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.

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

August 24, 2010

A Coptic Orthodox icon of Jesus and the Apostles at the Last Supper

Awhile back I wrote about what I’ve come to refer to as Protestantism’s Eastern “blind spot.” When Evangelical Protestant apologists usually discuss the development of historical Christian theology they often characterize sacramental theology (Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Confirmation or Chrismation, Confession and Absolution, etc.) as “Roman inventions.” In that blog post I cited the specific example of the Coptic Orthodox Church as demonstrating the falsity of that view. In 451 AD, the Coptic Church was separated from the bulk of Christendom — from what is now known as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church but maintains to this day a strong sacramental theology. (The Coptic Church belongs to what are known as the Non-Chalcedonian or Oriental Orthodox Churches.) The reality is that a full sacramental theology can be traced back to Christian antiquity — to the Early Church Fathers. I concluded:

Much of Protestant apologetics against liturgical and sacramental theology has traditionally focused on a historical approach against “Catholic inventions,” which is manifestly flawed. More recent Protestant responses to Eastern Orthodoxy often assumes that by the year 1054 AD (the year traditionally given for the East-West Schism) the Eastern Church had had plenty of time to fall into apostasy. The Coptic Church demonstrates that a liturgical and sacramental theology permeated the Christian Church 600 years before the East-West Schism. At the very least, we can say that at the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), a Protestant theological approach is light years away.

One Protestant blogger said that I had

overstate[d] the separation of the “Coptic Orthodox” both from the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. His idea is to suggest that when Coptics, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics agree on something, it proves it goes back to 450 A.D. This kind of idea is naive at best, for it ignores the very real interaction and cross-pollination that exists amongst those three groups, as well as between those groups and other groups, such as the Assyrian Church of the East or the Ethiopian Orthodox.

First, I want to point out that to speak of “real interaction and cross-pollination” between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in this context makes little sense. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was administered by the Coptic Orthodox Church until 1959. They are essentially the same Church but now have separate Patriarchs. But, then, even many Eastern Orthodox are not that knowledgeable about these Churches.

There’s no denying that traditions grow and develop or that influences can be discerned at times. However, if there’s any naivety here, it’s the assumption that the liturgical and sacramental theology in all these various Eastern Churches (Coptic and other Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Eastern Orthodox, etc.) can be accounted for by “real interaction and cross-pollination” instead of just admitting that they pre-date the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. Besides hurling anathemas against each other throughout history these Churches were often persecuted (sometimes violently) by the other. To assume the common sacramental theology can be accounted for because they somehow learned these things from each other is ludicrous. More on that in a moment. My Protestant friend then changed the subject from sacramental and liturgical theology to trying to find sola scriptura arguments in the Church Fathers. I’m going to stay with the subject of a common sacramental theology in these Eastern Churches and not go down that rabbit trail. For those interested, this article by Joe Gallegos gives a balanced view of the Church Fathers on that subject, though I would not agree with Joe’s final conclusion.

Back to the idea of “real interaction and cross-pollination.” How did the Coptic Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox get along after the Council of Chalcedon in the Byzantine Empire? This Wikipedia entry describes the situation accurately:

Copts suffered under the rule of the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire. The Melkite [Greek Eastern Orthodox] Patriarchs, appointed by the emperors as both spiritual leaders and civil governors, massacred the Egyptian population whom they considered heretics. Many Egyptians were tortured and martyred to accept the terms of Chalcedon, but Egyptians remained loyal to the faith of their fathers and to the Cyrillian view of Christology. One of the most renowned Egyptian saints of that period is Saint Samuel the Confessor.

Does it make sense much “cross pollination” occurred between the Chalcedonian Orthodox and the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox during the time the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox were under such repression? What sources is this Reformed blog writer relying on to establish that the liturgical and sacramental theology that developed in these disparate Eastern Churches who were not in communion with each other was due to some sort of “cross-pollination”? Rather, doesn’t the fact these bitterly separated Churches maintained very similar beliefs on the sacraments show a parallel development, one that comes from a common root before their separation at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD?

Details of the poor relations between these Churches after their separation can be read in the book Muslim-Christian Relations and Inter-Christian Rivalries in the Middle East by John Joseph on pages 10-11 (see link for the reading). What is even more interesting is the fact that the author explains that these persecuted non-Chalcedonian Orthodox welcomed the Muslim Arab conquerors because it offered them relief. Again, there is little indication that these separated Churches enjoyed interaction and that this allowed a cross-pollination between them which would explain common sacramental theological beliefs.

As an aside, let’s consider the relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the different Eastern Churches during this period of history. Could this common sacramental theology in these various Eastern Churches be a result of Catholic influence? Hardly. During the era of the Crusades Latin Catholic missionaries encountered the various Eastern Churches (Oriental and Eastern Orthodox and the Assyrian Church) and their interaction was primarily one of debate.

