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Tag: Steven Wedgeworth

Response No. 3 to Pastor Steven Wedgeworth’s “What is Eastern Orthodoxy?”

Response to Pastor Steven Wedgeworth’s “What is Eastern Orthodoxy?” — Trinity Talk Interview No. 3 (30 November 2009)

Pastor Steven Wedgeworth

In this blog posting I will be  responding to Pastor Wedgeworth’s November 30 Trinity Talk presentation.  This review will be structured along the lines of topics than chronology.  Given the large number of topics covered, I have grouped them into five broad categories: (1) why people are converting to Orthodoxy, (2) anti-Augustinianism, (3) Orthodoxy as civic religion, (4) unity with Rome, and (5) unity with Protestants.  To facilitate the review I will be referencing his statements by minute and second in the podcast.  At the end of the blog posting will be: (1) an assessment of Wedgeworth’s November 30 podcast, and (2) an assessment of the three talks as a whole.

I. Why are Reformed Christians Converting to Eastern Orthodoxy?  

In recent years there have been a growing number of Evangelicals and Reformed Christians converting to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Wedgeworth gave several reasons why people have become Orthodox.

Not Roman Catholicism (3:30)

According to Wedgeworth, some people see Eastern Orthodoxy as Roman Catholicism without the Pope.  So if you’re interested in leaving Protestantism but you’ve been brought up to believe that the Catholic Church is evil and the Pope is the Antichrist, then Orthodoxy becomes an alternative. (4:04)

My Response — What strikes me here is how Wedgeworth framed his answer with a negative bias: If you are anti-Protestant and you are anti-Catholic, then you are going to be pro-Orthodox.  I suspect that in most instances, people who became Orthodox did so for overwhelmingly positive reasons.  In all fairness to Protestant converts, most are serious Christians who are sincerely looking for the historic ancient church.  Those who are looking for the historic church prior to the 1500s are faced with two choices: Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

But before asking where they looked, Pastor Wedgeworth might have asked why? Why are they looking?  Many are looking because of the continuing weakness and fragmentation of Protestantism.  Others are looking because their own Protestant leaders have over the past several decades moved away from the Evangelical or Reformed status-quo, and moved towards to a more Liturgical and Sacramental Church.  New converts are often merely following the lead of their leaders — but following through with a more full and complete solution in Orthodoxy.  They want something more than a mere tweaking or reshuffling of old Protestant and Roman Catholic categories and practices — they want the historic Church.

Pastor Wedgeworth would also have done well to ask whoWho are the converts to Orthodoxy?  What is astounding about the converts into the Orthodox Church is their variety!  We find pastors, seminary students, lay leaders, and devoted long time Christians.  These are people who are deeply familiar with the beliefs and practices of their churches and have enjoyed years of warm fellowship there.  Converts come from all kinds of backgrounds: Evangelical, Charismatic, Anglican, and Roman Catholic.  Increasingly, converts to Orthodoxy include those from non-Christian background.  I highly recommend Kevin Allen’s podcast series Illumined Heart for stories about people coming to Orthodoxy.

Very Aesthetic (4:50)

Orthodoxy has a very aesthetic aspect to it.  Their worship is typically very beautiful — lots of chanting and singing, lots of gold.  The icon is very pretty.  (4:50)

My Response — The aesthetic elements of Orthodox worship are really New Testament or “Incarnational/Resurrection Upgrades” of Old Testament Tabernacle worship which were commanded in the Pentateuch.  Moses was ordered by God himself to organize the worship “according to the pattern” shown on Mt. Sinai.  See the section “According to the Pattern” in an earlier blog posting.  In addition, Evangelicals and Reformed Christians need to take seriously the biblical passages on the “beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4, Psalm 90:17), and worshiping the Lord in the beauty of holiness (I Chronicles 16:29; Psalm 110:3).

Beyond the aesthetic elements is the centrality of the Eucharist to Orthodox worship.  Many Protestants are drawn to Orthodox worship because of the centrality of the Eucharist and Orthodoxy’s firm belief that we truly receive the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  The focus on the Eucharist in the Sunday worship opens up the possibility of the Christian life as a profound union with the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It’s Different (5:05)

It feels so foreign.  It’s more authentic.  There’s a higher level of commitment, a stronger level of commitment.  It’s a very foreign looking church.  So to go to that church you’ve got to be weird. (5:27)

There’s something about weirdness that makes you feel you’re doing the right thing.  It’s a badge of honor.  We see that in the Reformed church; the stricter and tougher you are, the less like everyone else you are, the better (6:14)

Conversion Sickness

With respect to “weirdness,” Pastor Wedgeworth concedes that the Reformed also value what he calls “weirdness.”  And is it “conversion sickness” if someone embraces the Reformed faith?  I doubt Pastor Wedgeworth would warm to this label if it is applied to him and his friends.  What he calls “weird” in Orthodoxy, most Orthodox Christians would merely call “historic.”  Think of a callow American teenager who hangs out at the mall and on upon visiting a home of one of the royals in England and declares: “Weird!”

It is not helpful for Pastor Wedgeworth to label conversions to Orthodoxy as “conversion sickness.” (2:52)  Apparently, this is a reference to an emotional need to be different or weird.  He may have said this tongue in cheek but the frivolous tone diminishes the importance of this life changing decision and the high price some converts have had to pay.  Furthermore, I believe that this sound bite answer has muddied the waters between Orthodoxy and Reformed Christians.  It can lead to Protestants attributing emotional reasons for why so-and-so decided to become Orthodox, rather than engaging in a reasoned dialogue about worship, doctrine, and life in Christ.  This is a subtle form of ad hominem attack, i.e., questioning the emotional stability of converts.

