A Review of Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven Movement

A friend of mine, along with a large number of people in various church organizations (especially the Orthodox Church) have become enamored of Rick Warren, of Saddleback Community Church, and his Purpose Driven program.  Over the past few years I finally made an effort to read his Purpose Driven Church and wanted to express my opinions based on this book.

Before getting into his book, I have to say that I almost immediately had a negative reaction to him and the entire movement.  I hesitate to claim some great level of discernment, but I have to admit to a long standing aversion to slick salesmen and the marketing of the Church as if it was just another consumer product.  Warren’s first impression is that of a slick salesman.  His writings are just filled with very glib, catchy sayings.  This already made me suspicious that he was not necessarily the most honest or forthright person in the game.  As you read his writings, this suspicion becomes confirmed when you see the way he utilized Bible translations.  He doesn’t just stick with one preferred translation, as most people would, but he changes around chapter after chapter.  The reason for this is he mostly utilizes thought for thought translations, a particularly poor form of translation, and this allows him to find a translation that agrees with whatever point he is making, even if the translation is incorrect.  For instance, he cites Colossians 2:19, which says:

“It is from him that all the parts of the body are cared for and held together. So it grows in the way God wants it to grow”

Warren, Rick; Warren, Rick (2007-09-04). The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Kindle Locations 319-320). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

At least, according to the NCV.  The NCV, or New Century Version, is a fairly obscure translation.  However, he needed a translation that supported his point that God wants the Church to grow.  Although that is an argument that could be made in a number of ways, he needed a single verse.  However, more traditional translations, such as the NKJV, would not really lend themselves to this interpretation: “and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God,” which speaks to the individual believer staying connected to the true Church.

He follows this same pattern in all of his writings.  He develops an opinion, then searches around for a Bible translation that supports his opinion.  This is disingenuous to say the least, and decidedly egotistical.  However, his ego comes out in all of his writings, so this is no surprise.

I will acknowledge that there are a number of valid points in his book, but the points I agree with are really no different than what I, and many others like me, have been saying for years.  The question is, are these points, and Saddleback’s execution regarding these points, the reason for their tremendous growth?  My friend sent out another email this morning, requesting that our parish pursue the “5 Renewals” that Saddleback publishes.  His justification for pursuing this was Saddleback’s success, defined as “Saddleback has over 50,000 members around the world at 9 church campus locations, planted 197 churches around the world in one year,etc”.  In other words, success is entirely based on numbers.  I challenged him on this point, and his only response was that Warren argues that health comes before numbers.  He never clarified his view of what success was defined by.

He also argued that we don’t need to adopt Warren’s theology in order to adopt his techniques.  I’m not at all convinced that this is so.  I think Warren’s theology drives the particular reasons he has been so successful.  We can see three aspects of his theology that drive the key elements of the growth experienced at Saddleback.

The real question is, what is driving the growth they see at Saddleback?  We know from the outset (as stated in PDC), that he was starting a Church that was not going to have traditional worship services.* I think here we see part of the real secret for his growth.  A charismatic preacher offering something new and more entertaining.  Several times in his book, he suggests modifying worship to make it more attractive.  While such a notion is fairly consistent with the overall Protestant/Evangelical approach to things, it seemingly ignores the attitude God has in the Old Testament with regard to worship.

A recent podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, on the topic of Pentecostalism noted that modern Evangelicals, and, in particular, the seeker sensitive movement, of which Warren is a prominent member, focuses on emotionalism as a means of drawing new members in.  Warren’s theology places the structure of worship as merely incidental.  It can be appealing to potential converts or not.  Of course, Protestant theology, and particularly the Evangelical perspective on a “decision for Christ” means that once you’ve made the decision, nothing after that is particularly relevant.  So, worship really serves no purpose as far as the growth of the believer.  Given that, you can adjust your worship to attract non-believers (or more likely, non-active Christians).

However, in the Old Testament, we see a distinctly different view of worship.  Of particular note is the entire book of Leviticus, and the rules God put in place around worship, and then the rebellion of Korah.  In the interest of space, I won’t go into elaborate details, but anyone with even a passing familiarity with the OT, will know how obvious it was that God took the order of worship very seriously.

Warren and his organization provide a number of other things that they do at Saddleback, but it seems, again based on PDC, that these things are not really causative to their growth.  For instance, they will take you off of the membership rolls if you don’t give regularly.  However, it is unclear what the real impact of that removal is, nor is it clear how much you really have to give.  They also speak of the importance of having members who are growing in order to attract new members.  While I agree with that, their initial growth can’t really have been attributed to that, and when Warren really gets down to brass tacks in his book, he returns to the theme of modifying the worship.  Adjust the style, and adjust the time.  In addition, he tendency toward dishonesty and saying what he thinks people want to hear, makes me question his honesty regarding anything he states regarding the methods he uses and how successful they may or may not be on an individual basis.

One final note on Warren and honesty.  Back when California was debating proposition 8, that would have firmly established marriage in the state to be only between a man and a woman, Rick Warren related to his parishioners his views on the subject.  When the leader of a church communicates a view to over 20,000 of his followers, any reasonable person can conclude that this qualifies as a teaching from this leader.  However, when this support went public, which would undoubtedly impact Warren’s ability to market himself, he backpedaled.  In other words, you never really know what the truth is with him, because at the end of the day he is all about marketing.  Following Christ is supposed to be about following the Way, The TRUTH, and the Life.  Warren doesn’t seem to have much need for the truth, so I wonder who, exactly, he is following.  In turn, should we really be following him?

*The first sentence of that letter clearly stated our focus and position. It said: “At last! A new church for those who’ve given up on traditional church services.”

Warren, Rick; Warren, Rick (2007-09-04). The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Kindle Locations 630-631). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.


Why I Did Convert to Eastern Orthodoxy

An article  recently started making the social media rounds, that describes the reasons why an individual elected to not become Orthodox. I started writing a response that was going to argue against his piece.  It then dawned on me that perhaps the better approach would be to simply capture why I did convert and how to address the Episcopal Church from which I had come.  In that, perhaps I could address some of his concerns.

My conversion process was ultimately a conversion from pretty serious agnosticism.  The conversion began when, during a particularly difficult period in my life, I decided to go to church one Sunday morning.  As it turned out, there was an Episcopal church in walking distance from where I lived at the time.  Since I was raised in the Episcopal Church, it seemed like a reasonable place to go.  I became a member and joined the choir along the way.  Fast forward a couple of years, and I started dating a girl who challenged my level of commitment as a Christian.  I took that as a challenge and began to attend bible studies with her, and started digging deeper into the historic faith.  Since the Episcopal Church, and in particular, the AngloCatholic subset to which I belonged, expressed a strong belief in Tradition, I felt it appropriate to begin studying history.  This all led to me ultimately joining the catechumenate program as, at first, a student, and ultimately as the lead instructor.  During that process, we changed the program from a long weekend to almost a full year with multiple retreats.

