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.


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.


“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.”


 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.


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 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.


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.


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.

St Nicholas Celebration for Children at St Nicholas Cathedral

December 10, 2011

Fragments from a liturgical celebration, along with a children’s sermon, for the Feast of St Nicholas at St Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, DC:


New Blog: Letters on Orthodoxy

December 2, 2011

I just came across a new blog that I thought ought to be shared:

Letters on Orthodoxy

The blogger explains why he’s started his new site:

Hello. This blog is a collection of correspondence begun on October 27, 2011, with my family on the subject of my impending conversion from Protestant Christianity to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. I have been a Protestant for my entire life (about 35 years), but for the last two or three years have been intensely studying Orthodoxy.   I kept this hidden from my extended family so that I didn’t rock their boats while I figured some things out, but after settling in my heart that I was ready to convert I started the process of informing my family.

I decided to post the letters (scrubbed of names) for a few reasons.  I suspect that the issues I’m dealing with are fairly universal to converting Protestants.  You might find them helpful if you are thinking about Orthodoxy, someone you know is converting and you want to know more and why, or you are converting and want to have some help in letting your family know.  You can feel free to take these letters and use them for your own personal correspondence, modified appropriately.  I also am sharing them because they took a lot of time and personal research to write, and while not perfect I’m sure, they might save others some time.

He shares his first comment to his Mom about his spiritual journey and concludes expressing his love for his family:

Over the intervening period we have before the joining becomes official I hope you will take the time necessary to becoming acquainted with Orthodoxy and to pray for us.  I would like for you to be able to become comfortable with what Eastern Orthodoxy is and be able to engage with it.  Maybe you already are!  I don’t know.  You’ve always done such a good job at embracing the things that us kids were involved in.  You’ve looked at the journeys we take and make them your own, to the degree you can.  While this may look like a really bizarre turn I think over time you’ll see what about Orthodoxy draws me and be able to wish us well on the journey, even if it’s not one you would take.

I love you and Dad.  I always have, and I always will.  Think about this email, and then give me a call sometime when we can talk privately about it.  Maybe you can “go for a walk” or something?  Again, please keep this private for the moment until we can talk.  Thanks.

The first few letters have been posted here and more are to follow.  This is a blog definitely worth following.

Florovsky on St. Ignatius of Antioch

November 11, 2011

Fr Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), a prominent Orthodox theologian, also taught at Harvard and Princeton

From the chapter, “The Earliest Christian Writers” in The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century by Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky:

The commonly accepted seven letters of St. Ignatius in their shorter form are exceedingly important documents in the history of Christian theology. They were written before 107, the commonly accepted time of his martyrdom in Rome. His letters are therefore an undisputed witness to the faith of the early Church. Those who find the definitions of the Ecumenical Councils difficult to accept will encounter difficulty with the thought of St. Ignatius. Again, it must be noted that these are not theological treatises but rather letters written by St. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, on his way to Rome to be thrown to the wild beasts. They are in a very real sense existential letters written by one about to die, existential letters, which just happen to touch on theological subjects as well as moral ones. Indeed, it was the so-called “developed doctrine” contained in St. Ignatius’ letters, which caused some Protestant theologians to question their authenticity until Lightfoot and Harnack established the authenticity of the seven epistles. It was especially the 1885 edition by Lightfoot, which established permanently the authenticity of the seven letters in their Greek shorter versions.

In his Letter to the Ephesians (7), St. Ignatius writes, “There is only one physician — of flesh yet spiritual, born yet uncreated God become man, true life in death, sprung from both Mary and from God first subject to suffering and then incapable of it — Jesus Christ our Lord.” He is God Incarnate. In the same letter, he writes (18-20): “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary, in God’s plan being sprung forth from both the seed of David and from the Holy Spirit. He was born and baptized that by His Passion he might sanctify water for God was revealing himself as a man to bring newness of eternal life. What God had prepared was now beginning. Therefore, everything was in confusion because the destruction of death was being executed.” “The New Man Jesus Christ is Son of man and Son of God.” In his Letter to the Romans he writes that Jesus Christ is the “only Son of the Father” and he is the Father’s thought — γνώμη.

In his Letter to the Magnesians, St. Ignatius writes of the co-eternality of Jesus Christ (6): “…Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from all eternity and in these last days has been made manifest.” The union of the Father and Son is explicitly stated (1): “I desire that they confess the union of Jesus with the Father.” “The Lord was completely one with the Father and never acted independently of him” (7). “Make speed, all of you, to one temple of God, to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from the one and only Father, is eternally with that One, and to that One is now returned” (7). “God is one he has revealed himself in his Son Jesus Christ, who is his Logos issuing from the silence” (8).

