A Growing Exodus? Words of Encouragement for Hesitant Calvinists

 

nocrossing1
No Entry? or No Leaving?

In response to some families recently leaving his Reformed (CREC) church for the Orthodox Church, Pastor Toby Sumpter recently wrote “The Levite Club.”  In the article he uses strong language to dissuade them from leaving Reformed Christianity for Orthodoxy.

His main argument is that to leave the Reformed church for Orthodoxy is an act of schism. That is, it will bring division to the body of Christ. Coming from a new Reformed denominational spin-off founded in 1998, this accusation is rich in irony. I don’t think Pastor Sumpter is advocating the invisible church model so popular among Evangelicals but something closer to the Anglican branch theory of the church. This is the doctrine that there is one Church with several branches: Roman Catholic, Reformed Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox. This is a relatively new doctrine that arose in Anglicanism several centuries after the Protestant Reformation in the mid-1800s and has no ancient precedent.

According to the branch theory while church divisions are regrettable, they are transitory in nature and will in time be overcome with church unity once again restored. I infer this from Pastor Sumpter’s subsequent blog posting which contains a lengthy excerpt from Philip Schaff’sPrinciple of Protestantism.”  In light of the branch theory of the church it is understandable that Pastor Sumpter would view with alarm parishioners leaving Reformed Protestantism for Orthodoxy.

 

Does Galatians 2 Apply?

Pastor Sumpter brings up Galatians 2 to bolster his argument that leaving the Reformed church is wrong. He sees parallels between the present situation and the conflict between the Apostles Peter and Paul in Antioch.

You can’t convert and act like you aren’t making a drastic statement about them. How is going from sharing the body and blood of Christ with them to being forbidden to becoming more catholic? You are going from loving Christ in the brothers and sisters right in front of you to getting cozy with strangers. This is why Paul withstood Peter to his face in Antioch. He was eating with some brothers and then when the Judaizers showed up, he withdrew. This is against the truth of the gospel.

Pastor Sumpter, following other CREC teachers, presumes Galatians 2 somehow addresses the question who has access to the Eucharist. But in fact, in Galatians 2 Paul was rebuking Peter for refusing to partake of the common meal with Gentile converts to Christ; Eucharistic fellowship was not an issue in Galatians 2. The Greek for “eat with” in Galatians 2:12 is συνεσθιω (sunesthio). It was used for ordinary meals, not special religious festivals; see Luke 15:2, Acts 11:3, and 1 Corinthians 5:11. For Pastor Sumpter to equate the common meal with the Eucharist is a serious misreading of the biblical text. So, to apply Galatians 2 to the issue of Eucharistic fellowship today represents a lapse in logical reasoning. On the other hand to apply Galatians 2 to the present day situation — Orthodox Christians welcome the opportunity to share a common meal with their Reformed friends and family members!

For a closer parallel let us imagine that the Judaizers were Christian teachers who were at one time loyal to the Apostles then repudiated them as false teachers, broke off to start a new Christian church based on the “true” Gospel of salvation. Then we would have a situation more pertinent to the issue before us. Let us imagine that these renegades came to Antioch with their new teachings and unapologetic for their break with the Apostles, would they be admitted to the Eucharist?  It is hard to imagine the Apostles Peter and Paul allowing them to partake of the Eucharist!

The problem with Pastor Sumpter’s usage of Galatians 2 goes beyond the twisting of Scripture to make it say what you want; the problem is also ignorance of church history. Trinitarian baptism never guaranteed someone Eucharistic fellowship any more than Circumcision guaranteed access to the Jewish Temple. Both the Jew of the Old Covenant and the Christian of the New Covenant could become unclean and forfeit his sacramental privileges. Historically, admission to the Eucharist was premised on being in submission to the ruling Bishop at the time, not merely Baptism. In the early Church it was the Bishop who taught new converts the Gospel. Thus, to be baptized in the early Church meant coming under the authority of the Bishop, likewise to receive the Eucharist meant that one was in unity with the Bishop who was in Eucharistic unity with other bishops around the world, that is, the Church Catholic. To be excommunicated by your Bishop meant being out of fellowship not only with the local Christian fellowship but the universal Church as well.

Canadian Football playing field.
Canadian Football playing field.  Source

The amazing thing is that the CREC pastors want to repudiate the historic Church, Her Bishops, and Her Sacraments, then claim the right to celebrate Her Sacraments in their own way. It is astonishing that Pastor Sumpter would call the historic Orthodox Church “divisive” and/or “schismatic” if She does not follow the CREC theology and ecclesiology!  It would make as much sense as Canadian football players demanding admission to the NFL Hall of Fame or else the NFL would be divisive or exclusionary!  Let us recognize and respect the fact that different games have different rules one must play by. Different game rules call for different playing fields, or else we will end up with multiple players on the same playing field playing according their own interpretations of the rule book with no referees to enforce the rules. If a football player wishes to play in the NFL games, he must play according NFL rules not according his own interpretation.

 

Where is the True Church?

Pastor Toby Sumpter’s beef with Orthodoxy lies in their refusal to recognize Protestant sacraments as equally valid as the Holy Mysteries received in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. He wrote in a comment thread:

I may request that a person be baptized before coming to the table at Trinity, but I do not thereby insist that if any other church does it differently than me, they are therefore not a true church and their sacraments invalid. Rome and Orthodoxy are sectarian by their refusal to acknowledge the fullness of the Triune God in the sacraments and government of other historic Christian bodies. [Emphasis added.]

