Orthodox-Reformed Bridge

A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

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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_1Ambrose 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).

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.”



Brooklyn Bridge 1915

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


The Incarnation Changes Everything

Muslims reject the Incarnation. Therefore, this mosque has bare walls and no images of God.

Muslims reject the Incarnation. Therefore, this mosque has bare walls and no images of God.

Before the Incarnation, it was idolatrous to make an image of God.

Now that the Incarnation has taken place, it would be idolatrous not to make images of Him.

When a religion rejects images of God, it sends the message that God is only a spirit, and that He has no physical body. Before the Incarnation, that was true. After the Incarnation, it is false, and is therefore idolatry.

There are two types of idolatry:
1) Worshiping false gods, and
2) Worshiping the true God in
a way which misrepresents Him.

In ancient Israel, when people worshiped Baal, Ashtoreth, and Molech, they committed the first form of idolatry. These are all false gods, and it is idolatry to worship them in any way whatsoever, either with or without images.

When the Israelites worshiped the golden calf, they committed the second form of idolatry. They correctly noted the identity of the true God, but they grossly misrepresented Him. Instead of recognizing God as an invisible Spirit, the Israelites made a golden calf, they praised it for delivering them from Egypt, and they even called the calf “YHWH”.

In the Old Testament, images of God were forbidden, because they misrepresented Him. God is not a cow. And God did not yet have any physical body.

In the Old Testament, images of God were forbidden, because they misrepresented Him. God is not a cow. And God did not yet have any physical body.

When the Israelites sinned with the golden calf, they were still correct that God’s name is “YHWH”. They were correct that YHWH had delivered them from Egypt. And they were correct to praise YHWH. But their worship was turned into idolatry, because they misrepresented Him. God is not a cow.

Similarly, when Protestants worship with bare walls and an absence of icons, they are correct that God’s name is “Jesus”. They are correct that Jesus came to deliver them from sin.  And they are correct to praise Jesus.  But their worship is turned into idolatry, because they misrepresent Him.  God is no longer a faceless spirit.

Before God became incarnate in the womb of Mary, He had no body. Images of God were forbidden, because they misrepresented God.  But now that God has become incarnate, our worship must reflect this important fact.  Otherwise, if we misrepresent God, we become idolaters.

Dura Europos Synagogue 3rd century

Dura Europos Synagogue — 244 A.D. — Worshipers would face the icons, and would bow toward the Torah scrolls located at the center of the wall.

In ancient Israel, God did not want His people bowing down before images of Himself, because He did not have a body yet. But He knew that people needed to bow down before something, so He provided the Temple in Jerusalem for this purpose. The temple did not represent the image of God, but it did represent His presence. So God had His people bow down toward the temple:

But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you. (Psalm 5:7)

Anticipating the day when He would become man, when His people would be able to have images of Himself, God taught His people to include many images in the context of worship. The Jerusalem temple included icons of angels, and early synagogues were covered with icons of many Old Testament saints.

The Word had not yet become flesh, so God’s people venerated the Word of God contained in Scripture. Even to this day, Jews bow toward the Torah scrolls when entering/exiting the synagogue, and also during special Torah services. Jews also kiss the Torah to venerate it. All of these ancient practices anticipated Orthodox Christian worship, including the veneration of icons.

Before the coming of Christ, the Jewish Temple signified God’s presence, and His peoplebowed down toward it. After Christ came, He referred to His own body as the true temple. Therefore, instead of continuing to bow down toward a temple building, we now bow down toward images of Jesus.

We also bow to one another, because Scripture says that every Orthodox Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

When the Word became flesh, iconoclasm became idolatry. The Incarnation changes everything.

When the Word became flesh, iconoclasm became idolatry. The Incarnation changes everything.

When Orthodox Christians bow to an icon of Christ, they are reminded thatGod now has a body.  Jesus is fully God, and fully human, and He is physically seated in Heaven even today. Orthodox worship represents God correctly.


