history. The Orthodox Study Bible notes that according to ancient tradition Philemon was consecrated bishop of Colosse. It also notes that the Onesimus in Paul’s letter may be the same Onesimus mentioned by Ignatius of Antioch in his Letter to the Ephesians (chapters 1, 2, and 6) who was bishop of Ephesus. See Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Ephesians.

 

Icon of Apostle Onesimus – source

It was from this radically new perspective on human relations that Paul wrote one of the shortest books in the Bible that contains many important lessons for Christians today. Paul’s emphasis on voluntary consent reveals something of God’s character. It cautions us against seeing God working by compulsion. The Reformed doctrine of irresistible grace seems to imply an element of compulsion. A similar outlook can be seen in the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints or effectual calling, which teaches that God makes the elect willing to be saved. The Synod of Dort’s rejection of the idea that divine election could be resisted implies divine compulsion. See “Plucking the TULIP.”

Philemon verse 15 bears a strong resemblance to a passage in the Book (Wisdom) of Sirach (33:32), part of what Protestants consider the Apocrypha. It is quite possible that Paul, a Greek-speaking Jew, was familiar this verse and had this verse in mind when he wrote out verse 15.

If you own a servant, treat him as a brother.
For you will need him as your own soul.
If you treat him badly and he runs away,
Which way will you look for him?

(Wisdom of Sirach 33:32-33; Orthodox Study Bible)

Protestants might prefer the 1611 King James Version:

30 If thou haue a seruant, let him bee vnto thee as thy selfe, because thou hast bought him with a price.

31 If thou haue a seruant, intreate him as a brother: for thou hast neede of him, as of thine owne soule: if thou intreate him euill, and he runne from thee, which way wilt thou goe to seeke him?

Reading Philemon against Book of Sirach helped me to see how the Apocrypha prepared the way for the moral teachings of the New Testament and informed the writings of the Apostles. When I was studying the Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, I heard very little if anything about the Apocrypha. This is understandable because Gordon-Conwell being a Reformed seminary followed the Hebrew canon of the Old Testament and gave little attention to the Apocrypha.
The Wisdom of Sirach was part of the Apocrypha or what the Orthodox Church calls the Deuterocanon, meaning “second canon.” The Old Testament quotations in the Greek New Testament point towards the Apostles relying on the Greek Septuagint, not the Hebrew Old Testament. This leads to one major difference between Orthodoxy and Protestantism today. Where the Orthodox Church regards the Apocrypha as Scripture, the majority of Protestants do not.

It is important to keep in mind that early Protestant bibles did in fact have the Apocrypha. See for example the 1611 version of the King James Version, the pre-1599 versions of the Geneva Bible favored by the English Puritans, and Luther’s German Bible. In other words, historically all three major Christian traditions—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—recognized the Apocrypha as part of the Bible. It was not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that zealous Protestants who wanted to purify the Bible excluded the Apocrypha. Many Protestants and Evangelicals today are unaware that the Bible they hold in their hands is a mutilated text.  See “Geneva Bible and Sola Scriptura.”

I wish I knew about the Apocrypha when I was a Protestant. If I had known about the Apocrypha, I would have had a bigger Old Testament to read from. I would have viewed the Old Testament and the New Testament as two closely related halves with Christ as the Center. The Protestant Bible with its four hundred year gap between the book of Malachi and Matthew’s Gospel gives one the impression that the Old and New Testaments comprised two separate dispensations marked by discontinuity. With the Orthodox Bible one gets a stronger sense of continuity between the Old and New Testaments. In the case of Paul’s letter to Philemon, I realized that what Paul wrote to Philemon was not some radically new teaching but rather a fulfillment of the moral teachings of the Old Testament in Christ. Paul did not apply the biblical teaching like a Jewish rabbi, but as an Apostle of Christ who was keenly aware of how Jesus Christ fulfills the Old Testament and transforms human relations.

Robert Arakaki

 

 

Images Inside Reformed Churches

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, NYC

 

A reader recently wrote me that not all Reformed churches have only four bare walls and that there are in fact Reformed churches with images in them.  These images take the form of stained glass windows and murals situated in sanctuaries.  That these images are situated in the sanctuaries is highly significant.  It suggest that Reformed iconoclasm is not as extreme as some supposed it to be.

I’ve edited the feedback slightly to correct misspellings and omit hyperlinks inserted by the reader.

