Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Position Paper: Anthropology

The following is my third position paper for my systematic theology class, on anthropology (a theological perspective on humanity).

In Christian theology, the knowledge of God is inseparable from the knowledge of ourselves. Calvin said of them, "as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other."1 At least as much as the questions of theology proper, the questions about humanity are universal, human questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where did we come from? What is wrong with the world?

First, the question of human identity. First, and basically, what does human nature consist of? Are we ordered collections of atoms? Do we have a body and some kind of incorporeal soul responsible for consciousness? Is matter an illusion altogether? Any attempt to separate human nature into more than two parts seems to be needlessly speculative and difficult to support biblically. Monism (the view that there is only one basic human substance) runs aground on passages that speak of an intermediate state in which the soul/spirit is separated from the body (Luke 16:19-31, 23:43, 2 Cor 5:8); Mat 10:28 also seems to make a strong distinction between body and soul. This leaves some kind of dichotomism (people have bodies and souls/spirits), but a simply dualistic approach that locates the "self" or consciousness exclusively in the soul does not do justice to the biblical idea of body-soul unity and the promise that our final state will be as new bodies, not disembodied souls (2 Cor 5:2-4, see also 1 Cor 15). Though it is by no means explicitly spelled out in the Scriptures, it seems best to conclude that the normal state of the human is a body-soul unity, with both together constituting the "self", but which can be broken upon death, though this disembodied state is by no means ideal or permanent.2

Humans were made in the image and likeness of God. (Gen 1:26-28) Are the "image" and "likeness" are synonymous or different. The early church generally believed they were different: the image of God is something innate and essential to humanity that remains untouched by the Fall, while the likeness is something humanity has to grow into through Godward growth in holiness and Christian maturity. Origen wrote "that man received the dignity of God's image at his first creation; but that the perfection of his likeness has been reserved for the consummation."3 Irenaeus identified the image with reason and free will, and the likeness with growth into Spirit-endowed righteousness.4 This distinction is still a frequent teaching of the Orthodox Church today: "The image, for those who distinguish the two terms, denotes man's potentiality for life in God, the likeness his realization of that potentiality."5

In contrast, Luther taught that the image and likeness are synonymous, with Gen 1:26 an instance of Hebrew parallelism6, as did Calvin.7 On this he based the belief common in Lutheran and Reformed theology that the whole image of God has been damaged in humanity by sin; only a relic remains, and the whole person (even the will, mind, etc.) is in need of regeneration. I tend to agree with the traditional view that the image and likeness are distinct, reflecting the fact that due to sin we are lacking in some areas of God-resemblance (those pertaining to morality and knowledge of God) but not others (the innate faculties we have in common with God that make relationship with him possible, as Irenaeus states). Put another way, our creation in the image of God means that humans, of all the earthly creatures, are not only capable of a personal relationship with God, they cannot escape this relationship, whether positive or negative. The image of God is also the biblical basis for human rights and dignity which are in no way affected by sin; we see it used as the justification for prohibiting the shedding of human blood (Gen 9:6) and cursing others (Jam 3:9). Because of the image of God, there is something innately valuable about a human person. But the likeness of God is something we must grow to realize, which means developing this relationship, strengthening it with love, and being transformed by grace into the likeness of Jesus Christ. (Rom 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18, Eph 4:15)

Next is the question of human purpose: why are we here? Reflecting the previous point, I think God's desire for humans is to grow into his likeness. Christians seek to be imitators of Christ. Paul speaks of this goal in Eph 4:11-16, saying that God builds up the body of Christ (the Church) "until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (v. 13 RSV). "Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (v. 15). Jesus was the perfect example of a true human being, and we were made to become like him. On a broader level, we see the purpose of humanity in the initial statement of their creation: after making humans, God tells them to "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Gen 1:28) In a Christian context, this means our imitation of God (in his moral nature) applies to our relation to the rest of creation as well as to each other. We become most fully human when we live in union with God and fulfill his purposes for us.

Regarding the third question, the Bible gives an account of human origins depicting our instantaneous creation by God, along with the rest of the world. Genesis 1 and 2 appear to contain two different creation accounts side-by-side,8 the first emphasizing God's majestic sovereignty that creates the cosmos in a peaceful, orderly fashion, the other emphasizing his personal nature and creation of humans in particular. People have been making much of these accounts since before Christ, but our appreciating them today is complicated by their apparent contradictions with the scientific account of our origins. I do not consider biblical concordism a suitable option for reconciling the two accounts as it imposes our modern expectations on an ancient text, which tends to lead to ad hoc interpretations that often produce more questions than they answer, questions which the biblical authors almost certainly didn’t concern themselves with. To further explain why, let's look at some historical approaches to interpreting Genesis.

