By Thomas Seraphim Hamilton
Some time ago, an organization called “The Gospel Coalition” did two interviews. One of them was with a man born into an Orthodox family who then converted to evangelicalism. The other one was with a man born into an Evangelical family who had gone the other way. We have decided to critique the interviewee who left the Orthodox Church, not because he makes arguments that are particularly new or troubling, but because he serves as an excellent case study of common Evangelical objections to Orthodoxy. By answering his arguments, we cover much of the ground that Evangelicals seek to cover with Orthodox.
John is a Romanian man in his late fifties who is no stranger to the Eastern Orthodox Church. He was born into a family of Orthodox Christians, in a society where church and state often mix in unhealthy ways.
While we will refrain from commenting on Romania in particular at this moment, it is necessary to explain the Orthodox Christian understanding of Church and State. Westerners, especially Americans, tend to view Church and State as entirely separate entities, which should function independently. Different positions are generally considered extreme, radical, or silly. While this may be the view of most Americans, it is not the view of the Orthodox Church. Countries that model their society on the Church’s understanding of church-state relations cannot be labeled “unhealthy” simply because they do not agree with the Enlightenment understanding of Church and State.
The Orthodox Church views the Church and State as working in concert. The Church is the hospital of the society. In a Christian society, there will be no separation between “religious life” and “secular life.” Every part of one’s life is necessarily involved with the therapy prescribed by the Church. A Christian society will understand that divinization is the purpose of the human life, and will orient everything it does towards that end. The Church, as Christ’s body, is the means by which we are divinized. To split the Church and the State into two unrelated entities is to say that the purpose of some lives is divinization, but it is not essential. It creates an unhealthy divide between “religious” and “secular” life. Ideally, the State will be the patron of the Church, assisting it wherever it can.
Just as there is a hierarchy of primacy among the clergy ( bishop, archbishop, patriarch, etc.), there is also a hierarchy of primacy among the laity. This normally goes by date of Baptism. In an Orthodox Christian society, there is another layer of primacy. The civil authorities have primacy among the laity. Just as the Patriarch of Constantinople is the primate of the clergy, so also the Emperor, in the ancient Orthodox Christian Empire, was the primate of the laity, serving as their chief representative. This is why Emperors were not allowed to be ordained.
“I usually went to the midnight Easter vigil,” he recalls. “A few days before Easter, I would go confess my sins to the local priest. But this had no effect on me. When I walked out of a church service, I was the same as before.”
Certainly, if one goes through the rote form of the Sacraments without joining that to a living faith, then one’s soul will be dead. Nominalism is not uncommon in the Church. To take one’s nominal practice of the faith and assume that this means that Orthodoxy cannot cure the human soul is a non-sequitur. The Church points to its Saints- such as St. John Maximovitch, as proof that the Church, when its treasures are taken advantage of, is the Ark of Salvation and the Body of Christ.
Additionally, the Church is not magic. One cannot expect to be baptized as an infant, commune a few times a year, and confess once or twice a year and be redeemed. The Lord Jesus Christ said that salvation is a “narrow gate” that we must “strive” to enter. (St. Luke 13:24)
“The priest never confronted us in our sins,” he says, with a mixture of grief and anger. “I didn’t have a Bible, but no one encouraged me to read one anyway.”
If what John says is true, then his priest has not taken seriously his responsibility as a worker in Christ’s Vineyard. This is a serious offense indeed. The faith and life of the Orthodox Church is expressed par excellence by its Saints. Whatever the failings of individual Orthodox Christians, these failings cannot be generalized to the Church itself unless this failing is expressed as good by its Saints. St. John, Hieromartyr of Santa Cruz, was said to regularly make his parishioners uncomfortable by calling them to repent daily of their sins.
THE PLACE AND IMPORTANCE OF SCRIPTURE
“I didn’t have a Bible, but no one encouraged me to read one anyway.”
St. Innocent of Alaska beautifully expressed the Orthodox teaching on Scripture when he wrote: “First of all, a Christian must thoroughly study the foundations of the Christian faith. To that end, you must read and reread the Holy Scriptures on a regular basis, especially the books of the New Testament. You must not only learn their contents but also develop an interest in their origin, who wrote them and when, how they were preserved and have been handed down to us, and why they are called Divine and Sacred. You must study the Holy Books with simplicity of heart, without prejudice or excessive inquisitiveness, not trying to discover hidden mysteries but trying to learn that which leads us to self-improvement.”
St. Justin Popovich says likewise:”The more one reads and studies the Bible, the more he finds reasons to study it as often and as frequently as he can.”
THE UNIQUE MEDIATION OF CHRIST
I realized that the Orthodox church was a societal organization that had taught me nothing.” So John decided to “follow Jesus” and turn away from his sinful past.
