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Responding to Pastor Jordan Cooper

“Five Reasons Why I am not Orthodox”

A reader asked for my thoughts about Pastor Jordan Cooper’s YouTube video “Five Reasons I am not Eastern Orthodox.” In this quite brief (15 minutes) video, Jordan Cooper concisely and eloquently gives his reasons for not converting to Orthodoxy. I very much enjoyed the thoughtful, irenic spirit of his presentation. While Pastor Cooper is an ordained Lutheran minister, his reasons for not converting echo the objections of many Reformed Christians. It is my hope that this article will stimulate a friendly and frank conversation between Protestants and Orthodox.

 

Objection 1 – Apophatic Theology

Pastor Jordan Cooper brings up apophatic theology (theology without words) as a great dividing factor between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity. He explains that apophatic theology uses the method of negation—stressing what God is not. In apophatic theology we strip away all thoughts and concepts of God. This way of doing theology is intertwined with Orthodox spirituality which stresses wordless, thoughtless prayer.

I was surprised and yet not surprised to hear Pastor Cooper bring up Orthodoxy’s apophaticism as an issue. I first learned about apophatic theology in my initial readings about Orthodoxy. However, in my journey to Orthodoxy as I met Orthodox Christians, attended the Sunday liturgies, and read the Church Fathers, the apophatic method was more in the background. As a matter of fact, when it comes to the typical week-by-week life of an Orthodox Christian, there is very little mention of apophatic theology.

There is a strong cataphatic (theology with words) element in Orthodoxy. When one hears the elaborate prayers said by the Orthodox priest in the Anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) one cannot but be struck by the way theological terms are laid upon theological terms in the description of who God is:

“You are without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, beyond words, unchangeable. You are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the great God and Savior of our hope, the image of Your goodness, the true seal of revealing in Himself You, the Father. He is the living Word, the true God, eternal wisdom, life, sanctification, power, and the true light.”

This tells us that Orthodoxy has no problem with cataphatic theology. Cataphatic theology is integral to Orthodoxy. I can understand why Pastor Cooper described Orthodoxy in this way, but it is simplistic and misleading. I suspect that his understanding of Orthodoxy comes primarily from reading books about Orthodoxy, rather than witnessing real-life Orthodoxy.

The real difference in theological method between Orthodoxy and Protestantism is threefold. The first major difference is that for Orthodoxy doctrine is something received, that is, passed down from generation to generation through the Church going back to the Apostles. In contrast, in Protestantism doctrine is based upon individual inductive reasoning with the biblical texts. Granted, individual Protestant theologians will often consult the Church Fathers. Yet the Holy Tradition of the Fathers have no prior claim but are merely advisory, and thus subordinate to his conclusions, either individually or in committee. The root source of this theological method is sola scriptura—a doctrine with no precedent in the early Church. None of the early Church Fathers opposed Scripture against Tradition, giving priority to Scripture over Tradition. The major Protestant confessions of the 1500s and 1600s were the result of the sharpest minds of a denomination coming together and hashing out their group’s statement of faith. This gives Protestant theology a humanly constructed or self-made nature. While the Reformers did not totally reject the idea of tradition and respected the early Church Fathers, they nevertheless subordinated these to the principle of sola scriptura. In many instances they set aside the Church Fathers for what they considered a “more” biblical teaching.

Zwingli and Luther at the Marburg Colloquy – 1529

This new way of doing theology led to a parting of ways from the ancient patristic theology and been at the root of Protestantism’s fragmentation for over 500 years. Rather than promoting unity, there has been a progressive splintering of Protestantism into several thousand separate individual denominations. One of the earliest failures of Protestant theology was the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 between Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Here were two Reformers deeply committed to sola scriptura but differed on the meaning of Scripture. Luther believed in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist while Zwingli believed that the Lord’s Supper was symbolic. They were unable to reach an agreement and went their separate ways resulting in one of the earliest denominational splits in Protestantism. Luther felt so strongly about his difference with Zwingli over the significance of the Lord’s Supper that he wrote:

Before I would have mere wine with the fanatics, I would rather receive sheer blood with the pope.

Father Josiah Trenham, author of Rock and Sand, gave a trenchant analysis of Protestant theology’s basic flaws:

By cutting the cords of Holy Tradition, and placing in its stead the doctrine of sola scriptura, the Protestants ensured theological divisiveness and fracture between themselves and their descendants and have only multiplied divisions, theories, and interpretations ad infinitum, with no end in view to this day. We may judge a tree by its fruit. The sola scriptura tree has borne the fruit of division and every conceivable heresy. (p. 275)

It is puzzling that Pastor Jordan Cooper did not bring up sola scriptura. One could say that sola scriptura is the crown jewel of Protestant theology and ought to be highlighted in any Protestant-Orthodox dialogue. Sola scriptura must not be overlooked, because it is foundational to Protestantism’s theology. Moreover, it has severed Protestantism from the patristic consensus and from the Ecumenical Councils, both of which are foundational to Orthodoxy. While Protestants have cited the Ecumenical Councils, they cannot claim to be in fellowship with the historic Church that gave us the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

The second major difference is that the Orthodox theology is liturgical theology. Theology books and statements of faith play a secondary in Orthodoxy. My journey to Orthodoxy did not really begin until I began attending on a regular basis an all-English Liturgy. It was after several months that I began to understand the Orthodox theological paradigm and more importantly dimly perceive the spiritual reality referred to in the Liturgy. In the Liturgy I began to sense the reality of God as Trinity in a way I had not in all the years I was a Protestant. As a Protestant I did indeed learn about God as Trinity, however, the Protestant teaching on the Trinity struck me as a convoluted abstraction. Orthodoxy does not attempt to explain the Trinity, but rather it invites the whole human person to be at the Liturgy, to participate in and experience the heavenly worship of the Trinity in all its fullness. This way of expressing and understanding doctrine reflects the ancient theological principle lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith).

The third major difference is that Orthodoxy has a twofold approach to knowing God. One way is through the intellectual study of Scripture and the Church Fathers. The other way is through prayer. One of the early Desert Fathers, Evagrius of Pontus, taught: “He who prays is a theologian and he who is a theologian truly prays.” This maxim points to the belief that one can go beyond understanding concepts about God to a personal knowledge of God. In other words, cataphatic theology should lead to apophatic theology. Both go together; just as the human person, the created Imago Dei, cannot be reduced to mere intellect — but is a unity of body, soul and spirit. This latter way of doing theology—spiritual ascent via prayer—ultimately depends upon divine grace and mercy.

Pastor Cooper has set up a false dichotomy when he contrasts the Eastern theology without words against the Western theology by analogy. He notes that in the Western God is known through analogy (2:27). In this method God’s love is likened to human love but far greater. He cites Martin Luther who said if you want to know what God is like look at the babe in the manger. The weakness of theology by analogy is its implicit denial of direct knowledge of God. Ultimately, will we only know about God’s love or will we truly know God who loves us? The goal of Orthodox spirituality is union with Christ and life in the Trinity (John 17:21-23). Protestantism’s rejection of apophatic theology has led to a rejection of contemplative prayer. In Protestantism prayer is understood primarily as petition (asking God for things) than as union with God. This has had a limiting effect on Protestant spirituality. Theology by negation is an important part of Orthodoxy, but it does not represent the totality of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy prays with words and without words. In Orthodoxy theology without words refers to experiencing God through prayer. Prayer without words can be viewed as the more advanced form of prayer.