The traditional interpretation of Genesis 1 does view it as speaking historical truth: how God really created the heavens and the earth. However, to note only this is misleading. Early interpreters did not view the literal sense of Scripture (not just the "literal" interpretation, but the intended meaning of the author) as the only way to read it, or even the most important. Because the Scriptures were inspired by the Spirit of God, they had multiple layers of meaning, including dimensions the human author did not intend.9 The church fathers focused on the allegorical or spiritual meaning of the paradise narrative, mostly using Adam’s historicity to prove the universality of Christ’s salvation of all the sons of Adam.10 In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, St. Augustine cautions against interpreting the Bible to contradict facts that are common knowledge among nonbelievers, for fear of casting doubt not only on themselves, but on the Scriptures as well.11 In other words, if we consider ourselves defenders of "traditional Christian orthodoxy", we should not assume that a literal, historical interpretation is the only one possible, even for passages that appear to be historical. And we should be willing to rethink our interpretation of Scripture if it contradicts things that even unbelievers know to be simple fact. To adopt a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis 1 in response to scientific evidence is not to compromise on the integrity of God's word, but to accept our limitations as human interpreters.

It is often pointed out that Paul seems to believe in the historicity of Adam, and indeed claims that sin and death came from Adam's sin. (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21-22, 45-49) Doesn't this settle our interpretation of Genesis 2-3? Without a historical Adam, what did Christ die for? I will briefly respond with two points to consider. First, Paul was an ancient man, reading his Bible (Old Testament) with an ancient understanding of science and origins that was, in his time, entirely uncontroversial. Elsewhere in 1 Cor 15 he states (about the resurrection) that "What you sow does not come to life unless it dies." (v. 36) But today, we know that a seed that dies cannot germinate.12 Paul’s being wrong about botany does not falsify the resurrection any more than his being wrong about the historicity of Adam does. Also, Paul is not making his understanding of Christ dependent on his understanding of Adam, but the other way around. What Christ reveals about Adam is not his place as the historical originator of sin and death, but as a type of Christ, his archetypal sin serving as a typological prelude to Jesus' universal redemption. In a very real sense, Christ reveals to us the nature of the very problem he solves.13

One other argument is the question: if man was not created instantaneously but by evolution, when and how did the human soul (or the image of God) originate? Did God at some point in evolutionary history implant it in a sufficiently developed primate? I think this question again arises from concordism, the quest to align biblical history with scientific history. But as a scientific theory, evolution is not bound to answer theological questions like this any more than the Bible is bound to answer our scientific questions. Is the origin of souls really an essential dogma of the faith? (Keep in mind that Genesis 2 never specifically mentions any ensoulment of Adam; it must be inferred by assuming that it tells us the etiology of souls) We should not expect spiritual realities like these to be accountable to our modern, scientific inquiries; "spiritual realities are not open to this kind of precise analysis".14 I don't see any problem with considering the origin of souls a divine mystery, real but wholly outside the explanations of science.

Regardless of how God created us, our biblical status as beings created by a personal God (in his image, no less) has great significance. We are simultaneously connected to God and to the rest of creation. Like the animals, we are limited, part of the creation and dependent on him for our existence (see Psa 104, Mat 6:25-34). But at the same time, because of our creation in the image of God, we have a unique relationship with him among all the earthly creatures. As our creation mandate directs, we are made to be God's stewards and emissaries here on earth, taking an active role in the exercise of his rulership of creation. In light of Adam's role in naming the animals (in the ancient Near East the name of something was effectively its identity15), we are even made to be God's "assistant creators", continuing his creative work in his Name towards the redemption of all things. And of all the creatures besides the angels, we alone are capable of knowing God and loving him personally. Scientific or no, the Bible gives a much better account of human origins than the dominant stories of our culture.

By studying the original ancient Near Eastern context and genre of Genesis 1-3, we can better understand the intent of the creation account beyond simply telling ancient history. The contrasts between Genesis 1 and contemporary creation myths (like Enuma Elish) are glaring. Unlike Marduk, "God is portrayed as truly mighty in that he is solely and fully responsible for forming the cosmos"; there is no struggle involved in his doing so, and the elements of creation are depersonalized rather than enemies that God has to subdue.16 Since Enuma Elish predates the Genesis account, these contrasts are surely intentional. Genesis 1, besides an account of Israelite origins, is a polemic for worship of the true God. John H. Walton offers another interpretation, that it may also be a description of God establishing the cosmos as his temple and taking up residence in it to rule all things.17 Genesis 2 has typological parallels with Israel's exile, and since it was completed from an earlier written/oral tradition after the Babylonian exile18, it likely reflects a humble Israel's desire to remember her past sins and seek to serve her Creator humbly. These are just a few examples of the significance of the creation account beyond the literal.

