Pentecost and the Promise of God Fulfilled

Icon of Pentecost
Icon of Pentecost

This article is a reposting of an article published on 29 May 2012.

The Orthodox Church celebrates Pentecost as the fulfillment of Christ’s promise that the Father would send the Holy Spirit to His Church to lead Her into all Truth.

“But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” (John 14:26)

This abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church is foundational to Orthodox Christianity. The Holy Spirit is God with us, who leads the Church through the Liturgy, gave supernatural courage to the early martyrs, and guided the Ecumenical Councils to defeat the various heresies. The Holy Spirit led the bishops in the formulation of the Nicene Creed and in defining the canon of Holy Scripture. Indeed when we look at church history we see the work of the Holy Spirit.  The power of the Holy Spirit preserves the Faith once for all delivered to the Saints.

What sets Orthodoxy apart from the Protestant understanding of Pentecost is Orthodoxy’s strong corporate sense of the Holy Spirit. In the Bible the Holy Spirit is given to the Church corporately, through the Apostles to their disciples in the laying on of hands, to ensure the preservation of Tradition.  This corporate and historic view of Pentecost and its implications offer a sharp contrast to Protestant views and practices in which the role of the Church is minimized or neglected.

In Protestantism the Holy Spirit is understood to be given to individual believers separately, privately and independently of the Church (which is assumed to be flawed and weak).  In this blog I will be comparing the two traditions’ understanding of Pentecost.

 

193-159The River of God Flowing into History

The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of the eschatological temple.  In chapter 47, he tells of a stream of water issuing from the altar in the New Temple.  As this stream of water gets longer, it grows deeper and wider.  It then branches out in various directions and wherever it goes it brings renewal and healing.

This prophetic vision was fulfilled on Pentecost.  The Apostle Peter in his Pentecost sermon opens by quoting the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17; OSB; emphasis added).  Pentecost also fulfills a prophecy made by Christ.  In John’s Gospel Jesus announced:

If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.  He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.  But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 37-40; OSB)

We enter into Ezekiel’s prophetic vision in our conversion to Christ.  In the Septuagint version of Ezekiel 47:3 we read that the river was the “water of remission.”  This is fulfilled in our baptism when we are baptized into Christ and receive forgiveness for our sins.  The word “poured out” is also found in Romans 5:4 which talks about “the love of God being poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (OSB; emphasis added.)

Ezekiel’s prophecy presents a vivid picture of trees lining the side of the great river:

 Along the bank of the river on this side and that, will grow all kinds of trees used for food.  Their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail.  They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary.  Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing. (Ezekiel 47:12; OSB; emphasis added.)

This verse is a picture of a spirituality rooted in divine grace.  It echoes Psalm 1 which describes a life grounded in the reading and meditation of God’s Law.  This verse also echoes Genesis 2:10-14 which describes how the Garden of Eden had a river that flowed in four different directions.  The trees bearing fruit year round in Ezekiel’s prophecy can be understood as the restoration of the access to the Tree of Life forfeited by Adam and Eve.  The river lined with fruit bearing trees can be understood as the Church as the river of God.  It can also be understood as the Church as a tree offering the healing life-giving fruits of the Cross (Christ’s body and blood that we receive for life everlasting).  Ezekiel’s vision of the river of life is recapitulated in the book of Revelation 22:1-5 with a slight twist, a Christocentric reference is made to the Lamb of God slain for the salvation of the world.

 

Church History as the River of God

The book of Acts is fundamentally a theological book.  Luke structured his narrative along the lines of a particular trajectory framed by the Great Commission (cf. Matthew 28:19-20, Luke 24:47-49).  Acts 1:8 sketches the three phases of the book: Jerusalem (the Jews), Samaria (the half-Jews), and the Gentiles (the ends of the earth or the non-Jews).  Acts begins with Jesus’ original followers in Jerusalem and the Gospel being preached primarily to the Jews (Acts 1-11).  This is the Jerusalem phase.  Then we see Gospel preached to the Samaritans (Acts 8).  It is not until we come to Acts 13 that we read of the Church engaged in intentional missions when the Church at Antioch sends out Paul and Barnabas to evangelize.  Acts closes with Paul reaching Rome, the political capital of the Roman Empire and preaching the Gospel freely for two years.  What we see is the river of God flowing into history from Jerusalem into the various parts of the Roman Empire as foretold by Ezekiel.

