Archive for the ‘Eastern Orthodoxy’ Category

Response to Argument for Idols from the Incarnation

July 30, 2010

In the course of the comments on a previous post (link to post), I had asked:

What about the prohibition on picturing God? — Why does that prohibition not apply to pictures of Jesus?

The response I got from one of my Eastern Orthodox readers was this:

“Because on Sinai we saw no image. In the Incarnation, we did.”

This is sort of a standard response from the Eastern Orthodox, and I had tried to anticipate it somewhat in the post, although I wasn’t dealing with an Eastern Orthodox person in the post. There are several responses:

1) There were theophanies before the Incarnation.

There were theophanies, appearances of God, prior to the Incarnation. Those theophanies were around both before Moses (see where the Lord visits Abraham in Genesis 18), and after Moses (see where the Lord appears in the fiery furnace with Daniel’s three friends in Daniel 3).

So, the significance of the absence of the image on Sinai is not that no one ever saw God in a form before the Incarnation. There was no form shown to the people of Israel on Sinai, but there were other forms shown. Even closer to Moses, both Jacob (wrestled with the Lord in Genesis 32) and Joshua (who met with the Lord, see Joshua 5) saw God in human form.

2) We have not seen Jesus.

Jesus is presently in heaven. The apostles, other disciples, and even the unbelieving Jews saw Jesus. We did not. There are no detailed explanations of what Jesus looked like in the Scriptures, and while some Eastern Orthodox seem to think they have access to some kind of authentic tradition of what Jesus looked like, those stories are not credible.

3) There is greater significance to “for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire” than just that they did not know what God looked like

I am referring specifically to this:

Deuteronomy 4:15-19
Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, the likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth: and lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven.

Notice that there are two things prohibited – making something that is supposed to be a likeness of God, and worshiping/serving anything other than God (even the sun, moon, and stars).

I’d like to suggest that the point about not seeing God’s form, is that what is significant is that there was no form seen when God was explaining how He is to be honored. Thus, creating a form of God would be an example of something that adds to the law of God.

There are two Sola Scriptura verses in Deuteronomy that specifically provide for a limitation on innovation.

Deuteronomy 4:2 Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.

Deuteronomy 12:32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.

Keep in mind that the context of each of those passages supports the point I’m making.

In the first instance:

Deuteronomy 4:1-8
Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers giveth you. Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you. Your eyes have seen what the LORD did because of Baalpeor: for all the men that followed Baalpeor, the LORD thy God hath destroyed them from among you. But ye that did cleave unto the LORD your God are alive every one of you this day. Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?

Basically, in context, God is saying “do exactly what I say, neither more nor less.” Furthermore, Deuteronomy 4:2 is in the context of the prohibition on images that we’re discussing. Specifically, the linking verses are verses 9-14:

Deuteronomy 4:9-14
Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons’ sons; specially the day that thou stoodest before the LORD thy God in Horeb, when the LORD said unto me, Gather me the people together, and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children. And ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness. And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice. And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone. And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go over to possess it.

Notice that in this context, of solemnly insisting that the people keep God’s law, God reminds them of the particular day on which the law was given. That day is the day that is then referred to when it comes to the question of making representations of God.

Just as there was no image of God shown to the people so that they would have a pattern after which to illustrate him on the day of Horeb, so also we are not given an image of God (of any person of the Godhead) that is to serve as an illustration so that we may try to show a likeness of God today.

We see no similitude, only words, just as the people of Israel saw no similitude, they only received words.

The same sort of thing is true with respect to the other passage from Deuteronomy 12.

Deuteronomy 12:28-32
Observe and hear all these words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever, when thou doest that which is good and right in the sight of the LORD thy God. When the LORD thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land; take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.

Again, God is commanding that people do exactly what he commands, not adding to it or taking away from it. In particular, here, he forbids innovation in the form syncretism or borrowing. In other words, God explicitly tells people not to model their religious life after that of the nations around them, but simply to follow the word of God.

We are not given a portrait of Jesus in the Bible, just as the Jews were not given an image of God on the day the law was given. The same principle that applied then, applies now, notwithstanding the Incarnation.


Is Mary Greater than John the Baptist?

May 22, 2010

One difference I’ve noticed between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics is the latter’s greater emphasis on Mary and the former’s greater emphasis on John the Baptist. Sometimes it’s subtle, other times not so much. For example, Roman Catholicism does give Mary a greater amount of worship (i.e. religious reverence and devotion through religious ritual etc.)[FN1] than other saints.