No biblical discussion of humanity would be complete without turning to what is known as "the human condition". Christians and non-Christians alike know that our existence is not perfect. We are reminded of it every time we look to the news, and sometimes with problems that hit closer to home. The faithless believe the apparent indifference of the universe is exactly what it looks like; the faithful agonize over the question, why does a loving, all-powerful God allow suffering, evil, and death? This is the "problem of evil", a fundamental question of human existence. Our understanding of mankind is inextricably connected to it.

In light of my ahistorical interpretation of Genesis 1-3, I don't attribute the existence of evil and death to an original human sin that somehow corrupted our nature; the presence of "natural evil" before the existence of humans makes this conclusion untenable. This view also has theological problems: I see no way that Adam could possibly have ruined human nature in a way that takes God thousands of years to mend. If, as some suppose, this corruption was instead an act of divine judgment,19 then by implication we need salvation not from sin and death but from God himself. Additionally, if basic human nature really is corrupted by sin, then Jesus, by being sinless, was less than fully human. I consider these implications untenable.

I instead hold something like the eastern formulation which, instead of making Adam's act of "original sin" the source of our total depravity that is condemned with death, holds that mortal is our basic problem, and that sin springs from it.20 Sin is not something that Adam (much less God) somehow injected into basic human nature, but the result of slavery to the terror/power of death wielded by the devil.21 (See Hbr 2:14-15) As Paul wrote, "The sting of death is sin" (1 Cor 15:56). Yet at the same time our sin pulls us further from God, the giver of life, which accelerates the vicious cycle; "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23) In Orthodox theology, sin, death, and the devil are all viewed together as a sort of unholy trinity, namely the one Jesus came to defeat.22 Human nature, created by God, remains essentially good, but is trapped by these forces and cannot escape corruption and destruction on its own. What we need is not legal pardon, but rescue and vivification; the arena of salvation is not a courtroom, but a hospital. This theology, with its focus on sin and death together as present realities which we understand and are delivered from through Christ, is much more amenable to a nonhistoric Adam.

Yet I, for one, can't simply ignore the question of the origin of death. If death was not only the condition into which the first humans were born but vital to the evolutionary mechanism that produced them, the question must be asked: did God create a world with death "built-in"? And if death is "the last enemy to be destroyed" (1 Cor 15:26), does this make God responsible for the very problem that Jesus solves? Only if we view salvation history as merely a timeline, a succession of events one after another. Some (particularly in eastern traditions) restructure even this timeline around the eternal reality of the Incarnation. One priest writes: "But does this mean that God created a world that has held death from the beginning? It would not be strange to say so, since Pascha [Easter] was before the beginning."23 The second-century church father Irenaeus even views our faithful journey through the presently corrupted world as an intentional part of God's process of soul-making, bringing us to full maturity in the knowledge of him as well as freedom from sin and death. Accompanying this is a concept of “perfection” that is not simply freedom from taint, but fully realized completion. "God, for his part, could have offered perfection to humanity at the beginning, but humanity was not capable of receiving it, being no more than an infant."24 Though unintuitive, I find this way of approaching the problem of evil compelling in that it does not clash with scientific discoveries but challenges us to take on God’s eternal perspective and put off the human one from which we pose our accusatory questions.

I believe that Christianity, more than simply being conversant with philosophers’ questions about humanity, holds the best answers to them. Who are we? God's beloved creatures, made in his image to shine in his likeness. (Phil 2:14-16) Why are we here? To be conformed to the image of God's Son (Rom 8:29) and, with the Son, to become participants in God's ongoing work of new creation/reconciliation of the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). Where did we come from? The hand of God (Gen 1:26-28), working with the instruments of nature. What is wrong with the world? The oppression and corruption wrought by sin, death, and the devil (Rom 6:23, 1 Cor 15:56, Hbr 2:14-15), whose works have already been brought to nothing by the Lord Christ and in whose victory we participate by the shedding of his blood. (Col 2:9-15) Calvin was right: it is impossible to come to a full understanding of ourselves without also finding a full understanding of the gospel.