Debates characterized meetings between Western & Eastern Christians during the Crusades.

However, later Latin Catholic missionaries amongst Eastern Christians did meet with some success. This can be seen in the formation of various Eastern Catholic Churches (in full communion with Rome) in the centuries that followed. One historian explains:

During periods of Moslem persecution, the autonomous Christian sects of the east obtained support from the Church of Rome, but often at the price of obedience to Rome. Agreements were made whereby in return for recognition of the Pope as head of the community, local usages in doctrine and ritual were permitted to continue. Hence a number of eastern Christians broke away from sects such as the Jacobites [Oriental Orthodox] or Nestorians [Assyrian Church of the East], and formed what are known as the Uniate Churches–i.e. Communities with practices that differ widely from those of the main Roman Church, but which nevertheless accept the supremacy of the Pope. There have thus come into existence the Armenian Catholic, the Greek Catholic, the Syrian Catholic, the Coptic Catholic, and the Chaldean (Nestorian) Catholic Churches. (The Middle East: a Physical, Social, and Regional Geography by William Bayne Fisher.)

The formation of these Eastern Catholic Churches (dating from the 1500s to the 1800s) were, for the most part, accompanied by bitter reactions from their mother churches in the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox from which they broke away with, each considering the other as heretical. As a result, the view of most Eastern Churches towards Roman Catholicism became embittered. Just as there was no “cross-pollination” between Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox with regards to their sacramental theology, there would be even less here.

This chart shows the timeline of the separation of the Ancient Christian Churches. Click for better view.

But, back to this common sacramental theology in these Eastern Churches. Let’s take another look at the Coptic Orthodox Church which was separated from Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in 451 AD.  I cite them as in the past thirty years there has been a great migration of Coptic Orthodox from Egypt throughout the world and they are often easily found throughout most Western countries nowadays. Thus if someone doubts the presentation here, it would be quite easy for them to visit a local Coptic Orthodox parish to verify it.

Fr. Tadros Malaty’s Introduction to the Coptic Orthodox Church is probably the best place to start. On pages 316-317, he enumerates the Coptic Orthodox view of the sacraments:


I am delighted to write here about church sacraments, for in fact practising church sacraments gives us enjoyment through the exceeding love of God and the free divine grace. Such are the practical gospels in the actual church life, that through them believers discover the mystery of the Gospel.

In brief I can say that the sacraments grant us the following blessings:


1. Practical divine grace: If teaching the divine grace is the heart and center of the Gospel, we attain this grace through the sacraments, as it is written in the Holy Bible:

In the sacrament of Baptism, we attain the rebirth, not of our own merit nor by a human hand but by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-5; Tit. 3:5). We also receive God’s adoption (Gal. 3:26, 27), attain the remission of sins (Acts 2:38) and sanctification (Eph. 5:25-26).

Through “Chrism” (Mayroun) we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who teaches us, guides us and sanctifies us, so that we may attain the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Acts 8:17; 19:5,6).

Through penance and confession, the Holy Spirit grants us the remission of sins (Matt. 16:19).

In the Eucharist, the church is lifted up as if to heaven so that she meets her heavenly Savior, participates with the heavenly host in their hymns, and partakes of the Body and the Blood of the Lord to be united with Him, established in Him and to live forever with Him


(John 2:3 5,55; Matt. 26:27,28; 1 Cor. 10: 17).

Through the Sacrament of holy unction, the sick who accepts to be united with Christ in His sufferings attains the remission of sins (by repentance). and the healing of his body (James 4:14; Mark 6:13).

Through the Sacrament of marriage, the couple are united together, and the Holy spirit sets their home as the holy church of God…

Through the Sacrament of priesthood, Jesus Christ, the Unique Chief-Priest acts in those whom the Holy Spirit grants the grace of priesthood (Matt. 28:19-20; Eph. 4:11; Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1: 16).

These exceeding divine acts are the free grace of God offered to believers through His Church.

Do these sound familiar? Now, if you were counting as you read the above, you could count seven sacraments. In the East, that’s usually (but not always) the conventional numbering given.  What is essential here is not the numbering of the sacraments but how they are understood theologically. Their theological understanding comes from how their liturgical books present these “mysteries.”

But let’s just concentrate on one of the sacraments or mysteries that the Churches of the East (both Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox) interpret similarly, the Eucharist:

Coptic Christians believe the eucharistic bread and wine is changed into Christ's Body and Blood during the Divine Liturgy.