What he is saying here is: Hey! We’re just as much a church as the Orthodox Church is a church. This is based on the assumption that Protestantism is part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” confessed in the Nicene Creed. But this raises several questions: What is the Church historically? More importantly, what has been the basis for church unity?  Is the church just any group of people who gather to hear sermons from the Bible, formulate new doctrines and confessions, create their own Bishops and Sacraments? Does church history teach or allow for modern ecclesiastical entrepreneurialism that give rise to new startup churches, new teachings, and alternative Christianities?

elephant-in-the-room3Historically, the Christian community gathered on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist around the Apostles and then later their successors, the Bishops. There is simply no way the office of the Bishop can be honestly read out of the historic Church of the first fifteen centuries. It is possible that the trauma of the break from Rome created a historical amnesia in Protestant theology. Recently, there has appeared in Protestantism a desire to recover and incorporate some historic forms of worship. This has resulted in Reformed churches celebrating Holy Communion on a weekly basis. Some have gone so far as to discard the “just-a-symbol” understanding of the Lord’s Supper for the historic understanding of the Real-Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. These steps are all commendable. Yet there remains one important element missing — perhaps the elephant in the room – that is the episcopacy or the office of the Bishop.

 

Who’s Your Bishop?

The episcopacy or office of the bishop is critical to understanding the Church. Protestants have dismissed or overlooked the historic role Bishops played in Christianity because of the historic abuses of the Bishop(s) (Popes) of Rome, but sincere Christians cannot miss the fact of the episcopacy when reading Church history. For example, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (d. 98/117) wrote a series of letters that shed light on the early Church. It is important to keep in mind that he came from the Apostle Paul’s home church (see Acts 11:19-26, 13:1-3)! And it is worth noting the very venue of Galatians 2! [How early is Ignatius of Antioch? There is the story that Ignatius was among the children Jesus took into his arms and blessed (see Mark 10:13-16).]  And it is important to keep in mind that he was writing not as a church historian but as Bishop on his way to his impending martyrdom. In his Letter to the Smyrnaeans he wrote:

Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; even as where Jesus may be, there is the universal Church. It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve, this is well-pleasing also to God; that everything which ye do may be sure and valid. [Lightfoot translation; Emphasis added.]

For early Christians, the Bishop was more than a church administrator; he was viewed as the successor to the Apostles. For this reason early Christians took care to maintain lists of apostolic succession. See Eusebius’ Church History 3.22, 3.34-36 (NPNF Vol.1, pp. 149, 166-169). It was his job to safeguard and pass down the teachings of the Apostles. It was also his job to see that the churches under him were functioning in an orderly and harmonious manner, and that the Eucharist and the sacraments were administered properly.

We must also bear in mind something rarely noted in the Protestant reading of Church history — the New Testament Scriptures were incomplete for the first four decades of church history. As a matter of fact most scholars believe all the New Testament was not finished for the first 70 years!  This means there was no basis for the Protestant Sola Scriptura in the early Church!  How then was the Faith transmitted to the next generations?  Answer: by the Holy Tradition of the Apostles. The Apostle Paul made numerous references to Tradition; see 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 1:13-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23. In other words, the early Christians depended on the Bishops to teach them the Apostles’ doctrines and practices (Tradition). The Apostle Paul expected successors like Bishops Timothy and Titus would faithfully pass on his teachings without change to future generations of Christians. And even when the New Testament canon was finalized in subsequent centuries the Bishops remained the official guardians of Apostolic Tradition. (There is not a single shred of historical evidence that once the New Testament canon was finalized that the Christians then shifted to Sola Scriptura. This is a Protestant presupposition that needs to be scrutinized in light of historical evidence.)

Athanasius the Great in bishop's vestments
Athanasius the Great holding the Gospel book

Historically, the Bishops were responsible for the safekeeping of the physical text of Scripture as well as its right meaning. One can have the right Scripture but abuse it through a wrong interpretation of the text (heresy). In Orthodox iconography the office of the Bishop is signified by the saint holding the Gospel book, a sign of his being the guardian and interpreter of Holy Scripture.

So if Ignatius of Antioch, the third Bishop of the Apostle Paul’s home church, were to walk into Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, (the church pastored by Pastor Toby Sumpter) he would ask: Who IS your Bishop. . . where does he live?  If a congregation cannot give the name of their Bishop and his line of succession back to the original Apostles, the implications are disturbing. One, the congregation would not be considered part of the “universal Church” or “Catholic Church” according Ignatius’ letter. Two, the baptisms and Eucharistic celebrations conducted at these bishop-less congregations would lack Apostolic validity!  (How would you feel if you learned your family doctor didn’t have a real M.D. degree and that the certificate on the wall was a mail order degree?  Would you entrust your family’s health into the hands of a self-taught quack?!!)  Please note: Orthodoxy does not assert dogmatically Protestant sacraments or churches are devoid of grace. Indeed, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware grants there are “measures of the grace of God” in other Christian communions. See The Orthodox Church pp. 307-311. What IS held is that, in openly rejecting the Orthodox Church of history, one rejects the fullness of historic Orthodoxy. One cannot repudiate much that is central to the historic Church (on the one hand), then turn around and claim the same status and privileges of the very Church one has just repudiated!

In other words, Saint Ignatius of Antioch effectively undercuts the basis for Pastor Toby Sumpter’s branch theory of the church!  A bishop-less church is like a general cut off from the chain of command!  Could a loyal soldier in good conscience obey the order of a renegade general?  This leaves a Reformed Christian in search of the historic church with two choices: (1) accept the logical implications of Ignatius of Antioch’s writings and look into Orthodoxy or (2) discard Ignatius of Antioch’s writings on the basis of Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone) and embrace the Protestant understanding of the church.