Two Converts: Peter Gillquist and Frank Schaeffer

Metropolitan Philip welcoming the Evangelicals in 1987

Metropolitan Philip welcoming the Evangelicals in 1987  Link

Pastor Wedgeworth discussed two well known Protestant converts to Orthodoxy: Peter Gillquist and his friends from Campus Crusade for Christ, and Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis Schaeffer.  When I listened to the interview I was bewildered to hear Peter Gillquist’s and his friends described as identifying with New Age mysticism. (9:44)  In an email Pastor Wedgeworth admits that he confused Gillquist’s group with the Holy Order of MANS, another group that was received into the Orthodox Church.  The fact that Wedgeworth confused two very different groups highlights his unfamiliarity with Orthodoxy.  I do appreciate his willingness to correct this error in private, but I believe that he and Trinity Talk are morally obligated to include a brief correction paragraph on the webpage listing his interviews so as not to bear false witness against Fr. Gillquist and his fellow Evangelicals.

[Note: On 3-April-2012, Pastor Wedgeworth wrote a comment in which he graciously conceded the error.  See below in the comment section.  It should be noted that several groups converted to Orthodoxy.  Those formerly with Campus Crusade for Christ, including Peter Gillquist, were received by the Antiochian Orthodox Church.  Those formerly with the Holy Order of MANS were received by the Orthodox Church of America.  It is understandable that unless one is familiar with the details that confusion can arise. RA]

For those who listened to Wedgeworth’s talks, the best thing is to go directly to the sources — those who made the switch.  Those interested in learning how a group of Campus Crusade top leadership ended up in the Orthodox Church should read Peter Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox.  Also, there is a four part podcast series: A Journey to the Ancient Church.

See also “From Becoming Orthodox to Being Orthodox” Again Interviews Father Peter Gillquist.

And, Father Peter Gillquist’s recent reflection on their journey to Orthodoxy shortly after the passing of his friend and colleague, Fr. Jack Sparks in 2010.

Frank Schaeffer at Calvin Forum

Frank Schaeffer at Calvin Forum

Wedgeworth describes Frank Schaeffer’s reason as: “Orthodoxy doesn’t preach at you; they don’t tell you how to live your life.” (10:24)  Apparently he heard this on a television interview.  It makes me wonder if Wedgeworth had read Frank Schaeffer’s Dancing Alone or watched his videotaped testimonies.  At a Calvin Forum interview Frank Schaeffer talks about his “Jurassic Park” experience with Orthodoxy in California.

See also Frank Schaeffer’s “Is the Ancient Church Out of Date?


My Response — What I find so striking about Pastor Wedgeworth’s answer were the reasons he did not mention.  One reason why so many people convert to Orthodoxy is their attraction to the early church.  This interest in the early church is often a reaction to theological liberalism in mainline denominations, or to the excesses of contemporary worship in Evangelical and Charismatic churches.  Another appeal is the profound unity of the early church that stands in stark contrast to the bewildering denominational diversity of Protestantism.  And then there is Orthodoxy’s Tradition.  This two thousand years old Tradition dates back to the original Apostles.  This Tradition gives Orthodoxy a tremendous doctrinal stability which is sadly lacking in Protestantism.  Many have made the decision to convert to Orthodoxy after studying church history and historical theology.

One does not just get up and “become Orthodox” by walking down the aisle, or make a “decision” prayer to become Orthodox.  Orthodox priests are trained to be cautious, and are quick to slow zealous converts down.  The process is a slow one, sometimes taking several years.  Those who desire to become Orthodox must become catechumens and faithful attendees of the Divine Liturgy and other services for an extended period of time before they are received into the Church — usually by chrismation and sometimes by baptism.

People who want to learn why people convert to Orthodoxy would do well to read or listen to Journey to Orthodoxy.  These stories are valuable in that they provide empirical data about real peoples’ spiritual growth and how their theology changed.  The variety of reasons why people are becoming Orthodox is fascinating and informative.

Recommended website: Journey to Orthodoxy.

Recommended YouTube video: Peter Gillquist “Why Protestant Clergy are Coming to the Orthodox Church.”

Recommended books: Peter Gillquist Becoming Orthodox; Frederica Mathewes-Green Facing East; Matthew Gallatin Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.


II.  Anti-Augustine

One surprise for me as I listened to Pastor Wedgeworth’s three talks was the attention he gave to anti-Augustinianism in Orthodoxy.  Wedgeworth notes:

If you don’t like Augustine, if you feel Original Sin and predestination too harsh, you don’t have many respectable option.  Most people in our circle won’t be interested in going to a mainline church.” (6:38)  

Orthodoxy is the only Christian option if you don’t like Augustine. (7:22)

According to Wedgeworth, many of those who convert have been turned off by traditional Christian theology and in reaction will say: “That’s because it’s Western theology; the East can be my refuge in that regard.” (12:40)  He devotes quite a bit of time to refuting the anti-Augustine attitude held by certain Orthodox Christians.  He notes that at a recent theological conference the consensus was that the hostility to Augustine was a recent post-1940 phenomenon and that for some Orthodox Christians it served as a boundary marker making them different from the West. (21:37 to 24:50)

My Response — The first thing to note is the fact that Wedgeworth relied heavily on the academic authority of seminaries to make his point.  Seminaries may play a major role in shaping theology in the West but that is not the case with Orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy takes a more ecclesial approach to doctrine, e.g., the decisions by bishops, by church councils, the Ecumenical Councils, and the patristic consensus.  The important fact here is that no Orthodox hierarch or church council has formally condemned Augustine of Hippo.