Joseph wrote:

Hi there, interesting reading this. As someone that was raised In a highly liturgical Presbyterian Church now PCUSA, some of these things that are written about Reformed seem sort of odd. The Church of Scotland in Scotland started by John Knox who started Presbyterianism under the studies of Calvin is not austere, nor is it free from any type of imagery. Many Presbyterian churches in the USA whether they be PCUSA or PCA or others like Cumberland, their sanctuaries have some icons as well as ornate stained glass with saints and even the crucifixion. You need to Google some following churches: Shadybrook Presbyterian, Madison Avenue Presbyterian NYC, St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh Scotland, Brick Presbyterian Church NYC, East Liberty Presbyterian Church in PA, and St Stephen Presbyterian in Texas. I think what you are talking about are Reformed Churches that were influenced by Puritans. But you need to understand, when the Scottish and English that were Presbyterian came to the Americas to visit, attending a Presbyterian church that was influenced by Puritans seemed odd and strange and not anything like Presbyterians at home. Many of these from Scotland and England would then attend and Anglican/ Episcopal church here since it was much more similar. The offshoots of the mainline Presbyterian or the ones that are more “evangelical” would be more austere and favor more of Puritan type worship. They were only really on Presbyterian in polity not necessarily in worship. If you were to pull up John Calvin’s Order of Worship in Geneva it was highly liturgical, nothing like Puritan worship. One must read and consider all things. On one end when he might of been against certain things, he retained many things that later could be construed by other evangelical or protestants as not removing enough of the connection of the catholic church. Hence the word “reformed” meaning breaking off from the Roman Catholic church and reforming it. – PS I as a mainline Presbyterian, do not view off shoot Presbyterians the same as us. And many of them are too extreme or evangelical and are not truly reformed. They use the name Presbyterian for the form of government. Some of broken off, but that does not mean they are the same.

 

My Response

Dear Joseph:

Thank you for suggesting that I Google the churches you listed in your comment.  What I found was surprising and very intriguing.  There are in fact Reformed churches with images in their sanctuaries!  I also did some digging around and learned some things that suggest that you may have oversimplified the role of images in the Reformed churches.

 

Images in Presbyterian churches

 

Drayton Avenue Presbyterian church, Ferndale Michigan

 

Stained glass image – Drayton Avenue Presbyterian church

 

Carved images – Drayton Avenue Presbyterian church

 

 

East Liberty Presbyterian church – Pittsburgh, PA

 

Old First Reformed Church – Brooklyn, NY

 

St. Giles Cathedral – Edinburgh, Scotland

 

St. Giles Cathedral – Edinburgh, Scotland

St. Giles Cathedral, also known as High Kirk of Edinburgh, played a distinguished role among the Reformed churches.  John Knox, leader of the Scottish Reformation, was elected minister of St. Giles.  Soon after he took office, the removal of the church’s Roman Catholic furnishings began.  The church changed hands between Protestants and Roman Catholics until the Parliament of Scotland declared Scotland to be a Protestant country in 1560.  When Scotland became officially Protestant, workmen were given the task of removing Roman Catholic furnishings, whitewashing the church interior, and painting the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer on the church walls.  John Knox retired to St. Andrews for health reason.  He was later recalled to St. Giles where he preached his last sermon and was buried there.

Interestingly, after the Reformation parts of St. Giles were converted to secular purposes.  The various bays were used by the Court of Session, the criminal court, and the Parliament of Scotland.  The vestry was converted into the office and library for the town clerk and weavers were allowed to set up their looms in the loft.  By the 1800s, St. Giles had become an eyesore and embarrassment to the city.  City leaders undertook a major restoration project that would result in a beautiful national church building.  Part of the restoration involved the installation of stained glass windows.

The stained glass windows that we see in the picture above are quite recent.  The installation of stained glass began in the 1800s.  They had been clear or plain since the Reformation.  This was a radical move for a Presbyterian church that viewed such decorations with considerable suspicion.  They were allowed on the grounds that they illustrated bible stories and as such were aids to teaching.  Only a small number of windows were restored during the restoration project of the 1800s.  The majority of the stained glass windows were installed by the mid 1900s.  By the 1900s, peoples’ attitudes had changed to the point where even the depiction of saints, e.g., St. Andrew and St. Giles, were allowed.