When Protestants refuse to bow to icons of Christ, and they choose to bow down before nothing instead, their worship suggests that God has no body, and that the Incarnation hasn’t happened yet. Their worship misrepresents God. They are bowing down before a faceless idol.

When the Word became fleshiconoclasm became idolatry.

The Incarnation changes everything.


About Fr Joseph Gleason
I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with seven children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog at The Orthodox Life.


By What Authority?


Scottish Communion Service

Scottish Communion Service source

A Response to Rev. Peter Leithart’s “Puritan Sacramentalism”

The Rev. Peter Leithart wrote a provocative article “Puritan Sacramentalism” which appeared in First Things.  Already his article has elicited at least two responses by Orthodox Christians on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Gabe Martini’s “On Leithart’s Puritans and the Purity of Sacraments” and Father Andrew Stephen Damick’s “Is Liturgy Magic? A Response to Peter Leithart’s Puritan Sacramentalism.”  Fr. Andrew and Gabe Martini in their response articles explained how Rev. Leithart misunderstood the nature and purpose of the preparatory rites in the Liturgy. 

What I seek to do here is examine the issue of sacramentalism which is key to Leithart’s argument.


What Makes the Difference?

The issue here is: Do we truly partake of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist?  This doctrine of the real presence has been held by Christians from the early days of the Church.  Unlike low church Evangelicals who view the Lord’s Supper as just a symbol, Leithart’s understanding is much closer to the historic doctrine of the real presence. Like the Reformers and even the Puritans, Rev. Leithart affirms the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.

But the question that Rev. Leithart must answer is: What makes the difference between a Holy Communion service where the bread and the grape juice are just symbols and a Holy Communion service where one truly partakes of the body and blood of Christ?  Is it whether one holds to the doctrine of the real presence or something more?  Is saying the Words of Institution enough?

There was a time when I was a high church Calvinist attending a low church Evangelical congregation.  My former home church believed that the bread and the grape juice distributed at the monthly Communion service were symbols to help us remember and appreciate what Jesus did for us on the Cross.  However, as a result of reading Reformers like Luther and Calvin, and also the early Church Fathers, I had come to accept the doctrine of the real presence.  So while my fellow church members sitting next to me saw the piece of bread and the grape juice as symbolic reminders, I saw myself as partaking of Christ’s body and blood.  I held to this view until one day I was at a Graduate Christian Fellowship retreat.  When I walked into the room where the Communion service was to be held I thought to myself: “They’re right!  It is just a symbol because it’s not the real thing.  It is just a symbol because they have no priestly authority to bless the bread and the wine.”  Because there was no priestly authority the bread and the wine remained just bread and wine, and could only serve as symbolic reminders of Christ’s death on the Cross.  This started me thinking about what goes on in the Liturgy and the Eucharist, and how Protestant worship differs from Orthodox worship.

Ancient Near Eastern Covenant/Treaty

Ancient Near Eastern Covenant/Treaty source

I learned from the Reformed tradition that running through Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, is the theme of the covenant.  So if Jesus Christ is the Suzerain who inaugurated the New Covenant then the implications are staggering.  The Bible is more than just an instruction manual, it is a covenant document for the covenant community, the Church.  This implies that just as the old Israel had a Temple and ordained priesthood, so likewise the new Israel would have a Temple and a priesthood.  We find this in Hebrews 13:10 which refer to the Christians having an altar that the Jewish priests could not partake of and Isaiah 66:23 where God promised that in the Messianic Age he would take from the Gentiles certain men for the priesthood.  This means that at every Sunday Eucharist we as vassals partake of the covenant meal with our Suzerain Lord – Jesus Christ. This means that the authority of an Orthodox priest is grounded in the authority structure of the New Covenant.  Just as the Old Testament priesthood had an authority structure, so also does the New Covenant priesthood have a covenant authority structure.