Book by Seraphim Rose

Book by Seraphim Rose

Orthodoxy’s disagreement is not so much with Augustine himself, but with Western Christianity’s excessive reliance on him for their theological systems.  As with Anselm and Aquinas, Protestants take Augustine beyond where even he would be willing to go.  When waves of barbarian tribes invaded the western half of the Roman Empire that part of the world entered into what is known as the Dark Ages.  The decline in learning, commerce, and long distance communication resulted in isolation and insularity.  In time the Latin West lost touch with the Greek Fathers and became increasingly reliant on Augustine to the exclusion of other Latin Fathers.  Ironically, as the Catholic Church became almost exclusively Augustinian it began to lose its catholicity!

The eastern half of the Roman Empire did not experience a Dark Age like the West.  The capital city of Constantinople continued to thrive as a political capital, a center of learning, and as a spiritual center.  Because learning was still alive and well in the Byzantine Empire many of the clergy and laity were able to read the New Testament in the original Greek as well as the Greek Fathers.  It is a well known fact that Augustine himself never mastered Greek!

I did not join the Orthodox Church out of animosity to Augustine or a fundamental disagreement with his theology.  I did come across anti-Augustine rhetoric from time to time in my reading, but I never gave them much weight.  My problem is more with the followers of Augustine who turned his teachings into fundamental dogmas of the Faith.  I believe that Wedgeworth is making a mountain out a molehill.


III.  Orthodoxy as an Ethnic or Civic Religion (17:56)

One thing that strikes me as I listened to all three interviews is Wedgeworth’s institutional understanding of the Orthodox Church.  This carries over to his presenting Orthodoxy as a civic religion.  He does not give any room to the Orthodox Church as a community of faith where genuine Christian spirituality can and do flourish.  This, however, is a common reality throughout the world, especially in recent years with the fall of the Soviet Union, where many zealous converts are entering Orthodoxy there, as well as here in the US and other countries.

His anecdote about the Serbian family who abandoned their Orthodox roots and joined the Episcopal church in order to assimilate over simplifies a complex situation.  Many immigrant families tenaciously held to their Orthodox roots, while others abandoned theirs in the attempt to become American. (19:06)  Oftentimes ethnic Orthodox churches functioned more as ethnic clubs than faith communities.  This also happens in the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches as well.  There are also stories of faithful cradle Orthodox Christians who have a deep commitment to Jesus Christ.

While nominalism is certainly to be avoided, ethnic Orthodoxy is not necessarily a bad thing.  It can be viewed as fulfillment of the Great Commandment in which the Apostles were sent out to “disciple the nations.”  Note that Christ did not command them to disciple individuals but ethnic groups.  In ethnic Orthodoxy we find the convergence of the cultural mandate in Genesis with the missionary mandate of the Gospels.  The Orthodox missions tradition is based on the Incarnation.  Salvation in Christ does not entail the abandonment of our culture but rather its fulfillment.  To insist on a local parish that transcends earthly culture is to risk falling into a form of Gnosticism.  Thus, the Gospels and church life must take root in the host culture.  The Orthodox Church honors Saints Kyril and Methodios, two missionaries who translated the Liturgy and Scripture into the Slavic language.  I recently came across a quote attributed to them:

To conduct the Divine Services in a language not known by the people is like writing in sand; it could not bear any spiritual fruit.

I can respect those who wish to have their Orthodox parish maintain their cultural heritage but I also see the need for Orthodox parishes with all English services and rooted in American culture.  We can thank the ethnic parishes for bringing Orthodoxy to America, now it is time to bring Orthodoxy to Americans — in a language they understand and in a culture they can relate to.


IV.  Unity Possible Between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism? (24:55)

St. Mark of Ephesus

Pastor Wedgeworth answered bluntly: “I don’t think it’s possible.” (24:57)  He recalls reading an article in which the author states that the only difference between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism was the Papacy.  He quips: “But that’s like asking Mrs. Lincoln: ‘Other than that, how was the play?'”  Then in a more serious vein, he adds: “That’s huge!”  He notes that any attempt to unify Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy would be a replay of the Council of Florence.  He points to Mark of Ephesus as an example of Orthodoxy’s opposition to union with Rome.  His icon shows him holding a scroll with the words: “I condemn the heresies of the Latins.”  Wedgeworth closes:

They found it mutually beneficial to be different from the mainstream Evangelicals; and they’re both equally bizarre to American eyes.  They’re interested in recovering an Old World pre-modern church, but they can’t unite. (26:56)

My response — The approach Pastor Wedgeworth takes here is curiously untheological.  What he fails to highlight is the issue of authority.  For Orthodoxy the source of faith and practice is the Apostolic Tradition; for Roman Catholicism, it is the Pope.  Behind that is the understanding of the structure of the church; Roman Catholicism assumes the understanding the church as a monarchy, Eastern Orthodoxy views the church as conciliar, the consensus of the church based on Tradition.

Pastor Wedgeworth’s claim that the two churches find it “mutually beneficial to be different” is problematic on several levels.  One, it is insulting in its insinuation that the root cause of the differences is psychological, not theological conviction.  Two, it doesn’t match social reality.  As American society becomes increasingly postmodern and post-Christian, the Evangelicals and conservative Protestants are increasingly being perceived as bizarre and out of touch with the American mainstream.  Three, while some Catholics are ultra-traditionalist, many more are seeking to adapt Catholic faith and practice to contemporary culture.  Four, the late Pope John Paul II worked hard to repair relations between East and West.  In sum, to say that the two traditions are apart because they find it “mutually beneficial” is misleading and insulting.  Here Pastor Wedgeworth muddies the water and in so doing does a disservice to his listeners.


