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Does John 6:44 Teach Predestination?

A reader wrote:

I’ve really enjoyed browsing your site. I’m a reformed Christian and have appreciated learning about the Orthodox Church. I do find the church appealing but I believe scripture supports the reformed position. I’ve been reading your plucking the tulip article and was hoping you’d interact with John 6, especially vss 44-59 as I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument in favor of the non reformed view of that passage.

The verse the reader referred to is John 6:44 which reads:

No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him: and I will raise him up at the last day. (NKJV, OSB; emphasis added)

οὐδεὶς δύναται ἐλθεῖν πρός με ἐὰν μὴ ὁ πατὴρ ὁ πέμψας με ἑλκύσῃ αὐτόν, κἀγὼ ἀναστήσω αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ. (NA28; emphasis added)

Verse 44 has been construed to teach that we are saved against our will. Another way to put it is that our human wills have been irresistibly compelled by God’s eternal decree to receive Christ and so become Christians. Furthermore, any so-called freedom of the will or ability to love God is impossible outside the divine decree. It has been claimed that this verse supports the Reformed doctrine of double predestination, or more precisely the doctrine of effectual calling aka irresistible grace.

In this article I examine how John 6:44 can be approached in ways that allow for non-Reformed readings. Key to this argument will be the multiple meanings for the Greek word for “draw” – ελκω (helko).  I will also be looking at non-Reformed readings of John 6:44, the context of John chapter 6, and the context of historical theology to see if the Reformed interpretation of John 6:44 holds up to critical scrutiny.

 

The Reformed Understanding of John 6:44

Charles Spurgeon

The famous nineteenth century preacher, C.H. Spurgeon, tells the story of how he was confronted with an interpretation of John 6:44 based on the literal meaning of ελκω (helko) – “to drag.”

Another person turns around and says with a sneer, “Then do you think that Christ drags men to Himself, seeing that they are unwilling?” I remember meeting once with a man who said to me, “Sir, you preach that Christ takes people by the hair of their heads and drags them to Himself.” I asked him whether he could refer to the date of the sermon wherein I preached that extra-ordinary doctrine, for if he could, I should be very much obliged. However, he could not. But said I, while Christ does not drag people to Himself by the hair of their heads, I believe that He draws them by the heart quite as powerfully as your caricature would suggest.

Mark that in the Father’s drawing there is no compulsion whatever; Christ never compelled any man to come to Him against his will. If a man be unwilling to be saved, Christ does not save him against his will. How, then, does the Holy Spirit draw him? Why, by making him willing. It is true He does not use “moral suasion”; He knows a nearer method of reaching the heart. He goes to the secret fountain of the heart, and He knows how, by some mysterious operation, to turn the will in an opposite direction, so that, as Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) paradoxically puts it, the man is saved “with full consent against his will”; that is, against his old will he is saved. But he is saved with full consent, for he is made willing in the day of God’s power. Do not imagine that any man will go to heaven kicking and struggling all the way against the Hand that draws him. Do not conceive that any man will be plunged in the bath of a Saviour’s blood while he is striving to run away from the Saviour. Oh, no! It is quite true that first of all man is unwilling to be saved. When the Holy Spirit hath put His influence into the heart, the test is fulfilled: “Draw me and I will run after thee” (Song 1:4). We follow on while He draws us, glad to obey the Voice which once we had despised. (source; emphasis added)

Here, Spurgeon’s studiously avoided the literal meaning of ελκω “to drag.” He could have used the more literal meaning of ελκω as when the Apostle Paul was physically dragged in Acts 16:19 and 21:30, but he did not. Insisting that there is no compulsion involved in our salvation, Spurgeon relied on the figurative meaning used in the Song of Songs. He states that there is no “moral suasion” involved (which would have implied Arminianism), and instead insists that it was a “mysterious operation” of the Holy Spirit that brings about conversion.

In contrast to Spurgeon’s figurative understanding, Ligonier Ministries uses the more literal meaning of ελκω found in Acts 16:19:

. . . it is also clear that any position that says the Lord only “woos” us cannot be maintained. The same word translated “draw” in John 6:44 is found in Acts 16:19 and James 2:6 where the apostolic authors speak of someone being “dragged” somewhere. Though the elect may try at first to resist God’s drawing, He drags us, against our fallen wills, to Jesus. God overcomes our natural enmity toward Himself and guarantees that His elect people will choose to follow Christ. (source; emphasis added.)

The tension between two notable Reformed Christians, C.H. Spurgeon and R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries, on the meaning of ελκω in John 6:44 shows that understanding John 6:44 is not as simple as some may think.

John Calvin

So, where does John Calvin stand with respect to Spurgeon and Ligonier Ministries’ conflicting interpretations? Calvin’s understanding of John 6:44 can be found in his commentary.

Unless the Father draw him. To come to Christ being here used metaphorically for believing, the Evangelist, in order to carry out the metaphor in the apposite clause, says that those persons are drawn whose understandings God enlightens, and whose hearts he bends and forms to the obedience of Christ. The statement amounts to this, that we ought not to wonder if many refuse to embrace the Gospel; because no man will ever of himself be able to come to Christ, but God must first approach him by his Spirit; and hence it follows that all are not drawn, but that God bestows this grace on those whom he has elected. True, indeed, as to the kind of drawing, it is not violent, so as to compel men by external force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant. It is a false and profane assertion, therefore, that none are drawn but those who are willing to be drawn, as if man made himself obedient to God by his own efforts; for the willingness with which men follow God is what they already have from himself, who has formed their hearts to obey him. (Emphasis added.)

Calvin cites John 6:44 eight times in his Institutes. He understood “draw” in the sense of the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian believer.

Hear Him calling, ‘No one comes to me unless my Father draws him’ [John 6:44]. And one may incontrovertibly conclude from John’s words that the hearts of the pious are so effectively governed by God that they follow Him with unwavering intention. (Institutes 2.3.10; p. 304; emphasis added)

Calvin seems to occupy a middle ground between Spurgeon and Ligonier Ministries with respect to God’s efficacious calling. Where Spurgeon sought to soften the repellent connotations of efficacious calling, Ligonier Ministries underscored the coercive nature of divine election insisting that God drags us against our fallen wills. I have been unable to find Calvin using similar stark language which leads me to suspect that Ligonier Ministries may be more Calvinistic than Calvin!

