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