The Church’s veneration for the Madonna—a veneration that surpasses the cult of every other saint and takes the name of “hyperdulia”—invests the whole liturgical year.

(John Paul II, To the Young People, 10 January 1979, section 2)

And again:

Besides, the Blessed Virgin possessed, after Christ, not only the highest degree of excellence and perfection, but also a share in that influence by which He, her Son and our Redeemer, is rightly said to reign over the minds and wills of men. For if through His Humanity the divine Word performs miracles and gives graces, if He uses His Sacraments and Saints as instruments for the salvation of men, why should He not make use of the role and work of His most holy Mother in imparting to us the fruits of redemption? “With a heart that is truly a mother’s,” to quote again Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Pius IX, “does she approach the problem of our salvation, and is solicitous for the whole human race; made Queen of heaven and earth by the Lord, exalted above all choirs of angels and saints, and standing at the right hand of her only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, she intercedes powerfully for us with a mother’s prayers, obtains what she seeks, and cannot be refused.” On this point another of Our Predecessors of happy memory, Leo XIII, has said that an “almost immeasurable” power has been given Mary in the distribution of graces; St. Pius X adds that she fills this office “as by the right of a mother.”

(Pius XII, Ad Caeli Reginam (To the Queen of Heaven), 11 October 1954, Section 42)

Here’s a problem for Roman Catholics that is less of a problem for Eastern Orthodox. Isn’t John the Baptist greater than Mary? Or is Mary greater than John the Baptist?

Jesus said:

Matthew 11:11

Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Luke 7:28

For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.

On the other hand, Jesus also said:

Matthew 12:46-50

While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, “Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee.”

But he answered and said unto him that told him, “Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?” And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, “Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Mark 3:31-35

There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, “Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee.”

And he answered them, saying, “Who is my mother, or my brethren?” And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, “Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.”

Luke 8:19-21

Then came to him his mother and his brethren, and could not come at him for the press. And it was told him by certain which said, “Thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to see thee.”

And he answered and said unto them, “My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God, and do it.”

There is a sort of double-whammy effect that these passages have. First, they demonstrate a prominence for John the Baptist. While we do not offer worship/cult to John the Baptist, we do recognize his preeminence among the prophets, agreeing with Jesus. Second, they demonstrate an absence of prominence of Jesus’ mother and siblings. Jesus de-emphasized his blood relations through Mary in favor of the spiritual relation that believers have with Him through faith.

Recall that Jesus’ own brethren did not believe on him at first:

John 7:1-10

After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him. Now the Jews’ feast of tabernacles was at hand. His brethren therefore said unto him, “Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest. For there is no man that doeth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, shew thyself to the world.”

For neither did his brethren believe in him.

Then Jesus said unto them, “My time is not yet come: but your time is alway ready. The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil. Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast; for my time is not yet full come.”

When he had said these words unto them, he abode still in Galilee. But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.

Notice that in the passages above, Jesus’ mother and brethren are not specifically identified as unbelievers, but in this passage it is made explicit that Jesus’ brethren did not believe in him. Furthermore, immediately before his death on the cross, Jesus substituted John for himself in his familial relation with Mary:

John 19:25-27
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, “Woman, behold thy son!” Then saith he to the disciple, “Behold thy mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.

After the crucifixion, Mary receives only a cursory mention:

Acts 1:14 These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.

And Mary’s role is further downplayed in Hebrews, where Jesus is described by comparison to Melchizedek as:

Hebrews 7:3 Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.

Thus, just as Jesus is recognized as being without father as to his humanity, Scripture teaches us that Jesus is without mother as to his divinity. This is not just my 21st century opinion, but is what was taught by Ambrose, Augustine, John Cassian, Gregory Nazianzen, and Theodoret (see evidence here).

Finally, rather than making Mary the mother of us all, Scripture assigns that place to Heaven, the Jerusalem above.

Galatians 4:26 But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.

But there is a final Scriptural discussion that ought to nail close the case both against Mary and John the Baptist as being the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s the same thread of discussion that definitively disproves the papacy.

Matthew 18:1-4

At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 23:1-12

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But be not ye called ‘Rabbi:’ for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.”

Mark 9:33-37

And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, “What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?”

But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest.

And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them: and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, “whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.”