V.  How Should Protestant Evangelicals Interact with the Orthodox Church? (27:44) 

I found a lot to like in this section.  Pastor Wedgeworth brings a positive attitude to Orthodox-Reformed interaction.  He notes:

We should be able to work with the Orthodox in their best expression. (28:08)  

He recounts how at the time of the Reformation the Reformers had high hopes that reform would also come to the Orthodox Church.  The basic assumption was that since both sides opposed the Papacy, they would have much in common and that what differences they had would be minor. (28:26)  He points to Cyril Lucaris, the one time Patriarch of Constantinople, who was open to Reformed ideas. (28:44 ff.)  Wedgeworth points to Orthodox and Reformed Christians sharing the belief that the civil magistrate, not the Pope, should order a Christian social order. (29:41)

Then in a shift to a more sober tone, Wedgeworth observes that the Reformers underestimated how difficult it would be to bring the Protestant Reformation to the East. (30:05)  He attributes Orthodoxy’s resistance to reform to their being “very fond of their ecclesiology, liking it just the way it is.” (30:14)  He notes: “They don’t even recognize us as a church!”  He concludes:

Until they come to a position for a need for reform, we will not be able to talk unity.  We won’t be able to join in ecumenical activity.  There’s not a whole lot we can do.  (30:29)

In the face of the serious differences between Orthodox and Reformed traditions, Pastor Wedgeworth calls for a loving and positive attitude in the face of a long and difficult task.

The best we can do is respect them, affirm the possibility that they are Christians by faith in Jesus. (31:15)  

The only way you can get anywhere with anyone is charity.  You’ve got to be nice, assume the best of them and hope they will assume the best of you.  (32:37)

My Response — I commend Pastor Wedgeworth for his positive and open attitude to ecumenical relations with Orthodoxy, and for his honest recognition of the major obstacles that stand between the two traditions.  I was heartened to hear him throw cold water on cheap ecumenicism that breezily calls for Reformed churches to invite Orthodox Christians to their Communion table.  Wedgeworth points out that any Orthodox Christians who does this would be excommunicated. (31:10)  However, some have suggested Orthodox and non-Orthodox can work together for a united Christian witness that is pro-life in the broad sense of the word in an increasingly post-Christian society.  This is worth looking into.

Talking Point — The Early Church Fathers  (31:29)

Wedgeworth notes that the huge church fathers collection — Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers — was started by Philip Schaff and was a joint effort by Protestants. (31:40) He sees this as a point of commonality between Orthodoxy and the Reformed tradition.  He boldly claims of the Reformed tradition: “We are the heirs of the church fathers, heirs of the early church.” (32:25)  He then notes that the likely Orthodox response will be a skeptical: “Are you really?” (32:25)

My Response — With respect to Orthodox-Reformed dialogue, I would like echo what Pastor Wedgeworth said earlier: “We should be able to work with them in their best expression.”

Athanasius the Great in bishop’s vestments

I like Pastor Wedgeworth’s suggestion that Protestants engage the early church fathers.  The early church fathers series is a valuable resource for both Protestants and Orthodox.  They also provide a point of commonality.  The original Reformers made extensive use of the early church fathers.  However, just taking a book off the shelf and reading it is not enough.  One needs to be mindful of the way one reads the patristic texts.  The vast majority of the church fathers held offices as bishops and were part of a unified Church.  Thus, when Orthodox Christians read the church fathers they look for the patristic consensus.  They also read the fathers within the context of the Ecumenical Councils.  They avoid cherry picking passages that support their own individual agendas which is what Protestants often seem to do.  Protestants need to be wary of imposing their Protestant or modern mental habits on these ancient Christian writings.   In light of the fact that every one of these church fathers believed in (1) the episcopal authority of the bishop over the local church, (2) the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, (3) apostolic succession, (4) the importance of honoring Mary as the Theotokos, and (5) the binding authority of the Ecumenical Councils one cannot assume them to be pre-Reformation Protestants; they weren’t!

For the Orthodox, “working with their best expression” means affirming Protestantism’s respect for Scripture by showing how the faith and practice of Orthodoxy are consistent with Scripture.  I’ve tried to do this in my blog postings that show the biblical basis for icons and for Holy Tradition.  I have also tried to show how the patristic consensus and the Ecumenical Councils provide a solid and useful framework for interpreting the Bible.  I have tried to show that the Orthodox interpretation of Scripture is grounded in a historic tradition that goes back to the Apostles.

I would like add one more important area for Orthodox-Reformed dialogue — Christian worship.  The dialogue can proceed along two issues: one where there is significant agreement and one where there is significant disagreement.  The recent interest in the Eucharist and the real presence in the Eucharist in certain Reformed circles can provide common ground for discussion with Orthodox Christians.  The recent Orthodox apologia for icons on biblical grounds need to be given serious attention by Reformed Christians.  They cannot dismiss it out of hand in light of the fact that people who have studied at some of the best Reformed seminaries have found biblical grounds for the use of icons in worship.  To uncritically refuse to take a look at the biblical evidence would be a betrayal of the original Reformers’ appeal to the authority of Scripture.

One area where I believe Orthodox Christians can learn from Protestants is the art of biblical exposition in the sermon.  The Protestants’ love for Scripture is something that we should all emulate.  This is not a call for long elaborate sermons that dominate the worship service or shows off the minister’s rhetorical flair.  But Protestants can help the Orthodox with making clear, organized expositions of the Faith.  Much can be done in a 15 to 20 minute homily that prepares our hearts and minds for the Eucharist.


