Protestantism’s Eastern Blind Spot

Earlier I wrote about what I call the “Eastern blind spot in Protestant Apologetics.” Many Protestant Evangelicals tend to have a “blind spot” when it comes to Church history, especially with regards to the Eastern Church. For many Evangelicals, Church history jumps from the book of Acts to Martin Luther in 1517 AD.

This “blind spot” often becomes real apparent when Evangelicals discuss historical theology and only mention Catholic writers from the West.  For example, traditional Evangelical Protestant apologetics countering the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist most likely will focus on medieval Catholic writers and the Catholic council that defined Transubstantiation. Byzantine, Syrian, and Coptic Christian writers from the Early Church on the Real Presence are routinely ignored. The average Evangelical believes that the idea of Real Presence dates from the thirteenth century and was one of those “Catholic inventions.” This same list of “inventions,” popularized by Protestant theologian Loraine Boettner, puts the idea of seven sacraments as late as 1439. The fact that the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a universal belief of the Ancient Church is lost on most Evangelicals, often because many of them don’t even know about the Eastern Christian Churches. Many Evangelicals confuse Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, let alone Coptic, Syrian or Armenian Orthodoxy.

Coptic Orthodox Altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

For example, the predominant Christian Church in Egypt is the Coptic Orthodox Church, numbering over 15 million members. Most Evangelicals are unaware that this ancient Church is not in communion with either the Eastern Orthodox Churches or the Catholic Church. What is significant for the discussion here is the date of the separation between the Coptic Church and the Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches — 451 AD, at the Council of Chalcedon. This is fully 600 years before the more well known schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

Even though I had been visiting Eastern Christian Churches for a few years, I myself didn’t know about the Coptic Church’s history until I visited a parish in Arizona for Liturgy. At the time, I was Eastern Catholic and I would visit various Orthodox parishes with an Eastern Orthodox friend. We both decided to visit a Coptic parish and the priest, noticing two English-speaking visitors, decided to do most of the Liturgy in English for our benefit. At a certain point, a commemoration was made for “St. Dioscorus,” who I remembered was the Patriarch of Alexandria condemned at the Council of Chalcedon. I turned to my Eastern Orthodox friend and asked: “So these people are not in communion with the Eastern Orthodox?” “No,” he replied, “we’re working on it, however.” Neither one of us could receive Communion that day. The realization hit me, from a liturgical perspective, that the Liturgy I was observing was historically quite significant. The separation between the Coptic Orthodox and the Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches was bitter and complete. What the Coptic Orthodox preserved in their liturgical tradition would give evidence of what was a “lowest common denominator” of belief when compared with the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches. What was the shared belief of the Ancient Christian Churches about 450 AD? What did they believe about the Eucharist, the Real Presence, the nature of Baptism, the seven sacraments, etc.?

One can read online Coptic sources for liturgical texts, about the spirituality of its Liturgy, or their view of the Sacraments (which they number as 7), but the historical reality of the ancient nature of their liturgical theology (most of which is shared by the Eastern Orthodox and by Catholics) is more apparent if one witnesses their Liturgy.

Getting Protestants to understand this angle of historical theology has been difficult as most would never consider visiting a Coptic parish. But, recently, the entire Coptic Liturgy in English (filmed in Egypt in September, 2009 and aired on Egyptian TV) has been posted to You Tube in 10 parts. The first part is up at:

(The remaining 9 parts can be viewed by going to the You Tube site for this video and clicking above the video next to “mauritius29.” The Eucharistic Prayer is in sections 7-10.) The entire service can be viewed here:

Much of Protestant apologetics against liturgical and sacramental theology has traditionally focused on a historical approach against “Catholic inventions,” which is manifestly flawed. More recent Protestant responses to Eastern Orthodoxy often assumes that by the year 1054 AD (the year traditionally given for the East-West Schism) the Eastern Church had had plenty of time to fall into apostasy. The Coptic Church demonstrates that a liturgical and sacramental theology permeated the Christian Church 600 years before the East-West Schism. At the very least, we can say that at the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), a Protestant theological approach is light years away. Did it exist before then? Were there Christians in the Early Church who looked like the Evangelicals of today? If so, they left no mark in either the Ancient Churches nor in the writings of the Church Fathers in East or West.

Note (8/24/2010): I’ve responded to one criticism and expanded on the above at:

Eastern “Blind Spot” or “Cross-Pollination”?

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18 Responses to Protestantism’s Eastern Blind Spot

  1. [...] Anyway, via Mark Shea, Protestantism’s Eastern Blind Spot: [...]

  2. Devin Rose says:

    Great point about the Coptic (Oriental) Orthodox Church and their beliefs in the seven sacraments, etc. I hadn’t thought of that before as an argument against the Protestant claims that these teachings are all late inventions. (Our Catholic parish is just a stone’s throw away from a Coptic Orthodox church.)