In his Letter to the Trallians, he poignantly describes the reality of the humanity of Jesus: “Be deaf, then, to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary, he was truly — άληθΰς- — born, ate, and drank. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate. He was truly crucified and died in the sight of heaven and earth and of the powers of the nether world. He was truly raised from the dead, the Father having raised him, who in like manner will raise us also who believe in him — his Father, I say, will raise us in Christ Jesus, apart from whom we have no true life” (9).

He writes more forcefully in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, “I extol Jesus Christ, the God who has granted you such wisdom… Regarding our Lord, you are absolutely convinced that on the human side he was actually sprung from David’s line, Son of God according to God’s will and power, actually born of a virgin, baptized by John and actually crucified for us in the flesh, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch. We are part of his fruit, which grew out of his most blessed Passion. And thus, by his resurrection, he raised a standard to rally his saints and faithful forever, whether Jews or Gentiles, in one body of his Church. He truly suffered, just as he truly raised himself. It is not as some unbelievers say, that his Passion was a sham. Those are they, who are a sham! For myself, I am convinced and believe that even after the resurrection he was in the flesh. Indeed, when he came to Peter and his friends, he said to them, Take hold of me, touch me and see that I am not a bodiless phantom.’ And they at once touched him and were convinced, clutching his body and his very breath. For this reason, they despised death itself, and proved its victors. Moreover, after the resurrection he ate and drank with them as a real human being, though even then he and the Father were spiritually — πνευματικώς — one.” In this same letter he writes that Jesus Christ is Perfect Man — τέλειος.

In his Letter to Polycarp, St. Ignatius writes, “You must not be panic-stricken by those who have an air of credibility but who teach heresy. Stand your ground like an anvil under the hammer.” He refers to Jesus Christ as the “Timeless, the Unseen, the One who became visible for our sakes, who was beyond touch and passion, yet who for our sakes became subject to suffering, and endured everything for us” (3). These are indeed a collection of powerful and explicit statements on the reality of the full humanity and the full Divinity of Jesus Christ. It is, as it was, a preamble to Chalcedon already at the turn of the first century. It is not an exaggeration to claim that his expressions foreshadow the later doctrine of άντίδοσις των ιδιωμάτων.

Such are some of St. Ignatius’ explicit comments on Christology. If one looks carefully at what he writes about the Eucharist, the hierarchy of the Church, the unity of the Church and the Church’s unity with the unity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, a deeper and even more vital Christology obtains. Everything, for example, that he writes about the Eucharist becomes meaningless without his belief in the Divinity of Christ. The Church is the “place of sacrifice” — θυσιαστήριοι — and the Eucharist is θυσία. He writes in his Letter to the Ephesians (19-20): “Meet together in common — every single one of you — in grace, in one faith and on Jesus Christ (who was of David’s line in his human nature, son of man and son of God) that you may obey the bishop and presbytery with undistracted mind; breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, our antidote to ensure that we shall not die but live in Jesus Christ forever.” In his Letter to the Philadelphians (3) he writes, “Take great care to keep one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup to unite us by his blood; one sanctuary, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons.” And in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, he writes (8), “All of you follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father and the presbytery as the Apostles. Respect the deacons as the ordinance of God. Let no one do anything that pertains to the Church apart from the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist, which is under the bishop or one whom he has delegated. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, just as wherever Christ Jesus may be, there is the Catholic Church.”

This is the first written use, which has come down to us of the term “Catholic” Church. The word “catholic” means in Greek “universal” but the conception of catholicity cannot be measured by its world-wide expansion — “universality” does not express the Greek meaning exactly. Καθολική comes from καθ’ ολου, which first of all means the inner wholeness, not only of communion and in any case not of a simple empirical communion. Καθ’ ολου is not the same as κατά παντός. It belongs not to the phenomenal and empirical, but to the nominal and ontological plane. It describes the very essence and not the external manifestations. If “catholic” also means “universal,” it certainly is not an empirical universality but rather an ideal one: the communion of ideas, not of facts, is what is meant. St. Ignatius’ use of the word is precisely this. This word gives prominence to the orthodoxy of the Church, to the truth of the Church in contrast with the spirit of sectarian separatism and particularism. He is expressing the idea of integrity and purity.