Eucharist in the Early Church

In the early Church the Eucharist was celebrated only by the bishops, the successor to the Apostles, or a priest who served under him.  Ignatius of Antioch served as bishop of St. Paul’s home church in Acts 13. Remember, Ignatius is held by tradition to be the child in the Gospel Christ put on his lap as a lesson to the Apostles (Mark 9:56). Ignatius likely knew several of the Apostles for decades as a young man and served early in the second century just after the original Apostles died. He was the first generation of bishops charged to keep the Tradition – Paul’s exhortation in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Ignatius wrote:

It is not lawful either to baptise or to hold an “agape” without the bishop; but whatever he approve, this is also pleasing to God, that everything which you do may be secure and valid. (To the Smyrnaeans 8.2)

Be careful therefore to use one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup for union with his blood, one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do you may do it according unto God.  (To the Philadelphians 4.1)

The bishop’s authority to preside over the Eucharist is rooted in the Church’s covenant structure.  This was the answer to my predicament as a high church Calvinist.  When the priest together with the congregation as a covenant community prays for the Holy Spirit to descend upon the bread and the wine then a real change takes place in the Eucharist.  What makes the difference between any of the best even the fullest Protestant Lord’s Supper and a valid Orthodox Eucharist is the bishop’s covenant authority to pray for the Holy Spirit to descend upon the gift offered on the altar.

There is a covenant authority structure that undergirds Orthodoxy and it is a sad fact that as a schismatic breakaway movement Protestantism lies outside this covenant structure.  Protestants can claim quoting from the Bible in the Holy Communion service is sufficient but for unauthorized person (not properly ordained by a bishop) to undertake a covenant act apart from proper covenant order is unauthorized and therefore invalid.  Furthermore, no early Church Father taught that merely invoking the Words of Institution is sufficient for a valid Eucharist.  This application of sola Scriptura to the Lord’s Supper is a doctrinal and liturgical innovation with no grounding in historic Christianity.

Does this mean that all Protestant celebrations of the Lord’s Supper in this manner are completely without grace and meaningless? The Orthodox are not prepared to say just where the Holy Spirit might indeed choose to bless . . . or in what way He might bless. We do not know the mysterious ways of the Holy Spirit. But we can say that we are assured that the fullness of blessing is assured at the Orthodox Eucharist, premised upon the historical continuity of the Orthodox Church, the Scriptures they received from the Apostles, and the declarations of the Ecumenical Counsels.

What makes the bread and the wine the body and blood of Christ is the Holy Spirit who comes down on the gifts offered up by the people of God.  The descent of the Holy Spirit on the gifts at a “typical” Sunday Liturgy are a miracle much like the descent of fire from heaven on the prophet Elijah’s sacrifice on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18.  Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechetical Lectures stated:

Then having sanctified ourselves by these spiritual Hymns, we beseech the merciful God to send forth His Holy Spirit upon the gifts lying before Him; that He may make the Bread the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ; for whosoever the Holy Ghost has touched, is surely sanctified and changed (Lecture XXIII.7; NPNF vol. 7 p. 154emphasis added.)

For Orthodox Christians today this is all very familiar because we follow the same Liturgy as that used by Cyril in the fourth century.   The Liturgy we use has its source in Apostolic Tradition.  Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread . . . .  (Emphasis added.)

The phrases “received from” and “passed on” point to a traditioning process.  The early Christians did not say: “Let’s see what the Bible has to say about how to conduct a Holy Communion service”; instead they would look to their bishop who had been discipled and ordained by the Apostles.  In the early days the New Testament as we know it did not exist; what the early Christians had were the Old Testament writings, copies of the Gospels and some of Paul’s writings, and what the bishop had heard from the Apostles.  The Liturgy we use today has been guarded by the Church throughout history.  It was passed on from generation to generation beginning with the Apostles who passed it on to their disciples, the bishops (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2).

This in turn leads to some hard questions for Rev. Leithart.  Does he have the covenantal authority to celebrate the Eucharist?  I would say that as a Presbyterian, Rev. Leithart cannot claim apostolic succession.  This link was severed at the Protestant Reformation.  So a Protestant minister can dress himself up with vestments and recite ancient liturgical formulas but without valid covenant authority which comes through apostolic succession it is all going through the motions.  It is valid covenantal authority, not “high church” ceremonialism, that makes the difference in a valid Eucharist.  It is valid covenantal authority via apostolic succession that is key to what Leithart calls “high sacramentality.”