The pressure from all sides to give up his new identity was overwhelming. “I would have caved had I not begun reading the Bible the Baptists had given me,” John says with a smile. “As I began reading Scripture, I understood Jesus to be the only way to God. I realized I did not need the Orthodox church or even a priest to be my mediator, for Jesus was the mediator between me and the Father.”
Christ is indeed the only way to the Father – the Church would never think of denying that. What John has missed, however, is the doctrine, equally biblical, that we participate in Christ through participation in the sacramental life of the Church. St. Paul writes for this reason:
(1 Corinthians 10:16-17) The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
Baptists, because of their low view of the Sacraments, often do not even partake of the Eucharist more than quarterly, and when they do, it is considered to be a mere “memorial” of Christ’s work on the Cross, without any special presence of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul, by contrast, says that the Church’s very character as Christ’s Body is actualized in the Holy Eucharist. The Church is Christ’s Body because it eats Christ’s body.
John has also confused the understanding of the priesthood in the Orthodox Church. The Church’s priests are not “mediators” in opposition to Jesus. Indeed, Christ is the only real priest in the Church. He perpetually celebrates the Divine Liturgy of Heaven. The role of the earthly priest is only to be the vessel by which Christ manifests Himself and brings His Heavenly Worship to Earth. Earthly priests are only the means by which Christ makes Himself present to us.
SCRIPTURE AND TRADITION
Though John does not use the term, it is clear from his testimony that he had acquired an unshakable belief in the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. “I realized that the Bible was the authority, even over the Church.
(John 16:13) When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
The Bible was produced by men who were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In the new covenant, the Spirit actually indwells the Christian. The New Testament was therefore produced by men who had been given the gift of the Holy Spirit and were deeply indwelt by Him. The Spirit inspired the words that they wrote. What is important is that this gift of the Holy Spirit did not cease after the Apostolic Era. While the fullness of doctrinal revelation had been bestowed upon the Apostles, Christ promised to ensure that His Church would not be overcome (cf. St. Matthew 16:18). He fulfills this Promise by continuing to fill men and women with the Holy Spirit. The person deeply indwelt by the Spirit is a Saint. All of the good works they do are done by the power of the Divine Spirit. Just as the Spirit inspires them to do good, He also inspires them to teach Truth. He reorients the person away from evil and falsehood, and towards good and truth. For this reason, it is the consensus of the Saints that is the rule of faith for an Orthodox Christian. The Church is the authority because the Saints are the authority. The Church is the body of Christ and it is the Saints who are supremely the body of Christ by means of their union with Him. St. Paul said:
(1 Timothy 3:15) If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth.
St. Paul is discussing St. Timothy’s behavior in the local Church. The Orthodox Church teaches that the entirety of the People of God is mystically present in every local Church. Hence, the local Church, as a Catholic (that is: whole) manifestation of the reality of the Church, serves as a the pillar of Truth. It was not the Scriptures, but the Church, which was identified by the Apostle as the pillar of Truth. This is because the Scriptures are a voice of the Church. The Saints are a voice of the Church. The Divine Services are a voice of the Church. The Church speaks with a symphony of voices, and they are all in complete harmony. Just as one uses “Scripture to interpret Scripture”, so also one uses the Apostolic Tradition expressed by the Saints to interpret the Scripture. Both are equally inspired by the Holy Spirit. John’s fundamental error is in splitting the Bible away from the Church. The Bible was produced by members of the Church and was entrusted to the Church. It cannot be understood apart from the living tradition of this same Church.
A final problem with John’s understanding of the Bible and the Church is the obvious fact that the Bible is not self-attesting. Many books in the New Testament do not claim to be Scripture. No passage in the entire Bible tells us which books are Scripture. Thus, one cannot understand what Scripture is by Scripture alone- making the entire position of Sola Scriptura self-refuting. God had inspired twenty-seven writings to be Scripture. He revealed to men what books He intended to be Scripture by indwelling and inspiring the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church. The Church knows what is Scripture because the Spirit worked in the body of the Church to manifest this truth through its Saints, through its liturgical readings, and through its Synods. To deny the authority of these things is to deny that we have a Scriptural canon in the first place- and therefore to deny the very thing required for Sola Scriptura.
The Bible was true, and the Church with all its traditions and rituals was wrong.”
One notices two things here. First, for John, “tradition” has become a bad word. For the biblical authors, it most certainly was not. Consider what St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Thessalonica:
(2 Thessalonians 2:15) So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
St. Paul commands Christians to remain faithful to Tradition, and identifies two means of transmitting that Tradition. It is transmitted both by writing and by spoken word. This is why Orthodox Christians understand the written word (Scripture) in the context of the entire living Tradition of the Church. The Pharisees who were condemned by Christ were not condemned by holding to tradition per se. They were condemned for holding to the wrong kind of tradition- tradition invented by man. There is only one Person who can ensure that men do not make up their own traditions- and that is the Holy Spirit.
