Third letter from a new catechumen

I am posting a few letters written by a new catechumen (not myself) named Matt.  They follow the spirit of this blog.  They are a glimpse into a person who is trying to make sense of conversion to Orthodoxy not only for family and friends, but also himself.  I didn’t edit them in any way.  They are his thoughts and his take on how to explain this new phase of his life.  I hope they are useful to you.

If you want to jump over to my own letters, try going here.

This is letter 3 of 3 from new catechumen Matt.  Here is the first.

Why I Became Orthodox – I Always Was.

The further I dive into Orthodox life, doxology, and theology, the more strongly I get the impression I have always done and believed these things and worshipped in this way. Or, at least, I have always attempted to worship in this way. Orthodoxy for me was like a light switch going off, illuminating parts of my faith which had been dark since the beginning. A candle had been lit and burned, but it not yet become a lamp. With a great many topics of Orthodox theology, as I began to study I realized Orthodoxy said what I had been trying to articulate for years. I see in my past clear signs of God’s work to prepare me for the Orthodox faith, in prayers he placed in my heart and desires that developed within me. Let me walk you through some of these developments.


I remember from my early teen years thinking often on the doctrine of Sanctification. In Sanctification we become more and more like God, forsaking sin and attaining to his level of righteousness. Really, this idea is quite incredible. As time goes on, we start to look more and more like the risen Son. We forsake idols and seek him and, like Moses, our faces begin to shine from the close encounters we have with God. The more sanctified we become, the closer we get to God.

At some point I began to consider the implications and limits of Sanctification. All the teachers I listened to seemed to have this idea that Sanctification ends when you die. After death, we are made perfect and there is no need for us to become more like God. Once the death of our physical body occurs, we are free from sin, which is perfection. I fully believed we would be without sin once we died, but I wasn’t so sure that we would stop becoming like God. I mean, God is infinitely perfect, right? That means he’s not just free from sin. Being free from sin would just be *tabula rasa* – it would make you a blank slate. But being free from sin is not the same thing as having righteousness. In life we are not called to just stop sinning; we are called from that to the act of love for God and man. If we are to seek to be like God in this life, why not in the next also? I reasoned that God would want us to become more and more like him after we are with him too. Because God is infinite there would never be an end to us becoming like him. There would always be some level of perfection above and beyond the level we had already achieved. One can understand this partially by comparison to technology. Personal computers currently are very powerful machines. They crunch numbers for us, help us communicate with each other, and serve as centers for entertainment. But every month better and technology is developed. Better processors are built. Clearer screens are made. Lighter laptops are tested in the field. There is no foreseeable end to the improvements we could make through technology. Becoming like God is similar in this way.

I thought like this and rigorously checked my logic through most of my teenage years. In my junior year of high school I solidified my claim to this doctrine. At that time I bought my first ipod. When you order from the Apple store, you have the option to inscribe something on the back of your ipod. After much deliberation, I chose these words:

I have been humbled by

The Art of Becoming God

At first, the words felt like blasphemy, but I couldn’t escape the thought that we were meant to become like God, and that we were meant to do so for eternity. Becoming like God forever logically seemed to follow from the doctrine of Sanctification. But I also knew I couldn’t say that we actually *became* God. That would obviously be heresy. Still, I chose these words to express the mystery to which I joined myself, hoping that its meaning would one day become clear to me … And so it has.

What I did not realize at the time was that I had inadvertently expressed the Orthodox doctrine of Theosis. Theosis for the Orthodox is the very purpose of salvation. Jesus came to earth to take away our sins, free us from death, and build a bridge that we could take to be unified with God. Theosis is that process by which we are unified to God. It is the everlasting deification of man into the likeness of God. The part about this that simply confounds me is that I had never heard the doctrine of Theosis before I had its meaning engraved on my ipod. The only exposure I had to Orthodoxy prior to that was a minimal coverage in history class. At the time I was not drawn to Orthodoxy at all, and only had a vague impression that it was a form of Christianity that had been overly-influenced by Buddhism and had lost the faith. I think I might I have gotten this idea from my history class, but I am not entirely certain. In any case, I had not studied anything about Orthodoxy, and yet their doctrine was engraved upon my life.

The reason I thought my extrapolation on Sanctification might be heresy is because at that time I was not aware of the Essence vs. Energy distinction. God in his Essence is unknowable. But God’s Energies are knowable and we can relate to them. Theosis is the process of unifying ourselves to the Energies of God. To help explain this, think of your relationship with your spouse or a really good friend. You do not know their heart. No one knows a man’s heart except the spirit within that man. But we do know what that person is like based on how they act, what they do, and what they say. We experience their emotions because they express them. The essence of a human is their heart, to which no other human can be united. But their actions are knowable and other humans can relate using actions. In the same way, we can understand God by his actions, his Energies, and seek to become like him in every way possible. We become gods by grace, but not by nature.

If you want to read more on this, check out the wikis. They are very interesting.


I find it most interesting that the teachers I was drawn to most in the Protestant church were those that expounded one or more Orthodox-leaning views. At times I was enthralled by teachers that taught doctrines opposed to those of the Orthodox Church but, as time went on, I steadily stopped listening to these preachers, finding the goal of their teaching to be unedifying. The teachers to whom I was most drawn and still am were C.S. Lewis, Timothy Keller, and N.T. Wright. All these teachers have expressed views of either the atonement or hell which are similar in some regards to Orthodoxy theology.

C.S. Lewis and Timothy Keller espouse views of hell that are quite different from those most often taught in the Protestant church. Both Lewis and Keller have explained that hell is a place locked from the inside. Hell is, in their view, not a prison system to which God sends those whom he dislikes to be tortured for eternity, but a state of mind in which a human chooses some good thing above God. That good thing ultimately cannot satisfy, and yet the human that clings to it keeps looking to that good thing to fulfill his deepest desires. In our own lives we see this in things like the worship of spouses and drugs. When we look to our spouses for our sense of meaning, as a sort of god, we grow impatient when they fail our expectations. We continually desire they replace God in our lives, and we are continually disappointed, since they cannot. Every time they fail some standard we have set, we make another loop in the cycle of expectation and disappointment. This cycle, if left unchecked, can go on for eternity and lead to insanity. Likewise with drug addictions, the addict seeks more and more pleasure from increasingly high doses of substances. Every time a high is reached, chemical changes in the brain make a larger dosage in the future necessary to achieve the same level of euphoria. Eventually, there won’t be enough of that substance on the planet to satiate one’s desire. A infinite cycle has been started. And the only end it to which it leads is dissatisfaction and turmoil.

I am reminded also of the character Ungoliant in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. For those who have read or watched tales of Middle Earth, Shelob and the spiders of Mirkwood are descendents of Ungoliant. Tolkein, a personal friend of Lewis, describes Ungoliant as a giant venomous spider that teamed up with Melchor, a Satanic archetype, to destroy the tree of life at the center of the city of the Valor. Ungoliant pounced upon the tree and sucked its dry, gorging herself upon its life, but receiving no life thereby. She became so large, in fact, that she frightened the powerful Melchor, who in his might had known little fear prior to that day. Later in the story, Melchor steals three of the most precious gems on earth out of jealousy for their glory. Ungoliant demands he give the diamonds to her that she might consume them. Unwillingly, he delivers two of them into her maw. But even after swallowing such beauty, she is unsatisfied. In the end, Ungoliant prowls the earth, seeking whom she may devour. But her hunger becomes so great that no food or glory or weight on earth can fill her. So, at the last, she consumes herself.

This is the view of hell espoused by Lewis and Keller, and one to which I was drawn as soon as I heard it. It made a lot more sense than the view of hell as a place where God is actively involved in torturing unrepentant sinners. Because, though I tried very hard over many years, and with a sincere heart, I simply couldn’t bring myself to love a god that would do that. Whenever I dwelt on a punitive idea of hell, I could no longer approach God by faith within my heart. I was separated.

What I did not realize at that time was that the view of hell to which I had ascribed through Keller was inconsistent with my belief in Penal Substitutionary Atonement. See, if God doesn’t torture anyone for eternity in hell against their will, then he didn’t need to stop himself from doing so by placing all that misery on Jesus at the cross. Jesus’ work saves us from hell. In PSA, Jesus went through hell so we wouldn’t have to. But if hell is not punitive, neither was the cross. Because Orthodoxy denies PSA, it likewise denies a penal view of hell. My beliefs from long ago were inconsistent with PSA, though at the time I did not take my belief about hell and apply it logically to my beliefs concerning the atonement. But God in his mercy helped me in his good timing.

I likewise have been drawn toward the teachings of N.T. Wright for many years. Both he and Keller explain Jesus’ salvific work in a more holistic manner than do the teachings of most others I knew at the time. They both explain salvation as a cosmic restoration of creation – all of it – and a reunification of the created order to God. (Just listen to how many times either of them uses the word “cosmic” in a sermon. It’s quite amusing actually.) Because of this, I was most intrigued to learn N.T. Wright denies Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I was not aware of this until I started studying PSA just a few months ago. But given Wright’s studies on the history of the Church and his cosmic view of salvation, his denial of PSA shouldn’t be surprising.

Now, I know there is some confusion as to what precisely Wright believes. While I have not read extensively on Wright’s musings on the atonement, I did see one video where he explained his view that I believe makes his doctrine clear. In that video the interviewer asked point blank “Do you deny Penal Substitutionary Atonement?” Wright responded by saying “Yes, I believe in Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but I deny the Anselmian view of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” He then went on to explain that the Jews of Jesus’ time were under punishment from God in the form of Roman rule. Jesus was killed by the Romans using crucifixion, thus bearing the wrath of God toward the Jews and, by extension, everyone who would believe in Jesus. But this view is entirely different from the view of PSA currently held. The Anselmian view explains that Jesus suffered an infinite punishment from the Father at the cross. But Wright’s explanation says Jesus suffered a finite amount of punishment. Really, the idea Wright is expressing is entirely different from what Anselm and Calvin taught and what most Protestants have believed for centuries. Though I do not know his heart, I would guess Wright believes PSA is false, but realizes that if he just comes out and says that point blank, he will lose a great part of his audience, and have less opportunity to help people understand why he denies it. So, for the time being, he has masked part of his belief for the benefit of others.

Interestingly, Wright and Keller appear to hold the opposite sides of the same coin. Wright denies PSA. Keller denies the hell that results from PSA. Yet I have never heard Wright say that he denies a punitive view of hell. Nor have I heard Keller says he denies PSA. To be logically consistent, though, these men must hold to the other’s belief. I look forward to seeing how their theology develops and/or is revealed in the future.