 

Holy Transfiguration – Christ conversing with the deified Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:23-33)

Objection 2 — Theosis

The second reason Jordan Cooper gives is the Neo-Platonism underlying Orthodoxy’s doctrine of theosis (4:03, 4:44). He points to Pseudo-Dionysius, the Palamite tradition, and the twentieth century theologian Vladimir Lossky as evidence. I have heard this criticism before, but this criticism to me seems based more on assertions than on evidence-based arguments. I invite Pastor Jordan Cooper or other Protestants to show me the evidence. Then I would ask them to explain how Neo-Platonism is so inimical to the Christian Faith.

Furthermore, Pastor Cooper needs to wrestle with the fact that Augustine of Hippo taught the doctrine of theosis.  In my article “Theosis and Our Salvation in Christ,” I cite an excerpt from Augustine’s exposition on Psalm 50.  In it he notes that we are deified by grace, not by nature, which is what Orthodoxy teaches.

See in the same Psalm those to whom he says, “I have said, You are gods, and children of the Highest all; but you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.” It is evident then, that He has called men gods, that are deified of His Grace, not born of His Substance. For He does justify, who is just through His own self, and not of another; and He does deify who is God through Himself, not by the partaking of another. But He that justifies does Himself deify, in that by justifying He does make sons of God. “For He has given them power to become the sons of God.” (John 1:12) If we have been made sons of God, we have also been made gods: but this is the effect of Grace adopting, not of nature generating. (Augustine Exposition on Psalm 50; emphasis added)

This is not a one-time exception.  Augustine also affirmed theosis at least two times in his City of God.  In this passage he explains how God intended Adam to achieve theosis through reliance on divine grace, not on proud self-reliance.

For created gods are gods not by virtue of what is in themselves, but by a participation of the true God. (Book 14.13; emphases added; see also NPNF Vol. 2 p. 274)

In the conclusion of City of God, Augustine affirms that theosis takes place through union with Christ.

There shall we be still, and know that He is God; that He is that which we ourselves aspired to be when we fell away from Him, and listened to the voice of the seducer, You shall be as gods, (Genesis 3:5) and so abandoned God, who would have made us as gods, not by deserting Him, but by participating in Him. (Book 22.30; emphasis added; see also NPNF Vol. 2 p. 511)

This leaves me wondering whether Pastor Cooper is going to criticize his favorite theologian of Neo-Platonism and of having a defective soteriology?  I would suggest that Augustine’s affirmation of theosis points to theosis as common ground between Western Christianity and Orthodoxy.

Pastor Cooper points out that the New Testament places the emphasis on the finished work of Christ, whereas the Orthodox Church does not (3:23). I am not sure on what he makes this claim. If one listens attentively to the Divine Liturgy one learns much about how God works in history to bring about our salvation in Christ. Every Sunday the Liturgy recounts the Incarnation, Christ’s saving death on the Cross, and his victorious third day Resurrection. What the Liturgy does is sum up the biblical narrative of salvation history. I suspect that when he speaks of the “finished work of Christ” he is using a Protestant theological code, that it is because of Jesus’ atoning death on the Cross we who believe in him have been forgiven and our legal status has changed from that of condemned criminals to children legally entitled to the benefits of God’s kingdom. This approach to soteriology narrows the focus to Christ’s death on the Cross, leading to an under appreciation of Christ’s Incarnation and his Resurrection. We are saved by the Person of Christ, not by just one thing He did. It was not until I encountered Orthodoxy that the pieces of the puzzle came together, enabling me to get a glimpse of a more complete picture. It troubles me that Pastor Cooper is implying this sixteenth century theological paradigm is superior to the soteriology presented in the ancient liturgies.

 

Objection 3 – The Doctrine of Justification

Pastor Jordan Cooper identifies the doctrine of justification as the major reason why he is not Orthodox. He points out that in the New Testament there is much legal language surrounding justification: acquittal, condemnation, judgment, all of which are courtroom language (7:41). He notes that this emphasis is lacking in Orthodoxy. Cooper asserts that Orthodoxy’s anti-Western prejudice leads away from the forensic language of the New Testament (9:24). My response: There is indeed forensic language in Scripture. However, it is important to keep in mind that Scripture contains a multitude of different ways of describing and explaining salvation in Christ: redemptive, imitative, transformative, covenantal, etc. Moreover, the Protestant reading of Scripture gives greater attention to the Apostle Paul, whereas in the Orthodox reading of Scripture greater priority is given to the Gospels. This is especially evident in the Scripture reading in the Liturgy. What troubles me is that the Protestant doctrine of sola fide, a theological novelty invented by Martin Luther in the 1500s, was never a part of the ancient patristic consensus. By turning sola fide into a dogma and a theological plumb line by which to assess the orthodoxy of other theological traditions Protestantism has become doctrinally schismatic. See my article “Response to Theodore – Semi-Pelagianism, Sola Fide, and Theosis.

Pastor Cooper notes that there is a need for greater balance between Orthodoxy’s participatory language and the biblical forensic language (8:04). I would point out that Orthodoxy’s theology is fundamentally liturgical, not scholastic. What we believe can be found primarily in the fifth century Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and the fourth century Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. The Orthodox priest is using forensic language when he says “for the remission of sins” over the bread and over the wine. I would ask Pastor Cooper: “Are you saying that the theology in these early liturgies is imbalanced and theologically deficient? Would it not be the case that you are using your Euro-centric, post-1500s theology as the theological norm by which to assess all other theological systems and find them wanting?”

 

Objection 4 – The Augustinian Theological Tradition

Augustine of Hippo

Pastor Cooper expressed his dismay at the anti-Western prejudice by certain Orthodox theologians. This anti-Western bigotry is to be deplored as small-minded and not characteristic of the true spirit of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is not Eastern; it is catholic in the sense of embracing and constituting the whole. Orthodox theology is catholic in scope embracing both East and West. It is the universal Faith for all nations. There is a need for Orthodoxy to better integrate the Latin Fathers with the Greek Fathers. The way has been opened by the Western Rite Liturgy and Orthodox Western Rite vicariates. It would be good if Orthodox seminaries offered classes on the Latin Fathers.

At the 12:15 mark, Jordan Cooper states that the Fall is clearly taught in the New Testament. I have no disagreement with that, but what I would question is whether the New Testament depicts the Fall as a catastrophic event as understood by Augustine. Unless there is indisputable textual evidence for a catastrophic Fall, what we have here is an interpretation, not a fact. In light of the fact that there are other interpretations of the Fall, it would help if Protestants were less dogmatic in their soteriology.  Could Pastor Cooper please give us the chapter and verse that explicitly teaches that the Fall was such a catastrophic event that resulted in humanity becoming a massa damnata (condemned mass) and as a result of inherited guilt an infant was eternally damned at birth? These are conclusions resulting from rigorously applying logic to certain theological premises. There is a certain attractiveness to Protestant theology’s quest to be logical and internally consistent; however, the results can be invalid and even harmful if the initial premises are faulty.

Pastor Cooper notes Orthodoxy’s less severe understanding of the Fall leads to greater emphasis on synergy. In contrast, the Western Augustinian tradition catastrophic understanding of the Fall leads it to give greater emphasis on divine grace in our salvation. However, it should be noted that what Cooper is doing here is doing theology on the basis of one Church Father while ignoring the patristic consensus. Pastor Cooper needs to beware of building his theology around one particular Church Father. To focus on just one Church Father is to risk theological sectarianism. The way to avoid this error is to embrace the patristic consensus, to faithfully read one Church Father against the broader context of the other Fathers. We should bear in mind the Apostle Paul’s rebuke to the Christians in Corinth for their factionalism when they claimed: “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:12; NKJV) In light of the fact that there is no patristic consensus regarding the consequence of the Fall, we ought to be refraining from turning our particular interpretation into a universal dogma. My view is that there is room for disagreement between the Augustinian and other understandings within Orthodoxy.