In fact, as much as Evangelicals would like to deny it, they have a tradition. There is not a single person on this planet who picked up a Bible with nothing but a knowledge of the language and then discerned their doctrines from there. The Reformers created a new way of understanding justification, the Cross, and salvation and passed this Biblical hermeunetic on to their communities. These communities begat other communities, which slightly altered the original Reformed doctrine. As Protestant denominations multiplied, they passed on their own hermeneutics to their daughter communities. Some people encounter the Protestant hermeneutic and choose to accept it. But we must not pretend that Protestants operate by the Bible alone. Protestants operate by the Bible as understood by the Reformers and their successors.
Second, one notices that “ritual” is a bad word for John. One only needs to read the Book of Revelation to find clerical vestments, incense, altars, and sacrifice spoken of in the context of the New Covenant. God ordered the Jerusalem Temple to be sacramental and “ritualistic” (in a good way.) The Church is the fullfillment of what the Temple pointed towards (Eph 2:21-22.) John’s dislike for rituals has nothing to do with Biblical revelation.
THE INTERCESSION OF THE SAINTS
The intercession of the saints and Mary on behalf of Christians on earth was easily rejected. “That isn’t in the Bible,” he says, without further elaboration.
In saying this, John actually posits a fundamental distinction that is unbiblical. It is clear that living believers are to pray for each other:
(1 Timothy 2:1) First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,
It is also clear that the prayer of righteous people is powerful:
(James 5:16) Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
In order to say that the Saints cannot pray for us, one must argue that (1) They are totally dead and unconscious or at least (2) They are alive in Christ but are unaware of what is happening on Earth.
The first point (known as soul sleep, held to by Jehovah’s Witnesses and a minority of Protestants) is easily rejected. The Lord says:
(John 11:25-26) Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
St. Paul speaks of his state after death and before the resurrection on the Last Day in this fashion:
(Philippians 1:23) My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
We know then, that the Saints are conscious. The question is whether they are conscious of what we are doing on Earth. St. Paul seems to answer in the affirmative:
(Hebrews 12:1) Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
The great “witnesses” of the faith “surround” us and encourage us to run the Christian race. This is inexplicable if the Saints are not aware of our progress in the Christian race. St. John in his Apocalypse records:
(Revelation 6:9-10) When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
If the martyrs are aware of the judgments being poured out on Earth, then they must be aware of the business of Earth.
So, if (1) We are to pray for one another, (2) The prayers of righteous people are effectual in a special manner, (3) and those “with Christ” in Heaven are conscious of our progress in the Christian race and know what we are doing, then why would we not ask for their prayers as well? Why would we split the Body of Christ into two? In fact, when the Book of Revelation shows us what the Saints seem to be doing in Heaven, it accords perfectly with the Orthodox practice.
(Revelation 5:8) And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. [saints, in this context, means all Christians]
All prayer, even that offered through a Saint, is ultimately offered to God. A Saint can do nothing of his or her own power, but only by the power of God. We ask for the intercession of the Saints. In this passage, we see “the prayers of the saints” being offered to God is offered by the twenty-four elders, understood by most exegetes to be the Twelve Patriarchs of the Old Covenant and the Twelve Apostles of the New. Revelation then says:
(Revelation 8:3) And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne,
Hence, we see what the Church teaches: The Saints of both Covenants, along with the Angels, offer the prayers of Christians on Earth to God.
Shortly thereafter, he rejected the Orthodox doctrine of infant baptism. “My baptism when I was 6 weeks old was not a true baptism. Scripture teaches that the one who believes is the one who should be baptized.”
Baptism is the means by which God creates faith in an infant. If an infant is incapable of having faith in his own way, then what did the Prophet-King David mean when he wrote this:
(Psalm 22:9-10) Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
St. Peter, when preaching the gospel, said this:
(Acts 2:38-39) And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
St. Paul compares circumcision (which was given to infants born into the covenant community) with Baptism:
(Colossians 2:11-12) In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
John’s understanding of Baptism results from a shallow reading of Scripture and a failure to truly appreciate the typological significance of Baptism and the reality of the Church as a covenant community.
SALVATION BY FAITH
John’s view of salvation changed dramatically as well. As he delved into Paul’s epistles, primarily to the Romans and Ephesians, John came to understand salvation as a gift from God through faith alone, not through good deeds.
The Apostle Paul never once says that a man is saved by faith alone. Indeed, he teaches the opposite:
(Romans 2:6-10) He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
(Romans 2:13) For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be shown to be righteous.
