A Response by “Nicodemus” to Pastor Doug Wilson
PART I: Pastor Doug Wilson’s 23 September 2011 blog posting “With Whoops and Happy Yells: Theology – Roman or Catholic?”
A few folks brought my attention to this, and I thought it would be good if I offered a brief response. I had answered a question about Eastern Orthodoxy for a CanonWIRED clip, and this was posted by a gent named Nicodemus as a response to that short video.
First, I appreciate that the response did not consist of screeching. My “blunder” was charitably categorized as an example of Homer nodding, and not an example of a doofus doofusing. So let me start off by saying that I at least appreciate that.
Much of the rest of our differences I would attribute to disagreements, and not to blunders. A disagreement would be if I claimed that EO uses icons in worship, which I believe to be in violation of the Second Commandment. A blunder would be if I maintained that EO patriarachs wear propeller hats, when they in fact do not.
For example, when I said that the idea that EO goes back before Roman Catholicism is “just laughable,” the response was that I had blundered. It is then acknowledged that I “partly salvaged” the blooper by saying that the church was “all together” before the split. But I had said this in the very next breath, and did so in a way that showed that I was unfolding my meaning, not walking most of it back. But the response of Nicodemus was this: “What he fails to portray is a lucid understanding of Church history.”
But wait a sec. All history is interpreted history. This is true of institutional history as much as any other kind of history. Talking about whether EO left Roman Catholicism or Roman Catholicism left EO is like debating which Siamese twin left the other one during the surgery. If we are talking aboutage (which is the question I was answering in the video), they are both of them the same age, whether before or after the surgery.
I also told a story of how Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, tore down an image in a church and wrote to Jerome about it, full of indignation. “It is a horrid abomination to see in Christian temples a painted image either of Christ or of any saint.” My story was not intended to be a respresentation of the entire early church. After all, at least one part of the early church had put that image up in the first place. My point was that opposition to image-worship had an honored place in the early church, and did not come into existence at the time of the Reformation. I had friends back then. The response to my point was that a one-off letter doesn’t tell you much, which is true enough. But wide reading in theology and the early fathers does tells you a whole lot, as it has taught me. It was the Council of Elibert that said, “Let naught that is worshipped be depicted on walls.” I can live with that.
“It is a historic fact that Roman Catholicism separated itself from the established Church.” This is just assuming what you need to prove. Rome says that it was the other Siamese twin that left. Now I agree with my respondent here that the Pope of Rome was having his issues, and that his assertion of supremacy was just the kind of thing that Jesus said not to do. My sole point is that if you are going to argue on the basis of antiquity, more than one entity can argue that. If you are going to argue, as both RC and EO do, that they are indefectible, then I can point to at least one of them as making a false claim. As a classical Protestant, I would point to two of them — but both EO and RC have to admit that I have found at least one.
My disagreement on the icon issue is taken as an example of another embarrassing “misunderstanding.” What that misunderstanding was supposed to be is not exactly stated. I am a classical Protestant, and we don’t pray to pictures. The EO do. What misunderstanding?
I need to take a brief moment to say something about Wes Callihan’s apology for an article entitled “Presumptuous Icons” that he wrote for Credenda some years back. He has since apologized for his ignorance of the subject when he wrote it, which only he can testify to. If he felt bad about how much background reading he had (not) done when he wrote that piece for us, I sure don’t mind. But objectively, his article was quite good, and if he resubmitted it to us again tomorrow (having done all the needful reading), I would publish it again verbatim with whoops and happy yells. Wes is a good friend, and he is currently worshiping at Trinity Reformed Church here in Moscow, and he is presumably happy with his pastors and elders, who say things like this.
“The fact is, the Seventh Ecumenical Counsel dealt meticulously with the issues surrounding the use of Icons in Christian worship.” I am happy to grant that they dealt with these issues meticulously. That is not the same thing as biblically, or correctly. So if they, or an angel from Heaven, tell me, however meticulously they tell me, that I should be praying to a picture, I am not going to do it. Furthermore, I am going to be quite meticulous about not doing it. Look, guys, I am a Protestant.