Thus, Orthodoxy’s unwillingness to recognize Reformed churches as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church is not the result of an arbitrary sectarian outlook held by hide bound church leaders. Orthodoxy’s refusal to grant mutual recognition to Reformed churches is grounded in the teachings of the early Church. In my journey to Orthodoxy one thing that has struck me is how much of early Christianity lives on in Orthodoxy. Tradition in Orthodoxy is a living Tradition. It is something lived out day by day over many centuries. Every Sunday Orthodox churches celebrate the historic Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great. In Orthodoxy I see the Church of the early Church Fathers like Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius the Great, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, John of Damascus. For a Protestant to visit an Orthodox Liturgy is like the movie Jurassic Park where paleobiologist Alan Grant sees living breathing dinosaurs walking right before his eyes.

 

The Unity of the Church

If Pastor Sumpter holds to the branch theory of the church, then it behooves him to demonstrate how this particular ecclesiology does in fact promote church unity. When one looks at more recent Reformed movements like the Federal Vision or the CREC (Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches) and their embrace of the catholicity of the church one has to wonder how they would bring about unity in an already fractured Reformed tradition, not to mention the many differences in the larger Protestant tradition.

But the unity being discussed here is a horizontal unity among the various Protestant bodies today. It is a horizontal unity in the sense that it spans the world geographically in the present moment. Another dimension to church unity is the vertical unity that links the present day church to the early Church. Can Pastor Sumpter claim unity with the early Church?   Pastor Sumpter and Philip Schaff may have read the church fathers but are they in the line of historic Eucharistic Communion with a Bishop of the early church say of Saint John Chrysostom?

backtothefuture-delorean
Let’s go time traveling!

Let us try this thought experiment. Let’s say Toby Sumpter and Philip Schaff travelled in a time machine back to Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople in the late fourth century when John Chrysostom was giving his famous sermons. Would they be allowed to receive Communion?  The answer is: No. This is based on the fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople of today which has been in unbroken continuity with Saint John Chrysostom for centuries would deny Pastor Toby Sumpter Holy Communion now as it would then. Keep in mind that John Chrysostom is the 37th Bishop of Constantinople who served from 398 to 404, and the current Bishop is Bartholomew I who took office in 1991 is the 271st Bishop of Constantinople.

In terms of doctrine and worship the Greek Orthodox Church today is virtually identical with Saint John Chrysostom’s Church then. The question one must then ask is: Is there a discontinuity between the Greek Orthodox Church of today and the church of John Chrysostom’s time?  If there is a disruption (this I believe is what Pastor Sumpter would assume), then when did the break take place?  If the discontinuity is due to Protestantism’s break with Rome then the question becomes: Is the Reformed church one with Saint John Chrysostom’s church or is it a separate church?

 

By What Authority?

Interestingly, in addition to logic and reason, Pastor Sumpter felt the need to invoke his pastoral authority as he closes the blog article.

You are under the authority of and in communion with Jesus now through the pastors and elders who baptized you, catechized you, and serve you the Supper.

When I read this sentence I was taken aback. When I was a Protestant I never encountered such naked expression of pastoral power; not even when I was talking with my pastor about my intention to become Orthodox!  This kind of strong authority is a part of Orthodoxy but even then Orthodox priests exercise it cautiously. I heard an Orthodox Priest relate instances when parishioners wanted to adopt practices or views contrary to Orthodoxy, his response to them was: “There’s the door. And you’re welcome to come back when you’re ready.”  Meaning they were free to leave the Church if they held views at odds with the teachings of the Church but that he would welcome them back if they changed their mind. This open door approach is more respectful of human dignity than emotional blackmail and spiritual intimidation cloaked in “pastoral” concern.

But the more fundamental question here is: What is the basis for pastoral authority?  At the Last Supper Jesus said to his disciples: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20)  In other words with his death on the Cross Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant. This means that the Church is the New Israel. Like the Israel of the Old Covenant there was covenant order and covenant authority. Covenant authority is not something one generates by one’s self; it is conferred by a higher authority. Jesus told his disciples: “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me. . . .” (Luke 22:29)  Covenant authority is conferred by Christ to his Apostles who in turned conferred it to their successors the Bishops via ordination. Inquirers into Orthodoxy today can examine the Orthodox Church’s claim to apostolic succession through the lists of successions, e.g., that of Patriarchate of Antioch or that of Constantinople. The sad thing is that the lack of Bishops means the absence of covenant authority in Reformed churches. This leads to the question: By what authority does Pastor Sumpter warn people not to convert to Orthodoxy?  Lacking the covenant authority of the historic apostolic Church, Pastor Sumpter is on shaky grounds here.

Pastor Sumpter curiously uses his pastoral position with emotional family appeals for unity. One wonders if he offers the same counsel to couples and families coming to his church who are leaving historic Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican family backgrounds? Or does Pastor Sumpter’s idea of schism cut in only one direction? Regardless, this line of argumentation seems more than a tad manipulative – if not downright duplicitous.

 

Joining the Levite Club?

It is regrettable that Pastor Toby Sumpter has to engage in name calling in his defense of Reformed Christianity. This is more than a breach of good manners; it is also symptomatic of a weak theological position. I am reminded of this quote:

Observe which side resorts to the most vociferous name calling and you are likely to have identified the side with the weaker argument and they know it. (Charles R. Anderson)  Source

Equating joining Orthodoxy with joining the “Levite club” or becoming “camel gulpers” and “gnat stranglers” is colorful polemics but not reasoned argumentation. We deserve better than that!