I have always been fascinated by mystery. Whenever I have run across a theological concept that baffles me, I study and study it and soak in its ideas and implications. I can’t get enough of it.  The Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, the Virgin Birth, the Eternity of God, the Omnipresence of God – I ate up these doctrines. After watching the Fellowship of the Ring in my teenage years I started reading Tolkein and Lewis extensively. I have loved all of Tolkein’s works, especially the Silmarillion, and greatly enjoyed Lewis’ Space Trilogy. These books and my love for the unknowable developed in me an appreciation of Mystery. I tried to understand the greatest concepts and ideas I could find. But when I did so I did not begin to think I was something special or that I had attained some level of knowledge beyond my fellow man. Actually, the opposite happened. I realized rather quickly in dwelling on these things in my teenage years that I simply couldn’t get it. My logic could only take me so far. There was an end to reason, and I had reached it. I took the road as far it went. I found myself consistently saying “I don’t know.”

Scripture and other forms of revelation only show us part of the picture of creation and of God’s nature. But even if God had written down for us every scientific detail and description of who he is and what he’s been doing for eternity, we still could not understand. As Jesus said to his disciples “I have many things to tell you, but you are not yet ready for them.” So too no human can ascend to God by his own will and understanding. God doesn’t leave us in the dark on purpose, but is patient, waiting until we are ready to receive more of who he is.

From these musings I realized I couldn’t expect to figure out how God did everything. I could at least understand part of how it worked. But for now I only see through a glass darkly. I do not yet know fully as I have been fully known.

When I began to study Orthodox theology, I soon came across their apophatic approach to explaining who God is. In this method, they say what God *is not,* as opposed to what he *is.* So while it is true to say God is love, the Orthodox will often respond by saying it is more accurate to say God is not evil. Speaking of God in positive terms is called cataphatic theology. Speaking of God in negative terms (saying what God is not) is called apophatic theology. This apophatic approach comes from the realization that there is much that has not been revealed to us and that there is much we simply cannot understand. Apophatic theology is a humble acquiescence to the mystery of God’s existence and ways, a form of divine worship in which we bow to the unknowable essence of the I Am.

This mystery is extended by the Orthodox to their understanding of the sacraments. They believe, contrary to Protestant belief, that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. How does this happen? They don’t have an answer. They recognize that Christ told us Communion was his body and blood, but they don’t know exactly how God accomplishes this. Unlike the Roman Catholic church, they do not hold strictly to the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Likewise, they recognize Baptism is not just a token of one’s faith in Jesus, but a participation in the death and resurrection of our Lord, a Pascha of the future and the past brought into the present.

In all of these things, the Orthodox recognize that we cannot approach God by rationalistic logic. Logic and reason only take us so far. The reduction of the Sacraments by the reformers to mere tokens or symbols was based in part on the Scholastic reasoning that had developed through the Medieval period. Today that rationalism is seen in naturalistic science which seeks to explain the entire created order through observation and reason. Science has provided us with many wonderful things. But naturalistic science assumes the natural, observable world is all that exists. It assumes only the material exists. It cannot, by its own definition, observe or experiment upon other dimensions or modes of being. It is limited. Much of the reductionism applied to the sacraments and the mysteries of God, however, is due to this rationalistic approach.

The Orthodox Church recognizes the mystery of God’s ways and worship him for it. They teach the Theosis of man into the image of God. They proclaim the doctrines to which I have held, though I did so then in an incomplete manner.

In my studies on Orthodoxy I keep finding myself saying “But this is what I always believed.” Orthodoxy is the full revelation of the partial faith I had in some areas and is the explanation to the questions with which I struggled with in others. In fact, the more I think about it the more I begin to see my journey parallel that of Israel. Under Moses, God gave his chosen nation a partial revelation of his will and character. He gave Moses the law to keep the people until the time of full revelation should come and to train them to recognize the Messiah when he appeared. In many ways, this describes my life in the Protestant church. I will be forever grateful to my shepherds there, but from it I did not receive a full revelation of God. There I was first taught how to begin to know God. I began to see his works in all of creation. I learned in part how to worship. I learned in part how to believe and trust him.

But when the fullness of time came God gave to me the fullness of his revelation. When once I understood in part, God in Christ demonstrated to me the entirety of whom he was and the intentions behind his actions. While I used to approach God with uncertainty, now I approach with full confidence in the knowledge of the Son. While I understood God wanted to save humanity, now I see he wishes to restore all things. While I used to offer the sacrifice of guilt, I now offer my very self. While I used to worship in part, now I worship in spirit and in truth. What I knew was like a tutor preparing me for the coming of the Messiah. But when the new comes, the old passes away.

Really, the Orthodox Church is God’s answer to every prayer I have ever prayed – my desire to be like God, my desire to seek him, my desire to know his love, my desire to understand his intentions, my desire to be united with him. In his mercy and perfect timing, he has delivered to me true faith and understanding and enlightenment in the knowledge of his Son, who is blessed forever. Amen.

Now I say with peace that I am not a stranger to God. I know him because he has shown himself to me. He is merciful to those that seek him. I am no longer a sojourner. I am home.

Third letter from a new catechumen

Second letter from a new catechumen

I am posting a few letters written by a new catechumen (not myself) named Matt.  They follow the spirit of this blog.  They are a glimpse into a person who is trying to make sense of conversion to Orthodoxy not only for family and friends, but also himself.  I didn’t edit them in any way.  They are his thoughts and his take on how to explain this new phase of his life.  I hope they are useful to you.

If you want to jump over to my own letters, try going here.

This is letter 2 of 3 from new catechumen Matt, on his journey into Orthodoxy.  Here’s the first.

Why I Became Orthodox pt 2. – Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is a theory of how God saves humanity. It seeks to explain (1) what problem God came to solve, (2) how the problem was solved, and (3) to what end goal God saves us. PSA explains that the primary issue facing humanity is the wrath and justice of God. God, being holy and righteous, will punish humanity at the last judgment for their sins by the eternal torments of hell. But God, in his love and mercy, sent Jesus to bear the penalty for our sins on the cross.

After a debate with an Orthodox friend of mine concerning Penal Substitutionary Atonement, I realized I needed to familiarize myself with its history and the arguments against it. My desire in doing so was to defend PSA and strengthen my faith in the doctrine. Surprisingly, my studies yielded the opposite result. In the space below I will outline some of the primary reasons for this change but, as with part 1 of this series, I will leave out a good many details for the sake of brevity. There will be time for holistic debate later. For now I am just setting the stage.

A. The History of PSA

My studies began by researching the history of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. What I found was quite unexpected. Before, I had always operated under the assumption that PSA was *the* theory of the atonement — that it was what Paul and the other New Testament writers believed and preached and was universally believed by the church from its beginning until today. But as I looked into its history, I quickly came to realize my assumptions were completely unfounded.

Penal Substitution had its origin in Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm was a Roman Catholic archbishop during the 11th century. His seminal work, Cur Deus Homo, expressed for the first time in the history of the church the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement. Anselm wrote that the problem Jesus came to solve was that mankind did not give God his due. Every time someone sinned, they incurred a divine debt, a debt in magnitude to the one to whom it was due. Because God is infinite, any sin against him requires an infinite payment. But man, being finite, has no way to pay. God does not forgive without payment, so man is without hope, lost until a savior should come. But God in his mercy sent his Son to make that payment for us. Only an infinite being could make an infinite payment, so he exacted that payment from himself. This is what Jesus accomplished at the cross.

Anselm was influenced in the development of this doctrine by many sources in his cultural context. Anselm lived within a medieval common law that had developed out of Germanic tribal law. The Germans assigned value to human life on the principle of weregild, the honor given by one’s standing in the tribal community. The higher one’s position, the higher the honor assigned. When a member’s honor was affronted, payment had to be made to restore that honor. In most circumstances, this payment was life. The exception to this rule was for slaves. If someone killed the slave of another, the offender had to make recompense by paying the value of the slave to the owner. Slave’s had no value in and of themselves because of their low position, but did have value to their master. If someone killed or offended the honor of a freeman, life had to be paid for life. Honor was life, so any damage to another’s honor required your very existence as recompense. To offend a king, by extension of the value placed on his position, demanded the highest payment of all. Anselm extended this model to God’s relationship with man, saying that, because God is of infinite honor, any sin against him requires an infinite payment, without which God will not forgive.

Five hundred years after Anselm, John Calvin took his ideas a step further, saying that the debt owed to God by mankind was one of punishment. God had to punish sin because he was just. And when man sinned, he incurred God’s wrath toward himself, since God hates sin. The only way to appease this wrath is to make payment. Because God is infinite, the payment made must be infinite. Man, being finite, could not provide such a sacrifice, so God in Christ provided it himself. For further details, check out the wiki.

When I discovered Anselm was the true progenitor of the system of belief I had thought had existed from the beginning of the church, I was greatly distressed. If in 1,000 years no Christian had held to this model of the atonement, how could I believe it was the true gospel? How could so many great men and women, filled with the Holy Spirit, have never come to a true understanding of Christ’s salvific work? How could the apostles that walked with Jesus not understand the gospel after Pentecost? How could an entire millennium of Christians been so wrong?

“But,” I hear the responding argument, “we know PSA is true from Scripture by the inspiration given by the Spirit. Besides, it takes a while for doctrine to develop. We couldn’t expect primitive Christianity to have developed a full understanding of everything in the Bible.” There are multiple problems with this line of thought. 

First and foremost, the argument claims it is by the Holy Spirit that we know how to interpret Scripture. But the Christians of every time had the Spirit, not just those here and now. According to Protestant doctrine, the Spirit gives understanding of Scripture to each believer individually. If this is the case, what would stop us from believing the Spirit would give a full understanding of Scripture and of God to every Christian in every place at every point in history since Pentecost? If the Spirit automatically gives right understanding to each Christian on their own, then each Christian should fully understand how Christ saves us from the Apostles until today. Thus, the Christians of the first millennium, and all the Orthodox from the beginning until today should have known PSA to be the truth and should have believed it. But this is obviously not the case. During half the history of the Church no Christian held to such an understanding of the atonement, nor has the Orthodox Church ever held to that doctrine. Thus, using the Protestant understanding of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we must question the rigor of PSA.

Second, the argument implicitly claims that doctrine develops, and that in a non-conciliar manner. Anselm, in his development of the Satisfaction theory, did so largely on his own. In an attempt to explain how salvation works to his flock, he drew a parallel to the society in which they lived. The way he explained the atonement did not mesh with the explanations given by the Fathers of the Church over the centuries prior to him. Over the five-hundred years after Cur Deus Homo his ideas steadily gained precedence until they were accepted de facto as the correct understanding of the gospel. So when John Calvin came in the 16th century and expounded the Penal Substitutionary theory, no one questioned his assumption that God demanded payment from man, though they might have debated the minutia of what sort of payment had to be made.

The problem with this story is that Satisfaction theory was a new doctrine. But doctrine does not develop. As I discussed in part one of why I became Orthodox, right beliefs were handed down by the Apostles and have been maintained to this very day. The ideas expressed by Anselm and Calvin were new ideas and not congruent with what had been taught and believed since the inception of the Church. Moreover, Satisfaction and Penal Substitutionary atonement were both created outside the Orthodox Church. Anselm published Cur Deus Homo in 1099, fifty years after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches split.

