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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Crossing the Tiber and All That Jazz.

In dealing with friends who have crossed the Tiber or gone to Constantinople, I have thought long, hard and prayerfully.

I appreciate the grief many feel about the fragmentation of 'Christianity', especially the North American version, that seems to have unsettled my friends and caused them to search for answers. It's true, that for all of our Protestant rhetoric, there is no real, stable authority that keeps us glued together. It is almost as in the days of the Judges when "there was no king in Israel," and "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 17.6). We have been infected with the parasites of self-authentication and self-authority. Therefore every time you turn around a new preacher/teacher pops up onto the scene with some new fangled interpretation of Scripture that contradicts what has been normally held to, and leads off a whole passel of people after his/her new-found light. It's shameful. Having a standard, unchangeable interpretation of the rule of faith and life would be nice. But Rome is not the answer. The Roman Church has modified its dogma throughout the centuries, finally embracing the immaculate conception of Mary, the infallibility of the Pope, and the centrality of the Roman Pontiff over all Christendom. Simply listen to complaints of the Eastern Orthodox, and they will tell you that these three things are aberrations of the ancient faith to which they hold.

Yet Eastern Orthodoxy has its own problems. They have adopted a development of ideas that has moved them away from Scripture, as well as embracing strange, and at times, Gnostic ideas. For example, with regard to moving away from Scripture, the easiest way to make the case is the 7th Ecumenical Council held in Nicea in 787 A.D. There the council mandated the veneration of Icons (written images of the saints, Biblical stories, Jesus, etc), and that any church that does not have an Icon for veneration is anathema (yes, that‘s true, those who don‘t have icons and venerate them are specifically called accursed)! Even though Scripture is clear that images are not to be made for the purpose of worship, the Orthodox have contravened Scripture. And to do this they have had to establish a whole gymnastic routine that distinguishes between respect and worship as well as the theory that forcing Icon-veneration on their people has something to do with protecting the incarnation (For a snap shot of this council see: With regard to Eastern Orthodoxy’s espousal of strange, almost Gnostic ideas, see the works of Dionysius the Areopagite, which is often quoted with glowing, authoritative approval.

Eastern Orthodoxy also has it's ethnic problems, where they are divided over 'Jurisdictions' which are clearly racial/ethnic/tribal rifts. No matter what they say with their mouths, their actions say something completely different. I remember being in a New England town where there was an Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a Greek Orthodox, and they didn't like each other at all nor would they gather around the ‘Eucharistic altar‘ for any reason (there was also serious trouble between the Ukrainian Orthodox and Croatian Catholic which I see as the same problem, but they wouldn't). The Russian Orthodox look down their noses at Greek Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox glare at the Russian Orthodox, while both disdain their Antiochian Orthodox brothers, and despise their Orthodox Church in America offspring. Though they haven’t excommunicated one another, they wouldn’t dare be caught gathering around the Lord’s Table together. All of which flies in the face of the Apostolic Faith laid out in Paul's letters to the Galatians and Ephesians.

With regard to the fragmentation of Protestantism, I often have to remind my Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends that fragmentation is old & ancient in the Church. From the ethnic fragmenting & tensions of the 2nd to 5th centuries, to the battles over dates for Christmas, Easter, etc (which were drawn along east/west lines, and caused immense anguish and fueled enormous rottenness). & then there is the Great Schism of the 11th century, which Rome foisted on the East and the East reciprocated in kind. As I have told my Roman Catholic friends here in Midland Texas, when they are gleefully bad mouthing my 'schismatic' Protestantism, that we have simply taken Rome's lead! Their response is to hang their heads in silent shame.

As for all the sacerdotal stuff, especially Apostolic Succession, I find it all very unconvincing. For example, having read heavily in the Patristic literature, I find physical apostolic succession an almost impossible ideal. For instance, when St. Basil wrote his short treatise on the Holy Spirit, he included a chapter on the present condition of the churches in his day (Chapter 30). He likened the Church to a night-time naval battle in the midst of a hurricane, where chaos and confusion reigned, where "the war was split into a myriad of factions, so that all men succumbed to irreconcilable hatred, either through individual suspicion or party spirit....Although we are united in our hatred of common foes, no sooner do they retreat, and we find enemies in each other." It became so bad that Basil cried, "one can no longer distinguish between friend and foe." His descriptions in this chapter show a time when Bishops who were thought orthodox became denounced as heterodox, and how the lines changed rapidly. Just a basic reflection on this chaotic situation shows that Apostolic Succession (the physical laying on of hands that somehow ensures the connection of the truly orthodox bishops all the way back to the Apostles) is fragile, and easily shatters in chaotic times like Basil's. One only need contemplate the modern era where 'Apostolic Succession' is touted by thoroughly unorthodox, heretical Bishops of The Episcopal Church. It seems to me that the proper Scriptural notion is Doctrinal Apostolic Succession (see my short piece on "Tertullian, Scripture, and the Right Authority").

To put all these ramblings in a nutshell, it seems to me that what my friends have said about their reasons for crossing over to Rome or Constantinople is mostly a grasping for some kind of ecclesiastical utopia. It is filled with noble desires and wishes, but the reality is disappointing.

What is the remedy? Honestly, I don’t know. Their complaints about Protestantism are often my complaints. Their longings and desires are frequently my desires and longing. But their answers are not my answers, and don’t seem to hold water for any length of time. I do think that the compassionate, Biblical ‘Calvinism’ I have submitted to is the better option. As I was telling my youngest son last Sunday, I think we are closer to the mark than many, though we very well have some distance to go.

Therefore I think it is my honorable duty to hold tightly before God to my ordination vows in the Presbyterian Church in America, while praying in union with our Lord Jesus (John 17) that the Father will so unite all of Jesus’ people that the world will know He sent Jesus, and that He loves us as much as He loves His only begotten Son.

Dominus vobiscum,



Puritan Texan said...

I figured you would have some interesting thoughts on this. I've been wanting to read "Reformed is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant" by Douglas Wilson...

You have any thoughts on it?

Mike Philliber said...

Zacharias, I have never read the book (I don't think), so I can't ay anything of value about it.