 

Scottish Saints window – St. Giles Church

 

Closing Thoughts

I learned from Joseph’s comment about an aspect of the Presbyterian tradition I was not aware of before.  It also taught me that the Reformed tradition is not uniformly iconoclastic in the sense of being opposed to all kinds of images.  While I agree that there existed a liturgical aspect to the Reformed tradition that goes back to Calvin and the other Reformers, I remain unconvinced by Joseph’s claim that the Reformed tradition is open to images in churches and that the Puritans are to be blamed for the four bare walls characteristic of Reformed churches.  First of all, John Calvin explicitly denounced images in churches.  See my article “Calvin Versus the Icon: Was John Calvin Wrong?”  Second, the Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 109 explicitly speaks out against images or representations.  Third, the Heidelberg Catechism, which represents the Reformed tradition in Germany, just as forcibly spoke out against images in churches.  See Heidelberg Catechism: Questions 97 and 98.  Furthermore, if this were the case, the Mercersburg theologians, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff, would have argued for the restoration of images along with the mystical presence in the Lord’s Supper.  Therefore, the four bare walls of Reformed worship are intrinsic to the Reformed tradition and not some extreme Puritan Evangelicalism.  If anything, the case of St. Giles Cathedral in Scotland suggests that the inclusion of images in mainline Presbyterian churches may reflect more a syncretistic adaptation to modern culture than fidelity to the Reformed tradition.  This leaves me to conclude that iconoclasm is very much part of the Reformed tradition and that Joseph’s assertion that Presbyterianism or the Puritans are to be blamed for Reformed iconoclasm is unfounded.  This raises a ticklish question for present-day staunch Calvinists: Should they demand the removal of images from Reformed churches depicted in this article? Or would it be acceptable to tolerate images in Reformed churches?

As a former Calvinist who converted to Orthodoxy, I view the acceptance of stained glass windows by Presbyterian churches as a positive step away from the heresy of iconoclasm and a return towards ancient Christianity.  Images were found in the Dura Europa church, which was dated back to 250, and in the catacombs of Rome.  The four bare walls of Reformed churches are innovations that date back to the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and 1600s.  On this Sunday of Orthodoxy, which celebrates the defeat of iconoclasm in the early Church and reaffirms the place of images in Christian churches, it would be worthwhile for both Reformed, Evangelicals, and Orthodox Christians to reflect on the value of having images/icons in churches.

On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, it is customary for Orthodox Christians, young and old, to process inside the church holding icons.  The picture below shows a procession at Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Andover, Massachusetts in 2017.  YouTube link.

Celebrating Sunday of Orthodoxy at Saints Constantine and Helen GOC, Andover, MA  Link to video

 

The mood on the Sunday of Orthodoxy is that of a joyous faith, knowing that one has received an unchanging Faith that goes back to Christ and the Apostles.

Today hath appeared, a day full of joy,
because the splendor of true doctrine shineth forth brilliantly,
and the Church of Christ now sparkleth,
adorned by the elevation of the Icons of the saints and their illustrating pictures,
and believers attain there a unity rewarded of God.

Orthros of the Feast, Tone 4

 

Robert Arakaki

 

Further Reading

Robert Arakaki.  “How an Icon Brought a Calvinist to Orthodoxy.”  Journey to Orthodoxy.  (2011)

Robert Arakaki.  “Calvin Versus the Icon: Was John Calvin Wrong?”  OrthodoxBridge (2011)

Robert Arakaki.  “A Response to John B. Carpenter’s ‘Icons and the Eastern Orthodox Claim to Continuity with the Early Church.”  OrthodoxBridge (2013)

Camden Bucey, Glen Cary, Jim Cassidy.  “The Second Commandment and Images in Worship.ReformedForum (2016)

Jordan Cooper.  “Thoughts on Mercersburg Theology.”  Just and Sinner. (2014)

James J. De Jonge.  “Calvin the Liturgist: How ‘Calvinist’ is Your Church?

 

Christmas 2019

 

Today the invisible Nature doth unite with mankind from the Virgin.

Today the boundless Essence is wrapped in swaddling clothes in Bethlehem.

Matins – Sunday After Christmas

 

Dear Folks,

2019 has come and gone like a blur.  Although I’ve been busy with other things, I remain committed to this blog.  Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Robert Arakaki

 

 

« Older posts Newer posts »