Grillmeier correctly observes that St. Ignatius foreshadows the later definitions of the Ecumenical Councils. Grillmeier writes that from “Christ’s Godhead and manhood there arises the antithetic, two-member formula, so well loved in the later history of the dogma of Christ,” which emphasizes the distinction between the Divine and human nature in the one Lord. σαρκικός και πνευματικός; γεννητός και άγγένητος; εν άνθρωπω θeoς; εν θανάτω ζωή αληθινή; και εκ Μαρίας και εκ θeov; πρώτον παθητός και ποτε απαθής εστίν Ίησοΰς Χριστός ό Κύριος ημών.

Martyrdom of St Ignatius of Antioch — fresco detail from a church in North Africa

There is a tendency among some scholars to assume that if something is not mentioned in a text, the author had no knowledge of it. This is a fundamentally erroneous presupposition and hence an erroneous methodology. The assumption of this methodological approach or perspective misses the prime reality — a living Church was already in existence since Pentecost and that living Church knew the deposit about, which they preached, knew the tradition, which they had received and continued to impart in their missionary activity. Again, the statement by Karl Adam is significant: “Even if the Bible [the New Testament] did not exist, a Christian religious movement would be conceivable.” Indeed, not only conceivable but it actually existed without the New Testament as we know it for decades. And during that time, the Apostolic and Sub-Apostolic Church flourished with and in the fullness of faith. St. Ignatius is an excellent example of this precisely because his seven occasional letters were written so early and especially because of what he has to say about the “documents,” “the archives.” In his Letter to the Philadelphians, St. Ignatius writes (8): “When I heard some people saying, ‘If I do not find it in the original documents, I do not believe it.’” Here, the essence of the dispute was that the Old Testament, the Bible for the early Christians in its Greek Septuagint version, was the reference point of validity. The New Testament is not the criterion, precisely because it was still in process in the days of the early Church and it was certainly not used as a canonical authority in the earlier days of the life of St. Ignatius. It is the reality of the living Church, which gives rise to the New Testament and it is the Church, which determines the “canon” of the New Testament — there were numerous writings circulating, which claimed apostolic authorship and it was the Church, which determined, which of those were authentic. St. Ignatius then makes a statement, which confirms how the early Church understood its reality, its faith, its tradition, its authority: “To my mind it is Jesus Christ who is the original documents. The inviolable archives are his Cross and Death and his Resurrection and the faith that came by him.” St. Ignatius needs no written “documents,” needs no written “archives.” The historical, existential, and ontological reality of the God-Man Jesus Christ and his redemptive work is the truth of the faith — he is oral “document” of the living God. He knows of this through the tradition, through that which was delivered, through the deposit, which was preserved and handed down in its original purity of content and fullness.

It is historically interesting to take even a casual look at St. Ignatius’ occasional, ad hoc, non-systematic, hastily written letters, for in these seven brief letters St. Ignatius just happens to touch on many of the basic principles of the faith of the living Church, a faith not recorded in a “document” but a faith that has been preserved and delivered faithfully from Christ to the Apostles to the episcopate. The main purpose of all seven letters is two-fold: it is to urge unity and also to convince the churches to which he writes not to interfere with his desire for martyrdom, his desire to “imitate the Passion of Christ God.” And yet we find in these brief pages a rather broad Christian theology in skeletal form. The reality of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is mentioned (in “Son, Father, and Spirit;” “to Christ, to the Father, and to the Spirit;” the Spirit “comes from God;” “the most High Father and Jesus Christ, his only Son”). He has no hesitation to speak of grace and deeds, of a justification by grace and one of deeds, implying an existential understanding of the synergistic relationship between grace and spiritual freedom, between grace and “works.” And from the totality of his seven brief letters, it is clear that everything is a gift from God. It is also clear that man participates in this gift, in his salvation. St. Ignatius also has no hesitation in speaking about predestination, election, and freedom. They all cohere for him in one theological vision. For him there is no tension between predestination and freedom. This is not a result of his inability to see a potential theological problem. Rather it is natural, instinctive, intuitive, and apostolic understanding of the vision of salvation, a salvation which comes from God and in which man participates, a salvation which is a gift but one, which must be received.