Perhaps one could argue that Satisfaction theory was just an extrapolation of what previously believed. If the word Trinity was just an extrapolation on what Christians had believed prior to that, why couldn’t the Satisfaction theory just be a more concrete explanation of what Christians had believed since the beginning? The problem with this claim is that the arguments used in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo were very different from the expressions of the atonement found in the preceding fathers. At times, explanations and further articulations on previously held beliefs are necessary. We can see this in the work of the ecumenical councils in defining with specific words how to understand Jesus’ relationship to the Father via the Nicene creed. The concept of Trinity was believed from the beginning of the Church, but it was not dogmatically given the name Trinity until the councils. But these councils were meetings of bishops and hierarchs in the Church to confront heresy and other widespread issues assaulting the Church. So, even if we say Anselm’s theory is just the solidification of what was previously believed – which is not the case – he did so in a non-conciliar manner. He did not do it in a manner which was inconsistent with Church practice, without the guiding work of the Spirit at work in the Church corporate.

As we discussed in our first post, rejection of conciliar doctrinal articulation ends in relativism. If doctrine develops outside this manner, how do we know which doctrine that developed is the right one? Do Seventh Day Adventists have all the right doctrine? Perhaps it is the Mormons? Maybe the Methodists? Which group has it right? Really, we have no way of telling. We are just blind men seeking for the light. “But,” I hear again, “the Spirit will help us know which doctrines are the right ones.” But again I must say “Which Spirit is the right one?” For these groups differ on more than just peripheral concepts. They at times hold to radically different foundational dogma, including doctrines on hell, election, the Trinity, etc. And I know of no one in the Protestant church who would say “Anyone in the Presbyterian or Lutheran or Baptist or any other Protestant church that disagrees with me is just not a Christian.” But if we believe the Spirit gives us right understanding individually, this would be the logical conclusion. If we believe the Spirit has given us right understanding from Scripture on doctrinal issues, we should deny the legitimacy of those who hold to different doctrines. We should believe they must be speaking from a different spirit, and not that of Christ Jesus. To not come to this conclusion is to say that (1) Christians do not have the Spirit, (2) the Spirit is divided against itself by providing different interpretations to different people, or (3) that the Spirit does not give understanding of Scripture on an individual basis. The lattermost of these explanations is the one to which I ascribe.

B. Love and Hate

In Penal Substitutionary Atonement, God is painted as being righteously angry at sin. Sin harms the glory of God, which is the greatest good, and must be dealt with. Therefore, because man sins, God punishes man, thereby justly condemning sin and upholding the worth of his glory. Because he loves us, he hates sinful men. Punishing mankind for sin is the most loving thing he can do.

There are two places at which this equation falters. Here, I will only deal with one. The argument above is that God punishes humans because he loves them. “Punishment,” in one understanding of the word, can indeed be loving. If I “punish” my son who has refused to eat all day by keeping him in his high chair until he has received sustenance, I thereby love my son. Though the action of restraining him is against his will and causes him discomfort, I perform the act solely out of a desire to provide for and love him. But the word “punishment” doesn’t really get across the right meaning here. The negative connotation associated with the word makes even loving actions sound harsh. The word “discipline” would be much more accurate. I discipline my son for his good, out of love for him. Sometimes discipline is unpleasant, but it is always done in love, and it always has the end goal of restoration and healing.

But the punishment of God in hell, as explained by PSA, is not discipline. It is only punishment. Its cause is purely retributive. Its end is only suffering. In the hell of Penal Substitution, God punishes people for their sins and never stops. He doesn’t do out of a desire to love mankind; he only does it to get back at us for the wrong we have done. Thus, God does not love mankind. He loves himself. He loves his glory. Therefore he punishes mankind to display his glory and to alleviate his wrath against sin. Loving discipline is always designed to produce repentance and to restore. Infinite torture does no such thing. It is not love.

The problem with this view is that it says God hates mankind. But we are told countless times in Scripture that God loves us. For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son. God shows his love in that he died for us when we were yet sinners. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. So if God loves us, why does he torture us for eternity? Here, PSA is inconsistent with Scripture.

Now, we must point out the obvious fact that those who hold to PSA also believe God loves us. They believe God punishing Jesus instead of us is the greatest display of this love. But when you combine this with the discussion above, you reach a rather confusing result. The dilemma is this: In PSA, the object of God’s wrath and love are one and the same — man.

But how can this be? How can one love and hate the same thing at the same time? Loving someone is wanting the best for them and working toward that with all your might. Hating someone is wanting the absolute worst for them and working to accomplish that. Hate and love are mutually exclusive. And yet, PSA seems to teach God hates and loves us simultaneously. He loves us beyond any doubt – Scripture bears witness to that. But PSA teaches God hates us because of our sin. The Orthodox do not and never have held to the doctrine of PSA. Nor do they hold to Sola Scriptura. But even for those who do hold to Sola Scriptura, the question eventually becomes: Which source are we to trust – the work of one man in the 11th century or the inspired word of God? PSA, even standing on its own theological framework, cannot stand firm.

C. The Payment That God Makes

This raises another question about God’s loving relationship with man. God loves man and wants him to be free from sin. God doesn’t want mankind to be condemned, but wants everyone to be saved. In PSA he sends his Son to take his wrath on the behalf of mankind. And yet, after God does this, his wrath still remains on some. But where is the logic in this? If God loves mankind, why would he not just remove his wrath from everyone? In PSA, God does that very thing for some people. So why not for everyone? Let me explain this further, considering both the Calvinist and Arminian approaches to this topic.

In the Calvinist view, God predestines to save those whom he foreknew — the elect. He sends Jesus to pay the penalty for the sins of these people, dying only for these select few. God chooses these Christians without any regard to anything they did or will do, on a purely impartial basis. The rest are left with an infinite debt to pay, but no way to pay it. These are the damned. But if God loves mankind, why would he not choose to save everyone? It was within his power. It was within his will. In the Calvinist view no one is saved until God sends Jesus to pay their debt and the Holy Spirit applies that work to the believer. Nor does anyone believe until the Spirit, without their permission, softens their heart. But God goes so far in Scripture to say that he longs that all might repent and be saved. So if God wants everyone to be saved, why doesn’t he just do it? Calvinism cannot answer this question. In this view, God is schizophrenic, or at best confused.

In the Arminian view, God does not predestine people to heaven or hell. God sends His Son for everyone. He pays the penalty for everyone that has or ever will live, giving everyone a chance to be saved. But if God took all his wrath against every human being out on Jesus, why does  anyone wind up in hell? After all, hell exists as a place for God to torture humans with whom he is angry. But he no longer has any anger against any of them. So why hell?

Perhaps one could answer that God took care of all their sins at the cross, but if they reject Jesus and refuse to accept him, God gets angry again, and that anger was not dealt with on the cross. But this denies a central tenant of PSA soteriology: the chronological transcendence of the atonement. In Protestant theology Jesus at the cross takes the punishment for every sin ever committed — past, present, and *future.* If Jesus did not die for future sins, no one who sinned at any point after Jesus’ death would be saved. That would mean every Christian born after Christ’s death is doomed to hell. So Arminians and Calvinists alike rightly hold that Jesus died for all sins throughout all time. Because God exists outside of time, he can apply Jesus’ work to any human at any point in history. But then if Jesus took the punishment for all future sins, did he not also die for the sin of rejecting him? Or did he leave that one out? If so, what about those who reject Jesus when they hear about him but later repent and receive the gospel — are they saved? Such a view is likewise incoherent. If we believe Jesus died for all sins, we must believe all are saved from God’s wrath.

In Orthodox soteriology, there is no such conflict between God’s desire and action in salvation. In Orthodox thought, God’s love for us drives his hatred of sin. Sin separates us from God. But God wants us to be united with him, to share in the love of the eternal three-in-one. We should not hold that God loves and hates us at the same time. That is oxymoronic. Instead, we should understand God’s wrath and anger in Scripture as being against sin, and existing, not to harm us, but to lovingly remove sin from us. Like loving discipline, God’s anger can seem harsh when not understood in its context. But after it is over and the dust settles, if you cooperate in and understand the discipline, you realize everything was done out of love and for your benefit. God is like a surgeon, bringing a scalpel down next to our flesh to cut off the cancerous growth of sin. For those who dread God and do not trust his accuracy and intention, they scream and kick and fight, thinking God means to hurt them, possibly even cutting themselves against the knife in the process. But for those who understand and trust God, while the process may still be painful, it is quicker and easier and brings healing. God loves you. Therefore he longs to remove sin from you, for sin separates you from himself.

C. Forgiveness

In Penal Substitutionary Atonement, God does not forgive mankind until just punishment is rendered. God, in his righteousness, demands payment be offered for his offended glory, and man is without hope. But Jesus takes the punishment in our place, allowing God to forgive us.

The problem here is with the word forgiveness. The word forgiveness means “to cease bearing anger toward someone or to cancel a debt.” But in the Penal Substitutionary model, God does neither of these things. God doesn’t stop being angry at us. God doesn’t cancel our debt. Instead, he placed the weight of both those things upon Jesus. Jesus bears our wrath and pays God what we owe him on the cross as a sacrifice in our place. And God will not forgive until Jesus performs this on our behalf. 

To forgive is to no longer hold something against someone else. But God doesn’t do this. He always punishes someone — either Jesus or us, either him on the cross or us in hell. There is no forgiveness. The debt is never cancelled. It is paid in full. This does not meet the definition of forgiveness. And yet PSA claims God forgave us *by* paying the debt for us. But this is not forgiveness. This is the opposite — this is holding a grudge.

What is more, God tells us to forgive the way he does. Paul commands we love one another as God in Christ loved us. But if Jesus does not forgive, instead demanding payment before he lets go of his grudge, shouldn’t we do likewise? Shouldn’t we demand recompense for every tiny slight and inflict pain for every harm done to us? Logically, we should. PSA adherents argue in response that we do forgive the way God does. We forgive knowing God will take vengeance for the wrongs done to us, either on Jesus at the cross or on the sinner in hell. But this is reading into Scripture an idea simply not present. Ephesians 4:32 and its context do not say we look should look to God’s pouring out of wrath on Jesus or them and therefore forgive. We are just told to forgive, leaving everything else to God.

D. The Faith That Saves

In Penal Substitutionary Atonement, we are saved from the eternal torment of God by grace through faith in the Son of God. Jesus’ work placates the wrath of the Father, but this is not applied until the believer has faith. It is by faith we are saved, this faith working by somehow uniting us to Christ and his death. But how exactly does this work? Why do we need to have faith in Jesus’ work to receive it? Is there some ontological necessity within us or within God that prevents either the giving or receiving of Christ’s work without faith? Perhaps God simply does not want to forgive until he is honored by the act of belief?

