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Does Isaiah 22 Prove the Papacy?

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

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

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


My Response

Jesus’ Promise to Peter

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

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

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


Scott Hahn’s Discovery

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

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

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


Isaiah 22 in the Historical Context

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

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


What do the Keys Refer to?

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


Do Isaiah 22 and Matthew 16 Line Up?

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

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

Isaiah’s prophecy to Eliakim has two elements:

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

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

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

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

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


Isaiah 22 Fulfilled in Revelation 3:7

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

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

Revelation 3:7 reads:

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

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

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


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


The Power of the Keys Given to the Apostles

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

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


Exegetical Red Herring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


Protestants’ Vulnerability

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

Robert Arakaki


Recommended Reading

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

Scott Hahn on the PapacyCatholic-Page

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


Why I Did Not Become Roman Catholic — A Sort of Response to Jason Stellman

Hagia Sophia – Church of Holy Wisdom

I recently read Jason Stellman’s explanation for why he decided to head towards Rome.  As I read through his “I Fought the Church, and the Church Won” I was struck by the absence of any mention of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  It is as if he had no awareness of the other major non-Protestant option – the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Rather than critique Stellman’s reasons for becoming Catholic, I will be describing a side story of my journey to Orthodoxy.  I did not default to Roman Catholicism simply because it was convenient, or because it was a readily accessible option, or because of the persuasive arguments presented by a brilliant convert to Catholicism. By God’s patience and gentle mercies, I slowly and carefully explored both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox possibilities. I took my time – 7 years — to really understand them both, before committing myself to the Orthodox Church.


Early Encounters with Catholicism

Early on as an Evangelical I found myself caught up in the controversy over the baptism in the Spirit and the charismatic gifts.  I was uncomfortable with the extremes of Pentecostalism, but found much of the Evangelical anti-charismatic arguments unconvincing.  But when I read the literature from the Catholic charismatic renewal I found there a spiritual balance and theological sophistication lacking among Protestants.

As a curious and voracious reader I read spiritual classics like John of the Cross’ Ascent on Mt. Carmel, Augustine’s Confession, and St. Francis’ Little Flowers.   As my interest in Catholicism grew I began to look into the official teachings of the church, e.g., Documents of the Vatican II edited by Walter Abbott and John Hardon S.J.’s The Catholic Catechism.  While I found the literature interesting, I also found them alien and exotic.  It was like looking over a high wall and looking into a strange house next door.  I continued to be happy to remain an Evangelical.

The 70s and 80s were a time when divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism began to soften.  I found myself subscribing to both Christianity Today, the leading magazine for Evangelicals, and New Covenant, the flagship magazine for the Catholic charismatic renewal.  In New Covenant I found articles about personal conversion to Christ, life in the Spirit, and faithfulness to the church.  I found much to admire in the newly elected Pope John Paul II.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading his encyclical Dives in Misericordia Dei (Rich in Mercy) which I thought could have been written by an Evangelical theologian.

The 80s was also a time when John Michael Talbot, a former Evangelical musician turned Franciscan friar, released several albums that spanned the musical worlds of Evangelicalism and Catholicism.  These included his Light Eternal, The Lord’s Supper, and Troubadour of the Lord.  The Lord’s Supper was the Catholic Mass set to contemporary folk music.  It highlighted the beauty and dignity of liturgical worship, something I rarely experienced as an Evangelical.  This was before the ancient-future worship movement emerged within Evangelical circles.

So why didn’t I become a Roman Catholic?  One reason was that I didn’t want to abandon friends in the Evangelical circles.  Another reason was my study of Mercersburg Theology which turned me into a Catholic and Reformed Evangelical.  I innocently and sincerely believed I could be rooted in the Reformed tradition while exploring the riches of the early Church and ancient liturgies.  With Mercersburg Theology I could enjoy the best of both worlds on my own terms.  This was a time of childlike innocence before I came to grips with the radical and costly discipleship taught by the early Church.


Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

When I came to Gordon-Conwell in the early 1990s, the theological and spiritual currents running through Protestant Evangelicalism were already shifting in subtle and surprising ways.  In my first week at seminary I was surprised to see an icon of Christ hanging on a student’s door in Main Dorm.  Later I met a fellow seminarian who converted to Catholicism while at Gordon-Conwell!  Gary and I met for coffee to discuss his conversion.  When I asked him for his reasons for the supremacy and infallibility of Pope I found his answers less than compelling.