My point about kissing was simply an illustration, and I am happy to provide another one (every bit as good) to make it clear that I understand the point being made here. Our congregation stands in our liturgy during the Scripture reading out of respect, and I stand when a lady enters the room. Are these the same? Well, the standing part is, but the meanings vary. Why can’t we make those kinds of distinctions while bowing down before a picture? Well, because the Bible says not to try.
Last point. “What is disappointing is, though certainly able, Pastor Wilson has refused thus far to do the reading and study easily available to him needed to understand the issue of Icons before making specious public declarations.” There is something of a baffling point here. I surely have no idea of what he means by “refused thus far to do the reading and study available to him.” How does he know what reading and study I have done on this?
Pastor Doug Wilson
“Nicodemus” responds to Pastor Doug Wilson
First, my thanks to Pastor Wilson for his willingness to openly engage issues surrounding Orthodoxy. Like him, I also appreciate that his response to my critique did not succumb to screeching, though I confess I’m not at all sure how doofus doofusing might look! Nevertheless, I believe it doubtful our difference on these serious issues can be reduced to sematical quibbles about blunders and disagreements.
Pastor Wilson Has Siamese-Twins!
As for the historicity of the Christian faith, historic facts must be interpreted. Reformed champion Cornelius van Til rightly argued there are no brute facts that are self-interpreting. Yet, Pastor Wilson seems to think this makes all historic facts themselves up for grabs! In his zeal to give Roman Catholicism an equal claim as Orthodoxy to being the ancient Church, he wants us to believe Rome and Orthodoxy were joined from birth like Siamese twins! We are to imagine two Christian Churches birthed (at Pentecost?) as Siamese twins, and after one thousand years, finally, needed a surgical separation. Is this not bizarre? What amateur historian (much less Patristic early Church scholar) believes this? None, nada, zilch. Pastor Wilson gently chided me for pretending to know he has not bothered to study much Church history, much less grasp it well. My apologies, he was right. I don’t know. But illustrations like this make one wonder. Does he believe his own Siamese twins analogy? Really? Or, does his determination to deny or blur Orthodox Church history (with his love for analogies) lead him to such silly historic revisionism. No amount of “unfolding my meaning” can salvage this (dare we say) Siamese-blunder.
Rather, if the good Pastor wants a anthropomorphic analogy for the early Church, I’d suggest a novel one, say a persecuted but thriving Body, that on occasion had cancerous tumors to surgically remove. Some cancers were less severe, other more. A few malignancies required several surgeries. Gnostic and Arian heresies plagued the Church for centuries (not two con-joined Churches). There were not two Churches at Nicaea, Chalcedon, or any other Church Council, before The Great Schism. Such analogies hint strongly why one might wonder if Pastor Wilson “…portrays a lucid understanding of Church history.”
Why Protestants Have Trouble With Church History
Yet Pastor Wilson demands we prove facts not in dispute by any reputable Patristic scholars. There is really no dispute about there being one Christian Church dominating history before the Great Schism Nor is there the slightest quarrel that the Nicene Creed had no Filioque clause for centuries. There is no historic dispute needing proof that the Filioque was added a few centuries later and rejected by Rome’s Bishop, then several centuries later, embraced by a different Pope mostly for reasons of political power. Five Church Patriarchs lived mostly in unity, peace and mutual submission to each other for centuries, and were far more likely to protect their status and rank, than yield them to Rome. How does one interpret these facts in such a way to get a dual Siamese-twin Churches needing surgical separation?