You can’t convert and act like you aren’t making a drastic statement about them. How is going from sharing the body and blood of Christ with them to being forbidden to becoming more catholic? You are going from loving Christ in the brothers and sisters right in front of you to getting cozy with strangers. This is why Paul withstood Peter to his face in Antioch. He was eating with some brothers and then when the Judaizers showed up, he withdrew. This is against the truth of the gospel. This is high handed hypocrisy and pharisaism. You are the Levite and the Priest on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. You have made an idol of ceremonies and traditions, and you are training to become a professional camel gulper and gnat strangler.  [Emphasis added.]

I suspect the polemic here is directed against: (1) Orthodoxy’s liturgical approach to worship and prayer and (2) Orthodoxy’s ascetic disciplines. With respect to the first target of Pastor Sumpter’s polemic (liturgical worship) all I can say he is correct in his judgment. Just as Old Testament worship and spirituality was liturgical and formal in nature so too is Orthodox worship and spirituality. I note however that Christian worship has historically been liturgical in nature and that it was not until the Protestant Reformation and especially the emergence of Puritanism that ceremonialism was stripped from Christian worship. So what’s the problem?

With respect to the second target of Pastor Sumpter’s polemic (Orthodoxy’s ascetic disciplines) I would point out that while Orthodoxy has a lot of rules about fasting and prayer, it is not legalistic. This may sound contradictory but the fact of the matter is we fast and pray for our spiritual growth, not to earn God’s favor. I learned that there are occasions when it is better for an Orthodox Christian not to fast for reasons of charity or hospitality. For example, if an Orthodox Christian visits the home of a non-Orthodox family and is offered hamburger the better thing is accept their hospitality than to rigidly keep the fast.

Please don't swallow me!
Please don’t swallow me!

In Orthodox spirituality discipline is leaven with grace and mercy. There are frequent warnings about the spirit of Pharisaism. After several years of attempting to keep the fasts I’ve had to eat a lot humble pie but I don’t think I’ve become a “camel gulper.”  😉

 

 

Away with Bishops?

In a subsequent blog article —  “Better Than Anointed Lords“– Pastor Sumpter posted a lengthy excerpt from Philip Schaff’s “Principle of Protestantism” which employs similar rhetorical techniques. It is evident that Schaff has a low opinion of Orthodoxy when he calls attention to the “dead Armenian and Greek denominations.” Philip Schaff’s ad hominem attack against Orthodoxy in the 1800s is no less ferocious than Pastor Sumpter’s.

No, we need something higher and better than anointed lords and consecrated gentlemen. Such aristocratic hierarchs and proud bearers of apostolic succession precisely, like the pharisees and highpriests of Judaism, have themselves again and again secularized the Church, rocking it into the sleep of lifeless formalism or religious indifference. [Emphasis added.]  

Schaff’s attack on the office of the Bishop is breathtaking. Throughout church history there have been good Bishops and bad Bishops, but that is no reason to dispense with the episcopacy. There have been good Pastors and bad Pastors, but that is not reason for dispensing with the office of the Pastor!  Using this same logic if there are numerous bad sermons given on Sunday morning is that reason enough to drop the sermon altogether? Is not the more reasonable solution?? More dedicated Bishops, better Pastors, and high quality sermons? We need as the Apostle Paul advised Bishop Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6).

 

A Word for Hesitant Protestants

What I have tried to do in this blog article is to respond logically and calmly to Pastor Sumpter’s warnings and admonitions to Reformed Christians interested in Orthodoxy. It is understandable that someone of Pastor Sumpter’s theological convictions would express alarm over people converting to Orthodoxy. People have been crossing over for some time now from the Reformed tradition to Orthodoxy, and this tiny trickle has been growing into a noticeable stream of converts drawing the attention of concerned Reformed pastors.

In this blog article I gave reasons for becoming Orthodox, but I also recognize that some people are hesitant for relational reasons. They fear the breakup of long standing friendships and intimate family ties. These are good reasons to hesitate. Generally, the counsel by Orthodox Priests is that it is better for the husband or wife to delay their entry into the Church in order to give their spouse time to consider Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy seeks to keep marital and family ties intact. See my articles: “Family Concerns and Conversion to Orthodoxy” and “Called Together.”

For many inquirers the best approach is the “Nicodemus approach,” that is, to inquire quietly and discreetly about Orthodox Christianity. There are many excellent books and materials out there. Thanks to the Internet people can listen to Ancient Faith Radio or read the Early Church Fathers online. Another venue for quiet exploration is the Saturday evening Vespers service or visit an Orthodox Liturgy while traveling. One could even set up a one on one meeting with a local Orthodox priest. Many priests are converts to Orthodox and many of the priests who are “cradle Orthodox” have experience dealing with Protestant inquirers. And of course there’s the Contact Form on this blog and other similar blogs. 🙂

For hesitant Protestant inquirers my message to them is: “Don’t be afraid!  Trust in God’s sovereignty and his great mercy.”  We can’t control the times we live in but we can choose how we will live. In my blog article “Crossing the Bosphorus” I compared the different kinds of border crossings taking place today. With some families becoming Orthodox is like moving house, one loads up the truck, say your goodbyes, and move into your new home. For others becoming Orthodox will be like crossing hostile territory strung with barbed wires and guards on patrol. For these families becoming Orthodox will be much more difficult and costly. My aim here is to foster friendly dialogue and mutual respect on both sides. I believe there can be friendly dialogue between the Reformed and Orthodox traditions even as we disagree.

 

Can We Still be Friends?