I explored the history of the Church in more and more depth, and kept landing first in the Roman Catholic Church, then the Orthodox Church.  Without getting into a lot of detail, the Orthodox Church won out on the basis of Tradition.  Rome had been guilty of changing doctrine.  Not simply clarifying, but actually changing.  Although it is frequently related that at the various Ecumenical Councils doctrine was being established, what was happening was doctrine was being declared based on what had been handed down.  New doctrines were not created.  When England broke with Rome, they didn’t return to Orthodoxy, they established their own Church with new doctrines.  Some remained the same as with Rome, others were derived from the various Reformation groups on the Continent.

So I became convinced that the Church of England and the Episcopal Church needed to return to Orthodoxy.  I attempted this on the inside, but was ultimately led to the conclusion that I needed to leave.  I addressed this many years ago in this article.  You’ll note at the end of that article that there was a vast theological chasm between the two Churches.  That is quite true.  The question is, is the chasm one of full vs. not full (i.e., where one faith has simply not developed all the way), or is it a matter of contradiction?

If you read my old article, you’ll find many examples of teaching in our parish that was at odds with Orthodoxy (or even historic Anglicanism).  Anglicanism, itself, teaches things contrary to Orthodoxy.  Whether its the filioque (which is, simply put, erroneous), the canon of Scripture (the Anglican Church argues that the so-called Apocrypha are not scripture) or the nature of salvation, or any one of a number of doctrines, there is conflict between the two.  It is not a case of Anglicanism having a more primitive type of the faith and it simply has not developed all the way, so Orthodoxy completes it, or fills it.  Rather it is mistaken.  If you convert to Orthodoxy, you must, in the interest of intellectual and spiritual honesty, reject the doctrines of Anglicanism that are incorrect.  That is not to say that everything they teach is erroneous, but you cannot agree to the doctrines of both churches.

The same is true for Roman Catholicism and every variety of Protestantism.  The author of the article belongs to a reformed church.  That means he believes in sola scripture, sola fide, and predestination.  All of these are incorrect.  If he attempted to join the Orthodox Church and still hold to these teachings he would have been living a lie.  Unfortunately, as much respect as I have for Met. Kallistos, he and others who play the “fullness” card in the interest of not offending non-Orthodox do both sides a disservice.




Polemics vs. Theology

Recently, in response to a document promulgated prior the Great and Holy Council this summer, two Metropolitan Bishops of the Orthodox Church in Greece published concerns.  Both of these bishops would be considered traditionalists, and by some “fundamentalist”.  In particular, George Demacopoulos, a professor at Fordham University.  Some day, when I have nothing better to do, I might want to see some of his academic work.  However, based on a couple of samples of his public writing, I don’t hold out a lot of hope.  His expertise appears to be in polemics, although he is apparently a theology professor.  I’ve addressed one of his public diatribes previously, and now am faced with another.  Rather than the lengthy response the last one elicited, I’d only like to make a few comments.  I will say that I actually agree with him that the objections are ultimately incorrect, but I disagree entirely with his characterization of them as “innovations,” which is tantamount to him declaring the two bishops to be heretics.  I’ve said it before, but I expect better from a supposed academic.  At the end of this post, I’ll link a piece that treats the overall subject in a manner much more appropriate to an academic and Orthodox Christian, IMO.

The two bishops in view are Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus and Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos.  The latter was, I believe, the target of the previous piece, so I shouldn’t be surprised that he is the target again.  However, let me briefly address Metropolitan Seraphim first.  Unfortunately, his objections, characterized by Demacopoulos as a “wide ranging condemnation” are in Greek, so my unfortunate lack of effort toward mastering Greek leaves me unable to speak to his view directly.  However, Demacopoulos takes particular note of the Metropolitan’s objection toward the use of the term “church” regarding other Christian denominations.  He links, as his argument, a video by Sister Vassa on the subject.  Much of her objection is grounded in the usage of the term church regarding heretical groups in the Church Fathers.  While I agree that looking to the Church Fathers for information is critical, there is always a risk of relying entirely on what is essentially proof texting.  I find it interesting that nobody appears to really address the Metropolitan’s objections head on.  His objections are not even particularly detailed by his detractors, which makes this discussion really quite challenging.

On a Facebook thread regarding these documents, I argued that the context for the objections needs to be, at some level, the broader view, especially in the West, and especially in other denominations, that all churches are largely the same.  This perspective has apparently become a bit of an issue in Greece, as other Christian groups as well as non-Christian groups have made some inroads into the traditionally Orthodox country.  This makes the terminology used by the conciliar documents of concern from a pastoral perspective for the Metropolitans.  I would argue that a great many of the canons of the Church are fundamentally pastoral in nature.  The pastoral situation is different now than it was in the past, so I can understand a bishop being particularly concerned about it.  I was taken to task in the post that the context is really the conciliar document, but I think that is absurdly narrow.  I think the bishop is mistaken, and that the use of the term is acceptable, but it may not be desirable.  I’m a former Anglican, and many of my former fellow parishioners see themselves as a church with the same meaning that being a member of “The Church” holds.  Thus the term for them carries meaning that I wouldn’t agree to.  Isn’t it wiser, if I avoid using it?  The rector of my former parish is a Priest in that denomination who is called “Father”.  If I address him as “Father,” am I leading him to believe that I view him as an actual priest in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church?  That’s what he thinks he is, and all I would be doing is supporting that belief.  That is the reality many of us face, and that I suspect the Metropolitan is facing.  Is he going a bit too far?  Perhaps.  Innovating?  Well, not necessarily.  Now, let’s discuss Metropolitan Hierotheos.

Demacopoulos sinks to new lows in his argument with Metropolitan Hierotheos.  Metropolitan Hierotheos bases his views on the Council of 1756.  That council, held in Constantinople and including two other Orthodox Patriarchs dealt with several issues regarding the Roman Catholic Church.  Principal among them was the rite to be used when accepting converts from Rome.  It is interesting that Demacopoulos insists that it was simply a letter issued by the one Hierarch, Cyril, which is supported by Wikipedia (and the document is known as the Oros), but a quote from an early 20th century text on canon law, cited here, indicates that this was a finding agreed two by more than one Patriarch.  Demacopoulos also asserts that Patriarch Cyril was deposed by his own synod for having issued the Oros, but all I can find is that (perhaps) his synod objected to the Oros and declared it invalid, following which he exiled all of those bishops who disagreed with him.  Cyril was ultimately deposed, but that was in response to his deposition of the other bishops.  Rather papal if it really happened that way.  Regardless, we can see that the history is a bit muddled, and it is telling that Demacopoulos doesn’t even begin to address the fact that there appear to be differing view on what took place at that time in Constantinople.  If he was just some rank and file layman, I could understand the errors, but for a supposed professor of theology, I expect more academic rigor in his writings.