  3. Richard Barrett says:

    Doubtless there are those would claim that this just means the institutional church had it pretty much entirely wrong from the get-go.

    Richard

    • orthocath says:

      There would be some, but that’s not the usual Protestant position. Classical Evangelicals usually accept both Nicea and Chalcedon (which they’ve inherited through the Western Church). Of course, they state they accept these doctrinal statements on the Person of Christ because they believe the Bible teaches the Deity of Christ and the Trinity. Most Evangelicals really don’t understand the historical development of the Christological controversies of the early Councils, even though they accept what they decided.

      • Richard Barrett says:

        I think the more some of them understand the historical development, the more they’re uncomfortable explicitly affirming those councils — I remember a conversation I once had with a reasonably well-educated Evangelical about Chalcedon, and this person said, “You know, for a long time, I’ve been worried that I might actually be a Monophysite.”

      • orthocath says:

        I think most Evangelicals accept the Nicean definition. As to Chalcedon: those Evangelicals that have a sense of history from the Reformation usually accept it. For example, James White affirms it in this article:

        http://vintage.aomin.org/CHALC.html

        Of course, the Evangelical movement is changing and some of them no longer see any need to affirm Church history. Among these, the definitions of such Councils are unimportant.

  4. orthocath says:

    This article was referenced from Mark Shea’s blog and this comment there was, I think, spot on. Posted by godescalc:

    “About the only hardcore-Reformed blog I read with any regularity spends half its time sparring with the Eastern Orthodox, mostly because the main sparring partner is an Orthodox friend of the proprietor. Although there’s a certain amount of talking past each other, it’s interesting to read for the Orthodox response to Protestant challenges (which contains a lot of “read the Fathers” and “stop confusing us with Catholics”).

    Otherwise, I think it’s pretty natural for Reformed apologists to concentrate on Rome, even if they do talk nonsense – Catholicism is a mother they keep having bitter arguments with, the arguments run in familiar grooves, and there’s enough shared theological inheritance and shared definitions to make argument possible (as well as enough old grudges). Orthodoxy is terra incognita, like an estranged aunt they’ve never met, with a different outlook on things. Why start a new argument while they’re still hammering away at the old one?”

  5. orthocath says:

    David Palm, a Catholic friend, has added some more insights on this subject:

    http://thepalmhq.blogspot.com/2010/03/coptic-connection.html

  6. Constantine says:

    So much depends, I suppose, on what you mean by a “Protestant theological approach” and how early one starts their analysis. To assume a consistent “sacramental theology” back to the early days – one replete with robes, incense, formal church structures, etc. – seems to deny the nature of the very earliest church – that of Christ and His apostles. In Luke 10, as but one example, Christ commands His disciples to go into homes. That very idea, by the way, seems to be at the heart of Evangelicalism around the world today – in Africa, China and even in the U.S – where the church is growing the fastest. So one might reasonably conclude from that that the Copts (and Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics) were innovators adding to the original “theological” approach.

    As to the “Many Protestant Evangelicals tend to have a “blind spot” when it comes to Church history” there can be no doubt. But your statement, “that the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a universal belief of the Ancient Church is lost on most Evangelicals” paints with too broad a brush. The Protestant scholar J N D Kelly, as but one example, notes that in the early church, while the “Lord’s presence in the sacrament…was unquestionably realist” there were significant differences in what that meant. Serpion of Antioch (2nd century), Eusebius of Caesarea, Eustathius of Antioch and Cyril of Jerusalem held to a symbolical view while later Chrysostom and others held one that is more like “transubstantiation”.

    So it is ironic that modern day Protestants would find themselves more aligned with the Fathers of the early Eastern Church than one might originally think.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    Peace.

    • orthocath says:

      Thank you for visiting the site and for your comment. My Orthodox parish used to worship in a home for a few years until we found a chapel that we could rent. I know of others which similarly meet in private homes. This is particularly true in areas where there is persecution (as during the Communist era in Eastern Europe). I’m not sure why “robes, incense, formal church structures” would be mentioned in connection with “sacramental theology,” unless one accepts the typical Protestant prejudice against such. Incense, for example, did not cause a knee-jerk reaction amongst the peoples of the first few centuries of the Christian era as it does amongst many Protestants today. After all, incense had been used in the Jewish worship. One looks in vain for any negative comments about the use of incense in the writings of the early Church.

