A Case Study of Common Evangelical Objections to Orthodoxy

May 28, 2012

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.

CHURCH-STATE RELATIONS

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.

NOMINALISM

“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, unfortunately, does not explain why he believes this to be so. The Bible is not the authority over the Church. The Bible is an important voice of the Church. The Lord said:

(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.

INFANT BAPTISM

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.

REBIRTH

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.


Explanation of the Trinity in ASL

January 8, 2012

Armenian Orthodox subdeacon Tigran Khachikyan gives a detailed look at the historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity in American Sign Language. Captions are available for those who don’t understand ASL:

Part one is here.


The Faith is for everyone!

October 12, 2011

Great first lines of this video on the life of St. Paul applying to today:

The Faith is not just for the Greeks or the Russians. It’s for everyone!


Are We Living in a Special Time? Part One

September 10, 2011

I thank my friend Tom for providing this article that refutes the Jehovah’s Witness belief that we are living in a special time. Part 2 can be read here.

Are We Living in a Special Time? — Part One

by Tom Cabeen

A long-standing and very prominent Watchtower teaching is the belief that in 1914 a special period of time Jesus called the “Gentile Times” ended, the “last days” began, and Christ began to rule over the whole earth for the first time since his resurrection and ascension to heaven. Immediately prior to that time, Jesus, in anticipation of his imminent reign, began inspecting the religious organizations of the world to see which one would be his official representative when he began to rule. He examined the teachings of all religions on earth claiming to be Christian and decided that the most “faithful” one (meaning the one with the most correct interpretation of the Bible) was the small group of Charles Russell’s followers, later to be known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. As a result, Watchtower publications teach, shortly after 1914 Jesus committed all the interests of his kingdom into their hands, and they became his only approved channel of communication between God and mankind.

If this teaching is true, something very significant changed in 1914. Things must be different since 1914 than they were for the rest of the Christian era. If this is true, that would add some evidence to the idea that, as they claim, the Watchtower Society, with its origins in the nineteenth century, is the only denomination which God approves. On the other hand, if the weight of scriptural and historical evidence points away from this conclusion, any group which proclaims this idea, including the Watchtower Society, is suspect. If we hold the idea that we are now living in a special time, we may have to reevaluate our views.

Since its origin, fundamental teachings of the Watchtower Society have been based on and intimately tied to the idea that serious Bible students could determine with reasonable accuracy when Christ would return, either through chronological calculations or observation of unique world events which would serve as a sign of Christ’s imminent return or advent (or both). Generically, Christians who believe that to be possible have been called “Adventists”.

First, let us examine the chronology which, according to their claims, establishes that 1914 marked the end of one special time period and the beginning of another.

Is Watchtower Chronology Sound?

C.T. Russell's chronology borrowed many elements from William Miller and the Second Adventists

Charles T. Russell borrowed his chronology and methodology from the Second Adventists, after William Miller’s failed attempt at predicting Christ’s return in 1843, based on the same methodology. The calculations are based largely on interpretations of passages in Daniel 4 and Luke 21:24. In brief, Witnesses teach that the “Gentile Times” is a special period of 2,520 years during which God’s kingdom, David’s dynasty, had no king. It supposedly began when Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and ended in 1914. Considering the importance of the conclusions it supports, the chronology is based on a rather tenuous series of assumptions:

First, that the dream Nebuchadnezzar had about becoming a beast for “seven times” (recorded in Daniel 2) does not refer primarily to him (as stated directly in the text), but rather that he, a pagan king, not even a worshiper of Israel’s God, actually represents God’s kingdom.

Second, that God’s kingdom or rulership over mankind somehow “ended” when Zerubbabel, a direct descendent of David, was removed from the throne of Jerusalem when it was destroyed by Babylon, and that the kingdom would “begin” again some twenty-five centuries later when Jesus, a descendent of David, began to rule in 1914. The Jews expected a descendent of David to rule as king forever, but the concept of God’s kingdom “ending” and “beginning” is never suggested in the Jewish sacred writings, and in fact directly contradicts Daniel 4:17, which is specifically connected to Nebuchadnezzar’s beastly experience!

Third, based on the first assumption, each “time” must represent a special “prophetic” year of 360 days, although no actual earthly year, solar or lunar, has 360 days. [The Aramaic word Daniel used for “time” just means a period of time, not always a year. (The word for 1 “year” is different, as used, for example, in Daniel 1:1). The word used in Daniel 4 is `idd¹n, which, according to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, means “ time, period, span , year, era. … Two basic meanings are equally a “point” in time or a “span” of time.” In this context, a “time” could easily mean a week, a month or a season. Possibly, Nebuchadnezzar only acted like a beast for seven months or seasons, not seven years.] Seven of these 360-day prophetic years would add up to a total of 2,520 “prophetic” days. To make this assumption even more shaky, each of these “prophetic” days in turn must represent a solar year of approximately 365¼ days. Absolutely nothing in Scripture, Jewish tradition, or the writings of early Christians even suggests that we make this complicated series of assumptions and calculations.