Think about it this way: If God emptied his judgment and wrath upon Jesus at the cross, he doesn’t have any left. Nothing else needs to be done. It’s gone. All of it. So why do we need to believe? Why would I need to have faith to receive something which is already finished? Really, I don’t need to receive it. God is the one who received payment, not me. Perhaps one could argue that we need to believe to receive and/or develop the righteousness of Christ. OK, that might be getting somewhere, but it doesn’t explain the foregoing wrath that must be quenched. If God’s wrath is extinguished in the sufferings of his Son, why do we need to believe for him to stop being angry at us? He’s already done being angry. Nothing else needs to be done. The cross already accomplished this. The only way to get around this issue is to say we do not have to believe to be saved, which is inconsistent with Scripture and Protestant teaching. 

In Orthodox soteriology, no such problem exists. Orthodoxy views salvation as the unification of man with God. God has invited all to come to him and desires that all should be saved. He has provided his Son as a means to remove our bondage to sin and death and re-stamp his image on mankind by the incarnation. The only factor now separating man from God is man’s unwillingness to approach him, the fear of death, and unbelief in his goodness. Some reject God simply because they love other things more; some because they want to grab as much pleasure as they can before they die; and others because they have been deceived to believe God is cruel and should be avoided. Belief is the cure to this disease and to all its symptoms. Belief in Jesus as the Son of God frees us from the bonds that hold us to sin and death. By faith we know God is the greatest pleasure. By faith we know eternal joys exceed the ups and downs of hedonism. By faith we know God is love, even as his Son has revealed. By faith all the barriers within us that separate us from God are removed.

In PSA, God is the reason people do not make it to heaven. God refuses to accept anyone until he dispels his wrath and makes man perfect. But in Orthodoxy this is not the case. In Orthodoxy, man is the sole cause of his own demise, not God. God in his love accepts all, but not all accept him. Jesus has made a way back to the Father, but few choose to walk that path to its end. There is much more to the Orthodox view of salvation which I do not try to express here. That would require a separate paper by itself. I hope the small revelations I have made thus far will suffice for the time being. If you begin to lose faith in PSA, do not thereby begin to believe God is not the savior of mankind. He is. But what he saves us from is much different in the Orthodox view. I hope to expound on the Orthodox view of salvation thoroughly as time passes. Should you desire more information speedily, let me know and I would be happy to provide some articles and books that can steer you in the right direction.

In the paragraphs above I have only given a brief sketch of why I deny Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Every point would require chapters to cover thoroughly. And entire books could be written about arguments of which I have not even made mention. God willing, there will be time for that later.

Second letter from a new catechumen

Letters from a new catechumen

I am posting a few letters written by a new catechumen (not myself) named Matt.  They follow the spirit of this blog.  They are a glimpse into a person who is trying to make sense of conversion to Orthodoxy not only for family and friends, but also himself.  I didn’t edit them in any way.  They are his thoughts and his take on how to explain this new phase of his life.  I hope they are useful to you.

If you want to jump over to my own letters, try going here.

mattMatt is a catechumen at St. Paul the Apostle Orthodox Church in Dayton, Ohio. Matt was born into the Pentecostal church where he attended for the first 17 years of his life. In 2008 he began the process of becoming a five-point Calvinist at Apex Community Church in Kettering, OH, where he remained until his conversion to Orthodoxy in November, 2014.

In this and the two subsequent papers, I seek to outline for my friends in the Protestant church why I converted to Orthodoxy. Beginning in September 2014, I began to dig deeply into Orthodox theology, and quickly realized I was on an inexorable path to the faith. Because of this, I spent a great deal of time discussing Penal Substitutionary Atonement, one of my primary reasons for leaving, from September until the time I departed Protestantism. Because there were only so many hours in a day, I could not address the totality of my convictions in normal conversation. Thus I drafted these documents to demonstrate, at least in part, why I converted to Orthodoxy.

Why I Became Orthodox pt. 1 – Scripture & Tradition

Thus far I have set the easel of the picture, but have not sought to fill the frame. Out of a desire to preserve friendship then, I will take up my brush to begin the broad foundational strokes, from which the image will flow. Previously, I gave hints as to the reason for my conversion, but have not as yet developed a full theme. Below and in other posts I intend to outline as a sketch the reasoning of mind and heart that drew me to the Orthodox faith, and the path upon which God has led me. What I say now is not meant to be a treatise proving one position over another, but an explanation of the road that led me to today. I will leave much out for the sake of brevity. There is a time for careful exposition of source documents and exegesis of Scripture. But for now I just want to tell a story. 

The Way We Read the Word

During the majority of my life as a Protestant Christian, I always approached the Bible with at least a small amount of uncertainty. When I tried to understand a passage, I realized a sense of overconfidence would be dangerous. After all, I was just one man approaching the Scriptures on my own. And what did I know? Very little, in fact. Because I knew this I consulted commentaries and sermons consistently and in great volume. I certainly did my fair share of thinking when I dug into the texts, but I always consulted people smarter, more holy, and more learned than myself. This strategy, I think, had a good balance of self-awareness and reliance on other believers.

Despite this, I was still never completely convinced my views on one thing or another were the right ones. Because, even though I consulted preachers and teachers and prayed and sought God, I was still the ones making the final decisions. Let me explain what I mean by this. When I listened to preachers, I often heard differing viewpoints on important matters, and I didn’t know whom I should believe. For instance, John Piper taught me God chooses whom he would save before he created humanity. But people like Billy Graham taught me God doesn’t choose one over another, but makes salvation possible for everyone. How could I know which of these teachers were right on this issue? Was there some standard by which I could compare their intent? They were both preachers I respected and in which I recognized a pastoral heart. Neither had any major sins that marred their ministry. Neither held to any beliefs I thought were heretical. But in the end I had to choose one or the other. They couldn’t both be right on this issue. They held to opposite views. So I was faced — both in this example and countless others like it — to choose which doctrine to believe based on my own reason and insight, the very thing I had hoped to avoid, knowing my sinful heart was prone to wander.

Now, I realize the Protestant answer to this dilemma is to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. After all, the Spirit has been given to the church “to lead you into all truth.” (John 16:13) I believed this then and believe this even more truly now. I consistently prayed that God would give me understanding of the words of Scripture through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But even still, I wasn’t certain I could accurately choose which view on election was the right one. Did God choose us and by divine providence and without permission change the hearts of the elect, or did he make salvation possible for every man and then let man choose him? Though the Spirit dwelt within me, I was uncertain who was right.

More than that, both these men possessed the Spirit of God. But despite this, they disagreed on a very central doctrine. This doctrine is more than a scientific inquiry into how things work; it speaks multitudes about who God is and what he is like. It tells us about God’s character and how we should relate to him. This is not some peripheral area of discussion about which we simply do not know. So whom am I to believe? I have the Spirit. Piper has the Spirit. Graham has the Spirit. If the Spirit leads us to truth, why do we disagree on fundamental points of the Christian religion?

Now, this debate wouldn’t be problematic if both sides said they were just expressing their own points of view; it wouldn’t be an issue of contention if they said they might be wrong. But they don’t; and they shouldn’t. Both sides of this debate in the Protestant church — the Arminians and Calvinists – are quite certain their view is the correct one. What’s more, both sides ardently claim their view is clearly expressed in Scripture. So who is right? Surely there are many great men and women of faith on both sides of the issue, all claiming to have the Spirit, and most displaying fruits of the Spirit. What is a man to do?

Ultimately, I had to decide for myself who was right. I had no standard by which to judge the competing claims or the people making them except my own logic. I had no basis by which to measure their doctrine except my own understanding of Scripture. But then I couldn’t be sure I believed the right thing. I was just one person in an ocean of ideas and dogma, tossed to and fro as one argument gained precedence over the other in my mind. Where was I to turn?

You see, in the end, my approach to understanding Scripture lead to relativism. I could only make a final decision based on my own logic. But the same goes for every other Christian on earth. And I certainly could not say the Spirit of God did not dwell in them. So if both I and other Christians had the Spirit, how could I reconcile the fact that we disagreed on central points of the Christian faith? There is only one Spirit, so why would the Spirit be leading individual Christians to different conclusions?

To answer this question, let’s take a step back and look at another controversial doctrine, one which was settled long ago.

Identifying Heresy

What if in the dialogue above we were actually discussing arguments for and against a definitively heretical belief? What if, instead of discussing election, we were discussing whether Jesus was actually the Son of God? This very thing has been at the center of heated debate during periods of church history. Today, the vast majority of Protestant Christians I know would declare without blinking that if you do not believe Jesus is the Son of God, you are not a Christian. But how do we know this is true? Was this always a foundational claim of the Christian Truth?

If someone did come to us claiming Jesus was not the Son of God, how would we prove them wrong? In the past, my first response would have been to show them passages in Scripture that prove the deity of Christ. I still fervently believe Scripture bears witness to this. But the problem with this approach is that those who deny the deity of Jesus use the Bible as their proof!

Here, I refer to Arianism, a heresy which came to the forefront of Church debate in the 4th century. Arius was a presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt who taught that Jesus was not co-eternal with the Father, but was a created being. In other words, Jesus was not God. He did not come up with this idea willy-nilly, but developed it from his reading the Scriptures:

“If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28)

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.” (Proverbs 8:22)

“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)

“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.” (Revelation 3:14)

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15)

“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8:5-6)

Arius taught, based on verses like these, that Jesus was the first of all created beings, a sort of demi-god; but not God himself. Of course, when you or I hear this we think “But this is totally wrong. How could he think this?” We think that way because we approach Scripture with a certain interpretation in mind. We have been taught certain Christological and Trinitariological formulations through which we read the Scriptures. In this case, the lens of our tradition leads us to the right conclusion. But what if we had the wrong teaching? What if we were taught to be Arian from birth until today? Naturally, we would interpret Scripture through the lens of what we had been taught. When confronting someone who had been raised in such a tradition, how could we prove them wrong? Proponents of Sola Scripture would appeal to Scripture, but so would the Arian. In the end, it would just be a Bible quote fest with no potential for ultimate conclusion. Both parties would be fully convinced they were right, but would have no means to defeat the arguments of their opponent. What is missed in this approach is the fact that both sides are arguing for different interpretations of the Bible. Both interpretations are based on respective traditions. Therefore, both sides are, from the beginning of the debate, arguing for the superiority of their tradition. But how do we know whose tradition is the right one?

How We Should Combat Heresy

The reason people like me and other Protestants I know believe Arianism to be heresy is because that is what we have been taught from birth. But what if we grew up in a family that held to Arius’ beliefs? How do we know what we have been taught is true or false? The answer is the Church. In the fourth century when Arius was out proselytizing the masses, the Church  called a council to deal with his teachings and other matters affecting the Church at that time. That council, the first ecumenical council of Nicea, denounced Arius’ teaching as heresy and demoted him from his position of authority within the church.

[We should note here exactly what heresy is. The definition of heresy is “to choose.” Heresy is the act of choosing what doctrines or what passages of Scripture you want to keep, and which you want to let go. The lesson we should learn from this is that we should always take the Christian faith holistically, without adding or subtracting from it.]