Luke 9:46-48

Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest. And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their heart, took a child, and set him by him, and said unto them, “Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.”

Luke 22:24-27

And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.

And he said unto them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.”

Notice that never in these discourses does Jesus say, “Pope St. Peter of course,” or “Come on guys, obviously my mom is the greatest.” Notice as well that at least one of these discussions comes after the discussion “on this Rock” discussion in Matthew 16. Jesus has many opportunities to identify a greatest mere human, and he declines to name names. Instead, Jesus gives the same basic answer: he teaches that those who are greatest in the heavenly kingdom are those who are converted and believe on him. Look at the similarity between Jesus’ response to “your mother and brethren are outside looking for you” and Jesus’ response to “who is the greatest?” In the former case he identifies those who believe on him as being his mother and brethren, and in the latter case, he identifies those who humble themselves and whose hearts are changed so that they become like little children as the greatest.

So is Mary greater than John the Baptist? We have no Scriptural basis for asserting that she is. If she is greater than John the Baptist, it would only be because she is more humble. But compare their humility as recorded in Scripture.

While Mary does call herself the handmaid of the Lord:

Luke 1:38 & 48

And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her. … “For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”

She is not always respectful of Jesus, you will recall that in Mark 3, she and Jesus’ brethren had come because they believed him to be losing it.

Mark 3:21 & 31

And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, “He is beside himself.” … There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him.

And at least twice Jesus rebukes Mary:

John 2:3-4

And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, “They have no wine.” Jesus saith unto her, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.”

Luke 2:48-50

And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.

By comparison, hear the words of John the Baptist:

John 1:26-27

John answered them, saying, “I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose.”

John 3:25-36

Then there arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying. And they came unto John, and said unto him, “Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him.”

John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven. Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all. And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony. He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true. For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him. The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”

Unlike Mary who did not understand what Jesus’ meant by being about his Father’s business, John seems to have understood from the earliest portion of Christ’s ministry, as we will see below. We are told of one instance where John’s faith wavered, but look at how Jesus’ addressed it:

Matthew 11:2-6

Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?”

Jesus answered and said unto them, “Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.”

Even in the one instance where John needs to be corrected by Jesus, John had erred in his humility:

Matthew 3:13-15

Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?”

And Jesus answering said unto him, “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.”

Then he suffered him.

If humility were the measure, it would seem that John the Baptist would win hands down. But, of course, Jesus’ admonitions discourage us from seeking to have a “greatest” in the first place. Scripture explains:

Ephesians 4:5-6

One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

And that one Lord is Jesus Christ:

1 Corinthians 8:6

But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.

As Jesus himself said:

John 13:13

Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.

So then the answer to the question is that the only Scriptural passages that speak to the matter would seem to place John the Baptist ahead of Mary, although the fundamental basis for the question seems to be mistaken.

– TurretinFan

[FN1: For those Roman Catholics who always complain when I mention the worship of Mary, “cult” in that quotation is reference to religious reverence (look it up), i.e. worship (see here). I hate having to disrupt the flow of the post to explain this, but there are enough American Roman Catholics who deny the Mary-worshiping charge that this is necessary.]

Eastern Orthodoxy and Reformed Radar

April 18, 2010

Mr. Mark Shea is determined to make sure that Eastern Orthodoxy is on our radar (link to Shea’s post). While we appreciate Mr. Shea’s attempt to bring clarity to the table, we are well aware of the Eastern Orthodox.

In fact, we’re well aware of attempts like those those of Mr. Shea to overplay the similarities between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. I responded to one such attempt in article called “If You Look Only at the Similarities, They’re Exactly the Same!

That article is actually an example of me discussing Eastern Orthodoxy with a Roman Catholic, but I’ve also defended Augustine against false charges brought by the Eastern Orthodox crowd in an article called “Eastern Orthodox Confusing Augustine with Gnostics

I’ve discussed the difference between the Western and North African canon of Scripture and the canon of more “eastern” fathers, such as John of Damascus in an article called “Did Hippo, Carthage, or Rome’s Bishop Settle the Canon?

I’ve responded to an Eastern Orthodox blogger on the topic of Ecclesial Infallibility (link).

Other posts related to the topic of Eastern Orthodox may be found under the “Orthodox” label on my blog (link to list of posts with that label).

I’ve even done a debate on Sola Scriptura with an Eastern Orthodox opponent (link to debate, in reverse chronological order).