St. Ignatius speaks equally of the spiritual nature and the external structure of the Church — the bishops, presbytery, deacons (the “bishops reflect the mind of Jesus Christ;” the Church has a unique “intimacy” with Jesus Christ, as Jesus Christ has with the Father; the Church is “a choir, so that in perfect harmony and with a pitch taken from God,” it “may sing in unison and with one voice to the Father through Jesus Christ”). Jesus Christ is our inseparable life — το αδιάκριτον ημών ζήν, without whom we have no true life — το αληθινόν ζήν ουκ εχομεν.

St. Ignatius’ stress on the “imitation of Christ” is a theme that will be repeated often in the history of Christian spirituality. His specific idea of the “imitation of the Passion of Jesus Christ” is expressed in vivid, fervid terms (“Let me be fodder for wild beasts — that is how I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ;” “Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil — only let me get to Jesus Christ!”). This has struck many as an exaggerated form of spirituality, as one of arrogance. Yet St. Ignatius is quite humble in this respect. For him the process of salvation is dynamic and he in no sense sees his desire as a superior spirituality (“I am only beginning to be a disciple;” — “I am going through the pangs of being born Do not stand in the way of my coming to life”).

He is ever conscious of the importance, the necessity of a spiritual solidarity among Christians (“I needed your coaching in faith, encouragement.” — “Do not try to convince yourselves that anything done on your own is commendable. Only what you do together is right. Hence, you must have one prayer, one petition, one mind, one hope, dominated by love and unsullied joy — that means you must have Jesus Christ!”). He knows the pain he is to face, yet he is ever mentioning the God-given joy and the overflowing mercy of God. He is on guard against pride and boasting: “I keep my limits, lest boasting should be my undoing. For what I need most at this point is to be on my guard and not to heed flatterers. Those are my scourge.” He is fully aware that his desire is an “impetuous ambition” and this causes “all the more a struggle” within him. He exclaims that what he needs is “gentleness.” For those who think his desire is extreme, it must be admitted that his attitude towards it is spiritually balanced: “I endure all things because he gives me the power who is Perfect Man.”

The relics of St. Ignatius of Antioch were transferred to the church of St Clement in Rome in 637 AD

St. Ignatius stresses that we must “not only be called Christians but we must be Christians.” For him the Christian life was Christocentric, for through the God-Man all things come from the Father and return to the Father. The Christocentric emphasis of the Christian life is a constant motif in his letters — the constant mention of “the blood of Christ;” “love” as a hymn to Jesus Christ; the “mind of Christ” is “the Father’s mind;” “Jesus Christ is God’s knowledge;” the “Name” of Jesus is sacred; the Cross, the Passion, the Death, the Resurrection of Christ are the foundations of our “Hope,” creating, through the Incarnation, the path to our redemption; “if we live in union with him now, we shall gain eternal life,” we shall rise with him. Through “initiation” into the mysteries [sacraments], through faith, love, continual prayer, and fasting, we can have Christ “within us.” And, through union with Christ, “in faith and love in the Son and Father and Spirit” we shall have “increasing insight” and we shall rise with him, for true freedom is only in union with the Risen Christ.

St. Ignatius highlights a basic theology of worship and sacramental, liturgical life. The Eucharist is for him “the medicine of immortality.” He has, as is apparent, a developed theology of the unity of the Church. Conversely, he has a theological attitude towards heresy: “He who fails to join in your worship shows his arrogance by the very fact of becoming a schismatic… If then, those who act carnally suffer death, how much more shall those who by wicked teaching corrupt God’s faith for which Jesus Christ was crucified. Such a vile creature will go to the unquenchable fire along with anyone who listens to him.”

A theology of faith and love weaves its way through his letters: “Your faith is what lifts you up; while love is the way you ascend to God Faith is the beginning, and love is the end.” The dynamism in the process of salvation is constantly emphasized: “For what matters is not a momentary act of professing, but being persistently motivated by faith.”

St. Ignatius has an interesting theological insight into the spiritual importance of silence: “It is better to keep quiet and be real than to chatter and be unreal… He who has really grasped what Jesus said can appreciate his silence. Thus, he will be perfect: his words will mean action and his very silence will reveal his character.”

The great exclamatory Easter hymn in the Byzantine liturgy Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρων, θανάτω θάνατον πάτησας — is adumbrated by St. Ignatius: Christ’s death is described as “the destruction of death.” This realism carries over to the sanctification of the material world in the theology of St. Ignatius: Christ’s baptism “sanctifies water” and the pouring of ointment on the Lord’s head passes on “the aroma of incorruption to the Church.”