When the council made this decision, they did not just say “Well Scripture says Jesus is God, so you must be wrong.” They did utilize Scripture in defending their position, but their primary argument was that Arius’ belief did not flow from the Tradition handed down by the Apostles to the Christians of that day, nor did the Spirit within the Church conciliar agree with his claim.

You see, in a similar way to how Protestants claim the Spirit gives enlightenment of Scripture to each individual believer, so the Orthodox claim the Spirit maintains right doctrine from the beginning until now. So when this ecumenical council and others like it came to a decision, their decisions were binding authoritative interpretations of Scripture. For they, like Jesus, only spoke what they had already heard. Jesus spoke only what he heard the Father hear. Likewise, the Church is only to speak from the Tradition passed down through the generations, a Tradition established and maintained by the power of God working through the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit is indeed given to each believer to understand the Word. But this does not mean the Paraclete is given so each can try to understand everything by themselves. The Spirit is given to the Church Catholic. Thus, Scripture and all other components of Tradition are meant to be understood within the context of the Church. Outside the safeguarding walls of Tradition maintained by the Church, Scripture can easily be misunderstood. Few, if any, portions of the Bible are extremely simple, and all of it was meant to be interpreted through the Spirit. In the words of David Bentley Hart, the word of Scripture is the harp upon which the Spirit plays. If the Spirit is not present, the text of Scripture does not become the Word of God within the hearer. The Spirit dwells within each individual believer, but that does not mean Scripture is meant to be understood on an individual basis. Christ said that where two or three were gathered in his name, he would be there in their midst. Likewise, deep calls out to deep, and iron sharpens iron. Without the work of the Spirit in the lives of the Church Catholic, we would be unable to come to a true understanding of the Scriptures and of God.

The work of the ecumenical councils is the classic exemplar of the Spirit’s work in this conciliar manner. Accepting the teachings of these councils is extremely good and helpful. It saves us from much error, helps us understand the inner workings of reality, and creates in us a right belief about God’s character. It is because of these councils that Christians today have the doctrines of the hypostatic union and the trinity. But though all Christians agree with this Christology handed down by the first council, not all Christians hold to the other ecumenical decisions. They pick and choose which decisions to hold.

Take for example the decisions of the seventh ecumenical council on the use of icons (pictures) in worship. In the years preceding that council, a breach in unity had begun to form between iconoclasts, those who opposed the use of icons, and iconodules, those who wanted to use icons in worship. The council convened, discussed the issue, and came to the decision that the use of icons was good, helpful, and consistent with the reality of Christ’s incarnation. When God created the world, he called it “good.” And when mankind fell, God did not shrink from taking on a flesh to save us. Jesus is the icon of God, the image of God. Because God was willing to represent himself in such a manner, we should likewise not be afraid to make images in our worship of him. But, despite this decision, many in the Protestant church are afraid to use pictures in worship. I recall reading one chapter in J.I. Packer’s “Knowing God” which specifically argues against the use of icons in worship.

But how can we say this and still be consistent? If picking and choosing which parts of Scripture to believe is heresy, surely picking and choosing what to believe from the Tradition of teaching handed down from the beginning is equally as dangerous. Picking and choosing from Tradition implies the individual is the final authority in the church, the final arbiter of truth.

“But,” I hear the answer, “the Spirit gives us right understanding. So we do not need tradition.” But this runs into the problem I struggled with of which I spoke earlier. If the Spirit is at work to give each individual a correct interpretation of Scripture and of full revelation of Christ, why do Christians in possession of the Spirit disagree on important doctrines such as election? Also, taking the approach of Sola Scriptura, how are we to know that the teachings of men like Arius are indeed heresy? If the Spirit does work in this way, why is the Protestant church not unified? If the Spirit gives the interpretation, to which Spirit should we listen?

In fact, the Holy Spirit does give understanding to the believer, but not in the manner prescribed in Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura. God gives us the Spirit, but the Spirit is meant to be understood in the context of the Church. It is the Church conciliar that makes binding decisions on doctrine.


One objection to the discussion above is that the Protestant church does not do things solo. The majority of Protestant Christians rely heavily on the help of other believers and seek teachers more wise than themselves. I recognize this is true. I lived it myself. But because teachers in the Protestant church are not unified in doctrine, I could not, as a Protestant, know whether anything I believed was true. See, if I was the ultimate judge of what was true, anything could go. I could even wind up believing with groups like the Mormon church that Jesus is just another created being, and thus agree with the heresy of Arianism. What I needed was an authoritative exposition of Scripture. What I needed was Tradition.

What I believe you will realize is that, in practice, every Christian has a tradition. We all have a tradition through which we approach the holy Scriptures. We all have a teaching we have been given by which we interpret the texts. None of us, if we are honest, truly hold to “Sola” Scriptura. We do not use only Scripture to understand God. Our experiences, the teachings we are given, our logic – all these contribute to our understanding of God and of the Scriptures. I have read many authors who have argued that Sola Scripture, as commonly used today, has taken on an entirely different meaning than originally intended by Martin Luther. Luther, they claim, did not desire to do away with tradition, but to reform tradition, to take out from the true tradition the human additions which had accumulated over the years. Today, however, Sola Scriptura is often understood as the complete rejection of tradition. But tradition is inescapable.

Which Tradition?

From these thoughts and studies I realized I could never escape from applying tradition to Scripture and that, without a sure tradition, I could not have a sure understanding of God and of the Scriptures. So the question became, which tradition is the right one? Is it the Baptist tradition of which I then was a part? Was it the Pentecostal tradition in which I was born? Perhaps the Wesleyan church got a few more things right than I had admitted before. But what about the Anglican church? The liturgy there always seemed so inviting. Really, none of these alternatives seemed quite right. You see, in the back of my mind I had this nagging feeling that, if God truly loved the church, he would not allow her to fall into heresy. He would not allow her to be overcome by the gates of hell. But, I thought, the teaching I had received concerning the Roman Catholic church seemed to imply this. I had been taught, or had come to develop the impression, that the Roman Catholic church had forsaken true teaching on a rather universal level. It still contained the essentials of the Christian faith, but it had added such a multitude of human traditions that the central truth was at times unrecognizable. This is the teaching which was handed down to me.

But I had also been taught, or it had been implied, that the Roman Catholic church was indeed the Catholic church, the universal church, which had existed from the beginning of the Christian faith. I was also implicitly taught that the authority given to some Christians over others in the form of bishops was contrary to Scripture and that the practices of infant baptism and a multitude of beliefs held by the Roman Catholic church were entirely wrong and out of sync with God’s desires. But how could this be, since they had been practiced by the Roman Catholic church, as far as I could tell, from the very beginning of the Christian faith? How could God allow the church to fall into such disarray for so long – neigh on fifteen-hundred years? How could so many who possessed God’s Spirit get so much wrong? The answer I had been given, or at least had come to believe, seemed wholly inadequate. Surely God could not let his church fall to such a degree. Surely he would be faithful to his promise to not let the gates of hell prevail over his Church and to lead his Church into all truth. If God promised these things, how could he fail to do them?

These were the thoughts that began to flood my mind when I began looking into the Orthodox faith. Everywhere I looked I saw proof that the beliefs they hold to today are the same they had believed since the beginning. Of course their understanding had increased in some areas and their form of worship had found fuller expression at times (i.e. Christology vis-à-vis the ecumenical councils, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom developed in the 4th century, etc.), but overall there is no sign of a break in the continuity of theology or doxology. They believe and worship in the 21st century the same way they did in the 1st. They certainly expanded on their liturgical rites, especially after persecution stopped during the reign of Constantine, but this was just a fuller manifestation of the beliefs that had already existed in the Church. In fact, they believe now what has always been taught and believed in the Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox claim that true teaching does not change, and they live this by their continuity. The Orthodox Tradition, as expressed by St. Vincent of Lerins, is that which “has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” The Orthodox do not develop doctrine as time goes on, but act as curators of the faith which was handed down once and for all to the apostles. At times they seek to more fully articulate the Orthodox faith, but this is done in response to heresy, and is never done on an individual basis. Also, the only way for an extrapolation on a current doctrine to be considered doctrine, it must first be recognized by an ecumenical council. In this manner, the Orthodox seek to fulfill Christ’s promise that the Spirit would lead the Church into all truth. When I approach the topic of tradition with the expectation that God will faithfully maintain true teaching and practice, I am drawn to the continuity of the Orthodox Church. There I see his promises fulfilled.

What is the Church?

The dialogue thus far has raised the questions “What is tradition?” and “What is the Church?” The Church is the living Tradition of faith handed down from the Apostles and maintained by the Spirit of Truth from the beginning until today. It is an unbroken stream of right doctrine and right worship to which individuals unite themselves. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and she cannot be divided. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The Orthodox Church claims to be the one true Church, having maintained the Christian faith from the beginning until today, and will continue to uphold this faith through the return of Christ. They make an exclusive claim to right doctrine and worship. But this does not mean they do not recognize the truth that exists in other traditions. The Orthodox say “We know where the Church is. We do not know where the Church is not.” What they mean by this is that they know the Orthodox have right teaching and worship. They know the Orthodox faith is the faith that has been handed down from the beginning. But they also recognize that there are many who claim to be Orthodox who are not truly joined to Christ and to his Bride.  The wheat always grows up with the tares. Likewise, they recognize that there will likely be many who are saved who are not of the Orthodox Church.

This view is somewhat similar to how I was taught to view Roman Catholicism in the Protestant church. I was taught the Roman Catholic church had added much to what Scripture said. The last judgment would reveal that many in the Roman Catholic faith were and are Christians. But the beliefs and practices of the church of Rome are not as helpful in producing saving faith. Now I believe that, generally speaking, the Roman Catholic church has added man-made traditions to the Tradition of the church, whereas the Protestant church has subtracted from that Tradition.

Could I have been saved in the Protestant church? Yes, of course. But I have a much better chance of knowing God, which is salvation, when I am correctly taught who he is. From this right belief, I worship in Spirit and in Truth. The other three posts in this series – Parts 2 and 3 and the Epilogue – will explain other areas in which I have become convinced the Orthodox Church has true teaching.

As I’m sure you can see, this is just a preliminary overview of my journey and the arguments for and against Sola Scriptura and Tradition. Much more could be said on every point, and I have purposefully left out a large number of points for the sake of brevity. The thesis I hope you derive is this: convinced of the loving-kindness of God, I cannot believe he would abandon his Church to the whims of heresy and human volition. In his providential love, he would guide his Bride into all truth, anchoring her from the storms of deception which would assault her. When I examine the existing Christian traditions, Orthodoxy comes out as the clear winner, beautifully displaying this loving faithfulness over the centuries, combating heresy and remaining true to doctrine, acting as a curator of the Word of Truth. I became Orthodox because of the character of God.

Letters from a new catechumen

Another letter

Yeah, I know a year ago I said there would be no new letters, but something happened recently that I wanted to capture. We just baptized our fourth child, and for the first time my father came to an Orthodox service. He’s never encountered Orthodoxy in the flesh, as it were, and really hasn’t read anything about it either as far as I can tell. He’s been leaving it alone, and we’ve been soft peddling around him. Well, going to an Orthodox infant baptism service has a way of challenging my pentecostal, anabaptist father like probably nothing else could. Well, maybe an Akathist to the Theotokos.