Fourth, that this period of 2,520 solar years are identical to what Jesus referred to when he used the expression translated “the appointed times of the nations” or “the times of the Gentiles” in Luke 21:24 (“Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled…”), even though Jesus was specifically discussing the future destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, not its past destruction by Babylon, and despite the fact that there is not a single word in Scripture, Jewish tradition or Christian writings that indicates that the “Gentile times” refer to any time period during which God’s eternal kingdom would be inactive.

Fifth, that Jerusalem was actually destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies in 607 BC. The date for Jerusalem’s destruction is one of the most accurately fixed of ancient history. More, significantly, the historical sources that establish the date for Babylon’s fall in 539 BC, (which date the Watchtower Society does accept and, in fact, which it uses as the starting point for its 1914 calculations) are exactly the same sources that establish 587/6 BC as the date for Jerusalem’s destruction! Several independent lines of evidence (historical, astronomical, archeological, etc.) point to the date of 587/86 BC, not 607 BC, as the date of Jerusalem’s destruction. There is not a single line of historical evidence which supports the 607 BC date. (See The Gentile Times Reconsidered, Carl Olof Jonsson, Commentary Press, 1998 for a detailed discussion of this topic.)

Sixth, that all the plain passages in the Greek Scriptures that clearly state that Jesus began ruling in the first century, such as Matthew 28:18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” don’t really mean what they say. Below is a more extended discussion of the implications of this assumption.

C.T. Russell wrote in the 7/15/1894 Watchtower that 1914 would be the end of the time of trouble.

Each of the six assumptions listed above are interrelated. All must be true before the Watchtower conclusion could be accepted with any degree of confidence. Again, the veracity of all of them together are absolutely critical to the Watchtower teaching that we are living in the time of the end and that the Watchtower Society has been chosen by Jesus Christ as Jehovah’s organization and, as such, His official channel of communication with his faithful people on earth in 1914. If any one of them is wrong, the final conclusion is invalid and the Watchtower claim is demonstrated to be false.

It is worth noting that Russell, using the same methodology, “proved” that he was living in a special time period, which would end in 1914 with Christ’s return to judge the nations. He also admitted that if any one of the assumptions upon which he based his conclusions were wrong, it would prove his entire approach would be completely invalid. That did, in fact, happen. In time, not only did every one of his assumptions get rejected, Russell’s ending date for the time of the end (1914) is now the starting date for the same period, according to current Watchtower teaching.

When Did Jesus Begin to Reign?

If the Watchtower chronology is invalid and Jesus did not begin reigning in 1914, is he reigning now? If so, when did that reign start? Watchtower publications interpret Hebrews 1:13 (“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”) as follows:

“In 33 C.E., [Jesus] died, was resurrected, and ascended to heaven. … At that time, however, Jesus did not act as King and Judge over the nations. He was seated next to God, awaiting the time to act as King of God’s Kingdom. Paul wrote of him: “With reference to which one of the angels has he ever said: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I place your enemies as a stool for your feet’?” (Hebrews 1:13) Jehovah’s Witnesses have published much evidence that Jesus’ period of waiting expired in 1914, when he became ruler of God’s Kingdom in the invisible heavens.” —The Watchtower, 10/15/95, pg 21, par. 14-16

Hebrews 10: 12, 13 says: “But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.” If this were the only reference to Psalm 110 in the Christian Scriptures, and there was nothing else to indicate otherwise, this verse might indeed be interpreted to mean that the word “waits” in this passage refers to a period of non-rulership, which is exactly how the Watchtower Society interprets it:

“Even after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven, he had to wait at his Father’s right hand until the time came for him to rule as King over mankind. (Hebrews 10:12, 13)” —The Watchtower, 6/15/94, pg 6

But is this how the apostles and early Christians understood the expression “sit at my right hand”? No! Among many ancient peoples, the imagery of a king sitting on the throne of his God was a common way to express that the king ruled with the approval and support of his God, and this is consistent with how early Christians understood this phrase. (See The Gentile Times Reconsidered, 3rd Ed. , Carl Olof Jonsson, Commentary Press, 1998, pg 264-270.)