I had actually ceased work on this post a while back, but then this response was posted to Demacopoulos’ work.  I applaud the fact that he linked to it on Facebook, as a good scholar welcomes debate.  In particular, he is to be applauded, because the piece really highlights his complete lack of knowledge in this area.  Apparently the practice of rebaptizing Latins was not uncommon and dated back to the time of the Great Schism.  It was even supported by at least one saint of the Church.  Hardly is this a novelty being proposed by Demacopoulos’ favorite target, Metropolitan Hierotheos.

Clearly, this is a topic that merits actual discussion among the hierarchs.  Personally, given how far away from the ancient Church much of Western Christianity has drifted, I think it safer to err on the side of rebaptism, but thankfully I am not one of the hierarchs so my opinion doesn’t much matter.  Thankfully, Demacopoulos is also not one of the hierarchs either.

What Debates in Other Faiths Reveal About Their Theology

I’ll begin this by saying that I mostly try to ignore what is going on in the Anglican world.  I am no longer a member of the Episcopal church(ECUSA), so I have no stake in their internal disagreements.  On the other hand, perhaps mine is not the right attitude.  I still have a number of people that I care about who are still in that group, and so, perhaps I should care about what is going on there more, especially as it pertains to mistaken doctrine, and even simply mistaken attitudes that would be dangerous for those still there.

At the same time, reading things coming out of the ECUSA can also provide an opportunity to reflect on what the Orthodox perspective would be, both on the subject, and on the arguments being made.  Just such an opportunity was afforded me last week when the latest issue of the Diocesan Messenger from the San Diego diocese arrived (for some reason, I seem trapped on their mailing list in perpetuity).  Apparently there is a topic up for debate, at least at the Diocesan level, or perhaps at the national level, and the Diocese felt it appropriate to have several pastors from different parishes in the Diocese write their  arguments regarding the topic.  As they were not responding one to another, you were presented with four different position papers, which seems like a reasonable way to hold a discussion without it devolving into an argument.

The topic being discussed is what they are describing as “Open Communion”.  I’ll start by noting that Open Communion, as commonly understood, refers to permitting Christians who are not members of that particular denomination to receive Communion.  When I was young, that was the debate ongoing in the ECUSA.  However, in 2016, to the ECUSA, the term refers to permitting non-Christians to receive communion.  The four pieces revealed some interesting insights, both into the theology of the four pastors, as well as the position of the ECUSA within the Christian milieu.

Some Background on the Parishes Involved

The four parishes involved, or rather the three parishes and mission, are Holy Cross and St. Michael’s in Carlsbad, All Soul’s in Point Loma, and St. Andrew’s in Pacific Beach.  Given the level of theological diversity allowed within Anglicanism, it is not surprising that these parishes represent very different theological foundations.  For instance, Holy Cross, which was founded as a mission by St. Michael’s was, like St. Michael’s used to be, rather Anglocatholic.  That is, believing in doctrines that would cause little to separate them from Roman Catholics of perhaps two or three centuries ago.  Since I left the Episcopal Church a decade ago, Holy Cross underwent a significant shift when its Vicar and many parishioners left for the continuing Anglican movement in 2006.  Similarly, St. Michaels also shifted.  Although their rector is a graduate of what historically had been an Anglocatholic seminary, the seminary has been under the leadership of a priest who had come from the Charismatic (i.e. Evangelical) movement.  Drawn to the conservatism, I suppose, of Nashotah, he really had never been an adherent to Anglocatholicism.  I’m not sure that he changed the seminary as much as his being hired reflected how much it had changed.  At any rate, the current rector at St. Michael’s never really struck me as particularly Anglocatholic.  Yes, he likes “tradition”, yes he is a bit conservative, but like Munday, his perspective always felt more Evangelical than Catholic.  When the more Catholic elements in the parish either left for Orthodoxy (at least a handful) or the larger exodus to Rome, all that was left was basically Evangelical leaning, or, more traditionally Protestant if not Evangelical.  Holy Cross now appears to be a typical modernist mission, St. Michael’s a traditional leaning Evangelical parish, and the other two I’m not entirely sure of.  Their pastor’s positions then reflect this diversity.

The Mind of the Church

The goal within Orthodoxy is for everyone to obtain and operate with the “Mind of the Church”, or phronema.  This encompasses not only the doctrinal elements but also the more practical life lived within the practices of the Church, and seeking to grow in our likeness to God, and the continued acquisition of the Holy Spirit (Met. Hierotheos Vlachos).  Decisions about what is acceptable reflect, then, this mind.  It is a common misconception that Church councils always just reflected a voted based on opinions of the bishops present.  What happened, instead, especially beginning with the first ecumenical council, was that the bishops were seeking to understand the mind of the Church as reflected by what had been believed and practiced since the time of the Apostles.  Doctrines live and die by the degree to which they reflect the received tradition across the board.  This tradition is most notably transmitted via the liturgies and hymns as those represent the communal life of the faithful.

Thus, a question such as the one posed, would be addressed by priests and bishops in the Orthodox Church by reference to the canons that had been passed at the various councils.  Then, if that was not sufficient, we look to the liturgical traditions and the hymnography for more guidance.  For instance, we know that the historical practice was for all non-baptized individuals to be sent out of the Church before the part in the service when the Holy Spirit is called down onto the bread and wine to turn them into the Body and Blood of Christ.  Although this no longer happens, the liturgy retains a call by the Deacon to attend to the doors (that is close them so that only the faithful remain) prior to the recitation of the Creed.  Given this, there is no question that non-baptized would not be permitted to participate.  Further, we also know that those who had separated themselves over doctrinal matters (heretics, although the word has become unpopular) would also not be permitted in until a suitable period of penance had occurred.  So even the question of baptized Christians who do not belong to the Orthodox Church is answered.

This answers the question in part, but of course, if one wants to understand at a deeper level, we would reflect on the nature of the Church and the nature of the Sacrament, which I will do a bit further down in response to specific points raised in the article.

I should point out here that this notion of the “Mind of the Church” figures into the question of Apostolic Succession. In order to be in that succession, besides needing to be ordained by an ordained/consecrated bishop, as agreed to universally, the Orthodox Church understands that the bishops and priests under discussion must also still exist within the Mind of the Church. That is, they cannot have left the Church in some fashion and yet still claim to be in succession.

Personal Opinion

Now that we’ve addressed the general issue of the mind of the church, we come to the first piece, which is penned by the Vicar of Holy Cross. After she finishes praising the “roominess” of Anglican theology, she then moves on to the discussion at hand. The purpose of the discussion of the roomy theology is to simply argue that there is no formal Eucharistic theology in play from an Anglican perspective and thus opens the door for her to “share my own Eucharistic theology.” Although she briefly asserts a shared perspective with Augustine (without any support), the entire article is based on her views, her feelings, etc. There is no attempt to engage the mind of the church. This is very much consistent with the modernist thread of Anglicanism, where personal opinions and feelings are as valid as any doctrine or received tradition, if not more so. Besides being inconsistent with any Christian worldview older than the 16th century, it also smacks of the sort of lack of humility that is spiritually dangerous for all of us.