Augustine was not the only Latin Church Father. There was Ambrose of Milan, who brought Augustine to faith in Christ and who made use of Eastern melodies in the hymns he composed. The Western tradition includes Vincent of Lerins, Leo of Rome, Pope Gregory (aka Gregory the Great), Jerome, and Cyprian of Carthage. Going back to the time of the Apostolic Fathers, there was Clement of Rome and Irenaeus of Lyons, who, although they wrote in Greek, can be considered part of the Western tradition. To be fair, Pastor Cooper did mention Prosper of Aquitaine and Ambrose of Milan (11:58). In terms of spirituality, the Western Christian tradition can lay claim to Benedict of Nursia. These are saints recognized and venerated by the Orthodox Church. Thus, the Western tradition is far more diverse and richer than Pastor Jordan Cooper has led us to believe.

Augustine’s preeminence in Western theology is largely due to historical circumstances. With the Fall of Rome in the fifth century, Western Europe became isolated from the spiritual heritage of the Byzantine Empire which would continue the Roman Empire for another thousand years. During the Middle Ages, Scholasticism used Augustine’s writings as the basis for their theological project. It is from this theological framework that Protestantism would emerge. As a result of this historical circumstance, Protestant theologians by and large regard the early Church Fathers as exotic theological resources, not as foundational sources of theology.

The main problem here is not so much Augustine, but rather those who have turned their interpretations of Augustine’s teachings into fundamental dogmas of the Christian Faith. Would Augustine have agreed with them and become Protestant? Western Christians err when they elevate to the level of dogma Augustine’s catastrophic understanding of the Fall, his forensic understanding of Original Sin, his forensic understanding of justification, and his teaching of the double-procession of the Holy Spirit. All these should be regarded as theological options within the scope of Holy Tradition. It is dangerous to the unity of the Faith if one were to utilize Augustine as the theological plumb line for Christian theology. That function belongs more properly with the Ecumenical Councils and with the patristic consensus.

There is considerable value in the Western tradition. For example, in the OrthodoxBridge blog site I frequently refer to the theological principle lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith). This saying, which has been attributed to Prosper of Aquitaine, has helped me to view the ancient liturgies as having something akin to dogmatic authority in doing theology. It also helped me to understand that when a theological tradition modifies its way of worship, its beliefs will likewise undergo a shift. Another Western principle I have found so helpful is the Vincentian Canon:

Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. (That Faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all) The Commonitory (ch. 2) Vincent of Lérins

In my journey to Orthodoxy I found the Vincentian Canon useful for assessing the validity of Protestant teachings like the rapture, pre-millennialism, the born again experience, the Lord’s Supper as purely symbolic, and even the more foundational doctrines like sola fide (faith alone) and sola scriptura (Scripture alone). The Vincentian Canon helped me to make sense of the overwhelmingly massive corpus of early Church writings. The Orthodox Church is not as anti-Western as Pastor Jordan Cooper makes it out to be. It should be noted that during Great Lent the Orthodox Church uses the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, a liturgy that has been attributed to Pope Gregory the Great. I would challenge Pastor Cooper and other Protestant pastors to tell us what ancient Western liturgies they use today.

Pastor Jordan Cooper notes that he is indebted to Augustine for his understanding of the Trinity, especially as presented in De Trinitate (10:05). One of Augustine’s controversial contributions to theology is his teaching on the double procession of the Holy Spirit. Many Orthodox Christians vehemently reject this teaching. My stance is more tempered. I regard Augustine’s double procession of the Holy Spirit something that falls into the category of adiaphora—not an essential doctrine. In my opinion it is a tolerable theological option so long as it is not imposed upon the Nicene Creed promulgated at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381. Kallistos Ware noted in The Orthodox Church (1997):

For all these reasons there is today a school of Orthodox theologians who believe that the divergence between east and west over the Filioque, while by no means unimportant, is not as fundamental as Lossky and his disciples maintain (p. 218).

Prior to my becoming Orthodox, I was Western in my theology. I did hold Augustine of Hippo in high regard having read his Confessions, City of God (De Civitate Dei), and The Trinity (De Trinitate). However, I was more committed to John Calvin. A critical part of my journey to Orthodoxy consisted in the critiquing of John Calvin and other Reformed theologians. I did not so much reject Augustine as I moved away from Protestant Augustinianism. What Pastor Cooper referred to as Augustinian theology is really Protestant Augustinianism—the result of the Reformers cherry picking Saint Augustine. As I became acquainted with the ancient liturgies and the broad patristic consensus I became aware of other theological positions besides Augustine.

One of the knotty problems in Protestant theology is Hell and the Final Judgment. The strong need to be logical in their theologizing has led Western Christians to some rather unpleasant conclusions, e.g., unbaptized infants being condemned to Hell, the millions of people who have had no exposure to the Christian message likewise being condemned to Hell, and those who grew up in a loving Christian family going to Hell because they are not part of the predestined elect. In reaction there arose some questionable theological alternatives, e.g., the teaching that everyone will go heaven (universalism) or the suffering in Hell will not be eternal as the condemned ones will eventually be annihilated (annihlationism). What I found appealing about Orthodox soteriology is its bold confidence in Christ’s Resurrection, its humble uncertainty about the eternal destiny of individuals, and its emphasis on our calling to participation in the life of the Trinity over attaining legal/moral perfection. I found myself drawn to the teaching that the suffering of Hell is the suffering of rejecting God’s love. God does not send people to Hell as they choose to live apart from God. People end up in Hell as a result of their free choice. This paradigm avoids the two extremes of Western eschatology: (1) Hell as a torture chamber for the non-elect and (2) Heaven as a place where everyone ends up regardless of their free choice.  See Alexandre Kalomiros’ “River of Fire.”

I would say that one can convert to Orthodoxy and still hold on to Augustine of Hippo. However, this love of Augustine must be balanced by the recognition that the patristic consensus and the Ecumenical Councils take priority over any single theologian. Furthermore, any convert to Orthodoxy must guard against being contentious in commending Augustine to others. Likewise, I would urge Orthodox Christians to treat Western converts with charity and humility. Let me reiterate: Anti-Western bigotry is contrary to Orthodoxy’s catholicity. There is value in the Western patristic tradition. The goal on both sides must be to deepen and enrich Orthodoxy’s catholicity. Orthodoxy needs to be receptive to enriching our understanding of the patristic consensus if we are to effectively reach out to Western Christians.

 

Objection 5 – Orthodox Icons

Jordan Cooper’s fifth reason for not becoming Orthodox is the central role played by images (icons) in Orthodox worship and spirituality (12:23, 13:35). First, no Orthodox Christian would say that icons are the focus of the Liturgy. The central focus of the Liturgy is the Eucharist in which the faithful receive Christ’s body and blood. Second, icons do not play a central role in Orthodox spirituality. If anything, it is the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”—that is given prominence in Orthodox spirituality.

I suspect that Pastor Cooper was overwhelmed and distracted by the visual prominence of icons in Orthodox churches which led him to make this sincere but off-based criticism. Initial reactions to a new and unfamiliar presence of icons in Orthodox churches and homes do not mean a Protestant visitor rightly grasped the role and significance Icons play in the life of Orthodoxy. Indeed, misunderstanding is quite common. This is why it is so important for those who are curious about Orthodoxy or who wish to critique Orthodoxy to attend numerous Orthodox liturgies. It is also important that they talk with the local priest. Without engaging the priest in dialogue there is the danger of prejudging or misinterpreting Orthodoxy. Protestants visiting Orthodox church services are often like monocultural American tourists who travel abroad to strange exotic cultures, take a few pictures, buy a few souvenirs, then come home thinking themselves experts on the culture they just visited. It is one thing to have icons on one’s bookshelf, it is another thing to have a prayer corner with icons. Icons are meant to be aids to prayer.