While at Gordon-Conwell I was deeply involved in the Evangelical renewal movement in the United Church of Christ.  Soon after I arrived at seminary I was invited to a meeting of UCC pastors.  I remember standing with the pastors and being slightly bewildered by the dark mutterings about some guy named Scott Hahn, apparently he did something terrible like becoming a Roman Catholic.  I have never met Scott Hahn but I am deeply indebted to him.  Once when I was wrestling with the doctrine sola scriptura, the question popped into my head: Did the Bible ever teach sola scriptura?  I couldn’t come up with a convincing answer which led to the question: So how did the leading Evangelical theologians deal with this?  A few days later I bought a tape by Scott Hahn and got my answer; none of the leading Evangelical theologians have been able to answer this question!  [See my blog posting on the biblical basis for Holy Tradition.]


Catholicism in Liberal Berkeley

UC Berkeley

After Gordon-Conwell, I headed to Berkeley to do doctoral studies in history of religions at the Graduate Theological Union.

I came to Berkeley a post-Evangelical open to change.  By then I had become weary of the fluidity and superficiality in Evangelical theology. During my first year, I found myself drawn to the rich liturgical tradition of Roman Catholicism.  This attraction to Roman Catholicism held my attention for a short while until I was providentially introduced to Eastern Orthodoxy.



Taize style worship

Taize style worship

In my first year, the candlelight Mass at the Newman Center was my regular place of worship.  It was a moving sight seeing the church filled with UC Berkeley students singing songs of worship in the soft glow of candles around the room.  It was also profoundly edifying to be at a church where the center of Sunday worship was the Lord’s Supper.

But I also found it a jarring and sometimes disturbing experience.  After becoming familiar with the pattern of worship, I noticed priests would drop parts of the Mass like the Nicene Creed and the Confiteor (the Prayer of Confession) which according to the official rubrics is not supposed to happen.  Keep in mind that the Mass is not just a Sunday ritual but a powerful means of shaping the faith and spirituality of the Catholic masses.  According to the theological principle of lex orans, lex credens (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith), the Mass forms the church in its faith and worship of God.  But here it seemed that the Mass had become a flexible tool that reflected the individual whims of priests.  In other words a have-it-your-way mentality among the Catholic clergy will eventually trickle down to the Catholics in the pews with devastating results.  And when the service was over, I was often surprised to hear announcements for upcoming meetings for the Gay-Lesbian fellowship.  I was coming face to face with the fact that real Catholicism was quite different from the official Catholicism I had been reading about.  Cafeteria style Catholicism was a very real and uncomfortable reality I had to face up to in Berkeley.

In my third year, I rented a room at a Benedictine retreat house near the university.  The monks there frequently talked about the need to unite Protestants with Catholics, and how they offered Holy Communion to Protestants as a gesture of unity.  Once when I attended their service they gave me the opportunity to receive the Host but I declined.  The reason I declined was because I had read an article by Fr. Edward O’Connor who explained that receiving Holy Communion in the Mass meant two things: (1) that one accepted the Catholic dogma of Transubstantiation and (2) that one accepted the teaching authority of the Pope, that is, one was willing to come under the Pope.  My Catholic friends thought church unity easy to pull off, but I was very conscious of the big price tag attached to the Communion wafer.  [See the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd edition) §1354, §1369, and §1374.]

In my second year in Berkeley, I discovered a tiny Bulgarian Orthodox Church that met across the street from the university.  For nearly two years I attended the Orthodox Liturgy.  It was good that the Liturgy was all in English.  Up till then I had found mixed language liturgies to be off putting and incomprehensible.  At Saints Kyril and Methodios I found myself drawn by the Liturgy.  After a long hard week of intense studying, I found it soothing and healing to stand during the Liturgy and let the ancient prayers flow over my soul.  It was a formative time for me spiritually.  I became immersed in the flow of the Liturgy and after a while became familiar with the pattern of the Liturgy.  There were no surprises like at the Newman Center.  I came away with two powerful impressions: (1) what I saw at this tiny Orthodox parish matched what I was reading and (2) Orthodoxy was capable of withstanding the liberal ethos of Berkeley.