CONCLUSION 1 — Interview No. 3

As I listened to Wedgeworth’s November 30 podcast I was impressed that he knew of the Council of Florence, St. Mark of Ephesus, Cyril Lucaris, and John Zizioulas.  At the same time I am dismayed that he confused Peter Gillquist’s group of Evangelicals with the Holy Order of MANS.  Much of this can be attributed to his being an outsider.  It would have been good if the Trinity Talk interview was done with a knowledgeable Orthodox Christian, preferably a Protestant convert to Orthodoxy who is familiar with both traditions.

Wedgeworth’s tendency to psychologize conversions to Orthodoxy is demeaning.  Using psychological explanations implies that the other side lacks a rational basis for their position.  It would have been better for him to show the flawed reasoning behind peoples’ beliefs and practices.

Pastor Wedgeworth’s charitable and frank approach to Orthodox-Reformed dialogue is something I heartily agree with.  It serves as a good role model for Orthodox-Reformed dialogue elsewhere.  My hope is that this will not be the last word by Wedgeworth on Eastern Orthodoxy and that in the future we will hear him engaging in a face-to-face dialogue with a Reformed convert to Orthodoxy.  That would be interesting!

CONCLUSION 2 — All Three Interviews

As noted in the first blog review, it is evident that Pastor Wedgeworth has done a fair amount of reading about Orthodoxy and has even taken the trouble to attend Orthodox services.  I consider him one of the more informed and balanced Reformed commentators on Eastern Orthodoxy.  However, a similar pattern of weaknesses also recur: oversimplification, unbalanced presentation of the issues, unfamiliarity with Orthodoxy’s finer points, and some egregious errors that calls for correction or public retraction.  Much of this could have been avoided if a member of the Orthodox Church was invited to the Trinity Talk series.  What the listeners learn about Orthodoxy here is filtered by Pastor Wedgeworth.  A direct exchange between Pastor Wedgeworth and a committed Orthodox Christian would be more conducive to critical thinking and spiritual discernment.  Wedgeworth’s Trinity Talk should not be viewed as the final word on the matter but a first step in understanding an important and complex issue.  As growing numbers of Protestants convert to Orthodoxy it becomes increasingly pressing for Reformed Christians to investigate Eastern Orthodoxy.

Robert Arakaki


Response No. 2 to Pastor Steven Wedgeworth’s “What is Eastern Orthodoxy?”

Response to Pastor Steven Wedgeworth’s “What is Eastern Orthodoxy?” — Trinity Talk Interview No. 2 (16 November 2009)

Trinity Talk
, an Internet radio blog, did a three part series with Pastor Steven Wedgeworth on the Eastern Orthodox Church.  The interviews took place on November 2, 16, and 30, 2009.  In this blog posting I will be  responding to Pastor Wedgeworth’s November 16 presentation.  This review will be structured along the lines of topics than chronology.  Given the large number of topics covered, I have grouped them into four broad categories: (1) Orthodox worship, (2) the Orthodox Church, (3) Converts to Orthodoxy, and (4) West versus East.  To facilitate the review I will be referencing his statements by minute and second in the pod cast.


I. Orthodox Worship: Icons Congregational Participation Visiting an Orthodox Church

Icons and Orthodox Worship

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church - Springdale, Arkansas

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church – Springdale, Arkansas

Wedgeworth describes what it’s like to enter an Orthodox church:

You walk into an Orthodox Church and to see an Orthodox sanctuary is an amazing thing. You see icons everywhere.  All along the wall.  You see large icons up in the front.  You see icons of the Virgin Mary (they call her the Theotokos), of John the Baptist and of Jesus himself. (6:33) 

He does a good job presenting the Orthodox understanding of icons:

It’s a portal.  It’s a connection between heaven and earth. (9:09)

Typically, the Orthodox answer is that you are not praying to the icon, but you are asking the saint pictured in the icon to pray for you. (8:30)  

He notes that some Reformed Christians might get anxious at seeing Orthodox Christians venerating icons:

Your nerves will get tight when you see people bowing, burning incense, praying to the icon.  Many Protestants will want to leave because of what they think is idolatry. (10:13) 

The problem comes when you’re actually participating in the use of icons in worship. (10:45)  

Pastor Wedgeworth did a good job of describing what one can expect to see upon entering an Orthodox church.  He does not see any problem with Evangelicals attending a lecture or Sunday School class at an Orthodox Church (10:34).  My advice to Evangelicals visiting an Orthodox worship service is: Don’t feel obligated to venerate the icons or to cross yourself.  The best thing is to just observe what is going on in the services and don’t be quick to judge.  Visiting an Orthodox service is a lot like visiting a foreign culture.  Be respectful of your host culture and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Let me offer an exhortation to first time visitors: Be slow to judge that which is unfamiliar to you. The ability to suspend judgment is critical to intellectual growth. Some people (Protestants included) are far too ready to make quick judgments before they understand both sides of the argument. Or, they believe they possess true understanding long before they have all the facts at hand. Remember, you cannot see or read peoples’ hearts or their motives.

Congregational Participation in Worship (7:51)

I wondered: Did Pastor Wedgeworth visit mostly Russian Orthodox churches?  He notes:

The Orthodox church service is completely chanted or sung. (7:51)  Other than that you’re not doing much.  You’re not reading Scripture.  You’re not engaged in lengthier prayers and responses.

It’s important to keep in mind that congregational participation vary across jurisdictions.  I often visit a nearby Russian Orthodox church.  Much of the services there are sung or chanted.  Congregational participation is also affected by the amount of non-English used.  The Greek Orthodox church I attend use a mixture of English and Greek.  My experience has been that the Antiochian Orthodox and OCA churches are most likely to have all English services and encourage congregational participation.

Remember that style of participation varies even among Protestants: you have sober Reformed services, elaborate Anglican liturgy, exuberant charismatic services, and the simple Plymouth Brethren services. Just because the Orthodox do not participate “just-like” Protestants, does not mean they are not engaged, body and soul, in worship, there is more going on than you might think.

Evangelicals Visiting an Orthodox Church

Wedgeworth has a somewhat open attitude to Evangelicals visiting Orthodox services.  It’s okay to attend Orthodox services, so long as you don’t venerate icons.  As far as Wedgeworth’s criticism of Orthodox veneration of icons as idolatry, I would encourage visitors to go to an Orthodox Liturgy with an open mind.  Go and observe what goes on in the Liturgy.  Feel free to ask questions about what is going on in the Liturgy and the role of icons in Orthodox worship.  And before criticizing the Orthodox approach to icons learn from both sides: the Reformed and the Orthodox.  Don’t get your information from one side only.  I’ve written a number of articles that attempt to explain icons to Reformed Christians who have reservations about the use of icons in Christian worship.  (Please visit my Archives section – Icons.)


II.  The Orthodox Church: Historical Development Church Authority Church Unity

Orthodoxy’s “Dirty Secret” — Historical Development (12:07)

Pastor Wedgeworth was likely mistaken when he inserted the word “exactly” into the statement: “This is the Apostolic Faith exactly as if you heard it from the Apostles’ mouths. (12:42)”  Those who are well versed in Orthodoxy, if they do make such claims, are simply saying that there exists a deep, organic or fundamental continuity between Orthodox praxis today and the ancient Apostolic church.  By ignoring these nuances Wedgeworth is setting up a simplistic dichotomy between “no change” versus “all has changed.”

I found Wedgeworth’s unqualified endorsement of evolutionary development disturbing:

We say some things now of necessity we would not have said earlier in the church’s history. (13:01)  

When I heard him saying: “If you’re saying the Nicene Creed, you’re engaging in doctrinal development,” I found myself wondering how far he would take this thinking.  He goes on to say that the controversy over Christ’s divinity was the result of Athanasius and Arius following a theological trajectory set by Origen (13:44).  Wedgeworth went on:

They (Athanasius and Arius) both represent different strands of that tradition and so they butted heads and through that infighting we got new language and new rules about what can and cannot be said.

He made similar observations about the Nestorian and the Monophysite controversies (13:37).  I found myself thinking: “Where’s the Scriptural teaching about Christ’s divinity?  And where are the primitive Christological confessions that formed part of the oral tradition?”  His cavalier treatment of the Ecumenical Councils strikes me as a risky position for an Evangelical theologian to take.  Belittling the Ecumenical Councils leads to the unmooring of Evangelical theology from the historic Christian faith.  Would it not be better to assume the Apostles really did receive the Truth promised from the Holy Spirit and that they delivered it to their disciples as Holy Tradition?  Isn’t this the logical understanding based on the promises of Christ found in Scripture?

Wedgeworth sounds at times like a secular historian with a shaky commitment to the eternal truths of the Gospel.  Are we think that after all twelve Apostles died that the church ended up as warring theological factions and that the Holy Spirit was not there to guide the Church into all truth?  Are we to infer that the doctrines of Christ’s divinity, his two natures, and the Trinity were all the result of one church faction prevailing over others?  Furthermore, Wedgeworth seems to ignore the well respected late Yale historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, who wrote about the traditioning process that goes on in the midst of doctrinal development.  Wedgeworth’s relativistic approach to historical theology reminds me of an aphorism I heard often in liberal Protestant circles: “Yesterday’s heresy, today’s orthodoxy.”  As a former member of a liberal Protestant denomination chills run down my back whenever I hear this aphorism.

Let’s pause and ask: How much has our theology influenced our reading of the New Testament and church history?  Most early churches started in the Jewish synagogues.  We also find the original Apostles and St. Paul continued to worship at the Jerusalem Temple (Acts 3:1, 21:26).  Wouldn’t it be natural for us to expect our Reformed friends who espouse a covenantalist approach to the praxis and polity of the early church with the assumption of a fundamental, organic continuity with the Apostolic Church? Where the Dispensationalists tend to wipe the slate clean between Covenants (called Dispensations) and see ‘Discontinuity’ in God starting something mostly new and different from before, Reformed Covenantalists see a fundamental ‘Continuity’ in the way God works between Covenants. They see in biblical history God maturing what He started before; that what blooms and flowers in the Christological Covenant was there in seed form in God’s covenant with Abraham. But when it comes to the early Church and the deposit of the Faith once and all received from the Apostles, we find to our surprise Reformed Christians reading church history like a Dispensationalist or a Roman Catholic – with all manner of discontinuities and innovations. Why is this?  The Protestant disavowal of apostolic continuity and the assumption of a Discontinuity between the Apostolic Church and the church of today bears a striking resemblance to Dispensationalism’s Gap Theory: the Age of the Church falls into a gap between the Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of national Israel and the literal millennial reign of Christ.

When we consider that the early Christians held the Apostolic Fathers and the early Church Fathers in high regard similar to the Apostles of Christ, we have to wonder where lies the Discontinuity by Wedgeworth.  The Apostles were viewed as the foundation stones of the Church and the Church Fathers were viewed as building on the foundations laid by the Apostles.  There is no hint of a widespread apostasy in church history.  In assuming such a Discontinuity Wedgeworth seems to understanding church history like a Dispensationalist.  If we regard the Apostolic Tradition handed down from the Apostles much like Moses’ Law and the Prophets – then our Reformed friends are being shy in applying the “General Equity” of the Law, and not only that, are acting more like selective, cherry-picking Anabaptist Antinomians! They mine the Apostolic Fathers for gems and nuggets they might like to keep for their use. But there is little regard for the binding validity of the Holy Tradition received by the Apostle from the Holy Spirit – and delivered once and for all to the Church (Jude 3).

This leaves me with the impression that paradoxically Wedgeworth does church history from the standpoint of a secular church historian and/or a fundamentalist dispensationalist.  I would argue that a more sound approach to church history and historical theology is to combine the Reformed Covenantalist reading of Scripture with the Orthodox understanding of a fundamental continuity between the original Apostles and the church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

Church Authority (20:00)

Pastor Wedgeworth is technically correct when he states that apostolic succession is the basis for church authority (20:00).  However as I noted in my earlier blog posting, he neglects the role of Holy Tradition.  Authority in the Orthodox Church is not just institutional authority but is also grounded in Apostolic Tradition.  If a bishop were to deviate from Tradition, his institutional authority is nullified.  Furthermore, the authority of the bishop is catholic in nature.  He exercises pastoral authority as part of the church catholic.  There is no such thing as an independent bishop.  Any bishop who attempts to lead his diocese independently of the church catholic becomes a schismatic and the parishes under his leadership cease to be churches.  For this reason adherence to the Ecumenical Councils is an important indication of a valid church authority.

Wedgeworth presented accurately the Orthodox view of Protestantism: “We’re not the church.  We’re a schism from a schism.” (22:22)  This harsh assessment stems from the Orthodox understanding of the church described above.  For Orthodoxy the Church is not a human creation, an association of like minded believers who love Jesus.  For Orthodoxy the Church is a supernatural creation founded by Jesus Christ.  It is the household of God, the New Israel, the Pillar of Truth.

Wedgeworth asserts that apostolic succession in the Byzantine Empire became nationalized.  His insinuation that apostolic authority in Orthodoxy rests on the power of the state is misleading and wrong.  The authority of the church is a covenantal authority bestowed by the Suzerain, Jesus Christ, on his designated followers, the Apostles.  The Liturgy, especially the weekly Eucharist, is an act of covenant renewal; however, covenant renewal can only take place where there is valid covenant authority.  Picking up a Bible and preaching from it does not suffice.  One needs to be part of an unbroken chain of apostolic traditioning.

With respect to Apostolic Tradition Pastor Wedgeworth notes: “We Reformed Christians, we’re followers of the Apostles.  We teach the same doctrines.  And our pastors, priests, bishops come from the same line (20:44).”  The problem is that picking up the Bible does not make you part of Apostolic Tradition; just as picking up a copy of the US Constitution makes you an American citizen.  Nor does getting a law degree makes you an heir of the tradition of the colonial fathers!

Orthodox Unity in America and Abroad  (24:53)

Pastor Wedgeworth strongly denies that Orthodoxy speaks with one voice (24:53).  He notes that historically there were different patriarchates that operated on the basis of autocephaly — one being a head unto themselves.  He notes that Moscow does not have to submit to Constantinople and visa versa.  He notes that historically it was the Byzantine emperor who would have been the head of the church.  What he put his signature on would have been the unifying doctrine (25:23). He seems to assume that the unity of the early church was principally an external administrative unity and not an internal organic unity based on a shared Apostolic Faith.

But the fact remains that Orthodox across jurisdictions share in the Orthodox Tradition: the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Divine Liturgy, and church leadership based on Holy Tradition. Regardless of jurisdictions, they  are united in faith and worship.  The key sign of this unity is the fact that a member of the  Antiochian Orthodox church can receive Communion at a Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox church.  Their priests often substitute for each other; they teach at each other’s seminaries. Wedgeworth’s criticisms seem to imply that he expects to see administrative and organizational unity along the lines of the Roman Catholic church.

This high degree of real doctrinal and practical unity is all but lost in the way Wedgeworth highlighted the administrative overlaps and redundancies. It is as if he would prefer they unify under a Pope who speaks with one voice! This sort of obfuscation all but bespeaks an intent to argue for disunity where real unity exists. One can only speculate why he wishes to paint such a view of Orthodoxy? Granted, most Orthodox Christians pray and long for even more unity in America, but to imply Orthodoxy speaks with a many-voiced disarray – is all but unconscionable.


III.  Converts to Orthodoxy (28:24)

Orthodox Convert in Hawaii

Wedgeworth relates that he saw an article about Orthodoxy growing as Protestants and Catholics convert to Orthodoxy.  He expressed surprise and skepticism at the claim that 70 percent of the priests in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese are converts (28:44).  He responds: “Let’s get real!  That’s a real challenge to uniformity.”  (29:39)  I find his dismissive incredulity insulting. If he finds the fact that so many priests are converts so hard to believe all he has to do is do further research.  He could contact a local Orthodox priest and ask: “Is it true that so many Orthodox priests are converts?  And how has it affected Orthodox tradition having so many converts from non-Orthodox backgrounds?”  It seems that he hasn’t taken the time to do the necessary follow-up. This I find disappointing.  His Protestant listeners deserve better.

Here in Hawaii the statistics hold up.  On the island of Oahu the priest of the Greek Orthodox church is a convert from the Episcopal Church.  At the Russian Orthodox church the rector is a cradle Orthodox, while the assisting priest is a convert from Roman Catholicism.  That comes out to 66 percent of the Orthodox clergy being converts.  If we factor in the OCA mission on the Big Island, we find that the priest is a convert from the Episcopal Church.  That changes the percentage from 66 percent to 75 percent.  And if the paper work goes through for another priest from Canada who grew up unchurched the percentage goes up to 80 percent!  So the empirical reality here in Hawaii matches the statistics cited elsewhere.