Pastor Cooper notes that the early Church did not seem to have the strong view of images as necessary (14:01). This strikes me as taking a primitivist approach to the early Church like the nineteenth century frontier Restorationist movement. Orthodoxy is not about theological primitivism, but rather the faithful transmission of Apostolic Tradition. Where Pastor Cooper seems to have a static understanding of Apostolic Tradition, Orthodoxy has a dynamic understanding. This dynamic understanding of Tradition is based on Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would guide His Church into all truth (John 16:13). It is thanks to the Ecumenical Councils that we have the term “Trinity” and the mature Christology that explicitly affirmed Christ’s divinity and his two natures in one Person. From a primitivist standpoint these are extra-biblical novelties, but for Orthodoxy these represent the flowering of Apostolic Tradition. So likewise the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s affirmation of the veneration of icons represents the further development of the Christian Faith. These are not theological options but rather the consensus of the early Church. To reject the authority of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II, 787) would be to weaken one’s respect for the authority of the earlier Ecumenical Councils. One cannot pick and choose among the Ecumenical Councils. Doing so would entail denigrating the authority of the early Church, rejecting the ancient Christian Faith and embracing instead a novel, modern theological framework, which is what Protestantism is.

 

Conclusion

In many instances Pastor Cooper’s reasons for not becoming Orthodox can be traced to a superficial understanding of Orthodoxy. It is evident that he has done quite a bit of reading on Orthodoxy; however, this puts him at the beginning stage of understanding Orthodoxy. Even if he has read Lossky and other prominent theologians, one cannot read one’s way into Orthodoxy. The better way is through attending Orthodoxy’s Divine Liturgy and talking one-on-one with a priest. With respect to Pastor Cooper’s commitment to Augustine, I would say that there is room for Saint Augustine in Orthodoxy, but not for dogmatic Augustinianism. Central to Orthodox theology is the consensus of the Church Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, and the liturgies of the Church. If Pastor Jordan Cooper wishes to object to Orthodoxy, he will eventually have to explain why he is rejecting the patristic consensus for one Church Father. Pastor Cooper needs to wrestle with the fact that his Augustinianism is regional (Western Europe) in terms of geography, Medieval in terms of historical roots, and reflects the cultural values of one particular region (Western Europe). Therefore, Protestant theology cannot lay claim to catholicity. In Orthodoxy’s patristic consensus is a theological tradition that is far richer, older, and wiser than Protestant Augustinianism. In Orthodoxy’s spiritual tradition is the promise of genuine transformation (theosis) and direct knowledge of God through union with Christ. This promise of transformation can be seen in the lives of the saints. Pastor Jordan Cooper may point to various Protestant theologians and their books, but I will point to the Orthodox saints like Saint Mary of Egypt, a repentant sex addict who devoted the rest of her life to prayer and fasting in the desert; Saint Xenia of Petersburg, who lived a carefree life until her husband’s unexpected passing then lived the rest of her life as a holy fool; and Wonder Working Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who in addition to his miracles, is known for his welcoming of the Western saints into Orthodoxy.

Robert Arakaki

 

Resources

Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.  “Western Rite.”
Robert Arakaki.  “Orthodox Christians on Penal Substitutionary Atonement.”
Robert Arakaki.  “Contra Sola Scriptura (4 of 4): Protestantism’s Fatal Genetic Flaw: Sola Scriptura and Protestantism’s Hermeneutical Chaos.
Robert Arakaki.  “Contra Sola Scriptura (3 of 4): Where Does Sola Scriptura Come From? The Humanist Origins of the Protestant Reformation.”
Robert Arakaki.  “Response to Theodore — Semi-Pelagianism, Sola Fide, and Theosis.
Robert Arakaki.  “Theosis and Our Salvation in Christ.
Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Loeb Classical Library.
Augustine of Hippo.  City of God.
Augustine of Hippo.  The Trinity.
Peter Brown.  Augustine of Hippo: A Biography.
Pastor Jordan Cooper.  “Five Reasons I Am Not Eastern Orthodox.”
Alexandre Kalomiros.  “River of Fire.”
Vladimir Lossky.  The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.
Josiah Trenham.  Rock and Sand.
Kallistos (Timothy) Ware.  The Orthodox Church. (1997 edition)
Vincent of Lerins.  Commonitory 2.

 

Evidence for Christ’s Descent Into Hell

 

Christ standing over the shattered doors of Hell and rescuing Adam and Eve

On Holy Saturday, the Orthodox Church celebrates Christ’s descent into Hell (Hades).  For many Protestants and Evangelicals this is a strange idea. When I was a Protestant, I was often puzzled by the line in the Apostles Creed: “he [Christ] descended to hell.”  I thought this line was bizarre and unnecessary.  As a Protestant, I was never taught the theology behind the historic creeds of the Church. However, after attending the Orthodox Easter (Pascha) services I began to see how Christ’s descent into Hell is important for our salvation.

Recently, the Rev. Scot McKnight wrote an insightful article “Holy Saturday: What Happened on Saturday to Jesus?  In it he listed bible verses that taught Christ’s descent into Hell.  The article helped me to understand familiar passages in a new light.  I thought I knew the Bible pretty well, but I was surprised to find that I had overlooked bible passages that support Holy Saturday, a feast day that takes place just before Easter Sunday.  Thank you, Pastor McKnight!  In this article, I examine the biblical basis for Christ’s descent into Hell, the witness of the Church Fathers to this doctrine, and John Calvin’s rejection of this important doctrine.  

 

Icon – Prophet Jonah

What the Bible Teaches

Christ’s descent into Hell (Hades, Sheol) can be found in both the Old and New Testaments.  It forms a part of the arc of biblical narrative of how God saves us through Jesus Christ.  Hell can be understood as the holding place where the souls of the good and the bad went after death (Luke 16:19-31).  It is to be distinguished from Gehenna, the place of eternal torment (Mark 9:42-48; Revelation 20:14).  

Christ’s descent into Hades was anticipated by Jesus himself in Matthew’s Gospel.

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40: OSB; emphasis added)

Here Jesus saw in the Prophet Jonah’s three nights in the whale a foreshadowing of what would happen to him in his impending death.  

The Apostle Peter spoke of Jesus’ descent into Hell in his Pentecost sermon:

He [David], foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. (Acts 2:31; OSB; emphasis added)

Here Peter was making reference to Psalm 16 verse 10, one of the messianic psalms.  One of the greatest concerns expressed throughout the Book of Psalms is the fate of the souls after death.  In this passage we learn that death is not the final word and see hints of the Messiah’s victory over death.

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians developed the theme of Christ’s elevation to the highest position in the cosmos for our salvation.  In Ephesians 4, Paul discussed Christ’s descent into Hades in light of Christ’s later ascension to heaven.  

Now this, ‘He ascended’—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?  (Ephesians 4:9; OSB; emphasis added)

In his epistle, the Apostle Peter gave a more detailed explanation of Christ’s descent into Hell in light of the impending Judgment Day.  

By whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah. (1 Peter 3:19-20; OSB; emphasis added)

For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6; OSB; emphasis added)

Apparently, in preparation for the Final Judgment everyone, both living and dead, will have some knowledge of the Gospel.  

Protestants pride themselves on their biblical exposition, but I had never heard a sermon on these verses or on the theme of Christ’s descent into Hell during my twenty-plus years as a Protestant.  The reasons for this oversight is not all that surprising.  These verses don’t fit in well with the Protestant dogma sola fide (justification by faith alone) which gives heavy emphasis to the penal atonement model of salvation. Yet what we see here is a strand of biblical teaching that began in the Old Testament, is reiterated by Christ, and expounded by the two preeminent Apostles: Peter and Paul.  