From Post-Evangelical to Orthodoxy

I very much appreciate my time at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Having studied there I can say that I know firsthand the best of Evangelical scholarship.  However, my time there was when fine hairline cracks began to appear in my Evangelical theology.   In time the tiny cracks became major fissures leading to a theological crisis especially over sola scriptura then sola fide.  Yet as my Protestant theology began to fall apart I found myself increasingly drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy instead of Roman Catholicism.  Below are some of my reasons:

  • There is no evidence of the Bishop of Rome as the supreme head and infallible magisterium in the early Church.  The current form of a supreme and infallible Pontiff is a recent innovation!
  • The Papacy’s autonomy from the ancient Pentarchy violates early Christian unity.  The Rome versus Constantinople frame falls flat in light of the fact that the other major patriarchates sided with Constantinople.
  • For all the elaborate rationales advanced by Catholics to justify the Filioque, it is an indisputable fact that the Papacy’s unilateral insertion of the Filioque into the Nicene Creed runs contrary to the conciliarity intrinsic to the seven Ecumenical Councils.  Canon VII of the Council of Ephesus instructs:

When these things had been read, the holy Synod decreed that it is unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to write, or to compose a different (ἑτέραν) Faith as a rival to that established by the holy Fathers assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicæa. (Source)

  • What we understand to be the Catholic Church is really the Medieval Catholic Church, a product of the Middle Ages and the Scholastic movement.  The doctrines of purgatory and indulgences are medieval innovations that have no basis in patristic theology.  This helped explain the gap between the Roman Catholic Church and the early Church.  It also helped me to view with sympathy Protestants as innocent victims of Rome’s willful aberrations.
  • The dogma of Transubstantiation is a doctrinal aberration that is at odds with the patristic consensus.
  • The Novus Ordo Mass (the Vatican II Mass) marks a major break in the Catholic Church’s liturgical continuity with the early Church.

In addition to the above theological issues were the practical issues based on what I mentioned earlier.  The liberal Catholicism in Berkeley was not a fluke but part of larger struggle taking place in Catholicism.  Ralph Martin’s A Crisis of Truth describes in some detail the attempt by priests, theologians, and laity to redefine the Catholic faith.  As an Evangelical in a liberal Protestant denomination, I did not want to go through that painful experience again.  I was also struck by the fact that while Catholicism claims to be one church, what I had seen pointed to a church that operated on two quite different parallel realities.


Protestants at the Crossroads

An Evangelical who finds himself in the midst of the rubble of a shattered Protestant theology needs to consider carefully what his options are.  There exist not one but two options.  The Church of Rome may claim to have been founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul, but the same claim can be made by the Church of Antioch (see Acts 13:1 for Paul and Galatians 2:11 for Peter and Paul).  So while the Church of Rome may seem to be most obvious option there is another option. But there is another historically and biblically sound option: the Church of Antioch, that is, the Eastern Orthodox Church.  The Church of Antioch can claim a chain of apostolic succession that is equally valid and older than Rome’s.  The early Councils did not assign the Bishop of Rome an authority greater than the other bishops.  Rome’s claim to supremacy over the other bishops and patriarchates is a later development and is at odds with the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

Two Peas in a Pod?

CC7FF5E3-E542-1280-C75510D9603A3580As the crisis in Evangelicalism intensifies, many Evangelicals will find themselves in a state of vertigo and confusion.  They must not make the mistake of thinking that Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are two peas in a pod.  The two may look superficially similar but under the surface are profound differences.  One crucial difference is the way they do theology.  The Roman Catholic Church bases its theology on the infallible Pope.  The Pope is the monarch of the Catholic Church.  According to Catholic theology the Pope can unilaterally amend the Nicene Creed, order sweeping changes in the Sunday Mass, and issue dogmas — essential and non-negotiable doctrines binding on all members of the Catholic Church.

The theological method of Eastern Orthodoxy is based on Apostolic Tradition. Both clergy and laity have been entrusted with guarding and passing on Holy Tradition (II Thessalonians 2:15, II Timothy 2:2).  The Orthodox theological method is based on Christ’s promise that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13).  Unlike Catholicism which rests on one man (the Pope), Orthodoxy does theology collegially, that is, as a body working in unity.  In Acts 15 we read how the early Church came together and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit resolved a major theological crisis.  There was no evidence of a unilateral papal decree here!  Acts 15 provides the biblical basis for the Seven Ecumenical Councils, a key component of Orthodoxy.  It is important for Evangelicals to remember that they owe their core Christological and Trinitarian doctrines to the Ecumenical Councils.  The Bishop of Rome collaborated and supported these Councils.  He exercised authority with the Ecumenical Councils, not over them.  The theological unity of the early Church was conciliar, not papal.