Does some of the Internet apologetics world have a blind eye for Eastern Orthodoxy? Undoubtedly. Does Eastern Orthodoxy occupy as much of our energy as Roman Catholicism? Certainly not. Yet it is on the radar screen.

Shea quotes himself as thinking:

Dude. Have you ever heard of the Orthodox? They don’t exactly get their marching orders from the Pope, but they will laugh you out of dodge if you tell them these things are not apostolic or try to get them to sign off on some cockamamie theory of sola scriptura as though that’s what Athanasius believed.

If the Sufficiency and Perspicuity of Scripture a “cockamanie theory” so be it, but we’ve already seen that Athanasius held them (link to discussion of one of Athanasius’ letters).

It’s interesting that Shea said “laugh you out of dodge” rather than “refute your arguments.” It is, of course, one thing to laugh as Shea himself does, and as some Eastern Orthodox folks do. It is quite another to investigate Scripture to find out what is apostolic. It takes more than a jelly-bowl-imitating belly to digest history and investigate the truth of both Rome’s and Moscow’s claims.

This requirement for some amount of cerebral activity may explain the general paucity of apologists of all stripes (on both sides of the Tiber and the Bosporus). And while there may not be many Roman Catholic apologists of note in the English-speaking blogosphere, there are even fewer Eastern Orthodox, for a variety of reasons.

Even if the Eastern Orthodox were more numerous, however, there is at least a perception (among Reformed apologists) that Eastern Orthodoxy doesn’t have a Trent: it does not have a dogmatic definition that declares the gospel of Christ to be anathema. It does not have a Vatican I: it does not claim that any of its bishops are infallible, nor does it claim that even the so-called Ecumenical Patriarch is the jurisdictional visible head of the church.

Eastern Orthodoxy has had men like Cyril Lucaris (1572–1638), who served as Patriarch of Alexandria and subsequently Patriarch of Constantinople. Cyril Lucaris allegedly (and various folks dispute this) wrote a Calvinistic “Confession” (link to confession). He also provided King James I with a copy of the ancient Scripture manuscript Codex Alexandrius (5th century) as a gift.

There may be many serious errors in Eastern Orthodox doctrine and practice, and we do respond to them as the opportunity presents itself. Nevertheless, Rome’s opposition to the gospel is more systemic and blatant.

This article was initially drafted in response to Mr. Shea, but in the meanwhile, I notice that a number of additional Roman Catholic bloggers have picked up on the same idea. The transmission of this argument is thus:

Dave Brown at Orthocath building on his own earlier post

via Dave Brown, Mark Shea at Catholic and Enjoying it!

via Mark Shea, Fr. Dwight Longenecker at Standing on my Head simply asserts that “Mark Shea makes a good apologetical [sic] point.”

via Mark Shea, Brian Visaggio at Saint Superman (quotes from Brown, with some comments on the beauty of the Coptic/EO liturgies)

via Dave Brown, Devon Rose at St. Joseph’s Vanguard and Our Lady’s Train (quotes from Brown, with repetition of some of Brown’s claims)

via Dave Brown, Francis Beckwith at Return to Rome (Beckwith simply provides a block quotation from Mr. Brown)

via Dave Brown, David Palm at The Reluctant Traditionalist (Mr. Palm makes a number of additional claims )

Additionally, one of Mark Shea’s readers, Alphonsus, points us to Jonathan Deane at Called to Communion with some similar thoughts.

Thus, I’d like to slightly broaden this post. First, in response to Mr. Brown, it is true that “Protestants” sometimes do sometimes think that church history goes from the book of Acts (or perhaps John on the Isle of Patmos) to Luther in 1517 (or to Billy Graham or their own parents). This is sad. There is much to learn from history, even though Scripture, not history, is our infallible rule of faith and morals.

Mr. Brown criticizes Lorraine Boettner, stating “This same list of “inventions,” popularized by Protestant theologian Loraine Boettner, puts the idea of seven sacraments as late as 1439.” In fact, in one list that Boettner provides, Boettner states: “34. The doctrine of Seven Sacraments affirmed: a.d. 1439.” The list of a list of dates of adoption, not dates of innovation, a distinction that Mr. Brown would do well to note.