Protestants have neglected early Church history, and it appears, with good reason. A little study stirs up a natural instinct to obfuscate Church History precisely because within its early hallowed pages, one finds Bishops Ruling the Flock, a budding Liturgical life of worship often with Icons, no clearly developed or recognized New Testament cannon for several centuries, (and not least) a clear Sacramentalism around the Body and Blood of Christ. These are all just a tad embarrassing to Protestantism. Let’s just say it out loud. The Life, worship, practice, doctrine and government of the early Patristic Church contradicts much of Protestantism, while looking very much like Orthodoxy. This is why discussing Church History the first thousand years is so difficult with a Protestant. He instinctively knows he has a problem, so he is inclined to obfuscate even clear areas that are undisputed. This is also another reason why the life of the great Lutheran Patristic scholar, Jaroslav Pelikan is so important. Doctor Pelikan, earned both a seminary degree from Concordia in Saint Louis, Missouri, and a PhD at the University of Chicago in 1946, at age 22! Though a devout Lutheran and son of Lutheran ministers, after a life time of scholarship, he converted to Orthodoxy at age 74 in 1998, only to repose eight years later at 82 in 2006. Wise Protestants will study his Five-Volume Church history. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine Vol 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700).
Icons Holy Scripture & Tradition
Pastor Wilson defends a story from a letter of a Priest destroying Icons to prove “that opposition to image-worship had an honored place in the early church, and did not come into existence at the time of the Reformation.” I countered that anecdotal stories prove nothing other than perhaps minor disputes existed. Yes, Iconoclasm did rear its head occasionally in the early church. So did Arianism and Gnosticism. Since Iconoclasm is not as serious as cancer as these, it was not dealt with as immediately or decisively for hundreds of years.
Protestants might rightly ask where the veneration of Icons came from? Where and how did the Church get the veneration of Icons? Church oral Tradition has that it was taught to the early Christian disciples by the Apostles themselves. It shows up in the writings of the Bishops as soon as the second century, not many decades after the Apostles passed away. Yet it might surprise Protestants that the oral Holy Tradition of Orthodoxy, arises right out of pages of sacred Holy Scripture.
This is a good place to see if Protestants take all of Holy Scripture seriously. The Apostle Paul exhorts his disciples in Holy Scripture to keep the Traditions. How many Protestant sermons have you heard on II Thess. 2:15 “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” or I Corinthians 11:1 “Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions as I delivered them to you.“ What is the Apostle Paul commanding here? There is an oral tradition that the Apostle is charging them to “hold and keep.“ (See also, II Thess. 3:6, “But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.”) It is interesting that NIV (protestant) translators use the word “teaching” when the connotation it’s positive, but “tradition” when it’s negative. Also, the word “ministered” in Acts 13:2, is really the word Liturgy. Beware of translators with a theological bias, even in their handling of Holy Scripture.
Shall we assume the Apostles gave multiple exhortations to keep their Traditions in the texts of Holy Scripture itself, as a take it of leave it option? But is this not the typical Protestant mentality? Why is it that Protestants have so little respect, much less submission, to the Traditions the Apostles left and repeatedly exhorted the early Church Fathers to hold and keep? They might answer that their doctrine of sola scriptura doesn’t put Apostolic Tradition in the same category of authority as Scripture. Yet even here is it not strange to blame, and hide behind sola scriptura for a general ignoring and disrespect for Apostolic Tradition? Though Orthodoxy sees no reason to set Apostolic Tradition against Scripture (Scripture historically growing out of Tradition) the bottom line is a sad reality. Protestant tradition does not respectfully submit to Apostolic oral tradition, even after repeated exhortations directly from the pages of Holy Scripture! Could it not be similar to the Protestant posture toward Church history? Since Apostolic Tradition opposes their tradition, they clarify and smother it into irrelevance.
Yet Pastor Wilson chafes at me saying the icon issue is “an example of another embarrassing misunderstanding.” “What that misunderstanding was supposed to be is not exactly stated. I am a classical Protestant, and we don’t pray to pictures. The EO do. What misunderstanding?” Later he concedes, “I am happy to grant that they dealt with these issues meticulously. That is not the same thing as biblically, or correctly. So if they, or an angel from Heaven, tell me, however meticulously they tell me, that I should be praying to a picture, I am not going to do it. Furthermore, I am going to be quite meticulous about not doing it. Look, guys, I am a Protestant.”