Protestant and Evangelical readers might ask: So what are the practical implications of Christ’s descent into hell?  Below are some of the practical implications:

  • Hell is not an unknown place, for Christ has gone there for us.
  • Hell is not a place of complete hopelessness, for Christ has evangelized Hell.  
  • Hell is not Satan’s domain, for Christ has invaded Hell and taken death captive.
  • Hell is not the final destination, for the gates of Hell have been shattered and the captives liberated.
  • We need not fear death, for Christ our Captain has gone before us leading the way to heaven.  

Resurrection Icon – Death Taken Captive

 

The Apostles’ Creed

This strand of biblical teaching would later find expression in a line in the Apostles Creed that many Protestants find baffling:  

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.    (Source)

The Apostles Creed represents an ancient baptismal creed that became part of the liturgical life of western churches.  Because the early Christians regularly recited the Apostles Creed, Christ’s descent into Hell was widely known.  This stands in contrast to modern day Evangelicalism which is largely ignorant of the Apostles Creed and the theology behind it.  My former Protestant home church said the Apostles Creed every few years.  That’s how rarely we used it!

 

The Witness of the Church Fathers

An examination of the Church Fathers shows a widespread acceptance of Christ’s descent into Hell.  Irenaeus of Lyons (died c. 200), one of the earliest Church Fathers, in Against Heresies 4.27.2 (ANF Vol. 1 p. 499) paraphrases 1 Peter 3:19-20:

It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also, and [declaring] the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him.

Here we see an explicit reference to the Gospel being proclaimed in Hell by none other than the Lord Jesus himself.  Hell is no longer a place of hopelessness, but one in which the dead can be saved through faith in Christ.  

Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 310-386) in his catechetical lectures taught Christ’s descent into Hell to redeem the righteous.

He was truly laid as Man in a tomb of rock; but rocks were rent asunder by terror because of Him. He went down into the regions beneath the earth, that thence also He might redeem the righteous. (Lecture 4.11; NPNF Vol. 7 p. 22; emphasis added)

He also linked Christ’s descent into Hell to a puzzling verse in Matthew’s Gospel (27:52-53)  which spoke of the dead rising and entering into Jerusalem: 

I believe that Christ also was raised from the dead; for I have many testimonies of this, both from the Divine Scriptures, and from the operative power even at this day of Him who arose — who descended into hell alone, but ascended thence with a great company; for He went down to death, and many bodies of the saints which slept arose through Him. (Lecture 14.18; NPNF Vol. 7 p. 99; emphasis added)

Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-368), one of the less well-known Church Fathers, was a staunch defender of Christ’s divinity against the Semi-Arians.  In On the Trinity (De Trinitate) Hilary discussed Christ’s descent into Hell in connection with the confession made by the Good Thief:

When He descended to Hades, He was never absent from Paradise (just as He was always in Heaven when He was preaching on earth as the Son of Man), but promised His martyr a home there, and held out to him the transports of perfect happiness.

. . . for the Lord Who was to descend to Hades, was also to dwell in Paradise. Separate, if you can, from His indivisible nature a part which could fear punishment: send the one part of Christ to Hades to suffer pain, the other, you must leave in Paradise to reign . . . . (On the Trinity 10.34; NPNF Vol. 9 p. 190; emphasis added)

The point Hilary is making is that the alleged contradictions that appear to contradict Christ’s divinity can be cleared up by taking into account Christ’s two natures, that is, Christ was at the same time both divine and human in his Incarnation.  

Gregory of Nazianzen (330-389) in his Second Oration on Easter (Orations 45.24) declared:

If He descend into Hell, descend with Him. Learn to know the mysteries of Christ there also, what is the providential purpose of the twofold descent, to save all men absolutely by His manifestation, or there too only them that believe.  (NPNF Vol. VII p. 432; emphasis added)

Gregory’s phrase “twofold descent” refers to Christ’s descent from heaven to earth, and then from the world of the living to the world of the dead.  Christ’s purpose for doing so is for our salvation.  The phrase “save all men absolutely” points to a broader understanding of salvation than just the forgiveness of sins.

Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) in On the Christian Faith related Christ’s two natures to his descent into Hell:

Distinguish here also the two natures present. The flesh hath need of help, the Godhead hath no need. He is free, then, because the chains of death had no hold upon Him. He was not made prisoner by the powers of darkness, it is He Who exerted power amongst them. (Book 3.4.28; NPNF Vol. 10 p. 246; emphasis added)

Then,

Now, if it please you, let us grant that, in accordance with the mystic prophecy, the substance of Christ was present in the underworld—for truly He did exert His power in the lower world to set free, in the soul which animated His own body, the souls of the dead, to loose the bands of death, to remit sins. (Book 3.14.111; NPNF Vol. 10 p. 258; emphasis added)

Here Ambrose showed how Christology relates to the Christus Victor understanding of salvation.  Ambrose is a prominent and influential Latin Father.  It was he who brought Augustine to faith in Christ.  

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), whose teaching gave rise to the theology of Western Christianity, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, in no uncertain terms affirmed Christ’s descent into Hell.  He wrote in Letter 164 Chapter 2: 

It is established beyond question that the Lord, after He had been put to death in the flesh, “descended into hell;” for it is impossible to gainsay either that utterance of prophecy, “You will not leave my soul in hell,” — an utterance which Peter himself expounds in the Acts of the Apostles, lest any one should venture to put upon it another interpretation — or the words of the same apostle, in which he affirms that the Lord “loosed the pains of hell, in which it was not possible for Him to be holden.” Who, therefore, except an infidel, will deny that Christ was in hell?

Augustine wrote this letter because even back then there were people who doubted that Christ descended to Hades.  His fierce retort against the skeptics of his time, likening them to unbelievers, should give pause to our present-day Protestant skeptics.  

John of Damascus (c. 675-c. 749) wrote the closest thing to a systematic theology in the early Church.  In his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Chapter 29), Saint John devoted one brief chapter to Christ’s descent into Hades.

The soul when it was deified descended into Hades, in order that, just as the Sun of Righteousness rose for those upon the earth, so likewise He might bring light to those who sit under the earth in darkness and shadow of death: in order that just as He brought the message of peace to those upon the earth, and of release to the prisoners, and of sight to the blind , and became to those who believed the Author of everlasting salvation and to those who did not believe a reproach of their unbelief, so He might become the same to those in Hades: That every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, and things in earth and things under the earth. And thus after He had freed those who had been bound for ages, straightway He rose again from the dead, showing us the way of resurrection. (NPNF Vol. 9 pp. 72-73; emphasis added)

In this short passage, John of Damascus interweaves several biblical passages around the theme of Christ’s descent into Hades: Malachi 4:2, Isaiah 9:2, 1 Peter 3:19, and Philippians 2:10.  Saint John teaches us that Christ took his ministry of miracles and preaching to Hades when he died.  We learn that Hell is not exempt from Christ’s ministry of salvation for Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all people everywhere, both the living and the dead.  