In point of fact, while the Council of Florence (1439) enumerated seven sacraments, it remained to the Council of Trent (1545-63) to formally define the matter. Others may point to the idea that the Council of Lyons (1274) had the same enumeration among the documents presented to it. However, Roman Catholic sources themselves (such as the so-called “Catholic Encyclopedia”) will acknowledge that the honor or infamy for the “seven sacraments” distinctive lies with with Otto of Bamburg (around 1139) or more properly Peter Lombard (lived from about 1100 to 1160). Both of these men post-date the 1054 division between the eastern patriarchates and Rome. While the continuing interaction between East and West may well have cross-pollinated the error of seven sacraments to the East, it began as a distinctively Western error, even if folks like Otto of Bamburg and Peter Lombard were not “Roman Catholic” in the modern sense.

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

Mr. Brown concludes: “At the very least, we can say that at the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), a Protestant theological approach is light years away. Did it exist before then? Were there Christians in the Early Church who looked like the Evangelicals of today? If so, they left no mark in either the Ancient Churches nor in the writings of the Church Fathers in East or West.” However, Mr. Brown should read more of the writings of the fathers, if he wants to find marks of the “Protestant theological approach” (at least as it relates to the formal principle of Sola Scriptura).

Cyril of Alexandria (patriarch of Alexandria from 412-444), for example, said: “That which the divine Scripture has not spoken, how shall we receive it and reckon it among verities?” (Glaphyrorum in Genesim, Book II) He also wrote: “It is best not to love to be moved by the bold assertions others, since they carry us away to incorrect views, but to make the words of the inspired writers the correct and exact rule of faith.” (Of the Holy Trinity, Dialogue 4)

Let us grant that Cyril died in the decade prior to the Council of Chalcedon, yet it should be apparent to all but the most obstinate readers that his comments quoted above sound more “Protestant” than not. Surely, Cyril was not a “Protestant” nor would his church have looked like a typical American Evangelical church in a number of ways. Both ideas would be anachronistic. While we Reformed Christians would agree with Cyril on most things, there would doubtless be points where we would differ from him. When we would do so, we would do so because methodologically we agree with him: we make the words of the inspired writers the correct and exact rule of faith and do receive and reckon among those things to be believed those things the divine Scripture has not spoken.

And if someone will insist that we must bring forward someone who lived through the Council of Chalcedon, we will cheerfully point to Theodoret of Cyrus (lived from about 393 to 457) who wrote: “Now, I do not state this dogmatically, my view being that it is rash to speak dogmatically where holy Scripture does not make an explicit statement; rather, I have stated what I consider to be consistent with orthodox thought.” (Question 4 on Genesis) Keep in mind that Theodoret was, at times and on certain issues, a theological opponent of Cyril of Alexandria (I am understating the level of their disagreement). Yet both men agreed with each other and us on the fundamental rule of faith.

While Mr. Brown was more cautious in his claims, Mr. Palm was rather more reckless. Mr. Palm stated, among other things:

Christians have always been distinctively Catholic in their doctrine and worship. The Protestant “Reformation” was not a return to a lost “pure Christianity” but was in many areas something entirely new and revolutionary.

This sort of assertion is bold, but unfounded. Whether one looks at Newman and his development hypothesis, or the work of more recent historians such as J.N.D. Kelly or Jaroslav Pelikan, anyone who seriously studies history will find that as they get closer and closer to the time of the apostles, more and more of the “distinctively [Roman] Catholic” elements disappear. Indeed, the early church is “catholic” in the true sense, but it is not Roman Catholic.


While Eastern Orthodoxy is on our radar, it gets less attention for a variety of reasons that are discussed above. Like Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy alleges historical continuity – but a serious historical investigation shows that both Rome and (to a lesser extent) Eastern Orthodoxy have wandered from the purity of the apostolic faith and practice.


Brief Responses to Jay Dyer

April 14, 2010

Jay Dyer has resurrected a few old jibes at his blog in two posts (first)(second).

In the first article he resurrects the assertion (which I already debunked) that Calvinists are Nestorians or “proto-Nestorians”:

Here, St. Athanasius rebukes the Proto-Nestorians and by extension, their modern day re-incarnation, the Calvinists. So, we now officially have five well-known Calvinists who have made pro-Nestorian statements: A.A. Hodge, R.J. Rushdoony, Eric Svendson, Turretinfan and John W. Robbins co-author, Sean Gerety.

Mr. Dyer is being a little misleading in presenting things this way. Speaking only for myself and A.A. Hodge, our comments were that Nestorius was false accused of holding Nestorianism. Jay’s comment suggests something else to the reader.