Coptic Orthodox Bishop Mettaous, Bishop and Abbot of St. Mary Monastery, El-Sorian in Egypt discusses the Coptic view of the Eucharistic Real Presence here:

Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Christians agree that the bread and wine truly and actually become
the body and blood of Christ. They have in general refrained from philosophical speculation, and usually
rely on the status of the doctrine as a “Mystery,” something known by divine revelation that could not
have been arrived at by reason without revelation. Accordingly, they prefer not to elaborate upon the
details and remain firmly within Holy Tradition, than to say too much and possibly deviate from the
truth. However, they do speak clearly of a “change” (in Greek μεταβολή) or “metousiosis” (μετουσίωσις)
of the bread and wine. Met-ousi-osis is the Greek form of the word Tran-substantia-tion.

After discussing theological and logical considerations, the article then gives historical reasons for believing in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. This Coptic Orthodox Bishop makes the very same point I am making about the historical significance of the universality of the view of the Eucharist in the various Ancient Churches:

1. All apostolic Churches universally agree about the real presence of the Lord in the Sacrament of the
Eucharist in spite of their disagreements on many other issues.
2. All Eastern and Western Church Fathers have agreed, without exception, that the words of the Lord
about this Holy Sacrament are to be understood literally.
3. Martin Luther himself could not dare to deny the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist (although his view was still heretical) and it wasn’t until later that Zwingli came up with the heresy of real absence which
most of the Protestants believe today.

Remember, when we say “Ancient Churches” we are not just talking Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. We are also including the Oriental Orthodox (who were separated from the rest of Christendom in 451 AD) and also the Assyrian Church of the East. A quick look at the Assyrian Church’s view on the Eucharist further shows the antiquity of Christian belief in the Real Presence.

Liturgy at an Assyrian Church of the East parish in India.

The Assyrian Church of the East is the church which descends from those Christians who did not accept the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. It only accepts the first two ecumenical councils: the First Council of Nicea and the First Council of Constantinople. To suggest there was “cross-pollination and real interaction” between the Assyrian Church and the other Eastern Churches (either Oriental Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox) is also ludicrous. They also were persecuted by the other Christian groups. It wasn’t until 1997 that the Assyrian Church of the East decided to remove anathemas towards other Christian groups from their liturgy.

The Assyrian Church of the East describes their belief regarding Sacraments and the Eucharist:

The Church of the East has a sacramental system which resembles the sacramental systems of the Greek and Latin traditions. The Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist are primary, and the Sacrament of Holy Orders effects the other Sacraments. Confirmation is administered with Baptism, and Absolution is a benefit of the Eucharist, though Absolution is also administered separately during a common service of Absolution, and is also administered to individuals, with penance, in the case of serious sin. The Sign of the Cross, Unction, and “Holy Leaven” are defined as additional Sacraments. The central feature of the worship life of the Church of the East is the Eucharist, known in the Syriac language of the Church as the “Qurbana Qaddisha”, or “Holy Offering”. The liturgy of the Eucharist is attributed to “the Apostles, Addai and Mari, who discipled the East”. The liturgy consists of a service for the catechumens and a service for the faithful. The Host is a leavened loaf, and the cup is an equal mixture of wine and water. The baptized faithful receive the body and blood of Christ under both species of bread and wine, and the “real presence” of Christ is understood in the elements. A priest ordained by a bishop in the apostolic succession is required for the Consecration, and a deacon is required to assist the celebrant. A community of worshipping believers must be present at the celebration.

As noted above, the Assyrian Church (whose liturgical language is Syriac — a form of Aramaic, the language many believe was Christ’s native tongue) has a mystery related to the Eucharist known as Holy Leaven. This is explained in a few places but this explanation given in a Vatican document describing the differences between Catholic and Assyrian practices is probably the most lucid:

The Assyrian Church of the East also practices the so called sacrament or mystery (Rasà) of Holy Leaven. From times immemorial, the Assyrian tradition relates that from the bread Jesus took in his hands, which He blessed, broke and gave to his disciples, He gave two pieces to St. John. Jesus asked St. John to eat one piece and to carefully keep the other one. After Jesus’ death, St. John dipped that piece of bread into the blood that proceeded from Jesus’ side. Hence the name of “Holy Leaven”, given to this consecrated bread, dipped into the blood of Jesus. Until this day, Holy Leaven has been kept and renewed annually in the Assyrian Church of the East. The local bishop renews it every year on Holy Thursday, mixing a remainder of the old Leaven within the new one. This is distributed to all parishes of his diocese, to be used during one year in each bread, specially prepared by the priest before the Eucharist. No priest is allowed to celebrate Eucharist using eucharistic bread without Holy Leaven. This tradition of the sacrament or mystery of Holy Leaven, which precedes the actual Eucharistic celebration, is certainly to be seen as a visible sign of historic and symbolic continuity between the present Eucharistic celebration and the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus.