Catholic or Not?

The piece by the rector of St. Michael’s also quickly touches on a personal opinion about the rightness of what he refers to as the “Anglican” view that communion is to be offered to all baptized Christians regardless of denomination. I’m not entirely sure that this is an Anglican view as much as it is strictly an Episcopalian view, but to be sure, it is not a catholic view. Yet, immediately after this comment, he trots out the famed Vincentian Canon (named for St. Vincent of Lerins), using it to state that the “catholic faith which we profess is described… as, “that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”. This then becomes the foundation for his argument that to offer communion to non-Christians would be non-catholic. He leans on Fr. Alexander Schmemann representing Orthodoxy, then St. Irenaus, representing the ancient church to defend his position. However, his argument is without merit, as he just finished proclaiming the modern and erroneous practice of communion to all baptized Christians, regardless of denomination. How can he use catholicity to prevent one practice, while ignoring it to support another one? At best, this is some form of special pleading, at worst hypocrisy. He furthers undermines his case by a veiled reference to 1 Corinthians 11, where St. Paul indicates that partaking of communion in an unworthy manner can result in illness in death. Instead of agreeing with his assertion, he creates a straw man argument that God will not strike someone dead for taking communion when not baptized (did St. Paul say that? no), but by dismantling the straw man he effectively denies St. Paul’s teaching. Once again, he seems to be disagreeing with the very catholic faith he asserts should drive this decision.

The Sacrament Itself

Both of the first two writers seem to believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is at best unclear about the remaining two author. The rector from All Souls discusses what the Eucharist is at great length before finally indicating that perhaps he thinks it is the body and blood of Christ (what he actually says is the “desire … (of someone else) to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ”, so it is unclear). He discusses a great many things about the Eucharist, that it is mechanism by which we are united, by which people receive God’s grace, etc., all of which is true, but I don’t think he really accepts that God is, in fact, actually present in the Sacrament. The rector of St. Andrew’s doesn’t even come close.

The sense that God is truly present in the Sacrament would, you think, give everyone great pause and concern that people are prepared to receive it. In the Orthodox Church, even though we are baptized members of the Orthodox Church, we are expected to prepare to receive the sacrament each week, by special prayers, fasting, and periodic confession. Such practices are consistent with the view that God is present.  The issue is not so much that God would “strike us dead” as St. Michael’s rector asserts, but that our state would mean that we would not react well to His holiness.  Following is a quote from a lecture given several years ago by a doctor and lay theologian from Greece that expresses the essence of the Orthodox view of judgment:

God is Truth and Light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The “books” will be opened. What are these “books”? They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.

All four authors support some level of open communion. the Vicar of Holy Cross is the most clearly in support of this. I was pondering why this was the case. Especially since she proclaims a belief in the real presence. Then it occurred to me, after listening to a talk on heresies and their manifestation today, that perhaps she doesn’t actually believe that Christ is God. Then his presence in the Eucharist wouldn’t raise questions about being worthy to approach.

Patristics and Context

As a final note, a couple of different quotes of St. Augustine are trotted out. In both cases, I’m pretty certain that the authors have not actually read the sermons that those quotes are from (the Vicar from Holy Cross wrongly asserts that her quote was a standard part of St. Augustine’s liturgy). Both miss the fact that the reference to becoming what you see is in fact a reference to the Orthodox understanding of theosis. The rector of St. Andrew’s asserts that St. Augustine’s phrase “Behold what you are” indicates that we are “fully accepted” by God, the phrase fully accepted is usually taken to mean, wallowing in our sins without need of repentance. Instead, he misses that the “Behold what you are” is a reference to the body of Christ, which is what we, as baptized, professing members of the Church are.

The Rapture, Ancient Teaching or Recent Heresy?

With the upcoming release of the first “Left Behind” movie, a lot of attention has been brought to a teaching that is largely peculiar to American evangelicalism, that is the doctrine of a pre-tribulation rapture.  The basics of the teaching are that there will be a great tribulation that will fall on the whole earth, and that at the end of the tribulation Christ will return for the last judgement.  Before the tribulation, however, Christ will also come and take away all true believers so that they don’t have to experience the tribulation.

There have been numerous arguments brought forth against this teaching, but one of the more common in recent years is that the concept of a pre-tribulation rapture is a novel teaching, having largely been promulgated by John Darby in the 19th century, with some support from  17th and 18th century American evangelists.  For non-Orthodox, I think the point of this argument is that if a pre-tribulation rapture was truly authentic, it would have been a common teaching earlier in history.  I find this an interesting argument to see Protestants bring forth, as they pride themselves on being Sola Scriptura, and thus a new teaching doesn’t necessarily reflect an incorrect teaching.  As long as it is established from Scripture, then it would be a valid teaching.  I understand the argument from a Roman Catholic perspective, as they believe in the development of doctrine, and so a completely new teaching would be a bit troubling.  The thing I find really surprising is to see Orthodox apologists trot out this argument.  Orthodoxy is all about the teachings that have been handed down from Christ and the Apostles.  In this regard, a new teaching would clearly not qualify.  On the other hand, even if the teaching appeared much earlier in history, it would not become any more valid.  Arianism is a pretty ancient teaching, but it is still a heresy.

In response to this, adherents of the pre-trib rapture theory have endeavored a response on two levels.  Both of these were posted by a friend of mine on Facebook, hence my response here.  The first argument, which is a bit fallacious, is that a lack of known evidence that the doctrine was taught earlier in history is not sufficient proof that it wasn’t.  This is sort of a special pleading.  The burden of proof clearly lies with those arguing that the teaching did exist in history.  It is virtually impossible to ever prove that something absolutely doesn’t exist.  I can’t prove that the Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist, nor can I prove that ancient Greeks didn’t hold an annual festival in central Oklahoma.  However, if I were to assert that either of those things are true, the burden would fall to me.

The second argument is that the teaching did exist in history, and a variety of sources are brought out to establish that.  It is this that I promised to respond to, and thus I will.  I’ll go one by one through the listed sources:

2 Esdras

A quick note that this refers to what among Orthodox would be known as 4th Esdras, a piece of Jewish apocalyptic literature that is only considered canonical by the Ethiopian Church.  2 Esdras or 2 Ezra is a different book in the Orthodox canon.  At any rate, we have three passages from this text.  The first is from the 6th chapter, beginning at the 18th verse:

“The days are coming when I draw near to visit the inhabitants of the earth, and when I require from the doers of iniquity the penalty of their iniquity, and when the humiliation of Zion is complete. When the seal is placed upon the age that is about to pass away, then I will show these signs: The books shall be opened before the face of the Firmament, and all shall see my judgment together. Children a year old shall speak with their voices, and pregnant women shall give birth to premature children at three or four months, and these shall live and leap about. Sown places still suddenly appear unsown, and full storehouses shall suddenly be found to be empty, the Trumpet shall sound aloud and when all hear it, they shall suddenly be terrified At that time friends will make war on friends like enemies, the earth and those who inhabit it shall be terrified. Then we have the tribulation period, then at the end when Jesus returns with us, as the armies of heaven : They shall see those who were taken up, who from their birth had not tasted death, and the heart of the earth’s inhabitants shall be changed and converted to a different spirit. For evil shall be blotted out and deceit shall be quenched, faithfulness shall flourish, and corruption shall be overcome, and the Truth, which has been so long without fruit, shall be revealed.