What about the substance of what Athanasius wrote? Is it opposed to Reformed theology? On the contrary, Athanasius properly distinguishes between the human and divine natures, even while affirming the unity of the person: “But the Word Himself offered His own Body on our behalf that our faith and hope might not be in man, but that we might have our faith in God the Word Himself.” And again: “For humanly He enquires where Lazarus is laid, but raises him up divinely.”

Athanasius even mentions the issue of the substitutionary atonement: “And it has been made plain to all that not for His own sake but for ours He underwent all things, that we by His sufferings might put on freedom from suffering and incorruption [1 Corinthians 15:53], and abide unto life eternal.” And again: “But in the same body in which He was when he washed their feet, He also carried up our sins to the Tree [1 Peter 2:24].”

The second article resurrects the assertion that Calvinists are Manicheans (which I already debunked). The second article primarily relies on Gregory of Nyssa. The bigger part of my response will have to wait for another time, where I will argue that although Gregory of Nyssa does not make reference to “original sin” as such (that term is one that has historically been more popular in the West, especially following Augustine), Gregory inconsistently affirms various of the aspects of it, namely those aspects that are the most clear from Scripture. The lesser part of the response (and an adequate response to the quotation provided from Gregory) is that like Gregory of Nyssa we oppose dualism of the kind that posits two distinct first causes: one good and one evil. Thus, we avoid the charge of Manicheanism or even any reasonable accusation of tendency thereto.


The Thomas Jefferson + Creed Hermeneutic

April 7, 2010

I was (at first) amused to read a post by Mark Olson (Orthodox Church in America) titled “Noetic Noah and the Fluffy Hermeneutic.” Olson rejects large swaths of the historical text of the Old Testament with fluffy statements like “Giants are mythic or noetic creatures” and, referring to the location of the garden of Eden, he describes it as “the juncture of four rivers. Real rivers which however in reality are nowhere near each other.”

As to Olson’s latter claim, Noah’s flood dramatically altered the landscape of Earth. The rivers we call by the names of the four Eden rivers are rivers named after those rivers. Likewise, the giants of Scripture are real beings.

As explained at 1 Samuel 17:4-7, Goliath was six cubits and a span (about 9 ft. 4 in.) tall, his armor weighed 5,000 shekels of brass (about 150 lbs.), and the head of his spear weighed 600 shekels of iron (or nearly 20 lbs.). This is a real, though very large, human being. Likewise Og, king of Bashan, had a bed that was nine cubits long and four cubits wide (Deuteronomy 3:11), made out of iron, suggesting that he too was a prodigiously large man.

But Olson goes from merely fluffy to blasphemous when he writes:

Did everything recounted in Exodus take place exactly as the text recounts? Well, as a comparison there may have been a historic King of rocky Ithaca named Odysseus but that does not mean he killed a giant man with one eye. That also does not mean that nothing recounted in the Odyssey took place or that the story contains no great moral truths because Polyphemus is purely or mostly noetic.

While we might expect an atheist like Dan Barker to make such a comparison, it should shock us to hear a person who professes to be a Christian making such a comment.

While Olson writes that, Justin Martyr wrote:

Do not suppose, you Greeks, that my separation from your customs is unreasonable and unthinking; for I found in them nothing that is holy or acceptable to God. For the very compositions of your poets are monuments of madness and intemperance. For any one who becomes the scholar of your most eminent instructor, is more beset by difficulties than all men besides. For first they say that Agamemnon, abetting the extravagant lust of his brother, and his madness and unrestrained desire, readily gave even his daughter to be sacrificed, and troubled all Greece that he might rescue Helen, who had been ravished by the leprous shepherd. But when in the course of the war they took captives, Agamemnon was himself taken captive by Chryseis, and for Briseis’ sake kindled a feud with the son of Thetis. And Pelides himself, who crossed the river, overthrew Troy, and subdued Hector, this your hero became the slave of Polyxena, and was conquered by a dead Amazon; and putting off the god-fabricated armour, and donning the hymeneal robe, he became a sacrifice of love in the temple of Apollo. And the Ithacan Ulysses made a virtue of a vice. And indeed his sailing past the Sirens gave evidence that he was destitute of worthy prudence, because he could not depend on his prudence for stopping his ears. Ajax, son of Telamon, who bore the shield of sevenfold ox-hide, went mad when he was defeated in the contest with Ulysses for the armour. Such things I have no desire to be instructed in. Of such virtue I am not covetous, that I should believe the myths of Homer. For the whole rhapsody, the beginning and end both of the Iliad and the Odyssey is— a woman.