Anyway, after about a week of bubbling over what he saw he started sending some questions. Out of respect for his privacy I won’t post his emails without his permission, but I wrote him a rather lengthy response that I wanted to save. The context should be discernible based on what I wrote.

Here it is:

Perhaps I was unclear in what I was saying. Let me try another tack. The fundamental issue between Protestants and Orthodox is the issue of Scripture and Tradition. The formal principle of the Reformation was Sola Scriptura, the Scriptures alone as the authority for Christians. Luther used this philosophy as a means of divesting from the Catholic Church. His reasons for doing this aside, the idea that Scripture stands somehow apart from the tradition of the Church was a novel idea. You can’t find this in Scripture or in the thinking of the Church up to that time.

This is such a fundamental to Protestant thought that it’s almost impossible to think about Christianity aside from it. I know I had to struggle for a very long time to see how the philosophy not only undermines Christianity, but actually undermines the very Scriptures we all love. As a start it is good to at least see that Sola Scriptura is not the only way to be “Biblical”, not the only way to love Scripture, not the only way to respect the authority of Scripture. We care for Scripture best when we recognize that we must fight diligently to preserve its original intent, and equally important, the context.

The context of Scripture is the life of the Church. If we don’t know what the Church did, and how it understood Scripture, we will not understand Scripture. We will instead misappropriate it into our own theological constructions that bear little resemblance to the original.

The Tradition that Orthodoxy talks about is the whole teaching of the apostles, which includes Scripture as the primary piece. We don’t pit Scripture against Tradition. They are not two separate things. Nothing trumps Scripture, but Scripture doesn’t give us the entirety of the life of the Church. We know from the historic records that remain from the early Church, as well as common sense, that there is much to being Christian that isn’t codified in Scripture. The Scriptures are obviously not an exhaustive how-to manual on Christianity. Also, as hard as this may be to understand and accept, they aren’t the end-all-be-all for Christian truth.

The Scriptures didn’t fully exist until almost 70 years after Christ, and they weren’t universally recognized as Scripture for almost 300 more years. During that time the Church thrived under the persecution of Rome and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Nowhere in that time will you find an individual approach to Scripture as a means to finding truth. They had been delivered the truth, and they guarded it as a common deposit. And during that time they had episcopal structure, prayed with the dead, baptized infants, used iconography, understood the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ, etc. The very men who collected and preserved Scripture and proclaimed the most core tenets of our faith practiced a Christianity that is almost unrecognizable to the modern Protestant.

One thing I had to recognize as absolutely true is that Scripture is read with widely differing interpretations. You read Scripture and see the doctrines and practices of the Assemblies of God. A baptist reads them and finds perseverance of the saints and the cessation of the charismatic gifts. A calvinist finds predestination. Lutherans find infant baptism and the salvation army finds no baptism whatsoever. The episcopalians determined that the prescriptions against homosexuality have been misunderstood and are no longer binding today. The Anglicans just voted to allow women bishops. The Catholics see purgatory.

How is this all possible? Simple. We don’t read Scripture. We read Scripture in our given tradition. You have a tradition that has been given to you, and no matter how much you try to read Scripture with fresh eyes, you will see it in a context that guides your interpretation. Go read John 6:25-70. It used to be that I read that and just thought about how Jesus is the spiritual food of salvation. Now I read it and I see clearly the real presence of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. It’s plain as day, but most Protestants will deny that all day long, not because the text isn’t clear but because it collides with their tradition. This was the universal understanding of the Church for the first 1500 years.

What we really have is competing traditions (understanding of the faith). The Orthodox tradition has a lineage and a history. It is stable and traces itself back to the apostles. It is verifiable. The Protestant situation is schism after schism after schism. No one cares whether it is verifiable or not. Once Luther unleashed Sola Scriptura, anyone had the right to disagree about the meaning of Scripture and walk away. That’s why we have 40,000 denominations today. Protestants lack any effective mechanism to provide unity and resolve conflicts in doctrine. Because of that we’re now taught in college that only the “core” things really matter. Of course, we can’t really say what those core things are exactly. But basically it’s that Jesus loves us and will save us. Everything else is contested. That situation is unacceptable to me.

It’s not possible that we can have a live and let live attitude when it comes to the truth. We must look at the working of God in history and let it inform our practice of the faith. We have to respect the way Christianity has been defended and codified by men, in every generation, led by the Holy Spirit. This isn’t such an alien practice, after all. Despite the railing against history and tradition, Protestants have their own councils, and write their own creeds.

Look at the history of the Assemblies for a great example. The original group contained trinitarians and also modalists (a heresy). When some began baptising in only the name of Jesus it caused a panic and at the fourth general council [here I’m referring to Assemblies of God General Councils, not the Ecumenical councils] they had to formally address the issue. The trinitarians were the majority, and drew up formal statements supporting the historic trinitarian doctrine. A third of the members left and formed oneness pentecostal churches. You can either take that as a cautionary tale about schismatic action, or a demonstration of how the Holy Spirit works through the consensus witness to preserve the truth. Both are true.

So right in your own denomination you can find historic definitions of the faith (though only 100 years old). You find creeds. You find history. Denying that action of the Holy Spirit in the Assemblies would open the door, again, to the modalist heresy, and so many others.

I like to work with what’s called the Vincentian Canon. This is a nice little truth checker first written out by St. Vincent of Lerins in the 400s. It makes a lot of sense. He says:

“Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”

That’s the standard I’d like to use in further discussions. Whether we are talking about the views of Scripture, the Eucharist, saints, icons, baptism, or Mary, let’s look for what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.

Focusing just on Sola Scriptura, here’s some questions I have:

  1. Where is SS found in Scripture? My contention is that it is not found in Scripture, and is anti-Scriptural.
  2. Where does Scripture say that it is the sole authority for Christians? I cannot find this sentiment anywhere in Scripture. Instead I find the opposite. ex. 2 Thes 2:15
  3. What does Scripture say is the foundation of the truth? In 1 Tim 3:15 Paul says the Church is the foundation and pillar of the Truth, not written Scripture.
  4. How do we know what writings comprise Scripture? Answer: the consensus witness of the historic Church. In other words, Tradition! Otherwise you can choose whatever you want. This is interesting, because that’s EXACTLY what Luther did.
  5. Does Scripture say to respect or avoid tradition? Tradition is used throughout the New Testament. When it is used by Paul it’s almost always a positive thing. The NIV translation does a really dirty thing. When the greek work paradosis is used in a negative way they translate it as “tradition”. When it is used in a positive way, they translate it as “teaching.” Yikes! Paradosis just means “the content of instruction that has been handed down.”

And some verses of Scripture I find illuminating:

2 Tim 2:2 – The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Note that it doesn’t say “write these things down to pass them on.” That is the tradition process described perfectly. Passing on the faith is an active thing from generation to generation, and relies upon the consensus witness of the Church, not an individual reading of Scripture.

1 Cor 11:2 – Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.

Phil 3:17 – Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.

Phil 4:9 – The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

There’s the tradition process again.

2 Tim 1:13-14 – Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.

2 Thes 3:6 – Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.

Again, no mention of just letting Scripture be an authority.

And my favorite…

2 Thes 2:15 – So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.

That’s enough on Sola Scriptura for now. Let me quickly address some of the other things you mentioned that bothered you.

You said, “No where in scripture does it say we are saved though Christ and tradition or history.” That’s true, but as I hope I’ve shown, tradition is the passing down of the apostolic faith. It let’s us know how to read Scripture and live as part of His body authentically. We are saved by Christ, but people can’t be saved unless they hear, and they should hear the truth. That is the traditioning process.

You said, “There are major biblical issue in my reading from the articles off the Greek Orthodox website.” I thought the same when I first started looking at the doctrinal differences, but when I spent time with each one of them I found that there were no issues I couldn’t resolve. Hopefully we can work through some of them together, and I can at least show you my thinking, even if in the end you cannot agree.

You said, “ie. praying to Mary or needing her to intercede for us before God.” Mary is a tough nut to crack for most Protestants, but here again there is no issue that can’t be resolved. This email is already too long as it is, so I won’t go into a full defense of the relationship of the living and the dead in Orthodox thought, or the place of Mary. I’ll leave it to this. Mary is not co-equal with God. She is not a co-redemptrix. We don’t hold the same sort of doctrinal ideas about her as the Catholic church does. She is considered to be a special woman, the mother of God, blessed among women, and she is asked for her intercession. She is included in some of our prayers, but she doesn’t feature very prominently or in ways that somehow conflate her with God. We have evidence of prayers to Mary as early as 250AD. I can write more on this in another email.

You said, “Infant baptism has no biblical substance or backing.” I very much beg to differ on this, and this is another email altogether. Scripture is friendly to this practice, and we have record of infant baptism going all the way back to the first generations of Christians. I’m sorry to say that the modern evangelical take on baptism, following in the theological thought of the radical Reformers, is very much out of step with the historic understanding and practice of baptism. Even today you still find infant baptism in all Protestant denominations that follow from the magisterial reformers (Luther + Calvin).

You said, “holy water has nothing to do with salvation or my living a successful Christian life.” Water used in baptism is holy. Baptism has everything to do with salvation and a successful Christian life.

You said, “Paul would disagree with saying the gifts of the Spirit are not necessary today or ended with the apostles.” I don’t know of any Orthodox bishop or theologian that holds with a cessationist view. The Orthodox Church is full of the Holy Spirit and miracles. There are some people that have a gift for speaking in tongues, but it is not practiced in the liturgy.

And finally you said, “spitting on the ground at the dedication represents no power in defeating Satan or demons.” Don’t get caught up on a specific action. God works how He wills. The spitting has cultural significance to Orthodox Christians (and Jews). It’s an insult and repudiation. We repudiate the devil in a really offensive way. Is the spitting particularly important? No, but the repudiation by a child of God, a member of the Body of Christ, is devastating. I’ve been in plenty of pentecostal services where we “stomped on the devil.” Do demons really hate shoes hitting the floor hard? On another level, the Orthodox Church is very much aware of the effect of the use of the physical in the actions of God. So, sometimes God acts through water, and we call it holy. Sometimes God acts through other objects. It’s ok. It’s all throughout the Bible.

My goal is to articulate as clearly as I can reasons for being willing to have an open mind. It took me years to process these things, and the most I can really do for you is to try to help you see that there’s another side to the argument. Maybe you will be able to rest easier knowing that we’ve thought this through thoroughly, and have strong reasons for our decision to become Orthodox. I’d love for you to become comfortable enough with Orthodoxy to be able to participate in the Holy Week + Easter services. You haven’t been through an Easter until you’ve been through Orthodox Holy Week.🙂

Love you,

[Ed: For further reading here’s an interesting post recently made on the same subject, on the blog Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy:]

Another letter

The Final Letter

Hey there.  Thanks for taking a look at these Letters.  If you’ve looked through past posts and gotten anything out of what I wrote then God bless.  If you haven’t, try going back to the beginning and experiencing the research I went through as I began expressing my conversion story from Protestant to Orthodox, first to family, then to friends, and finally publically.