In summary, we find a patristic consensus that ranges from Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century to John of Damascus in the eighth century.  Both Greek and Latin Fathers bore witness to this doctrine.  Furthermore, we find this doctrine expressed in the worship life of the early Church, e.g., the Apostles Creed, which is still used by Western Christians and in the Holy Saturday services celebrated by the Orthodox.  Thus, we can say that the doctrine of Christ’s descent to Hades is a fundamental Christian teaching as it meets the criteria set forth in the Vincentian Canon: “Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est” (That Faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all). (Commonitory [6])

 

Calvin’s Break From the Patristic Consensus

John Calvin

It came as a surprise to me to find that John Calvin understood Christ’s descent to Hades metaphorically.  In his discussion of the fate of those who died and the place of the dead known as Limbo (Limbus), Calvin regards this to a “fable” and something “childish” taught by “great authors” (the Church Fathers): 

Though this fable has the countenance of great authors, and is now also seriously defended by many as truth, it is nothing but a fable. To conclude from it that the souls of the dead are in prison is childish. And what occasion was there that the soul of Christ should go down thither to set them at liberty? (Institutes 2.16.9; Vol. 1 p. 514; emphasis added)

Calvin was of the opinion that the line in the Apostles Creed regarding Christ’s crucifixion, death, and burial referred to Christ’s physical sufferings and the following line about Christ’s descent to Hades referred to Christ’s internal suffering as he experienced divine wrath on behalf of sinful humanity.

But, apart from the Creed, we must seek for a surer exposition of Christ’s descent to hell: and the word of God furnishes us with one not only pious and holy, but replete with excellent consolation. Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance.   . . . .

But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man. . . . . 

Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God. (Institutes 2.16.10; Vol. 1 p. 514; emphasis added)

Calvin’s emphasis here is on Christ’s sufferings to appease the wrath of an “angry God.”  Here we see in stark terms the penal atonement model of salvation (which assumes a wrathful deity) that many find grossly overplayed, if not deeply repugnant.  What I find surprising is how Calvin cavalierly discards the ancient Christus Victor model of salvation and replaces it the penal atonement model.  Also upsetting was Calvin’s condescending attitude towards the Church Fathers.  To ignore the teaching on Christ’s descent to Hell, Calvin brings a novel, allegorical reading to the Apostles Creed. That Calvin’s reading is a minority position can be seen in the fact that Martin Luther did not jettison the traditional reading of the Apostles Creed.  In his 1533 sermon at Torgau, Luther affirmed the traditional understanding that Christ entered Hell as Victor over Satan and his host (Bente).  While Luther introduced a new soteriology (doctrine of salvation) with his novel understanding of justification (sola fide), Calvin made even bigger break with a soteriology based on the penal atonement model, which would grow to largely ignore, if not exclude the ancient patristic models of salvation used by the Church Fathers for centuries

Pastor John Piper

Calvin’s dismissive attitude towards the doctrine of Christ’s descent into Hell would have long term consequences.  It would lead to the descensus controversies that would roil sixteenth century Protestantism (Bagchi p. 198).  Calvin’s innovative understanding was accepted within Reformed circles, but when brought into contact with other Protestant traditions it traditions it came across as bizarre.  Nonetheless, Calvin’s view became part of the Reformed tradition.  It can be found in Question 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Reformers like Theodore Beza would, on their own imitative, omit that line (Bagchi p. 199).  Even today, prominent Reformed theologians like John Piper have taken the liberty to omit that line.  They “retain” aspects of ancient Christianity and throw out what they don’t like.  This is like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too.

When I studied church history at seminary, I learned that Protestantism’s heavy emphasis on the penal aspects of Christ’s dying on the Cross is a relatively recent doctrine that emerged to prominence in the 1500s.  What we see in the Apostles Creed reflects the theology of the early Church which reflected the patristic doctrine of Christus Victor.  The fact that many Protestants today are unfamiliar with Christ’s descent in Hades and even the Apostles Creed show how far Protestantism has drifted from its ancient Christian roots.  This is not to say that Protestants and Evangelicals should relinquish the penal model of salvation altogether, but that they should incorporate the ancient patristic model of Christus Victor into their theology.  A good resource for this is Gustav Aulen’s theological classic Christus Victor.  Protestantism has paid a heavy price in forsaking its roots in the early Church.  It has adopted a novel soteriology accompanied by a new form of worship resulting in their estrangement from Ancient Christianity.

 

Two Paradigms of Salvation

When I was a Protestant it was hard to fit the verses about Christ’s descent to Hell into the penal substitutionary theory of salvation.  In this model, all that mattered was Christ’s suffering and dying on the Cross.  His death was the crucial element; everything else was superfluous.  This led to strained attempts to explain how Christ’s resurrection was necessary for our salvation.  More prominent in the early Church was the recapitulation theory in which Christ as the Second Adam retraced human existence from birth to death, from conception in his mother’s womb to his descent into the underworld.  The underworld was where all the dead souls—good and bad—awaited the Final Judgment.  Like the other humans who died, Christ descended into Hades. However unlike other humans, this was the uncorrupted Second Adam who was unjustly sentenced to death, Immanuel who is “God With Us.”  John Chrysostom in his famous Easter sermon declared:

It [Hell] took a body [Jesus Christ], and, lo, it discovered God.  
It took earth and behold! it encountered Heaven.  
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.  
O death where is your sting?  O Hades [Hell], where is your victory?  
Christ is risen, and you [Hell] are annihilated.  
Christ is risen and the demons have fallen.  
Christ is risen and the Angels rejoice.  
Christ is risen and life is liberated.  
Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of the dead. . . .

Where Protestantism puts the emphasis on the forgiveness of sins obtained through Christ’s death on the Cross, Orthodoxy puts the emphasis on the defeat of sin, death, and the devil through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. What saves us is not an event but rather a Person, Jesus Christ.  This is not to say that Protestantism’s doctrine of salvation is all wrong. However, Protestantism’s reductionism unduly emphasizes only one part of a far richer and fuller picture of Salvation in Christ.  Orthodoxy’s holistic understanding of salvation is multifaceted.  It teaches us about the many ways Christ saves us: freeing us from captivity to Satan and the demons, the healing our souls and body, bringing us back home and restoring us to our standing as God’s beloved children, making us wise, transforming us into his likeness and more.  Unlike Protestantism’s novel approach to salvation, Orthodoxy preserves the teachings of the early Church to the present day.

This year [2018], Orthodox Easter will come one week after Western Easter.  This will give Protestants and Evangelicals an opportunity to compare their celebration of Easter with Orthodoxy’s ancient liturgy.  It may come as a surprise that on Saturday there are two services.  On Saturday morning, the Orthodox Church celebrates Christ’s harrowing of Hell.  The mood of this service is that of a quiet joy in anticipation of the Easter service.  We invite our Protestant friends to come to the Saturday morning service and celebrate with us Christ’s descent into Hades to set the captives free.  Then Saturday midnight, the Liturgy is celebrated with exuberance and extravagance.  Over and over, we cry out: Christ is Risen! This service is the high point of Orthodox worship.  Tip: Check ahead for the specifics of the service.  Better yet, ask an Orthodox friend to take you along.   

Come and see!

Robert Arakaki

 

Additional Readings

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev.  2002. “Christ the Conqueror of Hell” (lecture)

Gustav Aulen.  1931.  Christus Victor: A Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement

David V.N. Bagchi.  2008.  Luther Versus Luther? The Problem of Christ’s Descent into Hell in the Long Sixteenth Century.”  Perichoresis 6.2.

F. Bente.  XIX. Controversy on Christ’s Descent into Hell.”  The Book of Concord

Robert B. Kruschwitz.  2014.  He Descended into Hell.Christian Reflection – A Series in Faith and Ethics

Scot McKnight.  2018. “Holy Saturday – What Happened on Saturday to Jesus?Jesus Creed

John Piper.  2008.  Did Christ Ever Descend to Hell?  DesiringGod.org

 

Is Orthodoxy Eastern?

 

image-03-smallA reader recently commented on the article “Crossing the Bosphorus.”

But I think that the idea of crossing the Bosphorus is perhaps overly dramatic and may not be an entirely helpful metaphor.