Rev. Peter Leithart either misunderstands or misrepresents Orthodoxy if he thinks that the elaborate ceremonials are just that – preparatory rites.  The elaborate ritual actions and prayers are intended to prepare us to receive Christ in the Eucharist.  If Orthodox worship is elaborate, it is so because it came out of the Jewish liturgical tradition described in the book of Exodus and reflects the rich liturgical worship up in heaven as found in the book of Revelation.


Catholic and Protestant?

The root cause of Peter Leithart’s predicament lies in his attempting to be (1) both an ancient Orthodox/Catholic and Protestant at the same time, and (2) both historically sacramental and Puritan at the same time.  It doesn’t work.  It can’t work because it flies in the face of church history and the witness of the early Church Fathers.  Where low church Evangelicalism holds to sola Scriptura (Bible alone) and the memorialist understanding of the Lord’s Supper, Orthodoxy holds to the Holy Tradition – the teachings and practices of the Apostles – which the Apostles entrusted to the Church Fathers who in turn handed it down to their successors (2 Timothy 1:13-14).  Holy Tradition consists of Scripture and how the Apostles understood the Scriptures.  Holy Tradition also consists of how the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated and the understanding of the real presence in the Eucharist.  While the low church Evangelicals and liturgical Orthodox Christians may be radically at odds with each other’s positions, there is a certain logical consistency to their respective theology and worship.  It is people like Rev. Leithart who seek to be both sacramental and Protestant at the same time who end up in such convoluted theological straits.  It’s one thing to go a contemporary worship service, but it’s another thing to attempt to emulate historic Christian worship while at the same time disdaining the ancient historic Church founded on the Apostles and refusing to submit to her leaders who share a common ordination from the Apostles.

Peter Leithart tells how on Christmas Eve he first attended a low church service that included a Neil Young song and a jazzy rendition of a “Charlie Brown Christmas” song, then afterwards attended a high church midnight Mass at an Episcopal cathedral.  All this left me puzzled.  Why would Rev. Leithart, a PCA minister, attend these two wildly divergent services?  What about his Reformed church tradition?  It appears he is currently in limbo between low church Evangelicalism and high church Episcopalianism, and is straining hard to devise a new alternative between the two.

That Rev. Peter Leithart is without question well read and well educated is obvious. So it is distressing to us – Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, Gabe Martini, and this writer — when he misrepresents the Orthodox tradition.  It seems that he is earnestly seeking to reconnect with the early Church but hasn’t quite figured out how to let go of his Reformation convictions.  This is a hard step that one must make if one wishes to be in communion with the early Church.  I would encourage Rev. Leithart to continue reading the early Church Fathers in context and discuss his concerns with a knowledgeable Orthodox Priest – perhaps one who knows well his Reformed background and concerns.  One thinks of Father Josiah Trenham, who studied at Westmont College then Reformed Theological Seminary. Rev. Leithart should also seek to imbibe the spirit of Orthodox worship by visiting a local Orthodox church as often as possible, and again, discuss his concerns and the Why questions with a knowledgeable priest.  All too often Protestants are like tourists who think they understand the foreign culture they are visiting, but there are significant cultural differences between Protestantism and Orthodoxy.  Protestants should beware of thinking they already understand what is going on in an Orthodox Liturgy.   I would also encourage Rev. Leithart to put aside his Puritan glasses when he reads the early Church Fathers, and remember the wisdom of “Praxis leads to understanding” and we “Obey in order to understand.”


Advice for Curious Protestants

In light of the fact that Great Lent has just begun I suggest that curious Protestants use this as a time to read through Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures and compare this ancient lecture series with the way today’s Orthodox churches celebrate Lent, Holy Week, and Easter (Pascha).  Many will be surprised to see how similar Orthodox worship today is to the worship of the early Church.  They can also reflect on what makes the difference between Puritan sacramentalism and the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Orthodox Eucharist.

Robert Arakaki


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