I suppose my use of embarrassing (used misunderstanding once) is because Pastor Wilsons’ final appeal seemed shallow. It reminded me of discussions about alcohol with dear fundamentalists friends. Though he did not, Pastor Wilson might just as well have said, ‘Look guys, I’m a fundamentalist, with a simplistic, fixated view of Icon that no amount of bibilcal and historic reasons can possibly shake.’ They use their proof-texts (see Pv 23:31) like Iconoclasts use the second commandment. No amount of biblical or theological reasoning from Scripture or history can shake them. Could it be that Icons are for wine, beer and whiskey-drinking Protestants (Pastor Wilson?), an issue of simplistic fundamentalism? Otherwise they would engage the arguments made by the Seventh Counsel (Nicaea II) and Fathers, rather than gloss over them with a proof text. Calvin made an honest try, but completely missed the boat at several points. Let us grant that Pastor Wilson actually read this in Arakaki’s excellent but gracious refutation of John Calvin on Icons,
“However, Calvin’s philological argument misses the point. The dulia/latreia distinction was unique to medieval Catholicism. John Cochlaeus, a contemporary of Calvin, used this distinction in response to Calvin’s Inventory of Relics (Calvin 1960:111 n. 21). This distinction was not used at Nicaea II (Cavarnos 1973:9-10). This tells us that Calvin was not familiar with the official Orthodox position on icons. More importantly, it means that Calvin’s polemic against icons never effectively refuted the Orthodox position on icons.
The closest Calvin comes to rebutting the terminology of Nicaea II is in his study of the word proskuneo. Calvin marshals a whole list of proof texts where honor improperly given is strongly discouraged: Satan’s temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:10), John’s prostration to the angel in Revelation (Revelation 19:10 & 22:8-9), Cornelius’ falling before Peter’s feet (Acts 10:25). The word used in these three passages is proskuneo which can have the abstract meaning ‘to worship’ or the more concrete meaning of the act of prostrating one’s self before someone and kissing their feet (see Arndt and Gingrich). It was the custom among the Persians to prostrate one’s self before the king and kiss his feet. Because the Persians saw the king as an incarnate deity, this political act was charged with sacred meaning. Nicaea II used the word proskuneo for the veneration of icons but at the same time qualifies it by attaching timetike (to honor) to it. This is the word used in: “Honor your father and mother.” However, it appears that Nicaea II did a more than adequate job in defining and circumscribing the terminology for the veneration of icons and so anticipated much of Calvin’s philological arguments.
And elsewhere in the same article regarding history:
However, in dealing with patristic literature it is not enough throw out names and councils as Calvin did. [Wilson repeats him] One must show how these references demonstrate a universal consensus among the church Fathers (i.e., Vincent of Lerins’ famous canon: “What has been believed everywhere, always and by all” Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus). In the field of constitutional law the legal scholar’s strongest argument rests upon the findings of the Supreme Court, not the lower courts. Calvin’s references to one minor bishop (Epiphanius) or one local council (Elvira) or the polemical work sponsored by a king (Libri Carolini by Charlemagne) are all minor league stuff in comparison to the universal authority of an Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II) and the reputation of highly respected church Fathers (John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite).
Calvin’s polemic is understandable as a reaction to the extravagant and excessive ornamentation of medieval Catholic churches. St. Bernard of Clairvaux was troubled by the excessive ornamentation that resulted in the Church “resplendent in her walls and beggarly in her poor” (Coulton 1928:573). The extravagance of religious art was compounded by the absence of a regulating principle. Unlike the Eastern artistic tradition which had an art-manual and a shared understanding about proper iconography, in the West there was no centralization of its artistic tradition (Coulton 1928:243-244).