The passage clearly refers to the tribulation before the final judgement.  The question has to do with the line that begins “Then we have the tribulation period…”  I have looked at the RSV version of this passage at the University of Michigan, and another version from sacred-texts.com, and both don’t include that passage.  Instead, the closest we have is from the RSV:  ”

And it shall be that whoever remains after all that I have foretold to you shall himself be saved and shall see my salvation and the end of my world. And they shall see the men who were taken up, who from their birth have not tasted death; and the heart of the earth’s inhabitants shall be changed and converted to a different spirit. For evil shall be blotted out, and deceit shall be quenched; faithfulness shall flourish, and corruption shall be overcome, and the truth, which has been so long without fruit, shall be revealed.”

The question is, what is meant by “And they shall see the men who were taken up”?  Does this refer to some rapture event?  The phrase is qualified as “those who from birth have not tasted death” as the restatement of those who were taken up.  After seeing these, people’s hearts will be changed.  The King James translation has the text saying this:

Whosoever remaineth from all these that I have told thee shall escape, and see my salvation, and the end of your world.  And the men that are received shall see it, who have not tasted death from their birth: and the heart of the inhabitants shall be changed, and turned into another meaning.

Which implies that the men that are received are, in fact, those believers who came through the tribulation.  It is their witness, in effect, that changes hearts.  This interpretation is actually closer to the historic, Orthodox understanding that Christians will undergo the tribulation, and some will make it through the tribulation without losing their faith, but others will not be so fortunate.  There is some discussion of people who escape tribulation, and we will discuss under what circumstances that happens a bit later on.

The next quote is from chapter 13:

The days are coming when the Most High will deliver those who are on the earth, And bewilderment of mind shall come over those who inhabit the earth. They shall plan to make war against one another, city against city, place against place, people against people, and Kingdom against Kingdom. When these things take place and the signs occur that I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed”.

The King James as this section as follows:

Behold, the days come, when the most High will begin to deliver them that are upon the earth.  And he shall come to the astonishment of them that dwell on the earth.  And one shall undertake to fight against another, one city against another, one place against another, one people against another, and one realm against another.  And the time shall be when these things shall come to pass, and the signs shall happen which I shewed thee before, and then shall my Son be declared, whom thou sawest as a man ascending.

And the RSV:

Behold, the days are coming when the Most High will deliver those who are on the earth.  And bewilderment of mind shall come over those who dwell on the earth.  And they shall plan to make war against one another, city against city, place against place, people against people, and kingdom against kingdom.  And when these things come to pass and the signs occur which I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed, whom you saw as a man coming up from the sea. 

I would be curious to see the underlying text (in Latin or Greek) from which this passage comes.  I suspect that the man coming up from the sea may more appropriately refer to coming up from the depths or the grave.

Regardless, does this speak of a pre-tribulation rapture?  Nothing in this speaks to the rapture.  We see that God will deliver (or begin to deliver depending on the translation) those who are on earth.  This will happen at the second coming, so what in these passages point to a pre-tribulation rapture?

The last passage is the following, from chapter 16 v. 74 and following:

“Listen, my elect ones, says the Lord, the days of tribulation are at hand, but I will deliver you from them. Do not fear or doubt, for God is your guide. You who keep my commandments and precepts, says the Lord God must not let your sins weigh you down or your iniquities prevail over you .

The other translations by and large agree with this one, but on the other hand there is nothing here that argues for a pre-tribulation rapture.  Yes, being delivered from the days of tribulation could be used to support that teaching, but it hardly establishes that it was the teaching at the time.  Further on, when I discuss the Orthodox understanding of the end times, I will explore what it means to be delivered from tribulation.

Before leaving Esdras, I must highlight that the translations my friend posted for the first quote don’t compare well in that critical sections with the RSV or KJV.  The translation, in fact, contains a line that sound almost like an insertion written by a pre-trib rapture proponent.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal except that as we are about to see, there appears to be a tendency among some groups supportive of the pre-tribulation rapture to simply manufacture evidence to support their position.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been a treasure house of insight into the religious environment of the holy land around the time of Christ.  We have great evidence regarding the various manuscript traditions that would ultimately inform the various translations of the Bible that we have today.  Given the amount of scholarship that has gone into the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they provide a tempting target for use to defend a certain belief.

In this case, we seem to have a situation where a group, in the interest of defending their view, seems to have fabricated a quote from the Dead Sea Scrolls.  What my friend posted was the following:

The Dead Sea Scrolls 150+ BC
“The Rapture will occur suddenly. And countless thousands will vanish from the earth. Swept up to heaven to live with Jesus and escape the torment of the Tribulation, the others will be left behind.”

The first problem is that the Dead Sea Scrolls have all been catalogued.  Typically, references to quotes within them include a reference to the cave and fragment associate with the quote.  As I said previously, there has been a great deal of scholarship associated with the scrolls.  The absence of any reference makes it impossible to study this quote in any manner.

Attempting to find this scroll through online searches has only yielded one result.  That this scroll doesn’t exist, and that it was fabricated by Jack Van Impe Ministries.  The referenced scholar and theological school don’t appear to exist.

It is sad that people resort to fabricating evidence to support their views.  Between this, and the interesting modification to the Esdras text we saw above, I have to admit I have a greater than normal sense of skepticism regarding any claims by dispensationalists about the existence of evidence supporting their view.

One other thing we must be on guard against is the reading back into ancient texts, modern notions.  This is especially risky when one is fishing for the odd quote to support their position.  I think we will see a bit of this in the following.

The Shepherd of Hermas

This text would be very interesting if it taught a pre-trib rapture.  Primarily, this is because it was held in sufficiently high regard that it nearly became part of scripture.  The quote that was provided is:

“You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then ye prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless, and ye spend the rest of the days of your life in serving the Lord blamelessly.”

However, let’s actually read the quote with more context:

Clothed, therefore, my brethren, with faith in the Lord and remembering the great things which He had taught me, I boldly faced the beast. Now that beast came on with such noise and force, that it could itself have destroyed a city. I came near it, and the monstrous beast stretched itself out on the ground, and showed nothing but its tongue, and did not stir at all until I had passed by it. Now the beast had four colours on its head— black, then fiery and bloody, then golden, and lastly white.