This is not the only place where this expression from Psalm 110 is quoted in the Christian Greek Scriptures. This passage from the Hebrew Scriptures is the one most often quoted in Christian Scripture. So we can examine a number of its appearances to correctly establish just how it was used and to what arguments it was applied as support. The Watchtower interpretation that “sitting” meant “waiting” is required by their chronology-based belief that Jesus could not begin his reign until 1914, as discussed above. But it is quite clear from many other passages that the early Christians did not understand the passage to mean that. They understood the phrase “sitting at God’s right hand” to mean that Jesus was already ruling as king. One very clear example of this is Paul’s citation of Psalm 110 in his first letter to the Corinthians while discussing the resurrection. Paul actually substitutes the term “rule as king” for “sit at God’s right hand” in the source from which he quotes:

Next, the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has brought to nothing all government and all authority and power. For he must rule as king until [God] has put all enemies under his feet. As the last enemy, death is to be brought to nothing. … But when all things will have been subjected to him, then the Son himself will also subject himself to the One who subjected all things to him, that God may be all things to everyone. —1 Cor 15:24-28 NW (Italics added.)

It is clear from his use of the passage that Paul understood “placing all things under Christ’s feet” to mean rulership. Why should that not be the case, since after his resurrection, Jesus explicitly stated that he had been given “all authority in heaven and on earth.” When Jesus was born, the angel Gabriel said that he would be given the throne of David his forefather, and that he would reign forever. So it would be most natural for the apostles to understand his post-resurrection words to mean that he was reigning as their king, even if the way in which he was to rule turned out to be different from what they expected. The psalmist’s statement that he was to reign in the midst of his enemies is consistent with the idea that his rulership expands until, by the end of his reign, all things are under his feet. A great
resurrection occurs at that time; thus death becomes the last enemy to be subject to him. The image is that of a ruler who sits down on his throne, at the right hand of his God, and continues to rule until all things are subject to his power. Afterward, Paul writes, the Son subjects himself to God, the Father.

Early Christians believed the ascended Christ to be ruling as king.

Many other passages show that the apostles and early disciples viewed Jesus as ruling as king in their day, several of which quote Psalm 110 for support. Here are but a few (all quoted from the New World Translation, 1971 ed.):

Matt 28:18-20: Jesus approached and spoke to them, saying: “All authority has been given me in heaven and on the earth. Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit, teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded YOU. And, look! I am with YOU all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.”

Mark 16:19: So, then, the Lord Jesus, after having spoken to them, was taken up to heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.

John 5:26, 27: For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted also to the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to do judging, because Son of man he is.

John 17:1, 2: Jesus spoke these things, and, raising his eyes to heaven, he said: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your son, that your son may glorify you, according as you have given him authority over all flesh, that, as regards the whole [number] whom you have given him, he may give them everlasting life.

Col 2:9, 10: …it is in him that all the fullness of the divine quality dwells bodily. And so YOU are possessed of a fullness by means of him, who is the head of all government and authority.

Acts 17:6, 7: …they dragged Jason and certain brothers to the city rulers, crying out: “These men that have overturned the inhabited earth are present here also, and Jason has received them with hospitality. And all these [men] act in opposition to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus.”

Eph 1:18-23: It is according to the operation of the mightiness of his strength, with which he has operated in the case of the Christ when he raised him up from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above every government and authority and power and lordship and every name named, not only in this system of things, but also in that to come. He also subjected all things under his feet, and made him head over all things to the congregation, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills up all things in all.

Col 1: 12-14: … [The Father] delivered us from the authority of the darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son of his love, by means of whom we have our release by ransom, the forgiveness of our sins.

1 Pet 3:21, 22: [Baptism] is also now saving YOU, … (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the request made to God for a good conscience,) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is at God’s right hand, for he went his way to heaven; and angels and authorities and powers were made subject to him.

Viewed in their context, these passages indicate clearly that early Christians believed Jesus was ruling, not waiting. The entire basis of their confidence in salvation and forgiveness of sins was based on their understanding that they had a ruling high priest who could actively plead for them, that the glorified Jesus was in heaven, sitting at God’s right hand, that is, ruling with His Father’s full support, possessing complete authority to act on their behalf.

Part Two can be read here.