In a recent blog posting “Evangelicals and Orthodox in Conversation” I pointed out the longstanding friendship between Pastor John Armstrong and Father Wilbur Ellsworth even as they diverged theologically. Ellsworth became Orthodox while Armstrong remained a convinced Reformed minister. [See video]

coffee_conversation_by_kieranriley-d4d0bfy
Friends talking and having a good time.

It’s more than a decade since I converted to Orthodoxy. I’m amazed that many of my friendships still carry over from my Protestant days. A few days ago I had dinner with a retired Congregationalist pastor, went to the local farmers’ market with a couple who belong to a United Methodist Church and another friend who is Roman Catholic. A few nights ago I went to a Thai food restaurant for dinner with a friend from the missions committee of my former home church and caught up with a missionary couple whom I knew from the 1980s!

Much of this camaraderie is due to the mutual respect we have for each other even as we differ theologically. Also, I emphasized the personal aspect of friendship but exercised caution when it comes to church functions. I’ve attended funerals at my former home church; and I attended their centennial anniversary but I told them I would not be attending their Sunday Services. I can’t because it would be like seeing an old girlfriend one still has feelings for. Love and commitment calls for wisdom in setting boundaries. The point I want to make is that friendships can continue even as we change church membership.

Source
Enjoying a common meal!  Source

As I wrote earlier in this blog article, Orthodox Christians welcome the opportunity to share a common meal with their Reformed friends and family members!  This is the right application of Galatians 2 to the present situation. Let us not be like the early Judaizers who disinvited themselves from the common meal with Gentile fellow believers in Christ. We may not always agree theologically but we can still be friends.

Robert Arakaki

 

32 comments:

  1. Robert, you have such a masterful way of cutting through the smoke and mirrors and showing what’s real. Thank you for this essay.

  2. nicely said paula…Robert has a gift for doing just that! welcome
    to the Orthodox-Reformed Bridge. would you mind telling us
    what part of the essay you found most compelling…and what
    Church background you come from? helps to have some context.
    God bless you for being here. happy Pentecost!
    david

    1. Thank you Paula! I’m glad you found the article helpful. Like David, I’m curious as to your church background. But share only if you’re comfortable doing so.

      Robert

  3. I was baptized as an infant and raised in the Serbian Orthodox faith, and currently attend an OCA church, which I attend with my children. I began reading this blog because of a person in my life of the Reformed faith. It’s a faith that uses words in a confusing way, I would almost say deliberately. Reformed people seem obligated to debate and argue, which is foreign to me. This blog has been helpful in understanding Reformed people, and in articulating my faith better. I also feel the Reformed theology was a contributor in this friend’s suicide, and the more I learn about Reformed theology, the more strongly I feel that.

    1. Paula,

      Interesting. One of my pastors growing up as a Calvinist was a man who took his reformed faith seriously. Wonderful man. Zealous. One day he laid down on a railroad track and ended his life, leaving his wife with two mentally severely handicapped children to fend for. I always will look at him as a victim of reformed theology as well. I have no doubts that he now is in the presence of Christ and His love, as we all will be. It is not because of his reformed faith, but despite it that I can say he is. “For when we are faithless, He is faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” I can only hope that His love is not fire to My friend or to us in the next life. God bless such men and women and the spiritual damage they are subjected to and spread through their teachings. In it are the seeds of death.

      1. Dear Paula and Aaron,

        Your stories about your friends made me sad. As the Liturgy reminds us every Sunday: He alone is good and he loves mankind. Let us take comfort in his great mercy.

        Robert

  4. Aaron, so sorry to hear this about your friend. I pray often for the Reformed, that God will enlighten them. Thanks, Robert, for your words of encouragement.

  5. Hi Aaron and Paul,
    I have to agree that there is some kind of fatal flaw in
    Reformed theology. Take a look at the fate of the Reformed Churches in their traditional heartlands of Geneva, Scotland, Germany and the Netherlands. The Reformed Protestant Church of Geneva is down to 13.5% of the population. The Church of Scotland is now only 32.4% of the Population. In Germany only 400,000 exist in separate churches while the rest are in state union with Lutherans. In the Netherlands the good old Dutch Reformed Church joined up with a tiny Lutheran group to form the Protestant Churches in the Netherlands with a mere 10.8% of the population following them. There are a number of conservative Reformed groups and various free churches like baptists and Methodists but all up Protestants now only comprise 18.3% of the Dutch population.
    I even read in ‘A History of Christianity’ by Diarmaid MAcCulloch (pages 1007-8) that the percentage of Presbyterians/Reformed are starting to decline.
    I could attribute the decline to the massive persecution that they have experienced (maybe not) or to a complete failure to provide satisfactory support to their constituents in the face of a hostile modern world.

  6. I’m glad to hear of masses leaving this faith. I believe the double predestination doctrine is a particularly destructive doctrine. I apologize if my comment is out of keeping with the purpose of this blog. I applaud you, Robert, in this very important work that you are doing, and pray for those who have the courage to question and leave the Reformed faith before a tragedy occurs.

  7. The tragic thing about these statistics is that those leaving the Reformed faith are generally not turning to other Christian denominations but to atheism or just apathy. Truly tragic!

  8. Robert,

    Thank you for always writing well reasoned and non-rhetorical responses to these kinds of Reformed attacks on both the Church and on their own flocks.

    It is beyond tragic to read such ideas. I thank God everyday for leading me to the Orthodox faith. Blessings to you for your work here. We can only continue to pray for all our Reformed brethren.