(Romans 6:22) But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.
(Romans 8:13) For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
How then, are we to understand Paul’s doctrine of justification (making righteous) by faith? St. Paul begins Romans by identifying the key point as a “life lived by faith.” (Romans 1:17) Faith is a lifestyle. It is the foundation upon which all truly good deeds are based. While we do not have the space to go into depth about St. Paul’s understanding of salvation here, we may summarize it in this fashion.
1. One has faith.
2. If one acts consistently with that faith, then one is baptized, washing the person of their sins and uniting them to Christ. (Rom 6:1-4, Col 2:12)
3. One receives the Spirit. (Rom 5:5)
4. By the Spirit and living by faith, one puts to death the deeds of the body (Rom 8:13)
5. Having put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit in faith, one is sanctified (Rom 6:22)
6. Because of the above, one is judged aright on the Last Day (Rom 2:6-7)
Paul’s condemnation of works is not a condemnation of all works. It is a condemnation of a particular type of work, the work of the law. Works of the law are not only works of the Jewish law. This is an overly simplistic reading of St. Paul that does not match the fullness of what he said. Works of the law are defined by Paul in Romans 4:
(Romans 4:4) Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his payment.
Works of the law are works which attempt to obligate God to provide a payment of salvation. We cannot obligate God. He does not owe us anything. One must work not under the principle of law, but under the principle of faith. This is why Paul says:
(Romans 3:27) Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.
It is then in “living by faith” that one “upholds the law.”
(Romans 3:31) Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
God does not pay man for his works. God owes man nothing. Yet, looking at man through the eyes of grace, God may justly reward man for his works. As St. Paul says:
(Hebrews 11:6) And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
Note here that faith is not seen as the sole means of salvation in this passage. Rather, faith is the orientation by which one operates. It is only useful if one chooses, by the Spirit, to use that faith in order to perform works of love. While works of the law are condemned by St. Paul and juxtaposed against faith, other types of works are actually joined inseparably with faith:
(Galatians 5:6) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
For the Apostle Paul, “faith working through love” is equivalent to “keeping the commandments of God”, as can be seen by the parallel wording in this passage:
(1 Corinthians 7:19) For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping thse commandments of God.
St. James utterly rejects the idea that man can be saved by faith alone, writing:
(James 2:24) You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
For a more extensive explanation of the Orthodox understanding of salvation, see the article: “The Gospel as Understood by the Orthodox Church.”
In short, John has seriously erred in his interpretation of the Orthodox doctrine and of the Biblical doctrine.
“Paul said we are dead in sins. So I began to ask myself, ‘How can a dead person do good works?’”
By the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ promised to sent the Spirit to minister to all men (John 12:32) and it is in this fashion that man can believe and do good.
MORE ON SOLA SCRIPTURA
“I am totally sure [that the Orthodox Church is wrong], based on the authority of God’s Word alone,” he replies firmly, again appealing to the sola scriptura principle.
Note how John has subtly equated “God’s Word” with “the Bible” in a classic example of a begged question. St. Paul, however, teaches:
(1 Thessalonians 2:13) And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
The Word of God is not confined to the written alone. It is manifested in the entirety of the Church’s life. John, by equating the written Word alone with the Word of God, has stacked the deck in favor of Sola Scriptura in advance.
If Orthodox believers would read Scripture without it being interpreted for them by the Church, they would discover the truth,” he adds.
What John is failing to realize is that Scripture is always interpreted by someone. John doesn’t interpret the Scripture by himself- he interprets it through the eyes of the Reformers. Orthodox interpret the Scriptures through the eyes of the Saints- men and women who have been visibly and obviously indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God, so that the Spirit is guiding them in all things, both their actions and their understanding of the Spirit-inspired Scripture.
I thank John for his time, and then ask him to sum up the biggest difference between Orthodox Christians and Baptists. He pauses for a moment, looks at me intently, and says, “Baptists preach that ‘You must be born again.’”
This is nonsense. Baptists preach a Gnostic understanding of the phrase “born again.” Orthodox, understanding the physical and the spiritual as two fundamentally good creations of God, do not exclude the physical from salvation. The Sacraments are theandric extensions of the Incarnation. They therefore are both physical and spiritual. This is what Christ says when He spoke of the Christian rebirth:
(John 3:5) Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Being “born again” is a matter of being born by “water and the Spirit.” The Fathers of the Church, from the earliest days, have interpreted this to be a prophecy of Christian Baptism. One is immersed into water, which the Spirit works through to effect regeneration by union with Christ. Baptists, in their understanding of rebirth, have completely ignored Christ’s reference to water.
Published here with permission of the author. Source.