We need to remember that the Orthodox faith was at one time not confined to the East, where it has been faithfully kept, but that it was also once upon a time the faith in the West.

I coined the phrase “crossing the Bosphorus” (becoming Orthodox) in imitation of the more widely known “crossing the Tiber” (becoming Roman Catholic).  I like the phrase partly because the image of Hagia Sophia (the Church of the Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople has long captured the imagination of many, drawing them to Orthodoxy.

But the underlying point of the comment contains an important truth – Orthodoxy cannot and must not be confined to a particular city, region, or ethnicity.  Orthodoxy is catholic.  The word “catholic” comes from the Greek καθολου for “all together” or “general.”  In the early creeds the term “catholic church” was used to describe the Church’s universality as opposed to the individual local congregation.  Later the term “catholic church” came to denote the true Church as opposed to the various heretical or schismatic off shoots.  (See JND Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrine p. 190)

The Church’s catholicity is grounded in the Great Commission when Christ sent the Apostles into all the world to disciple nations and to baptize them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20).  The late Metropolitan Philip on the occasion of the receiving the 2,000 Evangelicals into Orthodoxy declared in his homily:

And he commissioned the disciples.  He said to them: Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . .  Not only Greeks.  Not only Antiochians.  Not only Russians.  Or Serbians or Romanians.  Go and make disciples of all nations.  Baptizing them in the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.   (0:54-1:24)

So in light of the Church’s catholicity “crossing the Bosphorus” captures only a small part of Orthodoxy’s universality.  “Crossing the Bosphorus” (the Patriarchate of Constantinople) can be substituted with “crossing the Orontes” (the Antiochian Patriarchate), with “crossing the Dnieper” (Kiev, the ancient capital of Slavic Orthodoxy) or with “crossing the Moskva” (the Patriarchate of Moscow).

Protestant inquirers into Orthodoxy can easily get distracted by the variety of ethnic representations. This is especially so in the US where various ethnic branches of Orthodoxy are zealous to preserve their own particular heritage — the small “t” traditions.  It is critical for Protestant inquirers to realize Orthodoxy IS the Christian faith in the best “universal” or catholic sense. Centuries before Rome broke away in 1054 there was a great unity amidst all the diversity. The faith Tradition passed down by the Apostles was believed from Britain, France, Russia, Syria, Africa, Greece and Italy. Do not let the ethnic trees cause you to miss the beauty and unity of the Forest!

 

Crossings

The term “crossing” can have more than one meaning.  In one sense it can refer to people converting to Orthodoxy.  In another sense it can refer to Orthodox missionaries going to lands where Orthodoxy is non-existent or barely known.  In the 1700s Orthodox missionaries – Saints Herman, Innocent, Jacob, and Juvenaly — traversed the vast Siberian tundra then crossed the Bering Strait to bring Orthodoxy to the native peoples of Alaska.

Saint John Maximovitch

Saint John Maximovitch

Another example of crossing is Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco (1896-1966).  In the 1930s and during World War II he served as bishop of Shanghai.  Then when the Communist took over China he was forced to flee.  He spent a short time in a refugee camp on the island of Tubabao in the Philippines.  Eventually, he became the bishop of San Francisco.  What is remarkable about Saint John Maximovitch’s ministry is how it spanned the vast Pacific Ocean, encompassing both Asia and America.  Another remarkable ministry by Saint John was his collecting the lives of the saints and his desire to make known the ”western” saints.  Thanks to him many of the pre-Schism Western saints became known to the Orthodox faithful.

 

Bishop John in Tubabao, Philippines

Bishop John in Tubabao, Philippines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church

A useful rule of thumb is whoever was recognized as a saint prior to the Schism of 1054 regardless whether they lived in the western half of the Roman Empire or its eastern half is an Orthodox saint.  This is because they were part of the one Church.  Rome’s departure in 1054 was a great loss but the Church continued to be the one Church, not two churches or two halves.  We ought not let the more recent antagonisms with Roman Catholicism obscure the fact that at one time the Pope was an Orthodox patriarch and the Latin West was Orthodox.  As Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco said: “The West was Orthodox for a thousand years, and her venerable Liturgy is far older than any of her heresies.”  source

In Orthodoxy a saint is recognized as a saint through a designated feast day in the Church’s liturgical calendar, a troparion (hymn) in honor of the saint, and an icon of the saint.  When one is baptized or received into Orthodoxy the common practice is to take on the name a particular saint.  The patron saint becomes a model of Christian discipleship and one’s prayer partner.

 

Latin Fathers

Among the Latin Fathers are Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, and Jerome.

ambrose_1Ambrose of Milan (c. 340-397) was the bishop who brought Augustine to Christ.  Augustine in his Confessions (6.4.6) recalls how Ambrose’s powerful sermons and his exegesis of the Old Testament brought a pagan skeptic to faith in Christ.  Ambrose persuaded Emperor Gratian to remove the statue of the pagan goddess Victory from the Senate halls.  He excommunicated Emperor Theodosius for his role in the massacre in Thessalonica, putting the emperor under discipline until he did public penance.  He also introduced antiphonal chanting into the Latin church.

 

 

It may come as a surprise to some that despite the many criticisms made of Augustine, especially in discussions about Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, he is recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church.  Fr. George Papademetriou wrote “Saint Augustine in the Greek Orthodox Tradition” in which he explained how Augustine is a saint of the Church despite the numerous recent criticisms of his theology.  For example, while Augustine may have taught the double procession of the Holy Spirit in no way did he ever advocate changing the Nicene Creed.  Saint Photius pointed out that Augustine’s understanding of the Holy Spirit’s two fold procession was a minor position and that we are obliged to follow the consensus patrum (consensus of the Fathers).

Orthodox readers who question whether Augustine is recognized as a saint need to keep in mind that his feast day falls on June 15 of the liturgical calendar.  The dismissal hymn for that day goes:

O blessed Augustine, you have been proved to be a bright vessel of the divine Spirit and revealer of the city of God; you have also righteously served the Saviour as a wise hierarch who has received God. O righteous father, pray to Christ God that he may grant to us great mercy.   source

Interested readers can read John Stamps’ “When Tradition Fractures” for an insightful discussion of Orthodoxy’s fraught relations with Augustine of Hippo.

There is a need for Orthodox scholars fluent in Latin.  Orthodoxy needs multilingual theologians fluent in both Greek and Latin.  The patristic consensus cannot be confined to any one language or region.  For example, the Vincentian Canon is a Latin phrase: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (i.e. only “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”) is the catholic Faith of Christianity.  Saint Vincent lived in the town of Lerins (near modern day Marseilles, France).  Orthodox theology being grounded in the patristic consensus will be enriched as scholars, hierarchs, and laity read the Latin Fathers.  The same can also be said of the Orthodox understanding of the patristic consensus being enriched by Syriac Fathers like Saints Ephraim the Syrian and Isaac the Syrian Bishop of Nineveh.

 

Celtic and British Saints

Icon - St. Patrick

Icon – St. Patrick

In addition to Saint Patrick – Enlightener of Ireland, the Orthodox Church honors Brendan the Navigator, Venerable Bede, Saint Columba – Abbot of Iona.  For those of us who live in the English speaking world one of Orthodoxy’s hidden treasures lies in the numerous Celtic and British saints.  As I read through the list of names I was surprised to see so many familiar names that I never associated with Orthodoxy.

 

 

It is the practice in Orthodoxy that when one becomes Orthodox one takes on the name of a saint.  Many recent converts have taken on the names of “eastern” Orthodox saints being unaware of the “western” Orthodox saints.  Those presently inquiring into Orthodoxy or about to become Orthodox can reaffirm their western cultural roots by taking the name of a “western” Orthodox saint.