For further reading:

Historical Idealism and Jehovah’s Witnesses (an evaluation of the claim that Watchtower publications predicted Christ’s return in 1914)

Critiquing the Watchtower’s Latest Defense of their 607 BCE Chronology

A Memorial to a False Prophecy


Icon As Scripture

April 6, 2011

Fascinating lecture entitled “Icon as Scripture” by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo given at Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Stafford, Virginia:

While visiting Virginia, he gave a lecture to students and faculty at the University of Mary Washington entitled “Models of Reality as Sources of Conflict”:


Science, Creation and the Seeking of Truth in Orthodox Christian Theology

February 25, 2011

Fr. Gregory Hallam, the pastor of St. Aidan’s Orthodox Church in Levenshulme, Manchester, in Great Britain, offers this recording of his lecture “Science, Creation and the Seeking of Truth in Orthodox Christian Theology,” given February 24, 2011 at Manchester Metropolitan University. He comments on this recording:

In this lecture at Manchester Metropolitan University I show how Religion and Science are not incompatible. I propose that the Faith of the Orthodox Church, which is so distinctive and different from all other Christian Churches, has some interesting insights to offer.

This is my first attempt at recording. The quality is average but I have learned lessons for next time!

Despite some technical issues, he gives a thought-provoking lecture on the subject. Transcript of lecture here.  Slides used, audio file, and additional media used can be found here.


Is Jesus Christ a Myth? Part Three

January 4, 2011

By James Hannam

Editor’s Note: The first installment in this series introduced the question of whether Jesus Christ was an actual historical person or a mythological fabrication, and the second part discussed the allegation that the Jesus story is assembled from bits and pieces of pagan mythology. The present installment considers what the letters of the apostle Paul attest about the life of Jesus.

The Non-Silence of Paul

The theory that Jesus never existed started life in pseudo-scholarly circles with the fact that Paul does not say very much about Jesus’ life or ministry. The earliest Pauline letters are generally believed to have been written within twenty years of Jesus’ death. So, it is instructive to find out what Paul actually did say. With that in mind, here is a list of what Paul had to say about Jesus in his letters, together with the scriptural reference.

  • Jesus was born in human fashion, as a Jew, and had a ministry to the Jews. (Galatians 4:4)
  • Jesus was referred to as “Son of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:9)
  • Jesus was a direct descendant of King David. (Romans 1:3)
  • Jesus prayed to God using the term “Abba.” (Galatians 4:6)
  • Jesus expressly forbade divorce. (1 Corinthians 7:10)
  • Jesus taught that “preachers” should be paid for their preaching. (1 Corinthians 9:14)
  • Jesus taught about the end-time. (1 Thessalonians 4:15)
  • Paul refers to Peter by the name Cephas (rock), which was the name Jesus gave to him. (1 Corinthians 3:22)
  • Jesus had a brother named James. (Galatians 1:19)
  • Jesus initiated the Lord’s Supper and referred to the bread and the cup. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
  • Jesus was betrayed on the night of the Lord’s Supper. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
  • Jesus’ death was related to the Passover Celebration. (1 Corinthians 5:7)
  • The death of Jesus was at the hands of earthly rulers. (1 Corinthians 2:8)
  • Jesus underwent abuse and humiliation. (Romans 15:3)
  • Jewish authorities were involved with Jesus’ death. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)
  • Jesus died by crucifixion. (2 Corinthians 13:4, et. al.)
  • Jesus was physically buried. (1 Corinthians 15:4)

It turns out that careful analysis of his letters shows that Paul was not actually all that silent about the historical Jesus at all. The first reaction to all this from the Christ Mythologist is to dispute that Paul wrote very many of these letters. But seven of the Pauline letters are completely undisputed, and all of the facts about Jesus’ life listed above come from these seven. It is ironic that the pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, which many scholars insist are late (and date from after the synoptic Gospels), contain practically no details about the life of Jesus at all.

As there are still rather a lot of details about the historical Jesus in the undisputed letters, the Christ Mythologist will use special pleading to try and explain them away, as though Paul himself were constructing the Jesus myth. But as we can see, Paul is not attempting to tell Jesus’ life story, he is just using the odd snippet about Jesus where it is helpful to illustrate his point. He knows that his readers are aware of what happened because all of his letters are addressed to people who are already Christians. He is not trying to convert them and he is not engaged in apologetics.

If we look at the letters of the early Christian fathers, they rarely have details about the life of Jesus except in passing because they know their readers are familiar with the Gospels. What we today call the Gospels had not, of course, been written down at the time that Paul was preaching. However, oral communication was considered to be more reliable than the written word at the time. The people to whom Paul wrote had heard about Jesus already. They did not need a revision primer but specific advice about problems and controversies. Of course, none of this will convince the Christ Mythologist who just cannot understand why Paul does not just repeat verbatim to his correspondents what he has already told them in person.

In short, the silence of Paul about Jesus is something of a myth in itself.

The fourth part in this series, which uses the methods of the Jesus Mythologists to ‘prove’ that Hannibal never existed, will be published soon.  Reprinted with permission of the author. Source.

James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at bedejournal.blogspot.com and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. The book was recently shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2010.