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Henry Beveridge; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 1.1.1.
  2. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 491–492.
  3. Origen, De principiis, (22 October 2014).
  4. Erickson, Christian Theology, 462.
  5. Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 66.
  6. Erickson, Christian Theology, 462.
  7. Calvin, Institutes, 1.15.3.
  8. Denis O. Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 199.
  9. Michael Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 48–55.
  10. Peter C. Bouteneff, Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 173–180.
  11. Augustine, “The Literal Meaning of Genesis”, quoted in Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), 83.
  12. Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 137.
  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman, “Creation and Evolution,” Glory to God for All Things, 11 February 2014, (17 October 2014); see also Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), 131–135.
  14. Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 289.
  15. Henri and H. A. Frankfort, “Introduction,” in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), 13.
  16. Enns, The Evolution of Adam, 41.
  17. This is the overall argument of John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: 2006).
  18. Enns, The Evolution of Adam, 23–26.
  19. R.C. Sproul, “The Pelagian Controversy,” Ligonier Ministries, 1 August 2005, (22 October 2014).
  20. John Chrysostom, “Homily on Romans 5:12” in The Works of Saint John Chrysostom (ed. Philip Schaff, George Barker Stevens; Kindle edition: 2011).
  21. Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 12–14.
  22. Beck, The Slavery of Death, 17.
  23. Freeman, “Creation and Evolution”.
  24. Irenaus, “adversus haereses,” in The Christian Theology Reader, 343.

My Journey, Part 11.2: The Insufficiency of Scripture

This is part 11.2 of my rebooted series on my experience with the "gospel". Please read the previous parts if you haven't already:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura

Having given what I hope is a satisfactory explanation and defense of sola scriptura in the last post, I can now explain why I no longer agree with it.


The basic distinction my previous argument set up is highly dualistic. It views "God's word" and "the traditions of men" as two mutually exclusive categories which must be held separate. One is authoritative and infallible, the other is fallible and authoritative only in its agreement with the infallible source. This mandates a strong distinction between the Bible and the traditions of the Church.

Orthodox teaching would say that this view fails to take the Incarnation seriously enough. When God became man, the simple human-divine distinction was obliterated, like the veil in the temple of Jerusalem (Mat 27:51). The second Person of the Trinity put on flesh and lived with us, for our salvation. The destiny of Christians is now to be become like him, to become by grace what he is by nature. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:15-16: "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love." Or, as St. Athanasius famously said, "God became man that man might become god." I lowercase the second "god" because, obviously, we will never become infinite as God is. We will never become omnipotent or omniscient, never rule the cosmos as he does. God can never have an equal. Yet, in a very real sense, Orthodox view salvation as deification, increasing union with God and sharing with him in who he is.

Therefore, Orthodox believe the biblical teaching of the Church as the body of Christ the head (Eph 1:22-23, Col 1:18-20) has wide-ranging implications. The Church is the "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15) , built on the confession of Jesus as the Messiah (Mat 16:16-18), the recipient of the Spirit of truth (Jhn 16:13). Paul writes of the Church, "So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit." (Eph 2:19-22) In light of all of these affirmations, it seems unjust to call the Church merely a human institution that perpetuates human tradition. The simple human-vs.-divine dualism of sola scriptura is no longer tenable if the Church is the body of Christ and the temple of the Spirit of truth, just as it doesn't apply to Christ himself. The aforementioned warnings against following human traditions (Jer 23:16, Mat 15:6, 1 Cor 2:4-5,10,13, Gal 1:10-11, Col 2:8, 1 Th 2:13) are not speaking of every tradition of the Church except Scripture, but against heretical teachings and corruptions of the apostolic tradition.

A few other observations: by implication, it seems like Protestants should simply repeat the words of Scripture in church, since saying anything else is simply speaking the words of man, and how can those possibly improve on the perfection of God's word? But of course no one does this, which means that, to some degree, Protestants unconsciously agree with the view of tradition I am stating. (As I will get to in a few more posts, the Orthodox liturgy arguably includes more words of Scripture than the typical Protestant service)

Luther's protests against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church were somewhat valid in that the Church really had corrupted its teaching. There really was a tension between the teaching of Scripture and the "words of men" (the Magisterium), so it's unsurprising that Luther would draw a contrast there. But Luther's contrast between the teachings of men and the word of God doesn't transfer to Orthodoxy, which testifies that it has faithfully preserved the apostolic faith without change (and whose testimony I have come to believe). If Luther had been Orthodox, there would have been no Reformation because there would have been no need for one. I don't know of anyone in the eastern Church who has championed anything like the Protestant "back to the Bible" approach who was not influenced by the Reformation.