This resulted in Western European religious art being much more free in their depiction of God. Michelangelo’s depiction of God the Father with the long flowing beard in The Creation of Adam in the famous Sistine Chapel frescoes would not be allowed in the Orthodox tradition. During 1300s the Trinity was often depicted in the form of a man with three mouths, three noses, and four eyes or in the form of a head with three faces! (Coulton 1928:378) These excesses were such that the Roman Catholic Church was forced to curb them during the Counter-Reformation.
Let’s also assume Pastor Wilson has read and grasped all the arguments in Patrick Barnes excellent detailed refutation of Wes Callihan’s article. Below I give you just a taste of it, quoting Saint Athanasius from his Mr. Barnes’ conclusion :
We also note that the relationship with God that St. John directs us towards is not one of cerebral acknowledgment of “propositional truths” but rather to one involving all of our senses. Such also is St. Athanasius’ reasoning:
Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense. The Savior of us all, the Word of God, in His great love took to Himself a body and moved as a Man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, half way. He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body….
The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension—above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth; throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God. 
To deny the importance of visual art in the context of worship as a means of relating to God is to turn the Christian faith into a cerebral and Docetic one that does indeed show disdain for creation and functional disbelief in the Incarnation. (Barnes)
But iconoclasm, both in its teaching and in its practices, undermined the saving mission of the Church at its foundation. In theory, it did not deny the dogma of the Incarnation. On the contrary, the iconoclasts justified their hatred of the icon by claiming to be profoundly faithful to this dogma. But in reality, the opposite happened: by denying the human image of God, they consequently denied the sanctification of matter in general. They disavowed all human holiness and even denied the very possibility of sanctification, the deification of man. In other words, by refusing to accept the consequences of the Incarnation—the sanctification of the visible, material world—iconoclasm undermined the entire economy of salvation. “The one who thinks as you do,” St George of Cyprus said in a discussion with an iconoclast bishop, “blasphemes against the Son of God and does not confess His economy accomplished in the flesh.” Through the denial of the image, Christianity became an abstract theory; it became disincarnate so to speak, it was led back to the ancient heresy of Docetism, which had been refuted a long time before. It is therefore not surprising that iconoclasm was linked to a general secularization of the Church, a de-sacralization of all aspects of its life. The Church’s own domain, its inner structure, was invaded by a secularized power. Churches were assaulted with secular images, worship was deformed by mundane music and poetry. This is why the Church, in defending the icon, defended not only the foundation of the Christian faith, the divine Incarnation, but, at the same time, the very meaning of its existence. It fought against its disintegration in the elements of this world. “Not only the destiny of Christian art was at stake, but ‘Orthodoxy’ itself .”  (Athanasius)
That Mr. Callihan’s argument arises from careless, perhaps willful ignorance of Orthodoxy has been relatively easy to demonstrate. Standing in contradiction to the Christian consensus and evincing a lack of sound reasoning, it fails to hold up to close scrutiny. We can only encourage him to read the works cited herein and seriously reflect upon what we have said. To do otherwise and remain an iconoclast would indeed be the height of presumption. (Barnes)
Note: Mr. Callahan offered an apology for his article (printed above). Curiously, Pastor Wilson defends it, while he with others in his denomination embrace the great Icon champion Saint Athanasius! Go figure?
An Exhortation to Sincere and Serious Protestants
Let me conclude with a final exhortation for serious and sincere Protestants: Do not rely on Pastor Wilson and others to do your homework, reading and study for you. Read the articles and Doctor Pelikan’s scholarship carefully. Study the far from simplistic wisdom of the Fathers quoted, as well as the arguments in Seventh Council (Nicaea II). Do your own study. In this you will discover that the rich, historic veneration of Icons grows out of the Incarnation and Christology of the New Covenant, and is as contrary to simplistic idol-worship, as standing out of respect for Holy Scripture, or kissing your mother is to false worship.