    As I was perusing the comments on his blog, I was GREATLY encouraged to read the following comment by one of his Reformed colleagues;

    All Protestants are participants, via covenantal succession, in the schism created by the Bull of Pope Leo IX which cut the Orthodox off from communion with the Western Church in 1054. Despite all of the ways that we have repented of Rome’s other errors (e.g. by our rejection of indulgences, and in much of the CREC by our embrace of the Orthodox practice of paedocommunion), Protestants have never corporately repented of our Western Catholic fathers’ sin in the Great Schism. Nor have we ever really tried to make restitution for that heinous sin in the only way it can be made, which is to undo Pope Leo’s schismatic work by seeking corporate reunion with the ancient communion of Orthodox Churches. Until we bear such fruits of repentance for that schism, to which we are all covenantally bound (cf. Romans 5:12-19), it’s hypocritical to accuse the Orthodox of being the schismatic ones. Matthew 7:1-5.

    Now there’s a intellectually honest Reformer!

    Thanks again.

    1. Bingo Aaron! …this is a wonderfully honest and on-point quote…I
      believe, by a pastor who’s just left the CREC ref/calvinism with his
      young wife/children for Orthodoxy. Lord have mercy on him and
      his family. Sadly, few if any reformed writers carefully take the time
      to explain Why the reformers did NOT do the logical thing…seek out
      the Orthodox Patriarchs for union given their break with Rome. I
      suppose Covenantal connections and responsibilities, again, cut
      only one direction. Believe I heard Fr Josiah Trenhan broaches
      this failure in his new book on the Reformers…Rock and Sand?

      http://www.amazon.com/dp/1939028361/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_nS_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=1E08T2QIBPY56&coliid=IZJ2KJCZXQBQG

      1. Praise God indeed…I myself am currently on the road to Constantinople – please pray for me as it’s difficult to rid myself of Western/Protestant ideas and preconceptions (especially as a former Lutheran minister). The priest at the church I am seeking entry into Orthodoxy at is himself a former Pentecostal pastor, but has been Orthodox for the last 15 years, so I know God will work through him to my benefit. And he has gotten the book you mention.

        Just speaking from the heart, I struggle greatly with the notion of why the Reformers didn’t pursue communion with the Orthodox East more vigorously or honestly, it would seem. I realize there were many political and military challenges (i.e. the threat of the Turks and the difficulty of travel between West and East), yet it strikes me as either tragic or duplicitous that Luther could praise the “Greek Christians” as being true followers of Christ and yet insist on his sola fide, sola scriptura heresy. Especially when he *seemed*, at least, to be a man of pious heart and sincere disposition.

        You’re right, and I have observed the same: it was the logical thing to do, and yet all the correspondence from Tubingen towards Patriarch Jeremias II has the tone of trying to convert the Patriarch to Lutheranism! God alone knows the hearts, but I suspect the old blindness of pride and humanism played a huge role in this tragic and destructive furthering of the Schism. Please pray for me and our Protestant friends. Blessings in the Lord + Christ.

        1. James,

          Thank you for sharing your story. God bless you on your journey.

          BTW, you might be interested in reading the article “Is Orthodoxy Eastern?” A reader rightly noted that becoming Orthodox does not necessarily entail “crossing the Bosphorus” — that Orthodoxy is a universal faith that spans East and West.

          Robert

  9. Thanks for the insightful post, I cannot help but thank God he directed me out of the Reformed tradition into the Orthodox Church. I remember when I was in the error of thinking those who left the reformed tradition was in schism. For me it was due to the glasses I put on, I looked at the church with certain presuppositions. As a low church Calvinist I thought the Anglicans were in error, holding to an invisible link to the Apostles.

    Also, I will have to caution the use of number comparisons, because I can recall there was a time the Orthodox Church had a majority of heretics and only a few faithful. I think it was during the time of St. Nicholas and also St. Athanasius.

    However, the numbers are encouraging, I am thankful people are leaving that tradition, but I also am saddened because the alternative may not be better.

    On a different note, my family member attended an Assemblies of God church and they are going through the Heidelberg Catechism and the Apostles Creed, trying to get back to their roots. I talked to one of the pastors and they are interested in the Orthodox Church.

  10. Hi Robert,

    Thank you for your thoughts. I am a Reformed Protestant and I have a few follow up questions about this post. So if you are game for a friendly discussion, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on these things.

    First, in the time machine example, you claim that Pr. Sumpter and Schaff would not be allowed to receive communion from Chrysostom. But you don’t give evidence for how Toby/Schaff are not in fellowship with Chrysostom. You say that Bartholomew I is in fellowship with Chrysostom but you failed to prove that Toby/Schaff are not also in fellowship with Chrysostom.

    Later you say that Pr. Sumpter “lack[s] the covenant authority of the historic apostolic church” but you don’t cite any evidence. Could you back up this claim?

    Thanks for the interaction.

    Jesse

    1. Hi Jesse,

      Sorry for not responding right away. I’ve been taking a little break but I am happy to dialogue with you.

      My assertions that Pastor Sumpter and Philip Schaff would not be allowed to receive Communion at St. John Chrysostom’s church in Constantinople is based on a certain line of reasoning. The first premise is that the Patriarchate (church) of Constantinople has remained unchanged in its faith and worship from the time John Chrysostom was Bishop of Constantinople to the present day Bishop, Patriarch Bartholomew. The supporting evidence for this is the fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople and other Orthodox jurisdictions use St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy to this day and that Patriarch Bartholomew’s position as bishop of Constantinople can be traced back to John Chrysostom. The reasoning goes like this: If Patriarch Bartholomew would refuse Communion to a non-Orthodox like Pastor Sumpter today then the same could be said about non-Orthodox being refused Communion during Philip Schaff’s time in the 1800s and John Chrysostom’s time in the 300s. This is based on the premise of continuity, that is, Constantinople of today = Constantinople back then. The Orthodox Church is very strict about who is allowed to receive Communion. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church in 1672 issued the Confession of Dositheus in which it condemned Reformed doctrines.