Protestant Version of Church History — Disruption

Dry_Ryegate

What happened afterwards?  Did the river of God that began on Pentecost in Acts 2 run dry?  One would think so given the widespread belief among Protestants that a general apostasy occurred soon after the original Apostles passed on.  Many believed that Christianity remained largely in spiritual darkness (with the exception of a “faithful secret remnant”) for the next thousand years or more until Martin Luther rediscovered the true Gospel.  Another trope used by Protestants hold that the early church valiantly bore witness to the Gospel but was captured by Emperor Constantine and transformed into an institutionalized church barely recognizable to the original Christians.  This historical trope is important for Protestant theology because it needs some kind of disjuncture (apostasy or compromise) to justify its claim that the Protestant Reformation was necessary for the restoration of Gospel and Church of the New Testament.  If there was no such break then there would be no need for a Reformed Church separated from the Church of Rome.

Ralph Winter, a prominent Protestant missiologist, called this the BOBO theory — that the Christian faith Blinked Off after the apostles, then Blinked On in our time or whenever our church began (1517 for Protestants, 1823 for Mormons).  But there is no hint whatsoever in Scripture that Blinked Off-Blinked On would happen to Christ’s Church especially in light of Christ’s promise that he would not leave them orphans but would send the Holy Spirit to guide them and protect them! Nor is there historical evidence that the Christian faith went AWOL for almost fifteen hundred years!  The uncompromising witness of the martyrs in the face of persecution and the early church’s memorializing the martyrs contradict the notion of a widespread early apostasy.  Ralph Winter’s article described how the Gospel advanced among the barbarian tribes even during the so-called Dark Ages.

While Rome and Western Europe saw the collapse of civilization and the onset of the Dark Ages, it must be kept in mind that in the Byzantine East culture, commerce, and learning continued to thrive for almost the next thousand years.  Thus, the Protestant paradigm of church history has two major problems: (1) it cannot be supported by historical evidence and (2) it contradicts the promises given by Christ to his followers.  Ultimately, the BOBO view of church history is a denial of Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit to be in and with the Church throughout history.

In their approach to church history many Protestants make two mistakes: (1) they assume that the church in the New Testament was Protestant in structure and practice, and (2) they ignore the historical continuity between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Church of the first millennium. The Protestant dismissal of the Orthodox understanding of church history with a wave of the hand is astounding.  They assume this without looking at the evidence! But, the fact is that the pre and post Nicean Church simply did not look anything like a Protestant Church.  Very early on Christians crossed themselves frequently.  Early Christian worship was focused on the Eucharist, not the sermon, and all Christians held to the real presence in the Eucharist.  Christian initiation was done via the sacrament of baptism after a lengthy process of instruction in which one had to commit to memory a creed.  The early church was episcopal in structure (ruled by bishops) and conciliar (major decisions made by gatherings of bishops).

That the early Christians followed these practices is supported by leading scholars with no axe to grind.  Highly recommended are: Jaroslav Pelikan’s magisterial The Christian Tradition, J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines,Oscar Cullmann’s Early Christian Worship, W.H.C. Frend’s The Rise of Christianity.  For primary sources highly recommended are: The Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus’ Against the Heretics, and Eusebius’ Church History.

This unfounded assumption resulted in Protestants misreading the New Testament and the early church fathers.  There is in the Reformed tradition a growing appreciation of the fact that original Reformers like Calvin had a high regard for the church fathers. But even here, the Reformers’ appreciation of the church fathers was limited and selective. When the fathers’ writings seem to support Protestant ideas, Calvin and the Reformers freely quoted Athanasius and Augustine. But these same Fathers were ignored when they spoke on the rule of bishops, the Eucharist, church unity, the place of Holy Tradition, and a theosis union with God.