One thing that struck me about Orthodoxy was the continuing relevance of the Seven Ecumenical Councils to current debates within Orthodoxy.  One example is Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon and the role of Patriarch of Constantinople with respect to the modern Orthodox diaspora.  When I read Roman Catholic literature the overall sense I got was that the Ecumenical Councils belonged to an earlier stage of development and that the Catholic Church had evolved to another level.  I sensed a subtle disconnect between the Catholic Church and the early Church.


Advice for the Lost — Retrace Your Steps

My advice to Protestants standing at the crossroads looking at the Catholic and Orthodox options is to do what people often do when they realize they are lost – retrace your steps.  Read the book of Acts, then the Apostolic Fathers and Eusebius’ Church History.  Study how Irenaeus of Lyons combated the heresy of Gnosticism.  Also study the Arian controversy and the making of the Nicene Creed.  Become familiar with the early Church before the Schism of 1054.  I also recommend they read the fourth century Catechetical Lectures by Patriarch Cyril of Jerusalem which describe the Holy Week services in Jerusalem.  When I read Cyril’s lectures I was struck by how much they can be used to describe the Holy Week services of Orthodoxy today.  I don’t think the contemporary Roman Catholic approach to Lent and Easter much resembles the liturgical celebrations of the early Church.

My advice to Protestants in the middle of a theological crisis is this: Don’t rush, take your time.  Carefully study the Church Fathers, learn the ancient liturgies, and unlearn the modern habits of thought which have entangled the minds so many Protestants and Evangelicals.  Then ask yourself which church today bears a closer resemblance to the early Church.


You Must Give Up Your Catholicism

A Protestant ran up eagerly to an Orthodox priest and asked: “Father, what must I do to become Orthodox?”  The priest answered: “You must give up your Roman Catholicism.”  That anecdote made a powerful impression on me for it illustrated how much Protestantism has in common with the Roman Catholic Church.  Protestantism has its origins as a reaction to medieval Catholicism.  This probably explains why modern day Protestants who seek to recover a historic and sacramental theology have started wearing Roman Catholic collars and white robes.  Many will incorporate the “ancient” Nicene Creed into their church services, not realizing that they are using the version that has been tampered with by the Pope.  The Nicene Creed endorsed by the Ecumenical Councils did not have the Filioque clause (“…and the Son”).  These small “c” catholic Protestants have unwittingly biased themselves towards Roman Catholicism.

If one wants to go beyond medieval Catholicism to the early Church Fathers one must study the Church prior to the Schism of 1054.  A Protestant who lays aside not only their Protestant innovations but also the accretions from medieval Catholicism will be able to accept Holy Tradition as given by Christ to his Apostles and which has been faithfully safeguarded by Eastern Orthodoxy for the past two millennia.  This is the Pearl of Great Price.  It is recommended that the reader read Prof. Jaroslav Pelikan’s excellent The Vindication of Tradition which explores the value of tradition for the Christian faith and his five-volume The Christian Tradition which is likely the best work on historical theology today.


The Tragedy of the Best Kept Secret in America

Ethnic Festival

So, why did Jason Stellman make no mention of Orthodoxy?  Sadly, I believe that he has not taken the time needed to become acquainted with the Orthodox Church by attending her Liturgy (Sunday worship services), sitting down with her priests, talking things over with former Protestants who became Orthodox finding out from them how the wisdom of the ancient Church can be found in Orthodoxy today.

It is also a sad fact that many Americans have no awareness of Orthodoxy’s presence in America.  Much of this ignorance can be attributed to Orthodox Christians themselves.  We need to increase Orthodoxy’s public profile.  We need to go beyond ethnic festivals and ethnic parishes with Sunday services in incomprehensible languages.  We need Orthodox priests who like John Wesley have an evangelistic outlook:

I look on all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty, to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.

Orthodoxy in America needs to take our candle out from under the bowl and put it on a lamp stand for all to see.

You – the Orthodox Church – are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. (Matthew 6:14-15 paraphrased).


Metropolitan Philip

We need bold visionary Orthodox hierarchs like Metropolitan Philip who proclaimed: Come home America!  His Eminence also rebuked the Orthodox for making “Orthodoxy the best kept secret in America” because of their laziness and their being “busy taking care of their hidden ethnic ghettoes.”

It is time for Orthodoxy to stop being the hidden option for inquiring seekers.  People need to see the light of our Faith and to find a welcoming hand of greeting at the doorsteps of our churches.

Robert Arakaki





See also:

Michael Whelton’s journey from Roman Catholicism to Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox Christian Information Center’s page “Orthodoxy and Western Christianity: For Roman Catholic.”