      With respect to my assertion that Pastor Sumpter’s lacking covenantal authority, this is based on the fact that the Reformed tradition has rejected the office of the bishop. The reasoning here is that the covenantal authority that Christ gave to his Apostles is passed on to subsequent generations via the ordination process. The ordination process mentioned in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus involves a traditioning process. This is how the ecclesial paradigm of historic Christianity which is why I gave Ignatius of Antioch’s letters as evidence. The Reformed ecclesial paradigm shifts from historic apostolic succession to sola Scriptura, a historical novelty. Furthermore, in rejecting the authority of the Bishop of Rome the Protestant tradition has severed its historical link to the early Church. But even then with the Great Schism of 1054 the Church of Rome’s link to the Church Catholic is in question. My position is that one cannot have valid covenantal authority to celebrate the Lord’s Supper unless one can claim a chain of ordination via the office of bishops back to the Apostles. This regrettably is lacking in the Reformed tradition.

      Robert

    2. Though limited as are all…perhaps a sports analogy could be helpful. Suppose that Pastor Sumpter creates a professional sport football or basketball team/league, and recruits players and a coaches and plans a schedule. Would the NBA or NFL acknowledge them as a legitimate team. Maybe their players and coaches have great college credentials and are good at what they do…even better in some respects to the NBA or NFL.

      But they have ignored and tried to circumvent the historic NBA or NFL process of becoming a sanctioned team…and created their own. They might have basketball or football teams with many similar rules and even better players and coaches in some respects. But they cannot claim communion and continuity of process and procedure with the NBA or NFL.

      That Christ ordained and empowered the Apostles to found His Church…and then to instruct and teach His disciples and Ordain Bishops that would follow after them and keep their doctrines and holy traditions — has never been a small or incidental matter for His Church in history. That a host of “sincere protestant believers” assume they can ignore this history and process, and start hundreds if not several thousand new Church, all with different doctrines and traditions, all without seeking continuity, communion and sanctioned legitimacy is, however unintended and naive, a most prideful folly.

      This is a primary reason why the Campus Crusade group lead by Fr Peter Gilquist and others Pastors realized their need for canonical communion with the history Orthodox Church. They had left Protestantism and independently founded the Evangelical Orthodox Church…in many way “like” the Orthodox Church of history. Yet they had no historical continuity with Ordained Bishops, Liturgy or the received Tradition Christ had transmitted to the Church via His ordained Apostles. These are no small matters. So they humbled themselves and made it right…seeking submission and communion with the historic Christian Orthodox Church. Of course this is not a perfect analogy…but I pray it is helpful.

  11. I’ve been helped a lot by this site. I’m searching right now. I’m reading Kallistos Ware and bought and Orthodox Study Bible, listen to John Behr and so on – what I don’t see too often is some explanation of what the effects of the fall and sin are and why a belief in total inability/depravity is unreasonable. It seems that Reformed folks and Orthodox folks are the only people (correct me if I’m wrong) who insist that the will is the part of the person that needs changed before any progress is to be made.

    1. CapnCrunch,

      Total inability/depravity leads to the monergistic understanding of salvation, that is, our salvation depends totally on God taking the initiative and God completing the process with humanity essentially taking a passive role. I’m not exactly how this theological paradigm influences the Reformed understanding of discipleship. I do notice that the Reformed tradition sees great value in the Law for Christian living. In Orthodoxy the synergistic approach gives humanity a greater role in our response to God’s grace. I learned that from my early reading of Orthodoxy. One thing that I have come to appreciate about Orthodoxy is the care it gives to the healing of the wounded will. In keeping the twice a week fasts I have become keenly aware of how weak and off kilter my will is, and how my inner will is at odds with what my mind has decided. Struggling to keep the rule of prayer, the weekly fasts, and the Lenten Fasts has had the effect of strengthening my will making it a fit instrument for God and his Kingdom.

      I’ve read about the will in the writings of Maximus the Confessor but I haven’t paid very close attention. You might find it helpful in your journey to Orthodoxy. God bless!

      Robert

      1. “Total inability/depravity leads to the monergistic understanding of salvation, that is, our salvation depends totally on God taking the initiative and God completing the process with humanity essentially taking a passive role.”

        I don’t think you can say that a passive monergism necessarily follows TD, or the concept that the whole person (both body and soul) has been impaired by sin. For example, the canons from the Council of Orange thoroughly espouse TD but at the same time deny double predestination and demand an active response and cooperation with Christ once grace has been given.

        1. Erik,

          My statement was based upon my reading of the various Reformed confessions, not the Council of Orange. The doctrine of total inability/depravity and monergism together form the basis for the Reformed doctrine of predestination. I am curious as to where the Council of Orange teaches total inability/depravity. Could you give the number of the canon for that?

          Robert

          1. It of course does not use the exact phrase Total Depravity, but in more than one place I think it definitely argues what is be meant by that doctrine. Using wording from the canons themselves I would summarize Orange with the phrase “Wholly Impaired”. I’m not sure if I can restrict it to just one canon, but I think you can get a pretty good idea from these three:
            “Canon 1: If anyone denies that it is the whole man, that is, both body and soul, that was “changed for the worse” through the offense of Adam’s sin, but believes that the freedom of the soul remains unimpaired and that only the body is subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius…
            Canon 6: If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7)…
            Canon 13: Concerning the restoration of free will. The freedom of will that was destroyed in the first man can be restored only by the grace of baptism, for what is lost can be returned only by the one who was able to give it. Hence the Truth itself declares: “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).”