I’ve been thinking for a while now about what to do with the blog.  I’m now Orthodox, and while I’m very much still working on expressing my thoughts on Orthodox conversion issues, I don’t think that this anonymous platform can get me where I want to go.  At the same time I’m loathe to change things up.  This stands as a nice slice of my life, and I had good reason for presenting things the way I did.  I don’t really want to change that.  The content here is still good content.  I would probably write it differently now, but I stand behind it as is.

So, I’m saying sayonara to this blog.  I’m leaving it in place, as is, for anyone who wishes to look at the content.  I’m moving on to other blogs (yes, plural), podcasts, and other ventures.  I am engaging more heavily in bringing Orthodoxy to the awareness of others as I’m capable.  I’m not going to point off to the other things I’m doing (in the spirit of anonymity), but you can find me easily enough if you really want to.  Chances are you already have and just don’t know it.

Thanks for reading along with me on my journey.  I will still respond to comments, but don’t expect any further posts here.

The Final Letter

In Defense of Repetition

1631 Book of Psalms
1631 Book of Psalms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I’ve had a few conversations with people who found a distaste for Orthodoxy with a common theme, that of repetition.  You almost have to say it with a captial R, dripping with disdain.  After all, isn’t repetitious worship a major cause of the ills of Catholicism and high church protestantism.  What more do you need than Jesus’ words against “vain repetition” to tell you how destructive it is.  In the charismatic tradition I was raised in we wouldn’t be caught dead engaging in repetitious services.  We would hold only disdain for those poor Christians who actually read through a service book on a Sunday morning.  That’s dead religion.

Well, not so fast.  Allow me to rise in defense of repetition.  The disdain found in most of evangelical protestantism for repetition is as puzzling as it is knee-jerk, and yet this is such a common complaint that almost any convert has probably raised it, and any Orthodox responder has encountered it.  How many protestants of the free worship variety are willing to take an honest look at their own practices and recognize the repetition in them?  How many will take a fresh look at the effects and uses of repetition and see the positive benefits?  Not many, I believe, but this is a mistake.  Protestants who think that repetition is inherently spiritually dangerous and that their own practices are far from repetitious are wrong on both counts.  Rather, repetition is both beneficial and in fact necessary in the Church.

Repetition: By Any Other Name

First, let’s consider the common thought among evangelicals that they are anything but repetitious.  Feeling that extemporaneous actions equal true worship or true relationship, they strive to pray extemporaneously and do unplanned actions during worship.  However anyone who has been an evangelical or been around them for long will quickly realize that the extemporaneous prayer is anything but.  Themes and phrases are repeated.  Tones and patterns are very common.  In fact it’s a common complaint among evangelicals (I know this from first and second hand experience) that their prayer life has become something substandard because they feel it is too repetitious.  Extemporaneousness becomes a burden that’s impossible to bear.  Even when you strive to remove a set structure, or reject structures of the past, new structures blossom in their place.

The same is true with the corporate worship of an evangelical church.  If you are honest, how much actually varies from week to week, or even from year to year?  Sit down any evangelical of some duration and ask them how the order of service at their church will go.  They will be able to give you with some exactness what will happen on Sunday.  I always found it somewhat humorous that even the “unplanned” elements of a charismatic service will fall into a schedule and begin to happen at very consistent times.  I don’t need to belabor this point.  Merely recognizing and accepting that in fact repetition is just as common in evangelical prayer and worship as it is in Orthodox (or Catholic or any highly liturgic church) can help to dispel the automatic negative reaction.

Repetition: A Necessity

Repetition appears to actually be a necessary component in human relationships.  This can be positive or negative.  For someone who has emotional or relational disfunction this might be evident in serial abusive relationship.  In a healthier light a relationship that is functioning properly gains stability through repeated actions and experiences.  In any case you find that repetition is innate to human nature in our interactions with others.  Good or bad, repetition is everywhere.

Even when people intentionally try to remove repetitious elements in their Christian activities they are unsuccessful.  The Reformation saw a beginning of intentional disconnecting with the immediate past, and a process of reinvention that has only sped up over time.  While Luther and Calvin didn’t see themselves as re-imagining Christianity, that is exactly what is attempted by many modern Christians.  In some grander irony, though, intentionally shunning the historical actions of the church and coming up with something “fresh” does not remove repetition.  New traditions arise in their place.  Remove the creed, and a new creed will come up.  Remove old music, and a new standard line up emerges.  Fight the old prayer patterns and lo and behold, there’s a new pattern.  The result of removing a tradition isn’t the removal of tradition, it’s just the loss of the richness of what had been there before.  Orthodoxy has an old, rich soil of worship that has been well cared for.

Repetition is a very hardy breed.  It’s impossible to kill.  It’s something that has been with us as far back as we can see in Scripture.  Old Testament worship was strongly repetitive.  The hymnography of the Hebrews (Psalms) was highly repetitive.  Human nature shows itself to be consistent over long periods of time.  There’s nothing new about those patterns under the sun.  One must come to the conclusion that repetition is inherent in our nature due to its omnipresence.

Repetition: Foundation for Healthy Relationship

While much maligned, repeating activities and actions with a loved one is a great tool for building a relationship.  Any married couple can tell you after some years of marriage how their spouse will act in given situations, and while that is not always seen as a benefit it’s really is the foundation to a relationship, because it provides stability.  While variety provides nice interest, it’s the repetitious elements of a relationship that build connection.  Every time I leave the house I make sure and tell my wife that I love her.  I’ve repeated these words and this actions countless times, and yet my wife has never told me to stop being so repetitive.  “I love you” never ceases to be helpful in maintaining our relationship.  It would be ludicrous, in fact, to insist that terms of endearment must be new every time.  How many widows and widowers take great comfort in remembering the repetitive aspects of their dead spouse’s life.  They remember the way they drank coffee, or read the newspaper, or sang that one song over and over.  Those actions repeated over and over are the connectable ones.

The same is true for God.  If you think that God is impressed by your unique expressiveness then you misunderstand his changeless nature, and the worship structure that he set in place.  If you think that he is turned off by your repetitive actions then you malign the image you were made in the likeness of, that gave you the need for repetition.  The Old Testament shows repetition in worship.  Jesus participated in this repetitive worship structure, and so did the apostles.  Apparently repetition is a hallmark of relationship to God, just the same as it is with humans.  An ever changing worship only results in instability.

One possibility to consider is that while all this attention to finding new expressions of worship and life that is so prevalent in evangelical circles may go a long way to promoting interest, but completely fail at promoting growth.  Growth in the Christian life is not served by a continuous stream of unique experiences, any more than learning is served by this.  As a homeschooling parent I get to see this first hand, and I’m sure teachers would happily concur.  You introduce new concepts to children, but it’s the repetition that let’s them master the concept.  If every school day you just focus on the new, and never look back at older concepts, you will never help that child progress.  Our relationship with God cannot be dumbed down to just education about God, but certainly you can see how frequent, shared, common experiences are a healthy building block for relationships.

Repetition: Aid to Worship

Orthodox worship is repetitious in many ways.  Not in all, to be certain.  You could definitely make the case that Orthodoxy has less repetition than many protestant churches, though that might stagger the imagination.  When you dig into the mechanics of Orthodox worship you’ll be surprised by the amount of variation from day to day to week to week.  However, there is no doubt that many elements of the divine liturgy are repeated.  This pattern is quite Scriptural however.  The worship of Israel was extremely liturgical and repetitious.  Just like Orthodox worship, it has patterns and seasons that occur over time.  Just like Orthodox worship (and protestant too) it has elements repeated every day or week.  Even entire services are repeated every week.  Just like Israelite worship we have feasts, and just like Israelite worship we have fasts.  The similarities between the two are striking.

Let us be clear, however.  This is a good thing!  God instituted this form of worship for good reason.  It promotes healthy worship.  Having a clear pattern to our worship allows us to engage the changeless God in a way that is appropriate to Him, and not focusing on the new and innovative, which promotes us.  The aim of the modern evangelical church is to use modern marketing ideas to attract people.  The aim of ancient Christian worship is to rightly praise God.  Let’s not forget the model par excellence of praise found in Scripture, in Isaiah 6:

6:1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the sovereign master seated on a high, elevated throne. The hem of his robe filled the temple. 6:2 Seraphs stood over him; each one had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and they used the remaining two to fly. 6:3 They called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord who commands armies! His majestic splendor fills the entire earth!” 6:4 The sound of their voices shook the door frames, and the temple was filled with smoke.

You can see a mirror image in Revelation 4:

4:8 Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around andinside. They never rest day or night, saying: Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful, Who was and who is, and who is still to come!”

4:9 And whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the one who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 4:10 the twenty-four elders throw themselves to the ground before the one who sits on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever, and they offer their crowns before his throne, saying:

4:11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, since you created all things, and because of your will they existed and were created!”

Three huzzahs for repetition.  Better yet, three “Holy”s.  One of the most foundational prayers in Orthodoxy, that you’ll find repeated in most any service and in the private prayers of the faithful, is known as the Trisagion (which is a greek word meanly “thrice holy”) prayer.  In part it says:

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Glory to thee, our God, glory to thee.

O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

All-holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God, visit and heal our infirmities for thy Name’s sake.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

That is a profoundly beautiful and repetitious prayer.  Notice the obvious patterning of the worship of heaven in it.  It rings with the Holy, Holy, Holy of heavenly worship!  You might also be interested to find out more about the Jesus Prayer.

Repetition: The Ancient Paths

An obvious benefit to repetition is that it aids in memorization.  This seems obvious, but I don’t think many people are also connecting the role of repetition in creating habits, good or bad.  Probably most people have heard that it takes 21 days of repetition to form a habit.  The reality of habit formation is much more complicated.  The duration of repetition to form a habit actually varies highly depending on the task.   The amount of time it requires to form a good habit can be as short as 18 days or as high as 254!  On average, it takes 66 days to reach a good habit plateau for our behaviors.  But for the diligent habit creator, what an amazing benefit a habit provides.  After the habit becomes ingrained it becomes somewhat automatic.  No more thought is required to enact the habit, and it becomes part of your makeup and hard to break.

The Orthodox Church establishes a daily, a weekly, a seasonal, and a yearly pattern to it worship, and given time this habit or worship becomes part of who you are.  The Church is famously conservative in maintaining the pattern of worship and prayer that has been handed down to it.  The liturgy is ancient.  The prayers are ancient.  When you go through the divine liturgy or pray the trisagion, you are echoing the lives of the saints from all ages.  Your worship is their worship.  Your prayer is their prayer.

In Jeremiah 6:16 it says:

The Lord said to his people: “You are standing at the crossroads. So consider your path. Ask where the old, reliable paths are.  Ask where the path is that leads to blessing and follow it.  If you do, you will find rest for your souls.”