Thus, not only does the Assyrian Church of the East share the high view of Real Presence with the other Eastern Churches, in a very graphic and literal way the Assyrian Church of the East believes their Eucharist is connected to the first Eucharist in the Upper Room and also to the Blood Christ shed on the cross.

A look at one of the prayers from the Assyrian liturgy called The Order of the Hallowing of the Apostles shows their highly developed eucharistic theology. After the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest prays:

Let us all with awe and reverence approach the Mystery of the precious body and blood of our Savior. With a pure heart and true faith let us recall his passion and consider his resurrection. For on our behalf the Only-begotten of God took from men a mortal body and a rational, sentient, and immortal soul, and by his life-giving laws and holy commandments brought us from error to the knowledge of the truth. And after all his dispensation for us, the First-fruits of our nature was tested by the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. And he committed to us his holy Mysteries, that by them we might recall all his grace toward us. Let us, then, with overflowing love and a lowly will, receive the gift of eternal life, and with pure prayer and manifold sorrow, partake of the Mysteries of the church in the hope of repentance, turning from our offenses and sorrowing for our sins, and asking for mercy and forgiveness from God, the Lord of all. And the priest speaks softly in his heart, saying: You are blessed, O Lord God of our fathers, and exalted and glorious is your name for ever, for you have not acted toward us according to our sins, but in the multitude of your mercies you have delivered us from the dominion of darkness, and have summoned us to the kingdom of your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. (Through him you have loosed and destroyed the dominion of death, and have given us eternal life which is indestructible. And now that you have made us worthy to stand before your pure and holy altar, and to offer to you this living, holy, and unbloody sacrifice, make us worthy in your mercifulness to receive this, your gift, in all purity and holiness. And may it not be to us for judgment and vengeance, but for mercy and the forgiveness of sins, for resurrection from the dead, and for eternal life. And may we all serve your glory, and be made pure sanctuaries and holy temples for your dwelling, that when we have been united to the body and blood of your Christ we may appear with all your saints at his great and glorious manifestation, for to you, and to him, and to the Holy Spirit belong glory, honor, confession, and worship, now, always, and for ever and ever.)

In conclusion, instead of attributing this common sacramental theology in these separate and distinct Eastern Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Church) to some sort of cross-pollination and interaction (which was practically non-existent because of viewing each other as heretical), their common witness to sacramental theology and a high view of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist testifies to a common root dating back before the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 AD. This is something many Evangelical Protestants usually have not taken into account when discussing the historical development of Christian theology, a veritable “blind spot” in Protestant apologetics.

Further examples from Ancient Churches which were separated from the rest of Christendom in the fifth century:

Part 1 of the Coptic Orthodox Liturgy in English, televised from Egypt. The Eucharistic prayer is in parts 7, 8, 9, 10. The text of the liturgies used in the Coptic Church can be read here. A Coptic liturgy in English from a parish in California can be seen here:

The dedication of an Assyrian Church of the East parish in California, showing its liturgical character. The language chanted is Aramaic which many think was the language Jesus spoke. An explanation with pictures of the Assyrian Mass or Liturgy can be found here. The liturgical text can be read here.

Liturgy in Aramaic by a Syriac Orthodox (Oriental Orthodox) Bishop in Jerusalem. The Syriac Liturgy or Mass is explained in English here. Liturgy texts for the Syriac Orthodox Church can be read in English here.

Liturgical Worship — Evangelical Style

May 14, 2010

Liturgy is usually associated with the Ancient Christian Churches. Some Protestant churches have liturgical-style worship, such as many Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches.

Most people don’t think of Evangelical churches as having a liturgical worship, but one could point out some elements in some contemporary Evangelical worship that could almost be classified as liturgical as this recent satire illustrates.

Protestantism’s Eastern Blind Spot

March 22, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evangelical Blind Spot Ending?

January 17, 2010

A patristics center at an Evangelical Protestant Bible College? You’ve got to be kidding, right? No, it’s for real and it’s about time.

Bobby Maddex, of Ancient Faith Radio, has done a special podcast on the new Center for Early Christian Studies which has opened at Wheaton College, an Evangelical Protestant institution in the Chicago area.

I’ve often said that many Evangelicals tend to have a “blind spot” when it comes to Church history, especially with regards to the Eastern Church. For many Evangelicals, Church history jumps from the book of Acts to Martin Luther in 1517 AD.

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

How will this new Center at Wheaton impact Evangelicalism? Maddex has some great interviews with Wheaton staff and administrators and asks some pointed questions.  He also interviews some Orthodox priests and some alumni of Wheaton who are now Orthodox.  Maddex’s podcast is definitely worth a listen.

For those interested in more detail, the inaugural address for the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies, given by Robert Louis Wilken, is also available for download. It gives an idea about the direction the Center intends to go.