The Reformed understanding of John 6:44 is not the only interpretation. Noted Roman Catholic bible scholar, Raymond Brown, favors understanding our being drawn to Christ in terms of attraction or desire, not compulsion. In his Anchor Bible Commentary on John, Brown notes:

If the Jews will desist from their murmuring, which is indicative of a refusal to believe, and will leave themselves open to God’s movement, He will draw them to Jesus. This is the age spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when they are being taught by God, if only they will listen. This teaching has its external aspect in the sense that it is embodied in Jesus who walks among them, but it is internal in the sense that God acts in their hearts. It is a fulfillment of what Jeremiah xxxi 33 had promised: “I will put my law within them, and on their hearts will write it” (John Bright, The Anchor Bible, vol. 21). This internal moving of the heart by the Father will enable them to believe in the Son and thus possess eternal life. (p. 277; emphasis added)

Brown’s non-Reformed reading can be seen in the causal reasoning: If the Jews will desist from murmuring, then God will draw them to Jesus. This allows for the freedom of choice – to resist God’s grace or to be receptive to God’s grace in Christ by listening to what Jesus has to say.

St. John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom, one of the preeminent preachers in the early Church, likewise offers a different approach to John 6:44. He understands ελκω in John 6:44, not in terms of compulsion, but as persuasion or wooing. A Calvinist reading Homily XLVI cannot help but be struck by John Chrysostom’s blunt, explicit affirmation of human free will:

For if a man cometh to Him,” saith some one, “what need is there of drawing?” But the words do not take away our free will, but show that we greatly need assistance. And He implieth not an unwilling comer, but one enjoying much succor (p. 164; emphasis added).

If there are other ways of interpreting John 6:44, the issue then becomes which is the more accurate understanding of the verse?

 

 

John 12:32

To better understand the meaning of ελκω in John 6:44, it helps to compare how the word is used in John 12:32. Here we have the same word used in two similar contexts within the same book. Under normal circumstances, we can expect the same meaning to apply for both contexts.

And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself. (NKJV, OSB)
κἀγὼ ἐὰν ὑψωθῶ ἐκ τῆς γῆς, πάντας ἑλκύσω πρὸς ἐμαυτόν. (NA28; emphasis added.)

However, the Reformed folks’ attempt to apply the literal meaning of ελκω as compulsion has problematic implications, i.e., universalism, that all will be saved. Calvin in his commentary on John 12:32 sees this problem and so downplayed the monergistic sense of the word and placed stronger emphasis on how Christ’s death on the Cross would result in a salvation that would include the non-Jews. Thus, Calvin does not take “all” literally but in the restricted sense of the elect, i.e., “the children of God, who belong to his flock.”

It might have been thought, that at that time he was carried away from the earth, so as no longer to have any interests in common with men; but he declares, that he will go in a very different manner, so as to draw upwards to himself those who were fixed on the earth. Now, though he alludes to the form of his death, yet he means generally, that his death will not be a division to separate him from men, but that it will be an additional means of drawing earth upwards towards heaven.

I will draw all men to myself. The word all, which he employs, must be understood to refer to the children of God, who belong to his flock. Yet I agree with Chrysostom, who says that Christ used the universal term, all, because the Church was to be gathered equally from among Gentiles and Jews. . . . (source; emphasis added.)

Evangelical scholar, Leon Morris, in his NICNT commentary on John, while understanding “draw” in the sense of a work of God and not a natural human response, recognizes that it would be problematic to read the passage as implying universal salvation (p. 598). To avoid universalism, Morris chooses to understand the verse as teaching the end of the particularism of Judaism and salvation being extended to non-Jews. While this reading softens the universalistic implications of John 12:32, it ignores the troubling implications of a literal compulsory understanding of ελκω in his commentary on John 6:44 (cf. Note 110 p. 371) and whether whether the figurative meaning of ελκω could have been used both John 6:44 and 12:32.

The early Church Father, John Chrysostom, in Homily LXVII, expounds on John 12:32 in which the same word ελκω appears.

“I will draw all men to Myself.” How then said He that the Father draweth? Because when the Son draweth, the Father draweth also. He saith, “I will draw them,” as though they were detained by a tyrant, and unable of themselves alone to approach Him, and to escape the hands of him who keepeth hold of them. In another place He calleth this “spoiling; no man can spoil a strong man’s goods, except he first bind the strong man, and then spoil his goods.” This He said to prove His strength, and what there He calleth “spoiling,” He hath here called “drawing.” (NPNF Vol. 14 p. 250; emphasis added)

In his subsequent sermon, John Chrysostom has no problem juxtaposing John 6:44 right next to John 12:32, neither does he append any qualifying remarks as a Calvinist might feel the need to do.

But by saying before, “No man can come to Me except the Father draw him”; and again, “If I be lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all men unto Me”; and again, “No man cometh to the Father but by Me”; He showeth Himself equal to Him who begat Him. (NPNF Vol. 14 p. 269; emphasis added)

What is worth noting here is how John Chrysostom’s syngergistic understanding of ελκω allows him to apply the same meaning to both John 6:44 and to John 12:32. This contrasts with the Reformed tradition’s attempt to apply the hard literal meaning of ελκω to John 6:44 to uphold the doctrine of predestination then seeking to apply the soft figurative meaning of ελκω to John 12:32 in order to avoid the implication of universalism. This inconsistent approach to ελκω in two similar settings within the same book raises questions about the linguistic validity of Reformed hermeneutics with respect to John 6:44.

 

The Monergistic Premise

The Reformed tradition’s doctrine of monergism—God as the sole cause of our salvation—predisposes its adherents to favor the more impersonal, coercive understanding of ελκω in John 6:44 and to ignore the figurative meaning of ελκω as persuasion. Ligonier Ministries hews to the uncompromising monergistic understanding of salvation:

The doctrine of the internal call cannot be avoided if we take the Bible seriously, and it leaves no room for man to play a part in his own salvation. Why do some people respond to the Gospel? Because God called them. Why do others not respond? Because God did not call them. (Source)

This stance is consistent with Calvin’s opposition to the notion of human cooperation with divine grace. He writes:

But here we must beware of two errors: for some make man God’s co-worker, to ratify election by his consent. (Institutes 3.24.3; p. 967)

This is not just Calvin’s opinion but reflects the formal position of the Reformed tradition. We read in the Westminster Confession Chapter 9 “Of Free Will”:

3. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto. (Source; emphasis added.)

The belief in man’s total inability is closely related to the Protestant doctrine of sola gratia that it is only by divine grace that man is saved. This doctrinal framework predisposes Reformed Protestants to favor readings of John 6:44 as irresistible compulsion or as “voluntary” acceptance that originates in divine intervention.

Do you notice the hidden assumption here?

Many Calvinists hold to the doctrine of man’s total inability because of Ephesians 2:1 “you were dead through the trespasses and sins” (RSV; emphasis added). They were taught that “dead” means the absence of any volitional capacity in man to respond to God’s grace unless God bestows upon him the ability to believe. However, if one reads the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, one finds that the prodigal son who was “dead” (verse 32) also “came to himself” (verse 17) before returning home. There is no hint in Jesus’ parable of the wayward son being dragged home. The prodigal son returned home willingly and was welcomed by his loving father.  Thus, the biblical basis for the Reformed TULIP is not as strong as some assume it to be.

In the Orthodox synergistic understanding of John 6:44, the focus is not on compulsion, but on who takes the initiative. With  divine grace, it is God who takes the initiative and fallen humans who respond to the divine imitative either with acceptance or rejection. The Confession of Dositheus, which represents the Orthodox Church’s formal response to Reformed theology, affirmed man’s free will, even after the Fall. We read in Decree 14:

We believe man in falling by the [original] transgression to have become comparable and similar to the beasts; that is, to have been utterly undone, and to have fallen from his perfection and impassibility, yet not to have lost the nature and power which he had received from the supremely good God. For otherwise he would not be rational, and consequently not a human. So [he still has] the same nature in which he was created, and the same power of his nature, that is free-will, living and operating, so that he is by nature able to choose and do what is good, and to avoid and hate what is evil. For it is absurd to say that the nature which was created good by Him who is supremely good lacks the power of doing good. For this would be to make that nature evil — what could be more impious than that? (Emphasis added.)

The common ground shared by Orthodoxy and the Reformed tradition is the belief in prevenient grace, that it is God who takes the initiative in our salvation. Where the two traditions differ is with respect to man’s capacity to respond to divine grace. The Reformed understanding is that the Fall of Adam and Eve was of such catastrophic proportions that humans lost all ability—even volitional—to respond to God’s grace and so God needed to send the Holy Spirit to make us willing to believe in Christ. The Orthodox understanding is that even after the Fall man possessed free will and so had the freedom to accept or reject God’s grace. The synergistic understanding of salvation is not that of an interaction between equals; God has the upper hand, but he gives us the freedom to choose.

 

John 6:44 in Context

One problem with the Reformed reading of John 6:44 is that it fails to take into account how this verse fits into the overall context of John 6 – Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life. The backdrop to the Jews resisting Jesus’ claim to be the Bread of Life is Exodus 16 which describes how in response to the Israelites’ murmuring, Yahweh sent manna from heaven. As the Messiah who fulfills the Old Testament, Jesus is the new Moses who feeds the “elect” people with the true Bread from heaven. The prophetic type of the bread of heaven is fulfilled in the Son of God who came down from heaven in the Incarnation. The eating of manna in the desert finds fulfillment in having faith in Jesus as the Messiah and in entering into Eucharistic fellowship with Him. Thus, the unbelieving Jews of the Old Covenant are superseded by the new Israel represented by the Apostle Peter and the faithful disciples who remained even after so many stopped following Jesus (John 6:66-69). The Reformed interpretation of John 6:44 as teaching predestination holds up only if one isolates this verse to the exclusion of the overall context of John 6.

Leighton Flowers points out that the context for John 6:44 is the tension between the old Israel whose hearts were calloused and hardened and the new Israel—Jesus’ disciples. He notes that there is no suggestion in John 6 of God universally condemning all men to a totally disabled condition from birth due to Adam’s transgression and that salvation consists of God irresistibly drawing a preselected few. The Reformed reading of John 6:44 holds up only if one isolates this verse to the exclusion of the overall context. Flowers makes the intriguing suggestion that in the Bread of Life discourse Jesus was being deliberatively provocative, antagonizing the Jews, “judicially blinding Israel” in order to condemn the old Israel and to call out the faithful remnant of preselected Israelites who would make up the new Israel in the form of the Twelve.

What is the context for John 6:44? Verses 41-43 which immediately precede verse 44 contain the admonition that the Israelites ought to cease their murmuring against Jesus. The danger here is the Jews hardening their hearts against Jesus as the Israelites did against Yahweh in Moses’ time. So likewise it is important to note how John 6:44 is complemented by verse following it. Both verses 44 and 45 have the phrase “come to me.” Verse 44 points to God’s gracious initiative in drawing people to the Son; verse 45 teaches that we are drawn to the Son, not by compulsion, but through teaching. In the Incarnation God comes in the flesh and directly teaches men as was prophesied in Isaiah 54:13:

I will cause all your children to be taught by God, and your children to be in great peace. (NKJV, OSB)

Chapter 6 ends with large numbers of Jesus’ followers stumbling over the hard saying (v. 61) and parting ways with Jesus (v. 66). Here, John the Evangelist, like the Apostle Paul in Romans 9 to 11, is addressing one of the vexing theological problems facing the early Christian community: Why did the Jews—the elect people—reject the Messiah?

Thus, it is important when using passages like John 6:44 to formulate doctrine that we take into account the context of the passage. Furthermore, we should avoid rushing to link passages that use the literal, mechanical meaning to those that teach salvation in Christ. Yet this is what Ligonier Ministries has done. They cited John 18:10 a passage that describe a mechanical action—Peter’s drawing his sword—in order to interpret John 6:44 which is about man’s response to divine grace. The more sound approach is to cite biblical passages that pertain to our salvation in Christ (e.g., John 12:32) and omit passages that pertain to mechanical actions. If they had been willing to allow for ελκω with the sense of persuasion as in Jeremiah 31:3 and Song of Songs 1:4 in the Septuagint, the folks at Ligonier Ministries could have avoided many theological and exegetical difficulties. It is regrettable that Ligonier Ministries has succumbed to clumsy proof texting instead of using a simpler and more direct lexical solution – the figurative sense of ελκωas as persuasion or wooing.

 

The Range of Meaning of ελκω – “to draw”

There are multiple meanings for the Greek word ελκω “to draw.” This means that interpreting John 6:44 is not a simple matter as many in the Reformed tradition would assume. Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon’s entry for ‘ελκω‘ lists two meanings: (1) to pull often implying resistance (Vol. 1 15.212; p. 205) and (b) to lead by force (Vol. 1 15.178; p. 208). It is quite surprising that this fine lexicon did not touch on the figurative meaning for ελκω. Also, the lexicon makes no mention of John 6:44 and 12:32, two passages that use ελκω in relation to our salvation in Christ. Arndt and Gingrich’s lexicon lists two categories of meaning for ελκω: a literal physical meaning and a figurative meaning: “of the pull on man’s inner life.” They assigned to ελκω in John 6:44 and 12:32 the figurative meaning: to draw or to attract. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament likewise assigns the figurative meaning of ελκω to the two verses. It notes that in the Septuagint, ελκω had the sense of “drawing to oneself in love.”

Apostle Paul dragged into the marketplace

The Greek word ελκω is normally used in the sense of drawing or pulling on an inanimate object, or of pulling a person through physical force: the Apostle Peter drawing out his sword (John 18:10) or the disciples pulling on their nets in the post-resurrection account in John 21:6 and 11. Determining the appropriate meaning becomes more complicated when ελκω is is applied to humans. It can be applied externally to the physical body or internally implying persuasion. In the book Acts, we find ελκω used in the sense of physical force applied to unwilling subjects, e.g., the Apostle Paul and his companion Silas dragged into the marketplace (Acts 16:19), and the Apostle Paul on another occasion being dragged out of the Jerusalem temple (Acts 21:30). James in his epistle makes reference to the common practice of the rich dragging the poor to court (2:6).

Jeremiah being pulled out of the cistern

In the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), we find a range of meanings for ελκω, from physical force to persuasion. In Jeremiah 45:13 is a positive example of physical force being applied to a human being: Jeremiah being pulled out of the pit by means of ropes cushioned with old rags. David’s song in 2 Kingdoms 22:17 (2 Samuel 22:17) refers to Yahweh drawing him out of many waters, evoking the image of a lifeguard pulling a drowning man out the deep waters.

The Septuagint also uses ελκω in the sense of persuasion. In Jeremiah 38:3, we read:

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I drew you in compassion, O virgin of Israel. (OSB; emphasis added; cf. Jeremiah 31:3 MT)

κύριος πόρρωθεν ὤφθη αὐτῷ ἀγάπησιν αἰωνίαν ἠγάπησά σε διὰ τοῦτο εἵλκυσά σε εἰς οἰκτίρημα (source; emphasis added.)

In the Song of Songs 1:4, we find ελκω used in the sense of persuasion.

They draw you. We will run after you, For the smell of your ointments. The king brought me into his chamber. (OSB; emphasis added.)

εἵλκυσάν σε ὀπίσω σου εἰς ὀσμὴν μύρων σου δραμοῦμεν εἰσήνεγκέν με ὁ βασιλεὺς εἰς τὸ ταμίειον αὐτοῦ (source; emphasis added.)

These verses tell us that the Greek ελκω can be understood in the sense of physical force or as persuasion. Absent in the Septuagint are passages that suggest the Reformed understanding of internal compulsion against one’s free will.

To sum up, there are at least three meanings for ελκω:

• Inanimate Objects – physical force: Peter drawing his sword from its sheath (John 18:10); Peter and his companions pulling the nets (John 21:6).
• People – physical force: Paul dragged bodily from the marketplace (Acts 16:19) or from the Temple (21:30); Jeremiah pulled out of the pit (Jeremiah 45:13; cf. 2 Samuel 22:17); the rich dragging the poor into the courtroom (James 2:6).
• People – persuasion or wooing: Yahweh drawing Israel by His love (Jeremiah 38:3 in LXX; cf. Jeremiah 31:3 MT); the beloved calling out to her love in Song of Songs 1:4)

Given this range of meanings, our task is ascertaining the appropriate category of meaning for ελκω for John 6:44 and 12:32. One important clue is that in John 6:44 and 12:32 ελκω is used in the context of personal relationships: Christ and the individual believer in John 6:44 and Christ saving the world in John 12:32. To treat salvation in Christ as an impersonal compulsion would be a dubious undertaking. One could argue for the mechanical understanding of ελκω by appealing to man’s total inability, however that would be to import wholesale the theological system known as TULIP into John 6 which makes no mention whatsoever of total depravity or predestination. The Reformed interpretation of John 6:44 is more eisegesis (reading doctrine into the text) than exegesis (drawing doctrine from the text). Furthermore, the Reformed exegetes’ inconsistent application of one sense of ελκω for John 6:44 and a different one for John 12:32 sacrifices the linguistic integrity of biblical hermeneutics for the sake of upholding a novel theological system.

 

Conclusion

The Reformed tradition’s attempt to use a literal, compulsory meaning of ελκω for interpreting John 6:44 is problematic for several reasons. First, in order to read verse 44 as supporting predestination one would need to isolate verse 44 from the broader context of John 6. There is no hint or suggestion of the Fall, man’s total depravity, irresistible grace, or predestination in Jesus’ exposition on the bread of life – the main theme of chapter 6. The Calvinist reading of John 6:44 depend on reading certain assumptions into the text. This projecting of the Reformed theology onto the biblical text is questionable and deserves to be criticized.

Second, using the literal, coercive understanding of ελκω in John 6:44 leads to significant theological difficulties if it is applied likewise to John 12:32. The problem of universalism can be avoided if we understand ελκω in the more figurative sense of wooing. This is a much simpler and direct solution than the Reformed exegetes’ clumsy solution of applying the literal meaning of ελκω to John 6:44 and the allegorical meaning to John 12:32. This semantic inconsistency doesn’t make sense.

Third, using the figurative, relational definition for ελκω is consistent with the early Church Father’s affirmation of human free will. To sum up, the Reformed interpretation of John 6:44 involves: proof texting, eisegesis over exegesis, potential universalism, questionable handling of the Greek language, the ignoring the immediate context of John 6, and the ignoring of historical theology.

While the Reformed reading of John 6:44 founders on linguistic, contextual, and historical grounds, John Chrysostom’s reading of John 6:44 does a much better job in reflecting the meaning of ελκω, the context of John chapter 6, and the historic Christian Faith. To the reader who submitted the original query, I hope this article answers your concerns about John 6:44 and is of help to you in your journey to Orthodoxy.

 

Looking Ahead

I hope in the future to address other aspects of the Reformed tradition’s soteriology. The Calvinist paradigm, which has so profoundly influenced many people’s understanding of salvation and God’s character, is based on assumptions that need to be critically examined in the light of Scripture and the teachings of the early Church Fathers. Among the assumptions that deserve scrutiny are the human condition after the Fall, man’s freedom to love God or to suppress the Truth of God, and the problem of theodicy — God’s absolute sovereignty becoming the cause of sin. The early Church Fathers in their wisdom recognized that even though fallen and deeply flawed, man still retained the divine image and so possessed the freedom to respond to God’s loving initiative in Christ or to suppress the truth also by his own free choice. I also hope to compare Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism—two theological systems that the Reformed tradition has so strongly opposed—against the teachings of early Church Fathers. I suspect that many of the problematic aspects of Calvinist soteriology can be traced to the West’s departure from the ancient patristic consensus. The Calvinist paradigm is a complex system of interrelated ideas which means it cannot be refuted with one single argument. Persuading sincere inquirers to relinquish their Calvinism will require a wide-ranging critique. Also needed is persuading the inquirer to embrace the ancient Church’s soteriology which is articulated in the ancient liturgies that recalled and celebrated Christ’s work of salvation through his Incarnation, his life on earth, his saving death on the Cross, and his third-day Resurrection by which he destroyed Death and Hell in order to restore us to life with God.

Robert Arakaki

 

References

Arndt and Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.
Nathaniel W. Bingham. “Charles Spurgeon on Calvinism – Irresistible Grace.” Ligonier Ministries
Raymond E. Brown. Anchor Bible Commentary on John I-XII.
John Calvin. Commentary on John.  BibleHub.com

John Calvin. Institutes Vol 1 and 2. Ford Lewis Battles, editor and translator.
Leighton Flowers. “John 6 – “Down From Heaven”: Why Context Kills Calvinism.”
German Bible Society. Septuagint. Academic-bible.com
Gerhard Kittel. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. II p. 503
Ligonier Ministries. “Effectual Calling.”
Ligonier Ministries. “Man’s Radical Fallenness.”

Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida.  Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. VOL I & II.
Leon Morris. NICNT Commentary on John.
Erwin Nestle and Kurt Aland. Novum Testamentum Graece | 28. German Bible Society.
Alfred Rahlfs. Septuaginta. Vol. II.
C.H. Spurgeon. “How Men Come to Christ.” Monergism.com

 

Note: In an earlier version of “Man’s Radical Fallenness,” Ligonier Ministries apparently mistyped John 6:44 as John 6:65. In light of their recent correction, I am retracting my earlier criticism of their reading of the Greek text. Thanks to Jon H for bringing this to my attention!  [11 October 2018]

 

Orthodox Christians on Penal Substitutionary Atonement

 

Comments from Two Readers on my article “Evidence for Christ’s Descent into Hell

David Roxas on 10-June-2018 wrote:

“This is not to say that Protestants and Evangelicals should relinquish the penal model of salvation altogether, but that they should incorporate the ancient patristic model of Christus Victor into their theology.”

Scratching my head over this one. What exactly do you mean the penal mode of salvation should not be relinquished? Should the Orthodox then accept it? Forensic justification by faith alone and penal substitution go hand in hand so how do you propose to separate them if at all? How does penal substitution fit with salvation by participation in the uncreated energies of God (theosis)?

“I believe that there is some merit to the penal theory of atonement and that we need a balanced corrective to the dominant Protestant understanding.”

As Ricky said to Lucy “You got some ‘splainin’ to do!” Please tell us more about what you think the merits of penal theory of the atonement.

Anastasia Gutnik on 14-June-2018 wrote:

I had no idea you were a closet protestant! haha! After 6 years of blogging and you cannot get past penal substitution. that is hilarious Robert!

 

My Response

I appreciate David and Anastasia’s questions about a statement I made in the article “Evidence for Christ’s Descent into Hell. (6 April 2018)” I am also somewhat amused by their incredulity at my attempt to maintain a charitable openness towards Protestant soteriology. Becoming Orthodox did not entail my rejecting Protestant theology wholesale, but only that which is incompatible with the historic Christian Faith.

How Christ saves us is a tremendous mystery that cannot be reduced to a simple doctrinal formula as many Protestants seem to assume. While both Protestants and Orthodox Christians see great importance in Christ’s death, they approach it very differently. Whereas the Protestant understanding has been shaped by their reaction against medieval Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox understanding has been shaped by the early Church Fathers and the ancient liturgies. Unlike Protestantism, which has well-defined and clearly-articulated statements on how Christ saved us, the early Church had no clear-cut soteriology (McGrath Vol. 1 p. 23; Kelly p. 375). This means that it is difficult to draw a clear-cut black-and-white distinction between Protestant and Orthodox soteriologies. Whereas the Orthodox Church has rejected Protestant doctrines like justification by faith alone and double predestination, there has yet to be a formal condemnation of the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. While there are Orthodox Christians who are very critical of this theory, there are others who are receptive to it. I hope one day to write a more in-depth article on the differences and similarities between the two theological traditions. However, in light of the importance of David and Anastasia’s questions for Reformed-Orthodox dialogue, I believe that I should attempt a brief sketch in this article.

To answer their questions: Yes, Orthodoxy does believe in Christ’s substitutionary death on the Cross, but not in the same way as Protestants do. Below is a sketch of the paradigmatic differences between Protestantism and Orthodoxy over how Christ saves us through his death on the Cross. Then, further down in the article, I cite several contemporary Orthodox apologists—Kabane the Christian, Frederica Mathewes-Green, and Father Josiah Trenham—on their understanding of Christ’s saving death.

Problem – In Protestant theology, the big problem is the guilt that results from our violating the law and God’s wrath against guilty sinners. In Orthodoxy, the big problem is our alienation from God who is Life, and our captivity to the Devil and Death.

Solution – In Protestant theology, the solution is Jesus being punished on our behalf in order to pay the penalty we richly deserve. In Orthodoxy, the solution is Jesus’ dying on the Cross, his descent into Hades, the realm of Death, and his third-day Resurrection, in which the gates of Hell are shattered, captive humans set free from Death, and joined to Christ the Life of the World.

Emphasis – This explains why the key doctrine of Protestantism is justification by faith alone—the word “justification” puts the focus on the legal imputation of guilt, the requisite punishment for that guilt, and the imputation of Christ’s legal righteousness to those who have faith in Christ. In Orthodoxy, this explains why the emphasis is on our union with Christ who is Life, and on faith in Christ as faithfulness to Christ.

I would encourage readers to listen to the two podcasts linked below and to consider purchasing Father Josiah’s excellent book. I have provided a few transcribed remarks with time marks for their convenience.

Kabane the Christian’s “Do Orthodox Christians Believe in Penal Atonement?

He states forthrightly: “Yes, Orthodox do believe in penal substitution.” [0:21] He also notes that the Church Fathers taught that Christ took the penalty we deserved. [0:53] He then goes on to explain that the penalty we deserve is death, the tearing of the soul from the body.

Kabane notes that in the West, death, which Orthodoxy views as the primary problem, gets shoved to the side and eternal hell is seen as the real punishment even though hell is not mentioned in Genesis 3. [5:20] For the Orthodox, hell is the eternal realization of death. [5:57]

Frederica Mathewes-Green’s “Orthodoxy and the Atonement

She notes about Orthodoxy: “We just believe that God just forgives us. He doesn’t expect anyone to pay. It isn’t that he gets a third party to pay. He just lets it go.” [5:08] She notes that in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35) the Master forgives; he does not get a third party to pay off the debt owed him. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son the father forgives the son and welcomes him home [5:45]. The father does not demand that the son repay the money squandered (Luke 15:11-32).

Frederica notes that our problem is not so much forgiveness as death. “We have to be rescued. We’ve made ourselves captives of the Evil One. We’ve gotten ourselves enclosed in the prison of death through our sins.” [6:18]

Father Josiah Trenham’s Rock and Sand

Fr. Josiah notes:

The great problem with Protestant teaching on salvation is its thorough-going reductionism. In the Holy Scripture and in the writings of the Holy Fathers salvation is a grand accomplishment with innumerable facets, a great and expansive deliverance of humanity from all its enemies: sin, condemnation, the wrath of God, the devil and his demons, the world, and ultimately death. In Protestant teaching and practice, salvation is essentially a deliverance from the wrath of God. (p. 288; emphasis added)

The traditional Christian teaching expressed in the New Testament and the writings of the Fathers on the subject of the atonement of our Savior is the Cross saved us in three essential ways: on the Cross Jesus conquered death; on the Cross Jesus triumphed over the principalities and power of this evil age; on the Cross Jesus made atonement for human sins by His blood. Because the Protestants were working out of a soteriological framework of a courtroom and declarative justification, they read the teaching about the Cross through these lenses and as a result articulated a reductionistic theology of the atonement, which ignored the traditional emphasis on the conquering of death and the triumph of the demons. Everything for Protestantism becomes satisfaction of God’s justice, and by making one image the whole, even that image became distorted in Protestant articulation. (p. 294)

. . . the greatest reductionism is found in the immense neglect of emphasis upon the heart of the New Testament teaching on salvation as union with Jesus Christ . . . . The theology of the Church bears witness to the fact that the mystery of salvation is accomplished not just on the Cross, but from the very moment of Incarnation when the Only-Begotten and Co-Eternal Son united Himself forever with humanity in the womb of the Virgin Mary, his Most Pure Mother. Salvation as union and communion between God and Man drips from every page of the new Testament and in the writings of Holy fathers. (p. 296; emphasis added)

To be fair, two nineteenth-century Reformed theologians, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff of the Mercersburg Theology school, sought to highlight the more holistic understanding of salvation within the Reformed tradition. (See my assessment of this small but important movement.)  More recently, Anglican bishop N.T. Wright’s writings and some of his Reformed followers in the Federal Vision movement have moved away from this narrow, exclusively legal-forensic view. Sadly, in their attempt to incorporate aspects of patristic theology, they have been charged as heretics by their Reformed brethren for seeking to recover ancient Christianity!  (See the Recommended Reading at the bottom which lists several articles about the alternative soteriologies that recently surfaced within the Reformed tradition.)

Conclusion

Oftentimes, when one experiences a feeling of disbelief and incredulity, they will say: “Pardon me. I don’t think I heard you right?” My response to David Roxas and Anastasia Gutnik is: “No. You did not hear me right. You are trying to understand my statements using the black-and-white theological categories that emerged from Protestantism’s conflict with Roman Catholicism in the 1500s.”

David Roxa’s assertion that justification by faith alone and penal substitution go hand-in-hand is an assumption that needs to be scrutinized in light of Scripture and the early Church Fathers’ reading of Scripture. While there is a penal aspect to Christ’s death, how we understand “penal” needs to be scrutinized for hidden assumptions. What also needs to be scrutinized is the centrality of justification (legal righteousness) to our salvation in Christ. Is justification central to salvation or an aspect of salvation? It seems that for Protestants, forensic justification is equivalent to salvation. But is that the case in light of the rich, diverse Scriptural teachings about how Christ saves us? My impression is that in defending sola fide (justification by faith alone) Protestant theology inadvertently ended up suppressing certain passages from their reading of Scripture. This gave rise to a theological paradigm that many Protestants today accept uncritically. It also gave rise to their ignorance of its novelty and sola fide’s being conditioned by medieval Roman Catholicism. If, on the other hand, it is union with Christ that is central to our salvation, of which justification is one aspect, then the penal substitutionary theory does not necessarily preclude theosis. This would address David Roxas’ concern that penal substitutionary atonement is incompatible with theosis – salvation as participation with the uncreated energies of God. This would help correct some of the overemphasis in Protestant theology and help Protestant inquirers integrate the Church Fathers into their understanding of how we are saved by Christ. Furthermore, it would validate my suggestion that a Protestant who wishes to become Orthodox would not necessarily need to relinquish the penal model of salvation provided that he or she seek to understand it within the context of the patristic consensus.  Therefore, one need not be a “closet Protestant” as Anastasia Gutnik sarcastically alleged in her comment but in fact a solidly Orthodox Christian.

In closing, I urge David Roxas, Anastasia Gutnik, and other Protestants to be more open to the early Church Fathers who had a richer and more holistic understanding of Christ’s death on the Cross. I also urge them to learn from the ancient Eucharistic prayers that contain valuable insights into how the early Christians understood Christ’s saving death. While the Church Fathers affirmed that Christ died on behalf of sinners and that He paid the penalty we deserved, the judicial emphasis is quite subdued, and other motifs such as redemption and union with Christ are given greater emphasis.

Below are some excerpts from the early Church. In them one will encounter a theological paradigm that is strikingly different from that of Protestantism, which should cause thoughtful Protestants to rethink their theology.

Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the earliest Church Fathers, who died circa 200, wrote:

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God,—all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. (Irenaeus of Lyons Against Heresies Book 5.1.1, ANF p. 526)

Athanasius the Great, a stalwart defender of Christ’s divinity during the Arian controversy of the fourth century, wrote:

. . . Even so was it with Christ. He, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior, did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind. No. He accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others, and those others His special enemies, a death which to them was supremely terrible and by no means to be faced; and He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognized as finally annulled. (Athanasius the Great On the Incarnation §24)

In the fourth century liturgy of Basil the Great we find this statement in the Eucharistic prayer:

He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. (Eucharistic prayer – Liturgy of Basil the Great, 4th century)

While not Protestant, the early Church Fathers were undeniably Christian in theology. There is much spiritual wisdom in the Church Fathers that both Protestants as well as Orthodox can benefit from.

Robert Arakaki

 

References and Recommended Readings

Robert Arakaki. “An Eastern Orthodox Critique of Mercersburg Theology.” OrthodoxBridge (2012)

Athanasius the Great. On the Incarnation.

Basil the Great. Divine Liturgy. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

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

Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies 5.1.1. Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 1

J.N.D. Kelly. Early Christian Doctrines. 1978 edition.