As far as converts attempting to bring in their own views and attempting to change things in the Orthodox church, Wedgeworth completely misunderstands the situation.  In most instances converts from Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are traditionalists.  They left churches where doctrinal or worship innovations were rampant and joined the Orthodox Church because of its doctrinal and liturgical stability.


IV.  West versus East: Anti-Augustinianism Original Sin Neo-Palamism   Fr. Schmemann

Anti-Augustine Orthodoxy (15:41)

Pastor Wedgeworth describes the anti-Augustinian tendency among Orthodox Christians, especially immigrants from Russia or from the monasteries of Mount Athos.  These Orthodox Christians want to be as far from the West as possible.  Such that if something is from the West it must be bad, e.g., original sin, the doctrine of grace, predestination and free will.  This strain of anti-Augustinianism is a post-1940s phenomenon and does not represent historic Orthodoxy.

My response is that in a forum like Trinity Talk, Pastor Wedgeworth should be discussing the mainstream views of Orthodoxy, not the more extreme versions.  What he is doing is promoting unfounded caricatures that will hinder Orthodox-Reformed dialogue.

The Orthodox View of Original Sin  (11:58)

It seems that Wedgeworth has encountered some Orthodox zealots who have branded the Western doctrine of original sin heretical (16:02).  Wedgeworth notes that when pressed what they find objectionable about the Western doctrine of original sin they start to hedge and qualify their position.  But to be fair it seems that these Orthodox Christians have been reading the Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter VI.3: “They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed….”

Probably one of the biggest differences between Orthodox and Reformed Christians is not the question about the imputed nature of Original Sin, but the severity of the Fall.  Following Augustine, the West came to understand the Fall as meaning that Adam fell from a position of mature perfection into a state of absolute depravity and bondage to sin.  All of his descendants thereafter are now incapable of good desires, deeds, acts.  In contrast the East following Irenaeus of Lyons came to understand the Fall as meaning that Adam starting position was as a youth  fell from a state of undeveloped simplicity and that the image of God within us is distorted but not destroyed.  Probably, the most consequential difference is that where the West understands human nature as totally lacking in free will, the Eastern tradition believes that even after the Fall humans still possess free will. This can be found in Kallistos Ware’s excellent introduction The Orthodox Church (pp. 222-225).  For the Reformed the destruction of man’s free will is foundational for the doctrine of double predestination, and for the Orthodox the presence of free will even after the Fall is foundational to the Orthodox understanding of salvation as synergy — our cooperation with divine grace.

Fr. John S. Romanides article: “Original Sin According to St. Paul

Fr. Ernesto Obregon aticle: “Roman Catholic and Orthodox differences on Original Sin

Neo-Palamism as an Example of “New” Doctrine (14:35)

Pastor Wedgeworth’s claim that Neo-Palamism is a new and novel Orthodox doctrine shows his unfamiliarity with apophatic theology.  This is a rich strand of spiritual writings that Pastor Wedgeworth seems to unaware of.  When we compare Gregory’s theological method against his opponent Barlaam, who made use of the Western Scholasticism, we find him upholding a more ancient theological tradition.

Pastor Wedgeworth’s claim that Neo-Palamism is a new doctrine is flawed in more ways than one.  His logic in citing modern Orthodox theologians like Vladimir Lossky, Georges Florovsky, John Meyendorff et al. as proof of neo-Palamism makes no sense. Just because a spate of books by Reformed theologians came out recently about Calvin’s belief in the mystical union doesn’t make it a new doctrine.  Nor would it make it neo-Calvinism!  For the Orthodox a doctrinal novelty is a teaching that breaks from the teachings of the church fathers.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann a Heretic? (29:44)

Schmemann’s writings has been popular among Protestants and has helped many in their conversion to Orthodoxy.  I can still remember reading Schmemann’s For the Life of the World while waiting in line to confirm my plane reservation and being blown away by the sacramental world view Schmemann was presenting.

Pastor Wedgeworth concedes that many Protestants love the writings of the late Alexander Schmemann. This is a positive development and at the same time a curious thing in itself. There is little wonder why some Protestants from High-Church Reformed, Anglican and Lutheranism would enjoy Schmemann’s masterful elucidation of the Divine Liturgy in his For The Life of the World. But why Protestants pastors love and recommend it to each other without a thought of fallout is also puzzling. An elderly Greek Orthodox priest upon hearing that a Protestant pastor loved Schmemann’s book incredulously replied, “And he’s still Protestant?”

Fr. Schmemann with Alexander Solzhenitsyn

So I was dumbfounded to hear Pastor Wedgeworth claim that some bishops in Russia declared Fr. Schmemann to be heretic!  I searched the Internet and found no corroborating evidence in support of what Wedgeworth said.  I emailed several Orthodox priests and again came up empty.  I invite Pastor Wedgeworth to give us additional supporting evidence or else retract his libelous statement about Fr. Schmemann.


[Also, a quick Google search shows Fr. Schmemann to be held in high regard by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  See Solzhenitsyn’s letter about Fr. Schmemann.]


As noted in the first blog review, it is evident that Pastor Wedgeworth has done a fair amount of reading about Orthodoxy and has even taken the trouble to attend Orthodox services.  However, a similar pattern of weaknesses also recur: oversimplification, unbalanced presentation of the issues, unfamiliarity with Orthodoxy’s finer points, and some egregious errors that calls for correction or public retraction.  I will hold off until my review of his third and final pod cast Trinity Talk interview for an overall assessment of how good a job he did in presenting Eastern Orthodoxy to his audience.

 Robert Arakaki