Now after I had passed by the wild beast, and had moved forward about thirty feet, lo! A virgin meets me, adorned as if she were proceeding from the bridal chamber, clothed entirely in white, and with white sandals, and veiled up to her forehead, and her head was covered by a hood. And she had white hair. I knew from my former visions that this was the Church, and I became more joyful. She saluted me, and said, Hail, O man! And I returned her salutation, and said, Lady, hail! And she answered, and said to me, Has nothing crossed your path? I say, I was met by a beast of such a size that it could destroy peoples, but through the power of the Lord and His great mercy I escaped from it. Well did you escape from it, says she, because you cast your care on God, and opened your heart to the Lord, believing that you can be saved by no other than by His great and glorious name. On this account the Lord has sent His angel, who has rule over the beasts, and whose name is Thegri, and has shut up its mouth, so that it cannot tear you. You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then you prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless, and you spend the rest of the days of your life in serving the Lord blamelessly.
Read in context, we see that God protects the Shepherd from tribulation by “shutting up the mouth” of the beast, not by removing the Shepherd.  There are a couple of different ways to read this.  One is that the Lord will literally not allow devout Christians to be harmed in the tribulation.  The other is a more spiritual reading, that the devout Christian who does not doubt, even in the face of tribulation will not be spiritually harmed by it.  I prefer this latter reading, because it is more consistent with what we know of the martyrdoms that were very common at the time this text was written, and it is more consistent with earlier portions of the Shepherd, that indicate that everyone can expect to undergo actual tribulation.
So, the support from the Shepherd of Hermas really isn’t there when you read the text in context.  In fact, the protection from tribulation here is much more similar to what we saw earlier in Esdras.  Faithful Christians will not suffer spiritual damage.  They will be protected from succumbing to the tribulation, not protected from undergoing it.
(Update on November 14th, 2014):  I was just listening to Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick delivering a talk on the Pre-Tribulation Rapture and he pointed out this line from Jesus’ high priestly prayer:  “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.”  So Jesus asks the Father to keep believers from tribulation, but not by removing them from this world.

Bishop Victorinus of Pettau

The following is the quote from this Bishop:

“Seven angels having the last seven plagues, for in them is completed the indignation of God. And these shall be in the last times when the church shall have gone out of the midst.”

This is taken from his commentary on the Revelation of John, specifically the 15th chapter.  The difficulty here is that this comment is somewhat vague.  What is meant by the “church shall have gone out of the midst”.  Does it mean they have been raptured away, or does it mean something more akin to the church having gone out of the midst of the sinners?  Given his treatment of chapter 14, where he makes reference to the people mingling with the nations, followed by a discussion of certain nations being destroyed by God during the tribulation.  Further, previously, he notes that the faithful will be gathered together in Judea, where they will “be supported there for three years and six months from the presence of the devil.”  Whether Judea refers to Israel or the Bishop is referring to a more spiritual understanding is unclear to me from the limited reading I’ve been able to give this text, but there is nothing in his writing to indicate that he believes the Church will be physically taken away to heaven.  Given that this notion of heaven and hell being separate physical places is a bit modern, it would be quite surprising if it were otherwise.

So, once again, we see that there is a bit of proof texting going on.  Taking one quote out of the overall context, both of the text from which it is derived, and of the environment in which it is being taught, can lead people to incorrect conclusions.  This is particularly a risk when one is approaching the text with the express intent of finding support for their position

The ancient Church has always taught, as laid out in the Bible, that Christians will undergo tribulation.  Some will escape that fate, but it is because they died before those time.  Further, when we see a phrase, such as the Church has gone out from the midst, this avails of multiple interpretations.  One that comes to mind, especially in light of recent events, is that this is the time when the Church leaves its public place and goes back into hiding.

So what

So, why does it matter about the historicity of the teaching about the rapture?  As I mentioned earlier, from an Orthodox perspective, that is not terribly relevant.  It is that this teaching is not that which was handed down from Christ and the Apostles that is the issue.  So, why am I particularly concerned with this, why would Orthodoxy be concerned with this teaching?

The problem isn’t whether or not the teaching is historic, but whether it is correct.  Because this isn’t a teaching we have received from the beginning, we would automatically suspect that it might not be correct.  However, it is that it teaches things contrary that which we have received that should concern everyone, and it is in these contradictions that a real danger lies.

The Contradiction

The teaching of the pre-tribulation rapture opposes the Orthodox teaching in two key areas.  One has to do with the “geography” of heaven and hell, as one Orthodox Priest has described it, and the other has to do with what could be regarded as an essentially fundamental aspect of being a Christian, that of suffering.

From the geography perspective, the notion that Christ will come and take people away to heaven, as if it is a physically separate place.  As addressed, both here, and even better, here, that notion is mistaken.  It is, in fact, a somewhat modern idea.  It is a basic Christian teaching that God is present everywhere.  The concept for this is see within the Psalms and elsewhere.  Within the Orthodox Church, we say a prayer at almost every service that starts with “O God, who is everywhere present and sees all things.”  If God is truly everywhere present, where exactly would Heaven be, if not everywhere?  The fact that we do not perceive heaven, in fact, speaks to our state, not to God’s.  The experience of heaven and hell, then, has much more to do with our spiritual state, and not with geography.  In a talk to an Orthodox youth group, one Orthodox theologian points out that the river of fire, and the pain it causes the unrighteous, is, in reality, God’s grace.  To the righteous, to those that have learned to love others and God before themselves, this grace will be light and warmth.  To the the unrighteous, to those who love themselves above others, this grace, this essentially pure love, will be painful.  I’m giving the full teaching short shrift, so I would recommend reading the linked articles to fully get the nuance involved here.  I will say, to wrap this up, that it is well known among the Orthodox that there is much more around us that we do not routinely perceive, but are occasionally given glimpses of.  Many stories exist, frequently of adults, but much more often involving young children, that describe them seeing things around us that those of us who’s vision has been darkened by our sins cannot see.  From saints and angels to priests surrounded by fire during the liturgy, to my own daughter who, when very young simply let out a big “wow” at a very holy moment in the liturgy (we’ll never know what she saw), there is an ever present reality of heaven that we simply don’t get.  We see through a glass, darkly, is how the Apostle puts it.  Some day – after the second coming – we’ll see clearly.  The pre-trib rapture theory seems to imply that none of this is true.  That God exists somewhere up on the second story of our universe, which is where we’ll go if we behave ourselves.  If we follow the rules.  There seems to be little in the theory that speaks to our experience of God Himself.  Frankly, it all feels rather hollow.