 

Orthodox Version of Church History – Continuity

The trope of church history as the river of God is useful for understanding Orthodoxy.  The trope of the river of God assumes a fulfillment in history of Christ’s promises that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13) and that it would be stronger than the powers of Hell (Matthew 16:18).  The Orthodox Church believes that we can expect to see these Scriptural promises fulfilled throughout the age of the church.  It believes that what began on Pentecost continues to the present day.

The Orthodox Church is the river of God flowing in the book of Acts into the two millennia continuously and without break to the present day.  This trope assumes a fundamental continuity in terms of doctrine, liturgy, and spirituality from Pentecost to the present day.  If Orthodoxy can support its claim to historical continuity then Protestants will need to reexamine their assumption of a fundamental break occurring in church history and with that the need for a Reformation.

Worship.  The Eucharist has been integral to Christian worship from the beginning.  The Orthodox Church uses the Liturgy of St. James which dates to the first century in Jerusalem, the Liturgy of St. Basil which dates to the fourth century and the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom which dates to the fifth century.  Without exception, the Eucharist has been a part of the Sunday worship in Orthodoxy. The same cannot be said of Protestant worship.  Most Protestant churches celebrate the Eucharist infrequently. While many Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran Christians claim to practice weekly communion, their claim rings hollow in light of the fact that they reject the historic understanding of the real presence in the Eucharist.

Leadership.  Pastoral authority in Orthodoxy is grounded in apostolic succession.  The five ancient patriarchates can all trace their spiritual lineage back to the original Apostles.  Protestantism, due to its being a schismatic break off from the Papacy, cannot lay claim to apostolic succession.  Apostolic succession is more than formal authorization but a sharing in the Holy Spirit across the generations that goes back to the original Pentecost in Acts.  Critical to apostolic succession is faithfulness to the “pattern of sound words” (II Timothy 1:13).  Thus, while Anglicanism can claim to possess apostolic succession, the fact that many of its current bishops hold blatantly heretical views undermines this claim.  In short, in no way can Protestants claim continuity in leadership.

Doctrine.  An important means of maintaining doctrinal unity in the early Church are the Ecumenical Councils.  The entire Church of the first millennium accepted the Seven Ecumenical Councils.  Protestantism has abandoned them in several ways: (1) it passively accepted the Papacy’s insertion of the Filioque clause and (2) it downgraded the binding authority of the Nicene Creed with its novel doctrine of sola scriptura.  Having rejected the binding authority of the Seven Ecumenical Councils Protestant churches underwent a bewildering number of doctrinal permutations that would be unrecognizable and unacceptable to the early church fathers.

Spirituality.  There is a rich stream of spirituality running through the history of the Orthodox Church.  One of the best examples is the lives of the saints.  The Orthodox Church considers them heroes of the faith whose lives exemplify the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives throughout the history of the church.    Orthodoxy can point to Saint Polycarp who boldly confessed Christ even when the Roman governor threatened to burn him alive, Saint Mary of Egypt a prostitute who spent decades in the desert in order to cleanse her soul, Saint Athanasius who defended the divine nature of Christ against the heresies of Arius, Saint Gregory Palamas who expounded on the uncreated light of Mount Tabor, the Chinese Martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion, Peter the Aleut martyred in San Francisco in the early 1800s, Father Arseny who suffered in the Soviet gulags.  The river of God flows on!

When one looks for the heroes of the faith in Protestantism, especially in popular Evangelicalism, what one is likely to find are popular radio preachers, well respected seminary professors, and celebrity athletes.  Many of these Protestant celebrities will be forgotten in time.  It would be hard for a Protestant to claim a rich and unbroken history of spiritual formation.

When one compares Orthodox with Protestant spirituality, we find a marked sobriety and stillness in Orthodoxy not often found in Evangelical and Pentecostal circles where emotional fervor and free expression typically dominate.  All too often the charismatic quest for a continuous spiritual high has led to burn outs and spiritual collapse. Christians in Reformed and mainstream Protestantism struggle with a spirituality grounded in cerebral propositional reasoning rather than that inner stillness nourished by the liturgical worship found in historic Orthodoxy.

 

Synergy: God provides the water, we receive it.
Come and Drink!

Come and Drink!

On Pentecost Sunday Orthodoxy celebrates Pentecost in a special service that comprises three long kneeling prayers.  Aside from this annual service, Pentecost is an ongoing reality in Orthodoxy.  It is experienced in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church.  It is experienced vividly in the monastic communities.

In Protestantism the individual reception of the Holy Spirit overwhelms the understanding of the Holy Spirit being given to the Church.  There has been much debate between Evangelicals and Pentecostals over whether the baptism in the Spirit occurs when one has a born again experience or as a separate event accompanied by speaking in tongues.  What the two sides have in common is their silence on the role of the Church.  However, historically one receives the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of chrismation which follows the sacrament of baptism.  This sacramental approach to Christian conversion avoids Protestantism’s subjectivism.  To those who deny the efficacy of sacraments I would respond that the sacraments are no mere rituals anymore than wedding vows are just words.  For the Orthodox, Pentecost is not so much something I experience by myself, but through life in the Church.  Life in the Church is like the River of God in which we are immersed into its water of life (the sacrament of baptism) and eat of the fruit of the tree (partake of the Eucharist). To the Protestants and Evangelicals who are spiritually thirsty, the Orthodox Church says: Come and Drink!

 Robert Arakaki

8 comments:

  1. One of the primary “Big-Boulders” that eventually crumbled my Reformed Wall of defense (think medieval castle here) was Pentecost…and its historic implications. Connecting Pentecost with the “Emanuel–God with us” principle from the OT just made good “continuity-sense”. It made me challenge my protestant presuppositions and assumptions surrounding the so-called “apostasy, or falling away” of the Church after the Apostles died. Were the Apostles essentially failures…in passing on the Faith they had received from Christ and the Holy Spirit to ‘faithful men’? Why would the Holy Spirit “blink-off” and allow for such wide-spread and gross failure of Christ’s own disciples? Does early Church history testify to great weakness before the various doctrinal disputes that arose in the first seven centuries? The more I looks seriously, the more respect I had for the Apostolic Church…and the less respect I had for my protestant presuppositions and what I’d been taught.

  2. What do you think of Josiah? In his time the worship of God was corrupt. So much so that the law was literally a musty, dusty old book found hidden away in the temple. Upon rediscovering the law Josiah launched a reformation destroying the idols and the altars upon which idolatry was practiced. Does this mean there were none of God’s people left? But as Paul writes about the time of Elijah “I have reserved 7000 who have not bowed to Baal. So there is a remnant according to election of grace.” How is his any different than the Protestant Reformation? What are your thoughts on the Apostle Paul warning that wolves would come and tear up the flock and that apostasy would happen after his departure? And what are you thoughts on his statement regarding the times of Elijah?

    The church is composed of individuals “one of a city, two of a family” as Jeremiah writes. So what do you have against individual believers receiving the Holy Spirit? In the Acts we see individuals corporately receiving the Spirit (such as Cornelius and his house). And what Protestant ever said this is done apart from the Church? Article 28 of the Belgic Confession explicitly says of the Church that “out of it is no salvation.” Even today in the apostate and corrupt churches like Hillsong they still recognize the importance of corporate worship and belonging to a community of believers.

    1. Robert,

      In line with what Anastasia writes, there are those of the Baptist “Trail of Blood” school of thought, that believe that the true church continued through the centuries in pockets and assemblies apart from the organized, hierarchical Catholic Church. The Waldesians are asserted as examples, and less careful partisans of this theory point to the Montanists, Donatists, Paulicians and other groups that the Church deemed heretical as examples of “true believers” that the organized church persecuted.

      It seems that their reasoning is so fixed that convincing them otherwise is nearly impossible. This line of thought is different from the Reformed tradition that you are primarily addressing, but you might address it in passing, since their number, though minor, is not insignificant.

      Regards,
      George

  3. Thinking about this article over the past few days I wonder if you believe when Jesus said “the gates of hell shall not overcome it” and “the Spirit would guide you into all truth” that he meant the church would always be pure, always free from error and always unified? Does this negate doctrinal development? What about all the church councils which laid down fully developed formulations of the trinity and the person of Christ which formulations were unknown by any of the Apostles (this is not to say they were anti-trinitarian)? Especially the Nicean and Chalcedonian formulations? What about the council of Arminium which declared Arianism to be the truth? What about the council of 2nd Council of Orange which affirmed the doctrines of Augustine whose doctrines the East condemns? What about Nicea 2 which was the result of much controversy and turmoil in the church over images and their worship? In fact every council was the result of controversy and division and not everyone agreed with their decisions. Do you think the Apostle Paul would kiss the icon of Chirst make the sign of the cross and pray “Save us most Holy Theotokos?”

    More importantly what about Peter? Paul rebuked him to his face for his dissimulation by which he had even lead others astray. If the leader of the Apostles had to be rebuked to his face for wrong practice and doctrine and for leading other astray how much more after the death of all the Apostles would the church be lead astray as Paul even testified would happen after his death?

  4. Greetings & Blessings Anastasiya,

    I’m not sure if your rapid fire style of questioning here is intended to overwhelm Robert or if it is simply an expression of your unfamiliarity with Orthodox pneumatology and ecclesiology?

    In either event, your smattering of questions clearly revolves around understanding the centrality of the conciliar nature of the Church and how it perceives Love to work rightly through such processes of synodality (lit: “to walk together”) It also seems quite unfamiliar with the inner dialogue and inner system of checks and balances that the Orthodox Church sees inherent in its parity of bishops and self-criticism. If anything, I’d say that the Orthodox Church is consistently “reforming” through its inner dialogue (though this is clearly lost to those on the outside who see us celebrating the victories of inner dialogue and consiliar love and consider this triumphalism). We can’t seem to win in the eyes of the world. We’re not evangelistic enough…but Orthodox martyrs (60 million this century alone) are’nt considered witnesses and evangelists because they don’t fit the mold of Western Evangelism. We are derided in the media because our Church holds a synod in which four patriarchates don’t go – but we’re simultaneously told that our church is not self critical.

    I would suggest reading the following essay / evaluation from a radical reformer, Eden Grace in order to get a bit of a appetizer for what consiliar Love means to an Orthodox Christian as the work of the Holy Spirit within the WHOLE Church. I offer it because it is both fairly accurate and non-biased. She certainly questions aspects which don’t conform to her tradition.

    What Protestants don’t understand is that we do not view the Church and its councils in the same way the Roman Catholics do, and Protestants reacted against – as simply authoritative in and of themselves because the “magisterium” “said so.” They must be a process of the whole Church and an expression of common accord “received” by the Church. (The Orthodox Church)

    I’d certainly take a stab at answering some of your questions, once you’ve read Eden Grace’s short work. Understanding concilarity as concomitant to pneumatology indwelling the whole of the participating ecumene is a critical first step to having some of your questions answered regarding councils.

    http://www.edengrace.org/conciliar.html

    It would be putting the cart before the horse to do into particulars about specific councils without a basic understanding of consiliar co-suffering love.

    I’d like to follow up after you’ve read her article.

    Thanks for your participation here.

    God bless,

    ~Onesimus

  5. Anastasiya,
    You make a number of stock standard statements that are very typical from a Reformed perspective but they that tell me you need to investigate things further.

    Did Paul really testify there would be a great apostasy? I’d love to see your evidence, especially in light of some of the verses quoted by Robert from John and Matthew?

    There have been plenty of false councils. For example, I can say in all confidence all Orthodox reject the synod of Dort as false. The same for the Westminster Assembly. Orthodox reject the other extra Roman Catholic councils like Lyon, Constance, Florence and Vatican.

    Arminium rejected Nicaea so that was problematic right away.

    No Patriarch or eastern bishop attended the synod of Orange. That is not hugely problematic as few westerners attended eastern councils. The problem lies in that no eastern church ever received the canons of the council as authoritative, ever. The synod remains a local council that has no universal authority. FYI the council of Orange specifically rejected double predestination- so is it ‘true’ or ‘false’ for Reformed Christians?

    A big problem I have with the ‘Great Apostasy’ Theory is why it took 1,400 years to set things right? If you want Old Testament parallels then you have to say why God corrected errors in Israel so quickly but not with Christianity.

    As for ‘save us most Holy Theotokos’ you misunderstand how the word ‘save’ is used here. It is not talking about eternal salvation but about ‘assistance’ in this life.

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