– Justin Martyr, Discourse to the Greeks, Chapter 1

Read also this testimony:

Men of Greece, when I came to examine the Christian writings, I found not any folly in them, as I had found in the celebrated Homer, who has said concerning the wars of the two trials: “Because of Helen, many of the Greeks perished at Troy, away from their beloved home.” For, first of all, we are told concerning Agamemnon their king, that by reason of the foolishness of his brother Menelaus, and the violence of his madness, and the uncontrollable nature of his passion, he resolved to go and rescue Helen from the hands of a certain leprous shepherd; and afterwards, when the Greeks had become victorious in the war, and burnt cities, and taken women and children captive, and the land was filled with blood, and the rivers with corpses, Agamemnon himself also was found to be taken captive by his passion for Briseis. Patroclus, again, we are told, was slain, and Achilles, the son of the goddess Thetis, mourned over him; Hector was dragged along the ground, and Priam and Hecuba together were weeping over the loss of their children; Astyanax, the son of Hector, was thrown down from the walls of Ilion, and his mother Andromache the mighty Ajax bore away into captivity; and that which was taken as booty was after a little while, all squandered in sensual indulgence.

Of the wiles of Odysseus the son of Laertes, and of his murders, who shall tell the tale? For of a hundred and ten suitors did his house in one day become the grave, and it was filled with corpses and blood. He, too, it was that by his wickedness gained the praises of men, because through his pre-eminence in craft he escaped detection; he, too, it was who, you say, sailed upon the sea, and heard not the voice of the Sirens only because he stopped his ears with wax.

The famous Achilles, again, the son of Peleus, who bounded across the river, and routed the Trojans, and slew Hector—this said hero of yours became the slave of Philoxena, and was overcome by an Amazon as she lay dead and stretched upon her bier; and he put off his armour, and arrayed himself in nuptial garments, and finally fell a sacrifice to love.

Thus much concerning your great “men;” and you, Homer, had deserved forgiveness, if your silly story-telling had gone so far only as to prate about men, and not about the gods. As for what he says about the gods, I am ashamed even to speak of it: for the stories that have been invented about them are very wicked and shocking; passing strange, too, and not to be believed; and, if the truth must be told, fit only to be laughed at. For a person will be compelled to laugh when he meets with them, and will not believe them when he hears them. For think of gods who did not one of them observe the laws of rectitude, or of purity, or of modesty, but were adulterers, and spent their time in debauchery, and yet were not condemned to death, as they ought to have been!

– Ambrose a chief man of the Greeks (contemporary with Origen c. 185–254), Memorial

That is the historic approach to Homer, to condemn its wickedness, not to liken the Holy Scripture to its idle and wicked tales. Such should be reserved for scoffers like Dan Barker or Thomas Jefferson.

Olson doesn’t go quite as far as Barker or Thomas Jefferson, though. He accepts those things that are mentioned in “the Creed,” but since there are lots of historical passages of the Old Testament that are not specifically he listed in the creed, he views them as adiaphora (a thing indifferent, which one can accept or not).

In essence, the only thing that prevents Olson from denying the virgin birth as a myth is the fact that it made it into the creed. Pontius Pilate? Well, he’s in the creed. Herod better watch out though! We’re not sure whether “maker of heavens and earth” is enough to get Olson to believe Creationism (we seriously doubt it), and Olson plainly denies the flood. His comment in that regard provides the basis for our conclusion:

Finally, you wonder that a person who does believe in the literal flood and I, who does not, can be said to worship the same religion.

Notice how he speaks of worshiping a religion. For us (Reformed Christians) we do not worship a religion – we worship God. Whether we rightly or wrongly worship God is judged by how closely we follow God’s instruction for worship.

Two quick further words of caution. While Olson is attending an OCA parish, and while he is apparently studying to serve in that church in a minor way (as a “reader”), he’s not an official spokesman for his religion. Also, while rejecting the historical narratives of the Old Testament as such is a serious error, it may be that the error falls short of being, in itself, a denial of the gospel.