            The Conclusion, or summary of faith, at the end of the canons might better address the issue as a whole:
            “The sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for God’s sake, unless the grace of divine mercy has preceded him…And we know and also believe that even after the coming of our Lord this grace is not to be found in the free will of all who desire to be baptized, but is bestowed by the kindness of Christ, as has already been frequently stated and as the Apostle Paul declares…”For by grace you have been saved through faith; and it is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). And as the Apostle says of himself, “I have obtained mercy to be faithful” (1 Cor. 7:25, cf. 1 Tim. 1:13). He did not say, “because I was faithful,” but “to be faithful.” And again, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). And again, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Jas. 1:17). And again, “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven” (John 3:27).”

            Other canons that touch on it or address different angles:
            “Canon 4: If anyone maintains that God awaits our will to be cleansed from sin, but does not confess that even our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit…
            Canon 5: If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism — if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles…
            Canon 7: If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God who says in the Gospel, “For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5)…
            Canon 8: If anyone maintains that some are able to come to the grace of baptism by mercy but others through free will, which has manifestly been corrupted in all those who have been born after the transgression of the first man, it is proof that he has no place in the true faith. For he denies that the free will of all men has been weakened through the sin of the first man, or at least holds that it has been affected in such a way that they have still the ability to seek the mystery of eternal salvation by themselves without the revelation of God. The Lord himself shows how contradictory this is by declaring that no one is able to come to him “unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44)…
            Canon 20: That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it.
            Canon 22: Concerning those things that belong to man. No man has anything of his own but untruth and sin…”

  12. This may be a bit tangential here, but I wonder if some of our confusion about “total depravity” and the nature of synergism is because we are so influenced by our modern “two-storey” mindset about the relationship between our human will and God’s in that we tend to picture them as inherently different and competing wills, whereas it is God’s grace working within us (the same grace that both brings us into and sustains us in existence moment by moment as creatures made in His image and also that illumines us) that allows us to have a human (free) will at all? I ask this because I just read David Bentley Hart’s rather cogent work, The Experience of God, in which he clarifies the classical Christian understanding of God as not a “Supreme” Being alongside other beings, but rather as the very Ground of Being who brings all contingent beings into existence at every moment. Also, aren’t there two ways of understanding “total depravity”: i.e., 1) that all aspects of our human nature have been corrupted by sin (which is not in conflict with Orthodox teaching), and 2) that our human *nature* itself is fallen in the sense of having become intent on evil (rather than our human person)? The latter understanding is problematic, and certainly is countered (from what I understand) in St. Maximus’ teaching on the human will (where he makes distinction between the inherently good natural human will vs. the fallen personal “gnomic” will). This is another way of affirming evil can only be parasitic on God’s good creation (which remains in spite of evil); it is not another “substance” alongside that which God creates. Accordingly, the “change” in our human nature as a result of the Fall is not analogous to an apple turning into an orange (as some Protestant teaching on the nature our our becoming a “new creation” in Christ can seem to imply), but rather of an apple decaying and dying. It is still an apple, but it is tending toward disintegration. My priest likes to use the metaphor of thinking of fallen humanity as a silver vessel tarnishing and needing to be polished (cleansed of sin). The silver remains–it is just obscured by tarnish.

  13. Good stuff Karen…thanks. The more one reads and seriously ponders the
    Fathers and Councils, the more a studied and honest Calvinists will see
    that their post-Fall anthropology (doctrine of man) is FAR different than
    his. This of course is no small thing. It relates to just how the heart really
    loves or does not love God…or rebels (it is really a free choice or a mere
    result/consequence of God’s eternal decree). But it is also at the root of the
    doctrine of God Himself, as to How and upon what God loves and judges
    Mankind, and, of course, upon the Humanity of Christ in His incarnation.
    The more I thought it through and prayed, the more the Spirit lead me away
    from Calvinism and to the embrace of Holy and historic Orthodoxy.
    Lord have mercy.

  14. Hello – just read the discussions by Karen and Aaron. Coming out of a Lutheran background, with some knowledge of Calvinism and Reformed theology, I share some of the these thoughts and concerns on my (admittedly belated) journey to Orthodoxy. Have either of you read Fr. Josiah Trenham’s Book titled Rock and Sand? I read it and viewed a dialogue on You Tube featuring him and Kevin Allen (a former Pentecostal, I believe) and found it immensely useful on this journey. I recommend it as a an introductory work for anyone moving toward Orthodoxy from other Christian traditions. Bill

  15. the book is outstanding from several angles. doctrinal issues
    matters (of course) are carefully addressed, but all within the
    context of a Reformed scholar who has completely imbibed
    the Orthodox of the Fathers who were discipled by the Apostles.
    My upper level university classes on the Reformation by sup-
    posedly disinterested, secular Historians, never touched once
    on the various immoral compromises the Reformers were rou-
    tinely willing to take for themselves and friends. reneging and
    mocking on their monastic vows, marrying pregnant mistresses
    to be their wives, looking the other way for monarch and friends
    who stole lands and valuable relics, which was all just fine. Unless
    they were peasants. Then they became revolutionary anarchists
    to be slaughtered by those same political friends in high places.
    Much, much more to this book than meets the eye. Get it and
    read it carefully. May God use it greatly for His glory. Lord have
    mercy.

    1. i should have gone on to say that Fr Josiah does all this with great
      restraint and discretion. He is a gentleman, and does not gloat in
      the least over these things, which he understates. Much more
      could have been said that he did not say or elaborate upon.

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