Those who rail against the repetitious, the traditional, rail against connecting with those who have done this Christian life before, who know where the reliable paths are.  The modern protestant historical amnesia is one of the great tragedies of Christianity.  If you want to know how to pass along the faith, consider Orthodoxy, which has successfully passed on the faith unbroken for 2,000 years.  It is the envy of all when it comes to teaching the Christian life.  Protestants should take note.

Repetition: Essential to Community

One critique of Protestantism that you’ll hear from Orthodoxy is that it promotes individualism, not community.  I won’t spend time defending that critique, but rather I’d like to point out that repetition is an absolutely critical part of building community.  If you want a group of people to build relationship they must spend time together in shared action.  How can a group of people possibly come together to worship without actions that they all know by heart, and how can they know an action by heart if it is not repetitious.  The more unique an experience or activity is, the less it promotes community among a group.  The word community refers to “those who share things in common.  I’ll assert it again, you cannot have community with repetition.

I find it interesting that inside evangelical communities you can find this desire for communal action bubbling to the surface time and again, and resulting in the re-creation of the very elements of ancient Christianity that are often explicitly denied.  One such element is a creed.  Commonly evangelicals will decry the use of a creed (which is bizarre), and yet they consistently re-create their own creeds over and over (and over and over).  They decry liturgical worship, but they promote it within their own denominations by promoting certain patterns and actions.  They reject written prayers and end up with just as strongly pattern prayers that remain unwritten.  The need for pattern in creed, liturgy, and prayer is unspoken but cannot be suppressed.

Shane Claiborne
Shane Claiborne

And you know, it may not even be so unspoken any more.  Witness the efforts of Shane Claiborne and others to recreate a common experience suitable for western/protestant Christians in their Common Prayer book.  You can even get a pocket edition to take to church with you.  :o)  By the way, I mean no disrespect to Shane.  I own and have read most of his books, and I really appreciate his desire to live rightly with God.  We could all strive to be more like him in that.  I only wish that he would stop trying to recreate monasticism and common experience, and join the continuing life of the Apostolic Church that he obviously longs for.  Shane, come home!

Psalm 136

I’ll leave the matter of repetition now with one of the works of musical beauty inspired by God, in a sense a conversation of God with Himself, which is also a monument to repetition.

136:1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,

for his loyal love endures.

136:2 Give thanks to the God of gods,

for his loyal love endures.

136:3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords,

for his loyal love endures,

136:4 to the one who performs magnificent, amazing deeds all by himself,

for his loyal love endures,

136:5 to the one who used wisdom to make the heavens,

for his loyal love endures,

136:6 to the one who spread out the earth over the water,

for his loyal love endures,

136:7 to the one who made the great lights,

for his loyal love endures,

136:8 the sun to rule by day,

for his loyal love endures,

136:9 the moon and stars to rule by night,

for his loyal love endures,

136:10 to the one who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,

for his loyal love endures,

136:11 and led Israel out from their midst,

for his loyal love endures,

136:12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,

for his loyal love endures,

136:13 to the one who divided the Red Sea in two,

for his loyal love endures,

136:14 and led Israel through its midst,

for his loyal love endures,

136:15 and tossed Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea,

for his loyal love endures,

136:16 to the one who led his people through the wilderness,

for his loyal love endures,

136:17 to the one who struck down great kings,

for his loyal love endures,

136:18 and killed powerful kings,

for his loyal love endures,

136:19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,

for his loyal love endures,

136:20 Og, king of Bashan,

for his loyal love endures,

136:21 and gave their land as an inheritance,

for his loyal love endures,

136:22 as an inheritance to Israel his servant,

for his loyal love endures,

136:23 to the one who remembered us when we were down,

for his loyal love endures,

136:24 and snatched us away from our enemies,

for his loyal love endures,

136:25 to the one who gives food to all living things,

for his loyal love endures.

136:26 Give thanks to the God of heaven,

for his loyal love endures!

In Defense of Repetition

Looking back on Protestantism

I just read a post by Jason Stellman, a rather high-profile convert to Catholicism, writing about looking back at his time as a Protestant.  I found it to be a poignant description that resonated with many things I’ve thought and said in private conversations.  I’d like to repost it here:

Christianity and Protestantism
Jason Stellman

As I mentioned a couple posts ago, every now and then I hope to shift gears a bit and write from a more personal perspective about what becoming a Catholic has been like, and how Protestantism appears now that it is in my rearview mirror.

One thing I have begun to notice — especially after starting to fall in love with G.K. Chesterton about five years ago — is how practically and ecclesiologically atheistic Protestantism seems from a Catholic perspective. Now I realize that such a statement needs to be unpacked and substantiated, so bear with me.

When I was a Reformed Protestant I believed in the God-of-the-Bible’s miraculous power. I believed, for instance, that Elijah really did preserve the widow’s flour and oil, and that the shadow of Peter and hanky of Paul really were used by God to heal the sick. I don’t remember ever balking at those accounts or dismissing them as overly fanciful.

But here’s the thing: I realize now that I only believed those accounts because I sort of had  to. I mean, they’re in the Bible, it’s not like I can really question them without raising suspicion and plenty of eyebrows. The reason I now believe that this is how I once thought is that if you had asked me whether I believed in, say, Josephus’s account of Jerusalem’s destruction, with all of its accompanying apocalyptic phenomena, I would probably have said, “No, I don’t really believe that stuff actually happened.” But if you had asked me why I disbelieve that account when I claim to believe that, a mere 35 years earlier in that very same city, the sun was darkened for three hours and a series of earthquakes shook the town while a bunch of tombs opened up with dead bodies walking out of them and cruising around the city, I would have said I believe these things because they are contained in the canonical description of Jesus’ crucifixion. And then I would have quickly changed the subject.

You see, there was in my own mind a kind of invisible-yet-impregnable wall that cordoned off biblical times from the eras that followed, with the miraculous and supernatural being restricted to the former. So if a supernatural set of events was recorded in Scripture I would believe it, but if a nearly identical set of events was reported by some extra-canonical source, I would almost always dismiss it out of hand. Yes, Gabriel appeared to the young teenager Mary in the year 9-months BC, but no, Mary did not appear to that young teenaged girl in France in 1858 AD. Yes, the Holy Spirit took a gaggle of sinful fishermen and protected them from teaching error so that they could pen the New Testament, but no, the Holy Spirit could not possibly have supernaturally protected their successors from teaching error when they continued their ministry of governing the Church that Jesus founded.

This is not just unique to me: the same incredulity is displayed by most Protestants whenever they seek to rebut Catholic claims about the Magisterium: “God protecting the bishops from error? Impossible! They’re sinful men, after all. Look at the sordid history of the Catholic Church and you’ll find all the refutation you need of such a fanciful and fairytale idea.” This attitude, in addition to seeming rather Donatistic, smacks of blatant unbelief to the Catholic when he hears it. For us, magic is everywhere, and miracles happen all the time, especially on our altars. We live in a sacramental economy where spiritual blessings are communicated through physical things, where grace is not destroying nature but elevating it (kind of like how Christ’s divine nature did not destroy his human nature, but elevated it), where man is being divinized, and where the entire cosmos has been infused with a supernatural homesickness and longing to be liberated, along with the children of God, from its bondage to decay. We live in an age of eschatological overlap in which the Incarnation actually happened and the old world really is passing away.

(Chesterton wrote often about the need for Christians to recover that sense of childlike wonder which humility tends to foster, insisting that fairytales are only necessary because as we have grown bored of regular tales, and that red dragons are needed to amaze us because red apples no longer do so.)

One of my former seminary profs has likened medieval Catholic Europe to the world of Harry Potter, suggesting that one of the triumphs of the Reformation was ridding the ecclesial landscape of all that blasted magical and supernatural hocus pocus. I think that is a very apt, and very sad, description of the Protestant view of the visible church and of the Christian life in general: the Spirit protects the bishops of the church from error no more than he does the shareholders of Nike, the leftover communion bread is common enough to be used for sandwiches after the service has ended, the body of the Theotokos  rotted in an unmarked grave somewhere outside Ephesus, and the suspicion about ontological participation in the divine nature is so deep as to give the impression that the Incarnation, while certainly a grand gesture, was nonetheless a superfluous one whose aim was merely to bring onto the earthly scene someone who could be the earner of our extrinsic righteousness and the target of our sin’s imputation.

In a word, it’s as if the genie is locked in the bottle, the wardrobe is bolted shut and can provide no otherworldly passage, and all those miraculous displays of divine power and love are safely quarantined to a time long past when God would indulge the superstitious desires of pre-Enlightenment peasants until the printing press would finally be invented. But the problem with dismissing the childlike faith of Catholics on the grounds that their ecclesiology is too whimsical, too simple, or too good to be true, is that these are the exact same reasons for which atheists dismiss Christianity as a whole. “Sure,” they say, “it would be nice if there were a God up in heaven who made us and loves us and desires to save us, but such ideas are mere pious fiction in an age of science and sophistication.” Thus the irony is that the atheist is just a more consistent Protestant who is brave enough to dismiss as fanciful not only the assumption of the Blessed Virgin, but the resurrection and ascension of her Son as well. After all, if infallibility is hopelessly romantic when applied to the bishops who serve the Church, is it any less so when applied to the apostles who wrote the Bible?

But from where I now sit, it seems like appearing to peasants and preserving episcopal succession are precisely the kinds of things one should expect the God of the Bible to continue to do. I mean, if human nature has been raised up to participate in the divine life and worship of the Blessed Trinity (in other words, if the mysteries we celebrate at Advent and Easter reflect stuff that actually transpired), then expelling the spellbinding and marginalizing the magical should be the last thing we’d want to do.

If anything, it should be the Muggles who are sent packing.


I’ve found the same sort of intrinsic schizophrenia in my rear-view mirror as well.  Brought up believing in the truthfulness of Scripture I believed some really wild stories (and still do), but never would have extended that same faith to the post-Scriptural miraculous.  Such pick and choose methods I now see are so completely arbitrary as to be self-refuting.  Only a sort of willful blindness could ever make that mindset seem to be sensible, and yet I found in my journey to Orthodoxy that relieving myself of skepticism was really hard.  This was very surprising to say the least because I was raised as a charismatic Christian, with a deep belief in the on-going, miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christians.  It seems though that the only miraculous work I was willing to believe was the one that happened in my own church.  Anyone else with a miracle was going to need some proof, or they were just deluded or liars.  Mostly I just disbelieved, and yet I really thought I believed in the miraculous.

I sometimes still struggle with my default position of skepticism, but I find that now days I am much more willing to just trust in the “magical” works of God.  Every week at Liturgy I’m treated to a stream of the reports by the Church of the ongoing miraculous works of God.  The stories are fantastical.  The characters are sometimes over the top.  And yet, is it any more over the top than the stories in the Scriptures?  You either believe, or you don’t.  I believe.

Looking back on Protestantism