      The point of the article was not about incense, robes, etc., but about the theology being exhibited in such early Christian worship as the Coptic liturgy demonstrates. My reading of J N D Kelly (a Protestant scholar) gives no support to the idea that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was rejected by some early Christians. (It’s important to differentiate between the later formulations such as Transubstantiation and the patristic explanations.) Kelly cites Ignatius of Antioch (117 AD): “the bread is the flesh of Jesus, the cup His blood.” (See Kelly’s commentary on Justin, Irenaeus and Ignatius regarding the Eucharist in pp. 196-198 in his book Early Christian Doctrines.) Later, Kelly refers to later Church fathers who used words such as “type” or “figure” in reference to the Eucharist (see pp. 440-449). Kelly includes an important statement regarding this usage: “It must not be supposed, of course, that this ‘symbolical’ language implied that the bread and wine were regarded as mere pointers to, or tokens of, absent realties. Rather were they accepted as signs of realties which were somehow actually present though apprended by faith alone.” (p. 441-2) Kelly earlier cautioned against reading such texts “in a modern fashion.” (p. 212) See this discussion which analyzes how some Protestant apologists misuse such statements:

      http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/num29.htm

      There was no controversy recorded in the early Church regarding the nature of the Eucharist. It was universally regarded as Christ’s Body and Blood, just as it is so regarded in all the Ancient Christian Churches.

  7. First, I have had a full intention of exploiting this blind spot and have done my best to do so.

    Second, its true that Evangelicals and the Reformed *think* they affirm Nicea, but historically they dissent from many of its core teachings. The Reformed have rejected the Nicene view of the Trinity in asserting that the Father alone is autotheos, as well as denying baptismal regenerational and the apostolic ministry. As for Chalcedon, the dissent is even more explicit and is clearly admitted by a good number of Reformed scholars. http://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2008/06/15/a-deformed-christ/

    Note the citation from Bruce McCormack at the end there.

    As for White, a careful reading of that document shows that he doesn’t either grasp Chalcedon or adhere to it.

    Notice “So too, the Son has a will, for he says to the Father in the Garden, “not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) The ascription of will to the Persons indicates the ability to reason, to think, to act, to desire – all those things we associate with self-consciousness. As we shall see later, there is a difference between nature and person, and one of those differences is the will. ”

    A will? How about two wills.

    There was a gloss he gave in that document on John 6:38-39 that also implied tri-theism and nestorianism, but I think he has since removed it after I and others noted it. Chalcedonian Christology is not White’s strong suit.

  8. Rhology says:

    Hello,

    Actually, not all Protestants are ignorant of Eastern Orthodoxy. Some of us have written on it quite extensively. Just a friendly FYI!

    Peace,
    Rhology

  9. orthocath says:

    Rhology,

    Thanks for stopping by. I didn’t mean to imply that all Protestants are ignorant of Orthodoxy or that there aren’t Protestants who engage in debate with Orthodox, such as yourself. If I did, my apologies. I have a links spam policy of not allowing multiple links in comment boxes — so I removed the multiple links from your comment. I welcome specific comments on this blog post or others here. I can’t guarantee immediate response, however.

    In XC,

    Orthocath

  10. [...] Awhile back I wrote about what I’ve come to refer to as Protestantism’s Eastern “blind spot.” When Protestant apologists usually discuss the development of historical Christian theology they often characterizes sacramental theology (Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Confirmation or Chrismation, Confession and Absolution, etc.) as “Roman inventions.” In that blog post I cited the specific example of the Coptic Orthodox Church as demonstrating the falsity of that view. In 451 AD, the Coptic Church was separated from the bulk of Christendom — from what is now known as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church but maintains a strong sacramental theology. (The Coptic Church belongs to what are known as the Non-Chalcedonian or Oriental Orthodox Churches.) I concluded: Much of Protestant apologetics against liturgical and sacramental theology has traditionally focused on a historical approach against “Catholic inventions,” which is manifestly flawed. More recent Protestant responses to Eastern Orthodoxy often assumes that by the year 1054 AD (the year traditionally given for the East-West Schism) the Eastern Church had had plenty of time to fall into apostasy. The Coptic Church demonstrates that a liturgical and sacramental theology permeated the Christian Church 600 years before the East-West Schism. At the very least, we can say that at the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), a Protestant theological approach is light years away. [...]

  11. Rev. Joseph Varsanyi says:

    We need to be careful with terms. The “Evangelical” Lutheran Church in America has taken a strong stand in Liturgy, Confessions, Preaching and Teaching, on the Real Presence of Jesus in The Sacrament of the Altar. Refraining from explaining the “how,” Lutherans have been constant in their defence of This Sacrament, to the point of being excluded from fellowship by those this article refers to as “Evangelical.” (Outside of the United States, Most non Roman churches refer to themselves either by denomination (example: Anglican) or by teaching: Evangelical (or) Reformed. A second point: Luther and Lutherans had no problem nor did they wish to challenge the number of Sacraments in the Church. The have constantly taught the “number” is not as important as their rightful use and faithful use. In Lutheran Confessional writings, the Church Fathers are quoted with the same strength as quotes from the Church Scriptures. All “Protestants” are not the same just as everyone who is named “Orthodox” may be so only in name, not reality.

  12. Reblogged this on Orthodox in the District and commented:
    Excellent article about the widespread ignorance among many Protestants- especially evangelicals- as to the existence of the Eastern Churches! How to solve this problem? Eastern Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholics, invite your Protestant (and Roman Catholic) friends to the Divine Liturgy!

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