The other problem is, in many ways related.  The theory, developed during a time when Christianity was the law of the land, implies that somehow Christians won’t need to suffer.  It was promulgated largely by people who had never really experienced persecution, and who seemed blissfully ignorant of the real history of Christianity.  As noted earlier, when we read documents such as the Shepherd of Hermas, who states, in part, “Happy you who endure the great tribulation that is coming on,” is writing in a time when Christians were subjected to torture and death frequently.  Christians knew that there was, in fact, benefit to this suffering, that it helps purify us.  Refines us as if by fire.  When we look at the the prototype of prototypes, Christ, we see that our salvation is realized through His suffering.  When we look at the the Protomartyr Stephen, we see that he has a vision of heaven as he is being stoned.  He isn’t angry or scared.  He doesn’t curse his persecutors.  No, God protects him from the tribulation, not by removing him from it, but by being strengthening him, which is really the promise we find in the ancient writings quoted.  Those who propose that good Christians will never experience a great tribulation, are not only historically ignorant, but ignorant of current events.  Some of that ignorance is self imposed, because it threatens their world view, such as the fact that Christians have been persecuted by the state of Israel for years.  The rest is because the U.S. media is largely uninterested in reporting things, such as the fact that Christians have been driven out of Nineveh for the first time in 2000 years, and that children are beheaded because they are Christian.  Denying ourselves is a key component of our growth as Christians.  It is why Christians have always practiced things such as fasting.  It is a very small taste of suffering that helps us learn to put others ahead of ourselves, to love others, to be more conformed to Christ.  To propose that suffering is somehow something that God will not allow us to endure is not only unbiblical, it is outright spiritually dangerous.  Of course, many Christians will never experience true tribulation, but the problem here is the assertion that somehow all Christians will be removed from it at some point in time.

To close, I will need to add one more aspect of the pre-tribulation rapture related to this escape from suffering concept that I find, at the very least, to be a sad thing to witness.  The people I know who are very heavily into this teaching seem to focus on the notion that the coming tribulation is bad, and if you want to escape it you should become a Christian.  While warnings of dire consequences to the lapsed are hardly unknown biblically, this does not sound much like the Gospel.  Where did Christ say that he was coming so that individuals could escape suffering?  When did Christianity become all about punishment and reward?  The Gospel message of the pre-tribulation rapture is that you better become a Christian or else you will suffer.  The message of the Gospel is that you will become a Christian and suffer, but you should fear not.  “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:28).  According to Blessed Theophylact, “Those who slay accomplish the destruction of only the body, while they are perhaps the benefactors of the soul.”  Christianity is about having life, and having it abundantly, not about avoiding pain and suffering.  It is about being united to Christ, not avoiding punishment.  When we turn Christianity into something entirely about punishment and reward then we turn it into another religion.  Love isn’t about punishment and reward.  As Orthodox, we understand that while we strive to become more righteous there is nothing that we do which merits a reward.  While those who adhere to a belief in a pre-tribulation rapture claim to believe this as well, their views about the rapture seem to indicate otherwise.



Reading the Old Testament

One of great things about becoming part of the Orthodox Church has been learning how the early Church read the Old Testament. During my time in Protestant Bible Studies, there were typically two approaches used to read the Old Testament. One either read the Old Testament by itself, to see what things you could learn from it, or one read it to gain insights into the New Testament. Typically, both were used, and they seem reasonable.

Interestingly, though, the Church never approached the Old Testament in that manner. The Old Testament, instead, is filled with “types” pointing to Christ and our ultimate salvation. This was brought to mind yesterday when flipping the channel and I ran across Joyce Meyer. Now, I realize that she is not well received among all Protestants, and she has more serious issues in her preaching than this one -but I think her prosperity gospel approach to things may be fed, to some extent, by her lack of understanding about how to read the Old Testament.

In the course of her talk, she referred to Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. She stated (I’m paraphrasing a bit here) that she didn’t know why God asked Moses to stretch his arms out over the Red Sea to help part it. She stated that it was an act of faith on Moses’ part, but that there was no purpose other than that.

Unfortunately, she is unfamiliar with the way the Church read the Old Testament. God did not ask Moses to do it as an act of faith, but rather that we might see the saving power of the cross. We know this from the first Katavasia of the Holy Cross:

Inscribing the invincible weapon of the Cross upon the waters,

Moses marked a straight line before him with his staff and divided the Red Sea,

opening a path for Israel who went over dry-shod.

Then he marked a second line across the waters and united them in one,

overwhelming the chariots of Pharaoh.

Therefore let us sing to Christ our God,

for He hath been glorified.

If she read the rest of the Old Testament in light of the New, as the Church does, I think she would have a different theology than what she has developed.

The False Prophet

I, like many of my friends and fellow Orthodox, had mixed reactions to Harold Camping and his prediction about the impending rapture. We were amused that anyone would be so bold as to claim that which is not to be known, we joined in the myriad jokes after the prediction failed, and we were all saddened by the heart break of those who followed this man. Tragically, as we all imagined would happen, there has already been reported one suicide related to this man.

I find myself wondering why this man and his prediction captured this Orthodox Christian’s attention so much, as well as that of others. I know that one story that really struck me was that of the people who had basically given up their life savings due to this man’s teachings. Is that really what was most important, though? Or, does it reflect my still worldly mindedness. As an Orthodox, we have a fairly narrow definition of what the true faith is, and thus followers of other faiths are, to some degree or another, following false prophets. Yes, Harold Camping is a false prophet, but so are John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Rick Warren, and Joel Osteen. However, these other people won’t lead one to bankruptcy. Looking at Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, one imagines quite the opposite to be the case. I don’t mean this offend my many dear friends of different faiths – most of whom are sincere and loving people – more so than I have ever been. However, these other prophets are laying out a path that is different than the path to salvation that our Lord established with His Church. How much more dangerous is that than simply losing your money? As a result, do I pray as I should for all of my friends? Do I try to follow the teachings myself, and follow the path with the urgency that I should?

I take this event, and my reaction, as a stark warning to myself that my priorities are still not aligned correctly. Thankfully, the end has not come yet, for I am afraid I am like the servant who shall be found heedless:

Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight,

And blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching,

And again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.

Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep,

Lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.

But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, art Thou, O our God,

Through the Theotokos have mercy on us.

Troparion of Bridegroom Matins

Attitude Toward the Ancient Church

Virtually all religious groups that align themselves with Christianity make claims about their connection to the early Church. These claims can generally be divided into types – those that claim continuation with the early Church, and those who claim to be restoring the faith to it’s early roots.

The first question is, what is meant by the early roots. Almost always this refers to the Church of the New Testament era, and generally not a day later. Some have asserted that the Church began to fall away almost immediately after the death of St. John the Evangelist. The Anglican Church, however, has tended to make the argument that the Church continued on for a period after the repose of St. John, but later fell into error. More recently, I’ve seen writings by modern groups (most notably Reformed Baptists) that seem to imply that they, too, see the Fathers of the post-apostolic age as continuing on in the doctrine to which these groups adhere. The one thing that all of these groups have in common is that doctrine is the entire definition of the Church. That is, any group holding to the same doctrines as the early Church, are thereby members of that same Church.