The deepest parts of the interior life of a person are not neglected in his thought: “all secrets are known and will be revealed.” But repentance and forgiveness by the overflowing mercy of the grace of God are not neglected either: “The Lord forgives all who repent.”

It is clear that the Church already at the time of St. Ignatius believed that marriage must be approved and blessed by the Church: “it is right for men and women who marry to be united with the bishop’s approval.” Already there is implicit here the sacramental nature of marriage.

Simultaneous with his theology of the active Christian spiritual life of continual prayer, humility, love, faith, constant participation in the sacramental life of the Church, simultaneous with his theology of the “imitation of the Passion of Christ God” is a theology of the “social gospel.” He places great stress on concern and care for widows, orphans, the oppressed, those in prison, those released from prison who are in need of help and guidance, those who are hungry and thirsty. His social concern extends to slaves who must not be treated “contemptuously.” He even emphasizes the spiritual importance of “taking an interest in those to whom you talk.”

This sketch of some of the subjects St. Ignatius just happens to address in his seven occasional letters reveals that he certainly had a grasp of the fullness of the Christian life and faith. The early date of these letters and their spontaneous, occasional nature cannot be overstressed. They are vital “documents” of a faith that was not rooted in “documents” or “archives” but rather rooted in the delivered tradition about the living person of Jesus Christ, divine and human, yet One Lord and One Eternally with the Father. It is not an exaggeration to point out that the definition of the Council of Chalcedon can is foreshadowed in general idea in the brief, occasional letters of St. Ignatius, letters, which predate 107.


Resources on St. Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius of Antioch (Wikipedia)

Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (Lake translation — parallel Greek/English)

Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (Lightfoot/Harmer translation)

Audio recordings of the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (Lightfoot translation)

St Ignatius of Antioch — audio lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Macdonald

Ignatius of Antioch’s View of the Trinity

The Eucharist in the Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch

Why We Sing the Divine Liturgy

October 29, 2011

By Jane M. De Vyver

The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is always celebrated with unaccompanied singing, because the human voice, the only instrument that God Himself created, is considered the sole instrument worthy to be used in His praises. Only the human voice can adequately convey the heart’s love for God. The voice does not just produce a musical sound, but combines beauty of sound with intelligible words so that we can praise and glorify God with both our hearts and our minds, and so “that we may welcome the King of all, Who comes invisibly escorted by angelic hosts.”

We sing everything in the Liturgy because speech is not as beautiful as song, and only the most beautiful we can offer is good enough for God. We sing everything, because what is celebrated is the Divine Liturgy, not the human liturgy, and in the divine vision, the angels constantly sing praises to God and behold his ineffable beauty. What we do on earth in the Divine Liturgy, where we participate in and taste the first fruits of the Kingdom of God, is a reflection of the Celestial Liturgy. We sing in the Cherubic Hymn, “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim, and sing the trice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now set aside all earthly cares.” When we do set aside all earthly cares, we can indeed rejoice in the peace, love, and harmony of God’s Kingdom, and express that joy in the beautiful song.

Since we (those who sing) represent the cherubim on earth, and the cherubim constantly sing God’s praises, naturally we, likewise, sing constantly throughout the whole Liturgy, and as beautiful as we can but without any insincere showiness.

Indeed, the task of standing in the place of the cherubim at the Divine Liturgy is a very high calling.

The choir and people of St. Innocent Orthodox Church (Olmsted Falls, Ohio) join in singing the Divine Liturgy

In addition to singing the praises of God, singing the liturgical text throughout the year also fulfills the important function of teaching the people through the words of the hymns. Thus to accomplish both purposes, the singing must be done with careful attention, awe, reverence, humility, and above all, with understanding. Because we praise God with our minds as well as our hearts, the Church’s services have always been in the language of the people so that all may participate with understanding.

All of the Church’s teaching of salvation, history, all of the Church’s spirituality and inner essence in life are contained in the fulness of the Church’s liturgical life, and therefore,

If you know what you are chanting, you acquire consciousness of what you know; from this consciousness you acquire understanding; and from understanding you bring into practice what you have become conscious of,  (Theoleptos)

and this is the description of Christian life.

Turkana, Kenya: Mass Baptism, Chrismation and First Eucharist

September 9, 2011

The Inner Meaning of the Divine Liturgy: Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

May 23, 2011

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, noted author of The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way, gave this presentation on the inner meaning of the Divine Liturgy at a clergy retreat in Atlanta on April 4, 2011:

Part One:

Part Two: