Remembering St. Nicholas, Recovering a Christian Heritage

Icon – St. Nicholas of Myra

One of the unexpected blessings of becoming Orthodox is discovering a Christian heritage forgotten in the West.  One example of this is St. Nicholas of Myra, the original Santa Claus.  He is well known in the Orthodox Church.  Every December 6 the Orthodox celebrates the life of St. Nicholas of Myra.  When I was a Protestant Evangelical I was barely aware of the historical St. Nicholas, but soon after I became Orthodox I became quite familiar with this popular saint.

St. Nicholas lived in the fourth century on the southwestern coast of Asia Minor (present day Turkey).  He lost his parents when he was young and was raised by uncle also named Nicholas who was bishop of the town of Patara.  In time he was ordained to the priesthood and became a bishop.  He was present at the Council of Nicea and was reputed to have been so incensed by Arius’ blasphemy against Christ that he went up and slapped Arius in the face.  One well known story tells how St. Nicholas would secretly throw a purse of gold into the home of a poor man with three daughters.  The gold provided the dowry that enabled them to marry and prevent them from resorting to prostitution.

In modern American society everyone knows about “Santa Claus” the jolly old man who lives in the North Pole and comes out every Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good children everywhere.  Virtually every American child today has paid a visit to Santa at the mall where they are gently questioned whether they have been good this past year.  After a gentle scolding and encouragement to do better the child is sent back with an implied promise of something good coming their way.

This raises the question how did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus?  And how did Western Christianity come to have such a divergent view of this great Christian saint?

 

From Dutch “Sinterklaas” to American “Santa Claus” 

 

Sinterklaas in the Netherlands

Sinterklaas was part of the Dutch culture.  Every year on December 6 in the Netherlands a town resident would dress as Sinterklaas – elegantly garbed with a bishop’s miter, red cape, shiny ring, and a jeweled staff.  During the night Sinterklaas would ride his white horse through the town knocking on doors bringing goodies for the good children.  He had a sidekick, Black Peter, the Grumpus – a wild looking half man, half beast – who threatened to take away the naughtiest children in his black bag, and for those not so naughty he had birch switches as lesser punishments.  Here we can see the resemblance between the Dutch Sinterklaas and the Eastern Orthodox St. Nicholas.  The Dutch remembered him as a bishop just as the Orthodox do.  The name Nicholas became altered into “Klaas.”

When the Dutch migrated to the New World they brought many of their traditions and customs with them.  They first settled on the island of Manhattan and so it became known as New Amsterdam.  When the British took control of the island, it was renamed New York.  The British adopted the customs popular among the Dutch residents and often merged it with their own English customs like Winter Solstice and the jolly Father Christmas.

In the New World a kind of cultural assimilation and syncretism took place over several generations.  The writer Washington Irving created a jolly Sinterklaas for his Knickerbocker Tales in 1809.  Then in 1822, an Episcopalian priest named Clement Moore wrote a lighthearted poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” which soon became known by the opening line: “Twas the night before Christmas.”  It is here that we find the origins of the Santa Claus familiar to modern day Americans.  Moore’s poem depicts St. Nicholas as a jolly old elf with a long white beard and a pipe in his mouth.  He drives a sleigh pulled by eight reindeers, flies through the air from house to house, and magically jumps down the chimneys to deliver presents to the children.  What we see here is a dramatic mutation of a familiar Christian figure.  This may seem harmless to Protestants who view extra-biblical traditions as non-essential to their faith but it also points to the untethering of American culture from its historic Christian heritage.

 

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Modern Santa Claus

Following the Great Depression and World War II, the US entered into a period of unprecedented economic affluence.  The 1950s marked the emergence of a consumer society where mass consumption would be the engine of economic growth.  It was during this period that Christmas underwent a significant secularization.  Retailers began to look to the Christmas season as a time when sizable customer purchases would help them close out the year in the black.  To ensure high sales volume manufacturers and retailers began to rely heavily on mass advertising in the print media, radio, and television.  The message soon centered on Christmas as a season to be jolly and the giving of gifts to loved ones.  Sometimes the message of giving to those less fortunate was also mentioned.  There also came the message that if one got just the right present one would find happiness.  But it soon became evident that Christmas had undergone a shift in meaning away from its historic Christian roots.  Part of the reason for the blurring of the Christmas season’s religious content was the fear of alienating any segment of the market which would result in loss of potential sales.

 

Santa Claus as a Culture Myth

I wondered why Santa Claus was so much an integral part of American culture.  More specifically, I wondered why grownups would purposefully lie to children about a fictional character who flies once a year delivering gifts to children everywhere.  Why is this deception so embedded in modern American culture?  Does it serve any particular function?

I believe the answer lies in viewing the modern Santa Claus as a culture myth.  Every culture relies on stories to explain how the world works.  The Santa Claus myth operates on two levels.  For children he teaches them the need to be good even when there’s nobody around and he teaches them the joy of getting presents.  Children also learn the lesson of self-restraint — one had to wait for the right moment before opening the presents.

Santa Isn’t Real! by Norman Rockwell

For adults the Santa Claus myth teaches that as children we inhabit the world of faith and make believe but when we grow up we become conscious of the world as it really is.  That is why the moment of realization that Santa is really Daddy is so important to the Santa Claus myth.  The Santa Claus myth reenacts the emergence of modernity.  Pre-moderns live in an enchanted world based upon blind faith; moderns live in a world based upon facts, scientific research, and rational calculation.  The day the child realizes that Santa is Daddy marks a step towards adulthood with the subsequent loss of innocence and pure faith.  It is fun to be a child but we must all grow up and face the facts.  This classic scene captured by Norman Rockwell shows a “saucered-eyed” look on the boy’s face which Johns Hopkins University Professor Richard Halpern described as a “flash of youthful disillusionment.  At this moment the question is planted in the boy’s mind, “What else are they lying about?” This question can create an attitude of skepticism which can lead to scientific investigation.  It can also lead to an attitude that challenges authoritarian claims to truth.   When they have children, many grownups reenact the Santa Claus myth, not only because it is part of popular culture, but also because doing so enables them to recapture the innocence and magic of childhood. 

Counter-Cultural Orthodoxy

As Christmas became increasingly depleted of its religious and Christian content, many Christians, especially conservative Evangelicals, became uneasy.  They would counter with slogans like: “Putting Christ Back into Christmas” and “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.”  This led me to wonder why Evangelicals are so concerned about this.

I suspect that unlike high church traditions that have a strong sense of the visible church, Evangelicalism’s low church ecclesiology has resulted in the public space functioning as the equivalent of the visible church.  The church is not just a weekly sermon, songs, and a building; it is a way of life, that is, a culture.  For a long time Evangelicals in America relied on popular culture for the visible expression of their faith.  This would explain their often shrill insistence: “America was founded as a Christian country!”  It would also explain Evangelicals’ obsession with crossover hits in music and movies.  The dream for many Evangelicals is a bestselling novel, record, or movie among both the born again Christians and general population.  By means of these bestsellers they witness to America about Jesus and help millions make a decision for Christ.  The dream of many Evangelicals is a spiritual revival or awakening that sweeps the nation restoring America as a Christian nation.

Lacking a historically grounded theological framework Evangelicalism finds itself drifting and shifting in multiple directions in recent days.  Trevin Wax in his blog Kingdom People recently published a four part series “What Is An Evangelical?” The recent discussions shows that Evangelicals have no unified stance towards popular society, some take a defensive stance while others take a more open and embracing stance.

Unlike Evangelicalism which assumed the public space to be its birthright, Orthodoxy’s experience in America has been that of an obscure religion.  While Orthodoxy enjoys official standing in the old countries, it also has memories of the time when it was a persecuted and illegal religion under Roman rule.  With its well defined structures and sense of Tradition, Orthodoxy is in a much better position to deal with the drift to a post-Christian America than the Evangelicals.  The Orthodox Church has the resources to maintain a culture within culture much more effectively than many Evangelical churches.

 

Remembering St. Nicholas in Grand Rapids, Michigan

St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church – 2009

The Grand Rapids Press published an article written by Andrew Ogg which describes how the members of St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church celebrated the life of their patron saint.

GRAND RAPIDS — Children tagged behind brightly dressed clergymen as they carried an illustration of Saint Nicholas and one of his bone fragments in a box.

Parishioners crossed themselves as the celebratory procession wound around pews, with the smell of incense filling Saint Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, 2250 E. Paris Ave. SE last Sunday.

No reindeer. No toy-filled sleigh. No jolly old elf with a sweet tooth. This kindly gift giver was — kids, cover your eyes — real.

“The typical department store Santa, he’s quite a long way from the historical saint,” said Father Daniel Daly, pastor at Saint Nicholas.

Still, Daly doesn’t begrudge youngsters their Christmas wish lists.

“It’s a fun time for the kids,” he said. “I don’t see it as particularly bad or dangerous or anything. As long as people get to the real celebration of what is truly the center of Christmas, of course, and that’s the mystery of the incarnation.”

For more about how this particular parish maintains an Orthodox perspective on Christmas click here.

The lesson here is that while counter-cultural, Orthodoxy is not necessarily hostile to American culture as a whole.  We take what is good and beneficial in our culture and try to correct what is lacking or misleading.  We do this because we see culture as a gift from God.

 

Celebrating the Life of St. Nicholas

For those concerned about the post-Christian drift Orthodoxy provides resources for resisting this drift.  One important means is the Christmas fast (I’ll write about this another time), another is the celebration of the life of St. Nicholas.  On December 6 the Orthodox Church commemorates the life of St. Nicholas.  For the Orthodox this is not an option but part of our liturgical calendar.  We do this because it is part of the Tradition of the Church to remember its saints.

The historical memory of the Church is embedded not so much in books as in its liturgical life.  Through these liturgical celebrations the Orthodox learn about the heroes of the faith.  An examination of the Akathist (hymn/prayer) to St. Nicholas shows the Orthodox approach to commemorating the life of a saint.  Thus singing in the choir is a great way to learn the Orthodox faith.

Kontakion 1

O champion wonderworker and superb servant of Christ
thou who pourest out for all the world
the most precious myrrh of mercy
and an inexhaustible sea of miracles
I praise thee with love, O Saint Nicholas;
and as thou art one having boldness toward the Lord,
from all dangers do thou deliver us,
that we may cry to thee:
       Rejoice, O Nicholas, Great Wonderworker!

In the first kontakion (hymn in verse form) St. Nicholas is remembered as a servant of Christ who went about doing good to others.  It also shows how Orthodoxy understands the communion of saints.  St. Nicholas is understood to be very much alive and in the presence of God.  He is part of the invisible company of saints in heaven who are praying for us.

Ekos 2

Teaching incomprehensible knowledge about the Holy Trinity,
thou wast with the holy fathers in Nicea
a champion of the confession of the Orthodox Faith;
for thou didst confess the Son equal to the Father,
co-everlasting and co-enthroned,
and thou didst convict the foolish Arius.
Therefore the faithful have learned to sing to thee: 

Rejoice, great pillar of piety!

Rejoice, city of refuge for the faithful!

Rejoice, firm stronghold of Orthodoxy!

Rejoice, venerable vessel and praise of the Holy Trinity!

Rejoice, thou who didst preach the Son of equal honour with the Father!

Rejoice, thou who didst expel the demonized Arius from the council of the saints!

Rejoice, father, glorious beauty of the fathers!

Rejoice, wise goodness of all the divinely wise!

Rejoice, thou who utterest fiery words!  

Rejoice, thou who guidest so well thy flock!

Rejoice, for through thee faith is strengthened!

Rejoice, for through thee heresy is overthrown!

Rejoice, O Nicholas, Great Wonderworker!

In Ekos 2 (earnest request) St. Nicholas is remembered for being at the Council of Nicea which resulted in the affirmation of Christ’s divinity.  Where Kontakion 1 remembers St. Nicholas for his deeds of charity, Ekos 2 remembers his defense of right doctrine.  Here the Orthodox faithful are given both a history lesson and a lesson in Christology.

 

Conclusion

The liturgical life of the Orthodox Church helps the Orthodox faithful to resist being conformed to the ways of the world.  If we are faithful in our participation in the liturgical life of the Church and attentive to what is being sung we will be rooted in the Orthodox Faith.  There is a stability and rootedness in Orthodoxy that Evangelicals and Protestants can learn from.

Let us remember the real St. Nicholas and let us seek to be imitators of great saints like St. Nicholas of Myra in this Christmas season.

Robert Arakaki

 

48 comments:

  1. Wonderful remembrance of a wonderful bishop and an Icon of giving as exampled by Christ. May we continue to spread the word that Santa Claus is Real! Just a bit different than most in the west think of him. On this day in the Western Orthodox Church, we have begun the Society of St. Nicholas to emulate his helpful spirit to help those who in these times are having trouble with keeping their utilities going or who may be losing their residence and in danger of being homeless. We pray the Lord may be gracious to those who give to help those less fortunate than themselves.

  2. You do not need to be Orthodox to appreciate and benefit from the rich Christian heritage of both East and West over the last two thousand years. Such a heritage does not belong solely to one or the other segments of the Christian Church but instead is a heritage we all own in Christ and by the Holy Spirit. The only way to say otherwise is to make the absurd argument that some are truly Christian and others aren’t. And, Robert, while you have found the value of such a heritage in your move to Orthodoxy there is nothing that stops Protestants or evangelicals from learning about and appreciating the same from the context of their own faith and practice.

    1. Kevin, some Protestants and Evangelicals are slowly beginning to recover an appreciation for the early Fathers of the Church. My Evangelical alma mater a couple of years ago added a course in patristics. Perhaps an appreciation for all those named Saints down through the centuries may be recovered by some, but if my experience is any indication, I won’t be holding my breath about the latter.

      Ignorance and a skepticism about the value of the knowledge of the Saints I think are hindrances for many Protestants.

      1. Karen,

        What is a hindrance for Protestants regarding the saints is the saint worship that goes on in Roman and Eastern circles.

        But to your first sentence, Protestants have been aware of the Fathers and have appreciated them since the earliest times of the Reformation. It is only recently that some evangelicals are unaware of the riches of our Christian past.

        1. Kevin D Johnson,

          You are making it seem as if historically sectors of the Reformed tradition never had a problem with celebrating Christmass and other christian feast days?

          Don’t forget that this blog isn’t about the high church Anglican and Lutheran protestant traditions.

          1. Jnorm,

            Please give the ‘this isn’t a place for anglo-catholic/lutheran traditions” bit a rest. I’m neither Anglo-Catholic nor Lutheran and neither is Tim Enloe. The stuff I’ve presented you with is not limited to those communions, small or large.

            So what if different parts of the Reformed churches rejected feast days and the like? That doesn’t mean such speaks to the entirety of Protestant experience or consideration of the matter. However, when entire Protestant communions can be called to rebut what is said here it bears on the authors of these posts and comments to take the time to re-evaluate their position and perhaps consider that there is more for them and others to learn about Protestantism before being so generally critical.

          2. “I was merely responding to Mike who used Tertullian as a “Holy Father”.”

            I did? I simply borrowed Tertullian’s accurate quote of how the Church has always believed…

        2. What Protestants fail to be aware of, however, is that the Holy Fathers were Orthodox; that they were bishops and priests; that they celebrated the Liturgy and venerated the saints and martyrs before them.

          “Let them show us the onset of their churches, let them unfold in front of us the tomes of the names of their bishops, so that the first of their bishops has a protector and predecessor one of the apostles or of the apostolic men with strong ties to the Apostles. That is the way by which the apostolic churches have always shown their Episcopal registries, as of the church of Smyrna, which maintains the tradition that Polycarp was placed there by John.”
          Tertullian

          1. More ignorance. Some Protestant communions do have lists all the way back to the NT just like Rome and the East. But, even if they didn’t acting as if Tertullian’s advice should be followed simply because he’s a church father is ridiculous. After all, let’s not forget that in the end he bought into the Montanist heresy and endorsed the prophetesses of that movement who most assuredly did not have the sort of genealogy you’re referring to. As usual, then, this sort of thing is not quite so crystal clear as you would dare to imply.

          2. Kevin,

            Your ignorance is showing when you say Tertullian is a church father. The Orthodox Church has never considered him a church father. A brilliant early theologian, yes, but a church father, no.

          3. Whatever, Robert. I was merely responding to Mike who used Tertullian as a “Holy Father”. The notion that the Orthodox Church can be so selective is just more of the same prejudicial look at history.

            Even still, what you outline has absolutely no bearing on my point and you well know it.

          4. Kevin D Johnson,

            The notion that the Orthodox Church can be so selective is just more of the same prejudicial look at history.

            It’s our history, and so why shouldn’t we have a prejudicial look at it? In order to be seen differently by the Church, well, first you have to persevere within it!

            Did Tertullian Persevere till the end? Yes or no

            Yes, we have rules and regulations. Why is such a thing strange to you?

            Origen was very popular, but we don’t call him a Saint. Nor do we call him a Church Father! Him and Origenism was condemned some centuries after his death at an Ecumenical council, and so yes, we don’t accept everyone as a Church Father.

            Also, for us the term “church father” doesn’t end in some period of the past. We have both ancient and modern church fathers.

          5. “More ignorance. Some Protestant communions do have lists all the way back to the NT just like Rome and the East.”

            More ignorance indeed. A “list” is not the same thing as an unbroken continuity of faith and worship within the same organic community. No protestant religion can make that claim, since those religions represent at best a synthetic attempt to recreate an earlier Christianity in the light of later philosophical, historical and theological presuppositions.

            Putting arguments aside, you have gone beyond the bounds of respect that I would hope to see from a self-professing Christian on this thread several times.

        3. I do not and I have never met an Orthodox Christian who “worships” a Saint. I have met many, many Protestants who perceive the appropriate honoring of the Saints (a.k.a., veneration), incorrectly, as “worship.”

          That there are Protestants who have been aware of and appreciated the Church Fathers since the Reformation, I do not dispute, but, as you point out, Evangelicals, probably the most numerous and influential group among conservative Protestant Christians at least in the U.S. in recent times are largely unaware. I have shared elsewhere that Evangelical Protestantism is my own previous experience.

          1. Yes, I know you and others in Orthodox and Roman circles make the claim that you’re not practicing idolatry in venerating saints. That has no bearing however on what I said and that is that most Protestants are totally turned off by it because they view it as such.

            As for what evangelicals are up to it really is difficult to speak with any sort of certainty as there really are no hard numbers on that sort of thing. However, I can say that people are more aware today than they have been in the past and such doesn’t always require for everyone a move to Orthodoxy to make such awareness happen.

    2. There is nothing to stop non-Christians from appreciating Christian history either, but clearly there is a difference in the way they will engage with that history. Surely this is true for almost any protestant as well.

      And one need not say that a heterodox person is not “Christian” – one can say they are not being fully faithful to Christ in their heterodoxy, however, by embracing schism and a series of beliefs and postures alien to His Church.

  3. Robert, when I was on short-term mission in Belgium, many years ago, St. Nicholas Day was a big thing there, too (Belgium being traditionally Roman Catholic). That was my introduction to St. Nicholas. Harold Myra (CEO of Christianity Today) did a children’s book for an Evangelical audience introducing children to the real St. Nicholas while gently debunking Santa Claus. I used it with my children when they were young, and we still have the book.

    1. Karen,

      Thanks for sharing about your experience in Belgium and about Harold Myra’s book “Santa, Are You For Real?” I provided a link for any of our readers who are interested in getting the book. Let’s do what we can to help people take a more Christ-centered approach to the Christmas season.

      Robert

  4. Many thanks for treating the subject as you did, as it is truly amazing to see the ways that one man was a originally a saint before he got transformed into a savior.

    Although I was made aware back in highschool how the basis of Santa Claus came from a Christian, was never aware of the extent. Studying the man, I’ve literally been blown away at how righteous the brother was. It’s cool to see how the original “Old St.Nick” was Nicholas of Myra in fourth-century Turkey. And although little is know about his life, what’s wild is that what was well-known about him was that he entrusted himself to Jesus at an early age and, when his parents died, gave all of their possessions to the poor.

    Reading his story challenged me greatly, concerning his learning of three girls destined for being sold into slavery by their father…..and his choosing to use the churche’s wealth to ransom the lives of those little girls when he was serving as a Bishop. When I learned of how he chose to toss three bags of gold through the family’s window and give of himself to save others, it floored me. For it makes you see what a Christmas gift was meant to be about—and it makes the holidy have an ENTIRELY different spin when remembering that 1.2 million children are trafficked each year in the global sex trade today. The numbers are probably more that…..but if others kept this image in mind when the holidays came around, how different would gift-giving be.

    If only others took the time to research/find out the fullness of the man’s incredible life, as you did…

    Blessings to you for all you do and I pray the Lord continues to bless your work in Christ!!! Shalom..

    1. Gabriele,

      Thank you for your insight! Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge. I look forward to hearing from you in the future.

      Robert

  5. Everyone,

    Kevin said:

    What is a hindrance for Protestants regarding the saints is the saint worship that goes on in Roman and Eastern circles.

    Sadly, this statement is false. It is tragic, but the real hindrance here is ignorance. The vast majority of Protestants (Reformed Pastors and seminary graduates included) are ignorant that the veneration of a Saint is not at all worship. It is an ignorance born partly of Calvin not having access to the 7th Ecumenical Canons, which clearly: 1) called for true worship only for the Triune God, and 2) self-consciously called attention to a very different word for veneration than is used for worship. Protestants, with few exceptions, are ignorant of this because they’ve not bothered to do the reading and study. Rather, they have blindly trusted their ignorant teachers, as some might trust ignorant statements like Kevin’s above. (see the Calvin vs. Icon article)

    This has been pointed out several times on this blog. Reformed scholar Robert Letham’s book, Through Western Eyes, exposes the myth. His research easily concluded that the Orthodox veneration of the Saint should not be confused with false worship or idolatry. The late Lutheran scholar and Orthodox convert Jaroslav Pelikan meticulously concludes the same thing, as has any serious scholar concludes who has bothered to study. Protestants in general, with Reformed Pastors and Elders, are innocently (or willingly) ignorant of this clear historic fact. The time is ripe and long overdue for this ignorance, and the bearing of false witness, to cease.

    …Protestants have been aware of the Fathers and have appreciated them since the earliest times of the Reformation. It is only recently that some evangelicals are unaware of the riches of our Christian past.

    This statement is largely backwards and thus mostly false. As mentioned above, the overwhelming majority of Protestants, including Reformed Pastors and Elders, have not, and clearly are not familiar with or appreciative of the early Church fathers. A mere handful here and there, have read some of the Fathers and are selectively appreciative. Rare exceptions do not make the rule. I suspect less than 10% have even read Athanasius short classic On The Incarnation with the brilliant introduction by C.S. Lewis – much less the Canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Pelikan’s five volume scholarly work(link) is rarely on book lists or book clubs amongst Reformed Evangelicals. We have even caught one better read Reformed Pastor miss-applying 180 degrees Letham’s book mention above, since he had not read it.

    Beyond cherry-picking select parts of two or three, few Protestants have read or appreciated the Fathers. Even those who have read a little often do not hold the Fathers in high regard. One theologian in the Reformed camp has called them the Church Babies – rather than Fathers. Indeed, most sermons, Reformed or Evangelical, are more likely to ridicule the “Early Church” as full of error like at Corinth, and superstition, than highly esteem it. Thankfully, it has improved somewhat in a few Evangelical, small Reformed, and Anglican circles the last 10-20 years. Thus, some do appreciate Saint Nicholas punching Arius at the Nicene Council, or select passages of Augustine and Athanasius. But for the most part, Protestantism remains largely ignorant, and dismissive of the Church Fathers.

    This likely puts Kevin in a different category than most. He has no excuse for remaining ignorant or making such statements. Robert with others have pointed to these facts, repeatedly, on this blog. Kevin knows better – which possibly makes him far less ignorant than dishonest. (Yet, he is forever whining that the Orthodox on this blog do not present his unique and minority view of Protestantism – which rejects historic theological definitions! How do you spell hypocrite?)

    Thankfully this blog exists to offer clarity for the growing numbers of Protestants who are reading, particularly from the Reformed camp, and who sincerely want to rightly understand the historic Orthodox Faith. It is The Faith which the Apostolic Fathers faithfully bequeathed, by the unique power of the Holy Spirit, to their disciples.

    Nicodemus

    1. It is not ignorance to strongly state the overwhelming historic Protestant response to praying to the saints that from the time of the Reformation and going forward Calvin and others have framed quite capably. And, it is not ignorance which keeps Protestants from viewing the matter of venerating the saints as worship. There is a fundamental difference between one view and the other and acting as if one position might be otherwise favorable if only we understood it better as Protestants is just simply inaccurate and not giving the historic Protestant view its due.

      I will have to examine Letham’s work at some point in the future when I don’t have two hundred other more important works to get to, but the opinion of one scholar does not a conclusive argument make and that is also true even if you add another and even if that scholar is Jaroslav Pelikan. Though it is true that Pelikan’s work is exceptional, the apparent fact that he might agree with Letham does not represent successful demonstration of any argument for what you are claiming. As I have commented here on this blog before, even Pelikan himself has admitted that the earliest we see any sort of real documented tradition of prayer to Mary happens to be two hundred and fifty years after the coming of our Lord.

      Perhaps many ‘Reformed Pastors and Elders’ today are ignorant of the early Church Fathers, but to say that the overwhelming majority of Protestants are not familiar with them since the time of the Reformation (which was the context of my statement above) is not playing fair and is demonstrably false as any survey of English and other Protestant literature over the last five hundred years will make quite clear. For a documented textual approach of Calvin’s work for example, see Anthony N.S. Lane’s extraordinary volume documenting the myriad of quotations Calvin alluded to or quoted in the midst of his theological writing and commentary. This persistent mis-portrayal of Protestants concerning the Fathers is just more of the same for this blog–extended universalizing of what may be apparent in your little corner of the world or within the limited purview of your own experience. Not everyone has the same experience as you indicate regarding the Fathers and what I have indicated — that there is a growing appreciation of the Fathers that continues to be felt and encouraged in the Protestant world.

      After all, the one major set of the Fathers that is available in English was produced by Philip Schaff over a hundred years ago and still in print today by an evangelical publishing house (the 38 volumes of the Fathers). I don’t remember any Orthodox press translating and creating such volumes in an effort to make them better known outside Orthodox communions aside from the recent limited efforts of St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in recreating in short volume form the likes of “On the Incarnation” (which I have read and which is on my shelf, the intro by C.S. Lewis (A PROTESTANT) is outstanding) or something similar. What you say is at best only true of some in contemporary evangelicalism but even there you have to deal with scholars such as Grayson Carter at Fuller Seminary and others that are steeped in knowledge of the history of the Church and are thoroughly Protestant.

      I agree that we have those within Protestant or evangelical circles that unduly discount the importance of the early Fathers, but this is not the entirety of Protestantism or reflective of the historic view of classical Protestantism even if it may hold strong sway in certain current circles. You may also consider that such views may be more properly indicative of a skepticism for the pre-modern than anything else and related to other ills in the evangelical community not the least of which is a sort of rampant revivalism that has plagued us for the past couple hundred years.

      Pelikan’s five volume study on Christian tradition is absolutely an excellent study of the history of the Church and I recommend it highly. It is likely not on book lists and the like because overall it is several decades old and the Christian publishing industry is among the worst in publishing what is new instead of publishing what really ought to be read. I also appreciate Pelikan’s treatment of Mary and Jesus, his work on Luther regarding the spirit of Protestantism and the substance of the catholic faith. I have actually read most of his works but he does not argue for Orthodoxy or for that which is decidedly beyond what the history is able to say to us regarding things like prayer to the saints.

      So, hopefully some of this will be encouraging to you even if we continue to cross swords as you continue to reserve for the Orthodox faith what is true of all churches, that we are the inheritors of “one holy catholic and apostolic church” and that we believe “the faith once for all delivered to the saints”. I just hope you and others will have a more measured critique of all things Protestant that takes into account the historical witness of the Church and the fact that overall the Western Church represents a fair amount of diversity in both theology, practice, and appreciation of things like the early Fathers.

      1. Kevin D. Johnson,

        qoute:
        “So, hopefully some of this will be encouraging to you even if we continue to cross swords as you continue to reserve for the Orthodox faith what is true of all churches, that we are the inheritors of “one holy catholic and apostolic church” and that we believe “the faith once for all delivered to the saints”.”

        Is this what you’re really upset about? You are upset about our exclusive claims, aren’t you?

        Well, can you do me a favor? Can you compare what you said in that quote to what the canons of the 7 Ecumenical councils say? Is what you said in harmony of the canons or in out-right contradiction and defiance against the canons?

      2. Kevin D. Johnson,

        The Cambellite restorationist movement produced a number of patristic scholars in modern times as well, the same is true with a number of other low church protestant like traditions. And yet they still remain what they are as well. No one claimed that everyone who reads the fathers will automatically become Orthodox or Roman Catholic.

        No one made that claim, however, it’s more natural and consistent for us to read them just like it’s more natural for the Reformed to read the Puritans! Does everyone who reads Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and the puritans become Reformed? No! So why should everyone who reads the fathers automatically must become Orthodox? When the Reformed read Lutheran works, must they become Lutheran?

        It took me 10 years of reading the fathers before I became Orthodox. And so, if it took me that long, then why should I assume that people will automatically convert because of it? No, I believe that a person can die while being in the process of reading the fathers before ever getting to the point of wanting to convert to Orthodoxy.

        Now, we aren’t saying that other groups can’t talk about the fathers and Ecumenical councils. Nor are we saying that other groups can’t read them. I think most of us here want more and more protestants to read them.

        You are just upset because you dislike our exclusive claims. And that’s what it pretty much comes down to.

    2. Nicodemus,
      Sadly much of what you say is true…at least in my case. I read the Church Fathers in bits and chunks and ignored those writings which did not fit in with my Calvinist views. Unfortunately, it wasn’t simply ignorance but arrogance. If I claim to know better or more than the Church Fathers and the ecumenical councils i.e. the 3rd ecumenical council and Mary the Theotokos or the 7th ecumenical council and the use of icons is that not arrogance? Indeed, if I claim that these councils were in error then doesn’t that make the Trinity and the cannon of scripture suspect? Praise be to God that I have been humbled and am now a catachumen in the Orthodox Church. My spiritual father stated that this path requires one to eat a lot of humble pie. How right he was and how good it is!

      1. Eric,

        You might well be right. But perhaps Nic is just being charitable and trying to give us Protestants the benefit of the doubt…seeing that ignorance is not necessarily sin (yeah even a ‘blissful’ no?) while arrogance…? May we all find the humble pie as sweet as you have. Merry Christmas brother.

  6. Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful article. The Life of Saint Nicholas beautifully expresses the love and sacrifice of a true bishop and his association with children in the West seems to me to be entirely appropriate.

    What disturbs me, as an Orthodox Christian, about ‘Santa Claus’ is that parents lie to their children about him. I find it impossible to understand how that can be – in any way – a good thing. It seems to me particularly corrosive of a young person’s faith when they are brought up in a Christian family. I always took the line with my kids that ‘Santa Claus’ – St Nicholas of Myra in Lycia – is as real as any of us. That way there is no need to lie to one’s children. I still believe in Santa Claus and I always will.

    1. I should add that there is a huge difference between saying that Orthodox and Roman Catholic’s worshipping the Saints is a deterrent to Protestants learning about them and, on the other hand, Protestests’ *perception* that EO and RC commit idolatry is the deterrent! Of course, I am agreeing with Nicodemus and Robert that Protestants becoming more aware of their shared history (the details of the 7th EC, etc.) with contemporary Orthodox, etc., would help that misperception and create a better basis for discussion. Your perception that we are saying that becoming Orthodox is the only way to correct ignorance of the Saints I think is a stretch (and a bit of a projection, perhaps?).

  7. Kevin & Everyone,

    Kevin said:

    “It is not ignorance to strongly state the overwhelming historic Protestant response to praying to the saints that from the time of the Reformation and going forward Calvin and others have framed quite capably. And, it is not ignorance which keeps Protestants from viewing the matter of venerating the saints as worship.”

    I originally just laughed at Karen link above. (“Did too-did not, is too-is not”) But looking at Kevin’s very first comment – I get it. One can say ignorance is not ignorance all he wants – it is still ignorance. The old disproven medical belief that bleeding a man of infected blood was a healing technique, however masterfully it was said and framed, doesn’t matter. It is still false, and ignorant. So, it does not matter that “the overwhelming historic Protestant response to praying to the saints that from the time of the Reformation” was “going forward Calvin and other have framed quite capably” – it is still ignorant. Saying something false, however well-said, in ignorance, is an ignorant statement, or an argument from ignorance. Perhaps this was part of Pastor Wilson’s difficulty when dealing with this same issue a few months back. Protestant often present their view with masterful language and rhetoric. But there is no literary technique, if used skillfully, that will turn a false and ignorant opinion, into a true and informed opinion. Live with it Kevin. Calvin and the Reformers were misinformed (ignorant) and just wrong.

    Thankfully, Kevin goes on to grant most of modern day Protestant worship is embarrassing. But he refuses to yield to fact that the overwhelming majority of what goes on in Protestant worship is altogether divorced from the Liturgical and Sacramental Tradition of the Ancient Church. Even in liturgical Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed circles, we are not dealing with historic ancient Liturgies as an inheritance from the Fathers. Rather, we have the past two hundred years of their own improvisations, if not the past decade. Granted, in these there likely is some remnant of Lex Orans, Lex Credens (the way of worship leads theology) for these small, minority communions.

    Where Kevin chaffs is the fact that despite these good signs in a small minority here and there, this is the exception to the rule. Yet Kevin persists in pretending it is characteristic modern and historic Protestantism! Again, “is not!” (Or, as the young boy said of the Emperor, “He’s Naked!”) Here’s a pathetic sample of the kind of thing that goes on in thousands of Protestant Churches every Sunday.

    Kevin said,

    ”So, hopefully some of this will be encouraging to you even if we continue to cross swords as you continue to reserve for the Orthodox faith what is true of all churches, that we are the inheritors of “one holy catholic and apostolic church” and that we believe “the faith once for all delivered to the saints”. I just hope you and others will have a more measured critique of all things Protestant that takes into account the historical witness of the Church and the fact that overall the Western Church represents a fair amount of diversity in both theology, practice, and appreciation of things like the early Fathers.

    Again, we are delighted that a handful of Protestants since the Reformers thru today, are indeed familiar with some of the Fathers, and have a high regard for them. We know and have repeatedly granted that there are some factions within Protestantism that have retained more historic traditions in the Liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. Though this is a small minority of Protestants, Orthodoxy does not deny this or pretend it’s not true. Indeed, Orthodox grants that there are other sincere Christian communions where the grace of God and the truth of the gospel exists in some measure. What we do insist upon, is that the Fullness of the historic Apostolic Faith, in all it’s Liturgical and Sacramental Tradition – exists only in the Orthodox Church. Why rest content with only part of the fullness of grace? Why play at re-forming your new Church with your own wisdom – when you could come to rest, and to thrive within The Church, in all Her fulness? Don’t you and your children deserve better?

    Nicodemus

    1. I’m just glad to see you give just a little, Nic, even if you fill your last sentences with complex questions that I have no need to answer. It’s heart-warming that a tap or two on granite can cause a shard or two to eventually fall from the mountain in hopes that one day the whole block will come down ready to be made into a glorious statue and example of the truth.

      Of course, I understand that you and others in Orthodoxy think Protestants are both wrong and displaying ignorance of your apparent practices toward the saints. The two views are mutually exclusive and therefore it’s common for both sides to construe each as they like. All I was doing was pointing out the obvious regarding Protestants and their beliefs. Call it what you like, such has no bearing on my original point.

      Your point about the ancient liturgies is untrue and the liturgies we have today in Protestant circles did not drop from the sky but were gradually developed from the practice of the early Church. This much is most certainly demonstrable though likely difficult to pull off in a blog setting. I would just point readers to The Oxford History of Christian Worship as a starting point to investigate such things. Just think about what you’re saying. The Western Church split in 1054 from the Eastern but such did not happen in a vacuum. Such a break most certainly meant that prior to that time liturgy as it was known was already diverse but part and parcel of the universal Church. There wasn’t just one liturgy and neither was there even an Eastern liturgy that dominated all churches prior to the Great Schism. So, the notion that there is only one way to worship — the “Orthodox way” as opposed to the other ways Christian worship proceeded in the West is simply touting something completely untrue and ahistorical. Other evangelical liturgies in less historical communions today certainly have less of a historic connection to the church but often they do still contain the essential elements of Christian worship. There is no remnant of lex orans – the point I made elsewhere is that lex orans exists wherever Christian worship is (for good or bad) and such a point should not be controversial.

      I have seen the youtube video you link above, but really you have no scientific or other provable means to tell us that this is how Protestants worship in the main. My experience and likely the experience of many others would say otherwise. I can pull up hundreds of videos from youtube demonstrating historical Protestant worship carried about in more places than this corner or that of the church. I don’t doubt that there are places where all sorts of tomfoolery goes on, but it is extreme and unsupported exaggeration you provide to make your point. I don’t mind that you would go to such lengths to demonstrate what you’re saying, but let’s not pretend what you’re saying is more than it is.

      I speak of historic Protestantism not merely because it betrays a past that many evangelicals and Protestants today have forgotten about but most assuredly because such is the nature of Protestantism. Like Orthodoxy, its identity and essence is not found merely in what’s going on this year or the last twenty years. Instead, the centuries of the last millenium birthed Protestantism and made it what is both now and in times past. The same is true for Orthodoxy though granted the East was around a long time prior to the Reformation. However, she was not around so long that it is virtually undisputed in terms of liturgy, faith, and practice what the earliest of disciples and apostles did while they were at the helm. That would be wishful thinking on your part and completely unsupportable by the extant history of the fathers and the witness of the Scriptures.

  8. I’m no expert on Liturgy. I did read (here and in the links it contains): (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liturgy_of_St_James)

    that the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostem (the main Liturgy used in the Orthodox Church to this day) was an edited version of St. Basil’s Liturgy (still also used in the Orthodox Church on specific occasions), which itself was based on the Liturgy of St. James, attributed to St. James the Just, brother of the Lord, and first Bishop of the Church in Jerusalem.

    If I understand what I have read correctly, the liturgies in the Western Church were also fully Orthodox in basic shape and theological content until close to the time of the Great Schism (perhaps until the filioque clause was officially adopted by the Pope in Rome?). Thus, today again in some Orthodox jurisdictions where Western Christians are coming into the Orthodox Church, a Western Rite liturgy is being celebrated in some parishes based on early pre-schism versions of the Anglo-Catholic liturgical tradition, which was still fully Orthodox (in shape and theological content) also.

    I think key to what “Lex orandi, lex credendi” implies is that changes in liturgy that are substantial and theological (not just editing use of a full Psalm to using merely a couple verses and the refrain, for example) reflect a change in what constitutes proper Christian “worship” and consequently, in some respect and to some degree, a change in the understanding of the God Who is being worshipped and how He is to be worshipped. From the commands to Moses in the OT, I think we all understand that a proper worship of the God of the Bible was commanded in great detail by the God of the Bible, not dreamed up according to Moses’ or any other man’s imagination and creativity. The Orthodox Christian liturgies of the first Millennium that were fully Orthodox shared a basic shape developed from the worship of synagogue (Liturgy of the Word) and the Jewish Temple (Liturgy of the Eucharist), as fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and they shared identity of dogma (symbolized in its maturity in the original form of the Nicene-Constantinoplian Creed), including the theology of the nature of the Eucharist and the context/form of the Church’s initiation rites (including Baptism), from which the Churches of the West that sprung out of the Protestant Reformation are to varying degrees removed. Are we agreed at least on this point?

    To take a specific example, even looking at the understanding of Baptism and how it is to be performed (one dunk or three, who can baptize, and conditions where aspersion is permitted, etc.) has differed East and West for a long time and reflects differences (subtle sometimes, perhaps, but real nevertheless) in Trinitarian understanding and in the nature of the union with Christ that is effected in Baptism. Also the separation between Baptism and Chrismation (“confirmation” in the West) happened much later in the West, but also reflects a difference between what is practiced in the West (where confirmation is delayed, or in the case of traditions descending from the Anabaptists, omitted altogether) and what happened from the earliest period of the Church, a change reflecting anthropological and theological understandings that has not occurred in the Eastern Orthodox Church. What Orthodox Christians understand is that to the extent that liturgy in other Christian communions differs from that in the Eastern Orthodox Churches (whether Western or Byzantine Rite), what is being taught/belief (i.e., the understanding of the Person and work of Christ and the God of the Bible) also differs.

    Thus, the dispute is not that “Lex orandi, lex credendi” does not *exist* in other Christians circles, but that it is not fully Orthodox, nor fully according to how the Church of the first few centuries taught and worshipped, and, more specifically, how those Fathers of the Church who officially identified our biblical Canon and defined our Christological and Trinitarian theology in its maturity for us believed and worshipped.

    My experience of liturgy in Protestantism ranged from Methodist to Anglo-Catholic to charismatic “Evangelical”/Pentecostal to Willow Creek style “seeker sensitive” mega church worship (not generally as crazy as that video, but Pentecostal experience was sometimes worse in its own way!). All sang worship songs and hymns, read Scripture, took an offering, contained “preaching of the Word”, and included “The Lord’s Supper” (but not every Sunday). The content of what was understood about God and His work in our lives was sometimes quite dramatically different within these varied experiences (though, according to certain propositional teaching theoretically there were some similarities as well) and, particularly, looking at the centrality of “Penal Substitution” as THE explanation of what transpired on the Cross and the understanding of the Eucharist as “symbolic” in the sense of devoid of Christ’s “Real Presence” (except in the Anglo-Catholic tradition), this made a huge difference in what I understood the church and Christ to be doing in that act. It has meant the difference between what I now experience as consistent spiritual nurture, on the one hand, and relative spiritual aridity if not also complete spiritual confusion on many issues in my pre-Orthodox Christian experience. That is not to say I never experienced real spiritual nurture as a Protestant–certainly thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit through the teaching of the Scriptures and the sincere faith of others, many times I did. It was just markedly inconsistent and interspersed also with confusion and spiritual barrenness in a way I no longer experience.

    1. Karen,
      While you stated you are “no expert” you explanation was concise and elegant…very helpful to a neophyte like myself. Thank you!
      Eric

  9. I have some honest questions about praying to saints. But before I get into those, thank you Robert for such a timely article, on a saint I knew next to nothing about. I will be imparting some knowledge of the original Santa Claus to my children this Christmas, and for that, I thank you.

    Now then, is prayer to saints the same as asking them to pray for you, OR are you asking them to fulfill requests that only God can do?

    And, is ‘veneration’ the same as the ‘honor’ required of all men toward their parents in the 5th commandment?

    Thanks for your time, and Merry Christmas to all!

    1. I can answer one of your questions, if you like.

      You might hear us asking saints to “have mercy on us and save us”. This sounds heretical and blasphemous until you understand our meaning.

      We understand that the saints can “save” us in a relative sense while God saves us ultimately. It is God working through the saints. St. Paul and James even say in their epistles (to give but two examples):

      “I become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” 1 Corinthians 9:22

      “…let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” James 5:20

      Of course, neither Apostle is advocating that they or anyone else can save a person in the same way that God does. It is, ultimately, God working through them and we can understand that as others saving us. And if you and I can help save some how much more the saints in heaven who are free from temptation and sin!

      Also, we ask the saints to do many things such as heal us or help us. I have a friend who continually makes comments like “why ask them when you can ask God?” or “why would God need them to do anything for him?” I counter these points by demonstrating how much it pleases God to use angels to bear his messages and do things for him although it is quite obvious that he needs it not. The prophets and Apostles also did many things that God could have done. While the prophets and Apostles are “earthly” examples, here meaning that God did things through them while on earth (though of course the Orthodox contend that they still do things in heaven, but sticking to their lives on earth for just a moment to make a point) it clearly pleases God to use his servants when he could effect his will without the slightest need from you or I or Ezekiel or James.

      What requests in particular do you think we ask of the saints that only God can do? I don’t ask the saints to do something only God can do but what you think only God can do and what the saints can do and what I think they can or cannot do may be two different things. Let’s get some particulars on the table before I or anyone goes any further so that we can be as clear as possible. A vague answer won’t help you much and beyond what I mentioned above (unless that’s exactly what you wanted to know) I’m not sure I or anyone else can be of much help to you.

      I’d answer the veneration question but I think that there are others who are able to articulate that answer better than I so I will let them do so.

      I hope you find the answers you seek in your investigation into Orthodoxy.

      John

    2. Reformed Lurker,

      I’m glad you liked the posting about St. Nicholas. I pray that your children will be inspired by the life of this great saint. The lives of the saints provide us with examples of how live a Christ-focused life.

      My understanding of praying to the saints is that we ask them to pray with us. To ask them to pray for us while good, can imply that they do the heavy lifting for us. The notion that we ask them to fulfill requests that only God can do is alien to Orthodoxy. This conception blurs the distinction between the creature and the uncreated God, and it undermines the mediatorial office of Jesus Christ.

      Without getting into a detailed word study analysis, I would say that your equating ‘veneration’ given to the saints with the ‘honor’ enjoined in the 5th commandment is theologically sound. There is some overlap in the meanings of the words. In I Peter 2:17 we read: “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.” (NKJV) If you want to understand how Orthodoxy venerates the saints, I encourage you to study the hymns about the saints and you will find the hymns to be very Christ-centered.

      Wishing you and your family a merry, blessed, and Christ-centered Christmas!

      Robert

  10. I respect Orthodoxy very much but like Eastern Catholicism better than Roman and Eastern Orthodox Christianity better. As i always say they have a “Roman mind with the Pope, but a Greek Heart with the East”! So I am Converting over from Baptist to Greek Catholicism!! Pax! ++Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever and unto Ages of Ages. Amen. Hail O Gracious Lady who in the flesh, bears God for Salvation of all, and through the Human race may we find salvation through You may we find Paradice, Theotokos, Our Lady Pure and Blessed! Alleluia!++ (y) <3

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