Alister McGrath. Iustitia Dei: A history of the Christian doctrine of Justification. Vol. 1 The Beginnings to the Reformation.

Matt Powell.  “Mercersburg and the Federal Vision.Aquila Report (2016)

Alastair Roberts.  “Approaches to Justification within the Federal Vision.”  Alistair’s Adversaria (2006)

Father Josiah Trenham.  Rock and Sand. (2015)

 

 

Obstacles and Encouragements for Inquirers

 

 

Priest Igor Zyryanov

It is good to know that pastors and even entire congregations are becoming Orthodox in the US, other countries, and in Russia. The website Pravoslavie published an interview with a former Protestant pastor, Father Igor Zyryanov, who led his congregation into Orthodoxy. What I found striking about the article were the insights and anecdotes that can teach us how to do Orthodox outreach and how not to do Orthodox outreach. This is a very instructive and practical article. Read the whole article.

 

Taking it Slow

Because Protestantism is so different from Orthodoxy, it is advisable that inquiry into Orthodoxy be gradual. A take-it-slow approach can be quite fruitful. Oftentimes, converts will bring with them their family and even their congregation into Orthodoxy. One well-known instance of mass conversions is the reception of some two thousand American Evangelicals in 1987. Their journey to Orthodoxy took about five to ten years of careful study and visiting Orthodox churches. A rushed conversion can lead to missed opportunities. Father Zyryanov recounts:

Often priests who bring Protestants into Orthodoxy are in a hurry. They relate to Protestantism as to an enemy movement, and try to yank a person out of it abruptly. This is not always beneficial. For example, if a pastor starts thinking about Orthodoxy, the whole community may become Orthodox. But the priest to whom the leader has turned tries to convince him to receive Orthodoxy quickly. The pastor follows his advice, becomes Orthodox, and… looses [sic] his authority among his parishioners who have not had the chance to understand anything yet. The leader is kicked out of the congregations, and the parish receives a vaccination against Orthodoxy.

In our case, thank God, this did not happen. Fr. Viacheslav Pushkarev, the head of the missionary department of the Irkutsk diocese, was in no rush when he began to meet with us. He came to our meetings with lectures, allowed the whole community to understand Orthodoxy, to literally be permeated with it. Therefore we were all able to come into the Russian Orthodox Church, and we didn’t lose anyone.

As Father Igor noted, it is a mistake to think of Protestantism as an “enemy movement.” Behind what comes across as hostility is a sincere desire to defend right doctrine. Many Protestants have been brought up in a milieu of theological debates and bible memorization. Behind the outward aggressiveness is often an inner hunger – the unspoken sense that there is something more to the Christian life than bible study, intercessory prayer, simplistic praise songs, and evangelism. One thing many Evangelicals and Protestants are hungering for is the deep worship of the Liturgy and receiving Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. Another is doctrine rooted in historic Christianity that traces back to the Apostles. Also, many are hungering for a radical spirituality like that exemplified by the Desert Fathers.

My journey to Orthodoxy was a gradual one that took about seven years. I needed the time because I had much to unlearn. When I did become Orthodox, I did so with assurance and confidence that I was entering into the Church founded by the Apostles. For a Protestant, it is a costly sacrifice to give up long-held doctrines. That is why Orthodox outreach requires considerable patience and sympathy.

Becoming Orthodox is more than a matter of learning new doctrines. One learns an approach to prayer and worship quite different from Protestantism, and a physical approach to holiness – fasting and prostrations – that informs the Orthodox way of life. Probably, one of the hardest things for a Protestant to learn is humility and obedience to Orthodox priests. These important lessons are not learned overnight but gradually, over months and even years. Thus, taking it slow is usually good advice for Protestant inquirers.

 

Debates Not Helpful

The best approach for Orthodox outreach is friendly dialogue, not competitive debates. One time I got into a debate with some members of a Calvary Chapel church in Hawaii. For about two hours we had a friendly give and take, going from one bible passage to another. While exciting and even fun, I came to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. It wasn’t fruitful because the timing wasn’t right. One needs to be ready to hear another point of view and ready to consider changing one’s views. Looking back on my past experience debating with Evangelicals, I can sympathize with Father Igor’s observation:

—And what about debates with Protestants, which were popular at one time?
—I think that this format is untenable. Let’s say we have a public debate and we win, while the Protestant leader loses. He is humiliated and insulted, and it’s highly unlikely that he’ll become Orthodox. If the Orthodox side didn’t have sufficient knowledge or good enough arguments and lost the debate, he has brought shame upon Orthodoxy. In both cases we have a fiasco.

Only the Holy Spirit can prepare people’s hearts and minds. Our role is to be there as humble servants helping those who want help. So now, when I meet a Protestant asking questions about Orthodoxy, I try to discern if he or she is genuinely open to Orthodoxy and if there is a spiritual hunger behind their questions. If they just want a debate, then I take a pass on that. But when I do meet an inquirer who might become Orthodox but has a hard time letting go of certain Protestant teachings, I will present a clear and pointed critique drawing on Scripture, church history, and the Church Fathers. This is for the purpose of helping a struggling inquirer, not for putting down a theological rival.

 

Slamming the Door in Someone’s Face

Orthodox outreach is everyone’s job, not just the priest. Every member of the local parish can affect Orthodox outreach for good or bad. Not too long ago, I met a man who came to the local Greek Orthodox parish for a class assignment. This being his first time at an Orthodox church, he was understandably nervous. He arrived during Matins and was wondering if he was even at the right place, because it looked like no one was there. Finally, the lady manning the candle stand opened the door and asked: “Do you want to come in?” This was a tiny gesture but a very significant one.

Father Igor relates a painful incident in which the opposite attitude was displayed.

One woman, a third generation Baptist, started thinking about Orthodoxy, came to a church and asked the grandma at the candle desk if she could speak with a priest. The grandma said, “Are you even baptized?” The woman answered that she wasn’t. The old lady told the woman off, saying that batiushka would not even talk to her in that case. The woman did not give up after one try, and wrote to our center. Finally she met with a priest in another church. And this is not an isolated incident, unfortunately.

The Anarchist with a Green Mohawk  Source

Orthodox Christians need to be prepared to welcome all kinds of people, some who look like us as well those who look different. On several occasions, I have heard from inquirers about how they felt unwelcome when they visited an ethnic parish. Another challenge can be welcoming visitors who look outwardly very different, e.g., wearing black Goth-style clothing or bearing a heavily tattooed body or sporting a bright green Mohawk.