 

Icon - All Saints of the British Isles

Icon – All Saints of the British Isles   Source

Saint Alan (Eilan), Hermit of Cornwall (d. circa 7th century)

Saint Brigid of Kildare, Ireland (d. 523)

Saint Chad (Caedda), Missionary, Bishop of Lichfield and Mercia (c. 672)

Saint David of Wales, Archbishop of Mynyw (Menevia), confounder of Pelagians (d. 601)

Saint Donald of Scotland, Holy Confessor (d. circa 8th century)

Saint Dorothy (Ida, Ita), Hermitess in Limerick, Ireland (d. 570)

Saint Edward the Passion Bearer, King of England (d. 979)

Saint Edwin Martyr, King of Northrumbia (d. 633)

Saint Gerald, Abbot, Bishop of Mayo, Ireland (d. 731)

Saint Gwen (Teirbron) of Britain, evangelist of Brittany (d. 5th century)

Saint Gwen (Wenna) of Talgarth, Martyr, Evangelist of Cornwall (born circa 463)

Saint Herbert, Hermit of Derwentwater (d. 687)

Saint Kenneth (Cynedd), Hermit Confessor of Wales (d. circa 6th century)

Saint Kevin (Caoimhin), Abbot of Glendalough, Ireland (d. 618)

Saint Laurence, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 619)

Saint Mildred, Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet (d. 732)

Saint Richard, King of Wessex (d. 772)

Holy Virgin Martyr Winifred of Wales (circa 650)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moses the Black

Moses the Black

African Saints

One of the more well known African saints is Moses the Black.  He lived a life according to the passions of the flesh until his conversion to Christ.  After his conversion he lived as a monastic and served as abbot of a monastery until his martyrdom by Berber pirates.

Also among the African saints is the pair: Irene and Sophia.  Little is known about them but the Church remembers them.  More well known is Mary of Egypt.  One Sunday during Lent is designated the Sunday of Mary of Egypt.  On that day the Orthodox Church remembers how God’ grace transformed a woman caught in the pleasures of the flesh into one of the greatest saints of all time.  Other well known African saints include Athanasius the Great, Saint Katherine, and Anthony the Great.

 

Child Honoring the Chinese Martyrs

Child Honoring the Chinese Martyrs

China and Japan

China has the honor of the Martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion (1900).  The icon of the Chinese Martyrs show a large group comprised of adults and children.  Standing in the front is Father Mitrophan (Ji Chong or Tsi Chung) with his wife Tatiana and their three sons: Isaiah, Sergiy, and Ioann.  The oldest son was 23 years old at his death and the youngest 8 years old.

Another Asian saint is Saint Nicholas of Japan, Equal to the Apostles.  Born Ivan Kasatkin in 1836 in the province of Smolensk, he later studied in St. Petersburg.  He received his missionary calling in the form of a request from the Russian consulate in Japan for a priest who would minister to the spiritual needs of the Russian community there, the Japanese, and other foreigners stationed in Japan.  He translated the Bible and Liturgy into Japanese.  After more than 50 years of missionary labor he planted 266 Christian communities before he reposed in 1912.

 

Crossing the Bering Straits

Orthodoxy first came to the American continent from the west, that is, from Russia.  The early Orthodox missionaries “crossed the Bering Strait” in order to bring the Good News of Christ to the native peoples of Alaska.  The Alaskan saints comprised four missionaries (Saints Herman, Innocent, Juvenaly, and Jacob) and one native born martyr (Peter the Aleut).

Saint Juvenaly was born in Nerchinsk, Siberia in 1761.  He worked as a mining engineer and was married.  After his wife died in 1791 he entered a monastery in St. Petersburg.  In 1794 Fr. Juvenaly and others had reached Kodiak.  The following year Father Juvenaly baptized some 700 Chugatchi then crossed the Kenai Bay.  In 1796 he and his native assistant were martyred by the Yup’ik.  He was the first Orthodox Christian to receive the crown of martyrdom and is remembered as “Protomartyr.”

 

Peter the Aleut

Peter the Aleut  source

 

Another Alaskan saint is Peter the Aleut.  He was born in Kodiak in the late 1700s.  While in his teens he accompanied Russian fur trappers to northern California.  In 1815, while hunting in his kayak south of San Francisco he was captured by Spanish soldiers.  He refused to be rebaptized insisting that he was already a Christian.  In their zeal to convert Peter the Roman Catholic priests cruelly dismembered his hands and feet.  Today he is known as the “Martyr of San Francisco.”

 

 

Brooklyn Bridge 1915

It may surprise some to learn that Orthodoxy has American saints.  In addition to Saint John of San Francisco, there is Saint Raphael of Brooklyn and Saint Alexis Toth of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  Saint Tikhon before he became Patriarch of Moscow served in North America striving to build up the scattered Orthodox immigrant community into a strong self-sustaining church.  Saint Tikhon is known as ”Enlightener of America and Confessor of Moscow.”  In his last sermon in America he said:

The Light of Orthodoxy is not lit for a small circle of people…. It is our obligation to share our spiritual treasures, our truth, our light, and our joy with those who do not have these gifts. This duty lies not only on pastors and missionaries, but also on lay people, for the Church of Christ, in the wise comparison of St. Paul, is a body, and in the life of the body, every member takes part.  source

 

Is Orthodoxy Eastern?

In conclusion, Orthodoxy is more than eastern, it is a universal faith.  To say Orthodoxy is eastern is often a shorthand reference to Orthodoxy’s deep roots in Byzantine culture and its indebtedness to the Greek Fathers.  In that sense one can use the phrase “Eastern Orthodox.”  But to imply that Orthodoxy is restricted to a particular region or a particular culture is misleading and can lead to a distorted understanding of Orthodoxy.

So, “No, you don’t have to ‘cross the Bosphorus’ to become Orthodox.”  That’s one way.  Many have entered into Orthodoxy through Greek Orthodox parishes that are under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.  Another way is to “cross the Moskva” by converting to Orthodoxy through a ROCOR parish.  Or “cross the Orontes” through the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese.  This is what the two thousand Evangelicals did in 1987.

Unlike Roman Catholicism which has one spiritual center: Rome, Orthodoxy has many spiritual centers.  What unites us is the Apostolic Faith – “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”  Orthodoxy in the US has an opportunity to manifest the catholicity of Orthodoxy.  The challenge for many Orthodox parishes founded by immigrants is to go beyond their ethnic roots and embrace the larger Orthodox Tradition.  One small step can be the inclusion of icons of American, African, or Asian saints in the sanctuary.  Another small step can be children or adult class presentations on the lives of the saints.  The honoring of the saints on their feast days requires the blessing of the bishop.  The honoring of the North American saints is an important step towards a unified American Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox Church in America honors the North American saints on the second Sunday after Pentecost.  The kontakion (hymn) for that day goes:

Today the choir of Saints who were pleasing to God in the lands of North America

Now stands before us in the Church and invisibly prays to God for us.

With them the angels glorify Him,

And all the saints of the Church of Christ keep festival with them;

And together they all pray for us to the Pre-Eternal God.

 

New-Jerusalem

The Twelve Gates of New Jerusalem

A prophetic description of Orthodoxy’s catholicity can be found in Revelation 21:13. In that passage New Jerusalem is depicted as having twelve gates: three on the east, three on the north, three on the south, and three on the west.   Access to New Jerusalem from all four points of the compass points to the universality of the Gospel and Christ’s reign.  They also point to the catholicity of the Church as it welcomes peoples from all over the world into the kingdom of God.

Robert Arakaki

 Resource
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