Eastern Orthodox Confusing Augustine with Gnostics

January 3, 2010

I notice that David at Pious Fabrication is accusing Calvinism of being Gnostic because it is Augustinian (link). David answers the question, “Is Augustinian theology Gnostic, then?” with “an emphatic YES!” While it seems that Jnorm888 at Ancient Christian Defender is happy about this unjustified claim (link), I presume others (particular those of our Roman Catholic friends who think they are more Augustinian than the Calvinists) are less happy about this sort of claim.

Unsurprisingly, David’s argument contains shallow and frankly hollow criticisms of which the following is a typical example:

An example of such a flawed, Gnostic-tinged theology is Augustine’s idea of predestination, that God had elected from eternity to save some while condemning the rest to damnation. Anyone familiar with Gnostic theology can see the influence of the Gnostic belief in the saved pneumatikoi versus the damned somatikoi.

This and the other argument employ filtering (aka confirmation bias) and treat any similarity no matter how superficial as evidence of influence. It is the same fallacy employed by Dan Barker in his debate with Dr. White in suggesting that mythology had some influence on the gospel accounts (catch a portion of that debate here).

There may be some similarity between the pneumatikoi and the spiritual (πνεύματος – pneumatos in Romans 8:6) and the somatikoi and the carnal (σαρκὸς – sarkos in Romans 8:6) such that the body (σῶμα – soma in Romans 8:10) is dead because of sin but the Spirit (πνεῦμα – pneuma in Romans 8:10) is life because of Christ. There may be some similarities, and it may even be that one is derived from the other. But the bare fact of some similarities (particular superficial similarities like the similarity between the fatalistic aspects to certain forms of Gnosticism and the predestination of Scripture/Augustinianism/Calvinism does not prove that one was derived from other.


If You Look Only at the Similarities, They’re Exactly the Same!

December 16, 2009

One area where Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox part ways is over describing what goes on in the consecration of the elements in the Eucharist. For Eastern Orthodox, the transformation that occurs is mysterious and indescribable. For Roman Catholics, the transformation is sacramental and describable – in fact it is described quite specifically by the doctrine of transubstantiation which claims that the whole substance of the bread and wine are miraculously converted in each case (not respectively) to the body, blood, and divinity of Jesus Christ.

This real difference between the two views is something that Roman Catholic Matthew Bellisario would like to pretend doesn’t exist. An example of MB’s wishful analysis of Eastern Orthodoxy is seen in the following excerpt:

The Eastern Churches simply never adopted that type of Latin, scholastic investigation. They simply accept the fact that it is fully Jesus Christ on the altar after the consecration. Archimandrite Alexander (Mileant) of the Russian Orthodox Church OUtside America writes, While in other sacraments objects such as water or oil are only sanctified, in Holy Communion the objects of the Sacrament, bread and wine, are not only sanctified but actually transformed into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. As a result, when a Christian receives Holy Communion, he receives Jesus Himself and joins with Him. So great is this mystery that no possible explanation can be found of how this happens, and one can only say with gratitude: “Thank You, my Lord!” There is no real point of disunity on this subject among most Orthodox theologians or churches concerning the Catholic teaching. It is a fact that the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic liturgies are largely the same liturgies (St. Chrysostom, St. James, St. Basil, etc) which profess this Eucharistic doctrine. The Greek Orthodox Church of America writes, “The Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine become for us His Body and His Blood.” I personally believe that there is no point of contention on this doctrine, and the Catholic Church itself does not view it be one either.

(source – errors and emphasis in original)

Notice the way that Bellisario hopefully emphasizes what he sees as overlap between the Roman Catholic position and the Eastern Orthodox position. In doing so, however, he misses the point of significant departure, “no possible explanation can be found … .” The Eastern Orthodox didn’t just fail to adopt a scholastic analysis, they apophatically assert that explanation is impossible.

Why is that? One reason is that transubstantiation is not a doctrine that was innovated before the Eastern apostolic sees separated from the Western apostolic see. Thus, transubstantiation is not part of the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, despite Roman Catholic attempts to portray it as such. More significantly, the history of Eastern Orthodoxy helps to demonstrate that transubstantiation is not an Apostolic tradition. It’s not something that the apostles knew or taught, nor something that they handed down either orally or in written form.

Yes, if you only consider the similarities between any two positions, those two positions are exactly the same. But when you look at the differences, you realize that there is fundamental difference between those who teach the explanation of transubstantiation as a dogma and those who teach that any explanation is impossible.


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