Of course, “holding to the same doctrines” is a bit of a tricky question. One has to determine what those doctrines are. To some, all doctrines are contained within the covers of their 66 book Bible. Others, as I mentioned, believe that these doctrines are contained both in Scripture and in the writings of the early Church. There is little effective difference between these two views. In both cases, one needs to come to the text with an interpretive framework that helps you understand the text, and deal with those parts which are either unclear or appear to be contradictory. In both cases, as well, there is no foundation in either Scripture or the writings of the Fathers to hold to the belief. St. Paul, himself, clearly refers to teachings that are not contained solely in his letters, but that were transmitted orally. These teachings are part of the παραδοσισ of the Church. The word, often translated as tradition, refers to that which is handed down. So, the teachings of the Church are part of a larger body of knowledge that has been transmitted, or handed down, throughout the history of the Church. Yes, this includes Scripture, and the Church Fathers, but it also includes the prayers, the hymns, and also an oral tradition.

However, the Church has a much different view of itself. We find that view in St. Paul’s epistles, where the Church is described as the very body of Christ. This is not simply some rhetorical device, its a statement of fact. There is an organic wholeness to the Church. It is certainly the case that holding the same beliefs is a key component to what unites us, but there is also something more. That something more is Baptism and Chrismation. It is through this mystery (the two are done together in the ancient Church, and Orthodoxy has preserved this), that we are united to Christ, and therefore united to the Church. In the traditional forms of the Baptism service, either the Godparent or the new member are asked to state three times that they unite themselves to Christ. This, then, points to another aspect of being united to the Church. It is through our will (or those appointed to speak for us), and therefore we must have the capacity to depart as well. Historically, this, of course, has happened, and the Church has had to decide how to bring those who have left back in, if they so desire. Frequently, this is through Chrismation, as the Church has always been very concerned to not baptize anyone more than once.

So, the only way to be truly connected to the early Church is doctrinally and temporally – that is, being physically and spiritually part of that body which has existed since Christ established it. Realistically, any other approach is simply man made.


Fundamentalist Christianity – Producer of the Finest Anti-Christians

Over the past 30 years or so, two of the most effective opponents of Christianity have been former fundamentalists. The first is the somewhat infamous John Shelby Spong, now the retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark. The other is Bart Ehrman, professor of Religious Studies at UNC, Chapel Hill.

Both men would certainly declare themselves Christian, but, since most of their work is focused on removing the Divine nature of Christ, its hard to agree with their description of themselves. I find myself wondering how it is they arrived at their current positions. Is it because of their fundamentalist backgrounds that they have become such ardent non-believers? How many other people, born fundamentalist, have arrived in the same place? Spong and Ehrman, of course, are somewhat unique as they hold positions as Christian educators. Spong, as a retired bishop, is still a bishop of the Episcopal Church, and thus is responsible for teaching Christians. Ehrman, as professor of religion holds a similar responsibility. I won’t make any arguments about the appropriateness of them holding their current positions, but it is because of their positions that they have such an impact on the Christian world.

Let’s begin by a brief description of fundamentalism. I am referring to the specific Christian movement of the early 20th Century, not to the overuse of the term to apply to anyone of a conservative religious bent (with violent overtones, I might add). You can read something about the movement at Wikipedia, with the caveat that the article has been flagged as not being sufficiently neutral, and lacking sufficient citations. I think the background material in the article is pretty solid, but it probably goes astray as it begins discussing the rise of the Christian Right in the U.S. As an aside, that probably doesn’t belong in the article other than as a passing reference to a separate article. Christian Fundamentalism came about as a reaction to a number of factors, but most notably to 19th century scholarly developments – most notably Darwinism and so-called “Higher Criticism” of Scripture which developed in Germany. The movement developed 5 “fundamentals” which all orthodox (note the small o) Christians must adhere to in order to properly be considered Christians: Inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth and divinity of Christ, the second coming, the vicarious atonement, and the resurrection.

Unfortunately, the movement came to have a reputation as being anti-intellectual. Although I have not read the 12 volumes of “fundamentals,” which may, indeed, not have been anti-intellectual, the movement clearly became that over time. It is fine to have a basic formulary which describes the faith, the Orthodox Church, in part, relies on the Nicene Creed for this. However, at the same time, we are required to be able to give a defense, an apologia, for our faith. Fundamentalism largely failed to do that, and many groups that adhered to the fundamentals became known as churches that required one to check their brain at the door.

I think it was this phenomenon that produced Ehrman and Spong. The excessive reaction to liberalism, which certainly challenged basic precepts of traditional Christianity, itself caused the pendulum to swing even farther away and we end up with those who don’t believe in anything that would resemble Christianity. In fact, I would argue that the views of Ehrman and Spong are not so much liberal as anti-fundamentalist. In an odd twist, they have adopted an essentially religious dedication to 19th century scholarship that results in them holding those opposed to such views in disdain in much the same way that their fundamentalist forebearers held liberal theologians in disdain.

Spong relies very heavily on his somewhat limited knowledge of Darwinism ( a view of evolution that is not universally held, even by the most atheistic evolutionists in academia), Newtonian physics absent any knowledge of quantum mechanics, and, of course German higher criticism. The problem is that all of these schools have since gone their way. While Newtonian mechanics are still valid, they are only valid within certain limited contexts. Quantum mechanics and subsequent developments have made it obvious that the universe is much more complex than previously understood. Whereas Newtonian physics would not allow for things like the warp engines of Star Trek, modern physics tells us that such things are not so impossible. I recall once reading an article by Spong dismissing the accounts of the Ascension simply because its absurd, in a purely Newtonian world, to posit that heaven is up in space somewhere. It completely escaped him that Christ’s rising into the sky and disappearing into a cloud could have been an essentially sacramental act. That is, a physical act describing a spiritual reality. Could it have indicated his moving into a higher state (such terminology being commonly used in Quantum physics)?

Ehrman, similarly, relies on 19th century scholarship, apparently unaffected by modern developments. I ran across a very interesting review of one of his books at this site. He and Spong have much in common.

Unfortunately, Ehrman and Spong have trapped themselves in a very limited view of the world. They, too, appear to have come to place where in order to visit, one has to check their brain at the door. I wonder if their arrival in that place is merely because after a youth spent among fundamentalists, they sought out a different place that looked pretty much the same as the place they came from.

The lesson to Orthodox is that, while we have a well established definition of the faith, we need to not be afraid of engaging new trends in academia. While a purely intellectual approach to life leaves one open to spiritual delusion, we do not need to automatically dismiss such endeavors. For sure, we need to evaluate new developments in the context of our faith. Sometimes, in fact probably frequently, we’ll find such developments consistent with the faith. Where it is not, we need to (as a Church – I don’t think every Christian needs to become some sort of scholar who is an expert on everything) examine it closely and see where it has gone astray. Once we know that, we can make intelligent arguments and hopefully lovingly lead people closer to God. I fear that the back and forth between Fundamentalism and the followers of Spong and Ehrman has not resulted in anyone growing closer to God. I think the example we need to look to is St. Catherine of Alexandria, not the Spanish Inquisition.