Orthodox priests need to remind parishioners that they too have a role to play in Orthodox outreach and that the Orthodox Church is not confined to one particular ethnicity but is a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 12:17). For example, outreach can take place during the coffee hour following the Liturgy. If a first-time visitor is not welcomed within the first few minutes, they will likely leave thinking that Orthodoxy is unfriendly and uncaring – a rejecting religion! So, if you see someone standing by themselves during the coffee hour, excuse yourself from your friends, and introduce yourself to the visitor. A short friendly conversation can be a life changing event for the visitor. The purpose of your introducing yourself should not be to debate, but simply to be friendly and welcoming. Perhaps setting the stage for another conversation later . . . maybe even later that same week over coffee!

Orthodox Christians should have in mind the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Protestant inquirers are often like the Prodigal Son yearning for home. The son in the parable was lucky the father saw him in the distance and came running to greet him. The elder brother had a harsh, judgmental attitude and the story would likely have a quite different ending if it had been the elder brother who greeted the returning Prodigal Son. Thus, the ordinary church member can sometimes be more important than the priest in Orthodox outreach. The parishioner is often the first Orthodox Christian a Protestant inquirer will meet. And many will make a judgment about Orthodoxy – for good or ill – based on the first encounter. Therefore, we should strive to treat all inquirers and visitors with courtesy and charity.

 

The Need for Nicodemus Ministry

Nicodemus and Jesus’ night time meeting

There is a need for Nicodemus ministries, where interested pastors and other inquirers can meet in private. Quiet, discreet inquiry is necessary for pastors to do the needed study and spend time in prayer in order to make up their minds about Orthodoxy. It is hard for a pastor to make a firm, reasoned decision to convert if he is embroiled in theological debates and suspicion that he is betraying his ordination vows. Fr. Igor noted:

In order for a person to find the true faith many conditions are needed, which are first and foremost created by the Lord Himself. A small part of this work, by God’s grace, is ours. Many Protestants come to me, mainly ministers. There are those to want to meet and talk secretly. We go to meet with them, answer their questions, and tell them about our own experience.

It is not easy for a Protestant pastor to be an inquirer into Orthodoxy. It takes humility to admit that one’s theology may be wrong. Some pastors at their ordination have made solemn vows that they would inform the leadership if they no longer hold to the teachings of their denomination. So, for some pastors even a curious inquiry into Orthodoxy is very risky. It also takes considerable courage to be open to wrenching changes in one’s job situation. Another factor likely weighing on the minds of inquiring pastors is how their wives, family members, and close friends will react. We need to be ready to respond, not just to theological questions about Orthodoxy, but also to practical questions about how to make the transition into Orthodoxy.

It would be good if an Orthodox priest is knowledgeable about the Bible and Protestant theology, but oftentimes an Orthodox priest may not have that background. My advice to Orthodox priests who feel unprepared to meet with a Protestant pastor interested in Orthodoxy are: (1) become acquainted with brother priests who have converted from Protestantism, (2) read helpful books like Fr. Josiah Trenham’s Rock and Sand or visit blogs like the OrthodoxBridge, (3) be humble admitting you don’t know the answer, and (4) don’t ignore the question – do your best to refer them to someone who can assist the inquirer. By being willing to treat a difficult question seriously you treat the Protestant inquirer with dignity and respect. Orthodox outreach is fundamentally team work.  Another possibility are closed FaceBook groups where inquirers can ask questions and voice their concerns about Orthodoxy.  Such groups do exist, however joining these group usually require a personal connection to ensure confidentiality. With our different gifts and backgrounds, we complement each other and build up the Church.

 

Orthodoxy’s Rich Spiritual Treasures

The word “evangelism” comes from the Greek word “εὐαγγέλιον” which means “good news.” When we come across a great restaurant or see a outstanding movie, the natural reaction is to tell others about it. In the case of Orthodoxy, when we encounter the richness of Orthodoxy we will be eager to tell others about it. The treasures of the Orthodox Church consist of its prayers, the wisdom of the Church Fathers, the example of the saints and martyrs, icons, and chants. We should not be reluctant to let non-Orthodox know about these treasures. A Protestant will often find the quote from a Church Father or an icon of Christ exotic and intriguing, sparking a desire to learn more. The fact that our Sunday worship goes back to the fourth and fifth centuries will attract Protestants. Even the beeswax candle we light upon entering the church will strike some Protestants as exotic and daring. Father Igor notes:

Clergy who are involved in missionary activities in a Protestant milieu should make contact with pastors who are open to having contact. It is helpful to tell them about the faith, to suggest some patristic reading. In this case the whole community will have the opportunity to understand the beauty of Orthodoxy, to know what the Church is. I think that after this the majority of the members of the congregation will receive Orthodoxy. There simply can be no other outcome for a Protestant who sincerely seeks God. Having learned the facts about the Orthodox Church, about the Sacraments, about apostolic succession, a person simply cannot remain a Protestant.

Father Igor’s advice reminds me of the ice cream shop where the server hands out tiny spoons with samples. At first, you may have some reservations, but usually trying out the unfamiliar flavor will win you over, and you end up buying a scoop. Needless to say, a smiling, encouraging server behind the counter makes a difference in your decision to step into the shop and try out the unfamiliar flavors.

 

A Window of Opportunity

We are living in a period that can be considered a window of opportunity for Orthodox outreach. Our attitudes will affect the way we relate to inquirers. Effective Orthodox outreach requires the conviction

• that Christ came to seek and save the lost,
• that in Orthodoxy we have a rich and priceless heritage,
• that the Orthodox Church has the fullness of the Faith,
• that many people are spiritually hungry but do not know where to look, and
• that we ought to be open to all kinds of seekers: some who look like us and others who look very different and scary, e.g., heavy metal rockers covered with tattoos or anarchists with a green mohawk.  Let us remember the words of Christ: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:25; RSV)

 

Welcome to our church! Source

 

Let us open doors, not close them. We ought to welcome visitors to our church. Let us tell people: Come in and see!

Robert Arakaki

 

LINKS

“WELCOME HOME: The Story of the E.O.C.”

I UNDERSTOOD: EITHER I GO WITH CHRIST OR I DIE: Interview with Igor Kapranov, former vocalist of metalcore band, ‘Amatory’.” Pravoslavie 16 January 2016

THE ANARCHIST WITH THE GREEN MOHAWK: A story of one soul’s healing on the Holy Mountain.” Pravoslavie 9 January 2017

FROM PASTOR TO PRIEST: Priest Igor Zyryanov on Protestantism and Orthodoxy.”  Pravoslavie 30 April 2018

 

Interested Protestant Pastors may contact the following:

Nearest local Orthodox parish

Missions and Evangelism Department of Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese

 

 

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