Apostolic tradition = Scripture?

I'll turn now to my argument's equation of the "apostolic tradition" with Scripture, and the implied exclusion of everything else. Obviously, if the apostolic tradition has the exact same content as Scripture, it is at least somewhat propositional in nature, the kind of truth that can be put into a book. But Orthodox believe that Tradition is much more than doctrinal truth about Jesus: it also includes the prayers and liturgy of the Church, the lives of the saints, and holy icons, music, art, and architecture. It is the whole "grammar" of the faith that Orthodox live consciously and subconsciously. Tradition is the very Spirit-breathed life of the Church. not simply its doctrinal teaching. In the early Church God was powerfully active, by no means restricted to writing. Has he so restricted himself now?

The Bible itself speaks against the idea that it contains the entirety of the apostolic tradition. John 21:25 says, "But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." Did the apostles, when orally passing on the teachings and works of Christ, restrict themselves to talking about what they would later put into writing? I hope not. Also, as N.T. Wright notes, since Jesus taught all over Judea he probably preached each of his sermons and parables dozens of times in total, with a certain amount of variance or improvisation in each telling. Yet each gospel only records a single copy of each. (Incidentally, this may account for some of the differences in details and ordering between the gospels) Also, in Paul's farewell speech to the Ephesian church he quotes a saying of Jesus (Acts 20:35) which is not found in any of the gospels. He cites other extrabiblical traditions in 1 Cor 10:4 and 2 Tim 3:8, as does Jude in vv. 9 and 14-20. (But are they really "extrabiblical" then?)

Additionally, the idea that we now know Jesus exclusively through the Bible seems to make the Bible into the definitive mediator between us and God, but "there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim 2:5). Is there a paper-and-ink mediator between us and Jesus as well?


I think sola scriptura also has less historical founding than the Orthodox view. It claims to be faithful to the practice of the early Church, but my studies have not borne this claim out. The Orthodox Church, like the early Church, has not understood tradition as something separate from the Scriptures and tacked onto them, a distinct source of authority. Rather, it views Scripture as the central and most important part of the Church's tradition. This is how Protestants can read the church fathers and claim they believed in sola scriptura, because they base their points on Scripture and not on a different thing called "tradition". That is simply not how tradition works. Tradition includes the Scriptures, and everything in it can be traced back to biblical teaching. I will explain this more below, but because Scripture needs to be interpreted, the fact that everything in tradition is "biblical" in some sense does not mean sola scriptura is true.

My argument's statement that after the apostles died, their oral tradition ceased and only the written tradition was left is simply false. Oral tradition can be passed down just like written tradition; Paul even commands it in 2 Tim 2:2. Also, the division between "oral" and "written" tradition is blurry, since many parts of tradition besides the Bible (writings of the fathers, liturgies, prayers, canons of church councils...) have been put into writing. This process began at least with the Didache, which was written just after or contemporaneously with Revelation, around 100. "Written tradition" isn't equivalent to the Bible.

Finally, sola scriptura leads to a kind of foundationalism (the quest to base knowledge on a foundation of certain beliefs) that I see nowhere in the early Church. Protestants today view the Bible as a body of truth from which to rationally, inductively construct a faith. Ostensibly starting from nothing (even knowledge of God or the nature of Scripture), they first discover Scripture's "self-authenticating" nature and then develop a complete theology from its teachings. But this is absolutely not how the early church operated, even after churches started to acquire reasonably complete collections of New Testament writings. It used the Scriptures more as an expression of an already-realized faith (that is, the apostolic tradition) than as a constitution on which to base such a faith. The faith preceded the Scriptures (at least the New Testament) and encompasses them; it does not originate in them.

My main point

But these are all preliminary arguments. The main reason why I came to disagree with sola scriptura is this: I realized the undeniable difference between the Bible and its interpretation, or between reading the Bible and understanding it.

Sufficient how?

This is the crucial distinction that so often gets forgotten in proclamations of the "sufficiency" of Scripture. Luther's belief in Scripture as the arbiter of tradition and judge of the Church's teaching assumed that it can speak with a clear, definitive voice, objectively governing the Church and deciding which traditions are or are not "biblical".

Within ten years of Luther's 95 theses came the first big disagreement about the interpretation of Scripture between reformers, namely Luther and the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli's differing opinions about the nature of the Eucharist. Luther pointed to Christ's statement, "this is my body" (Mat 26:26, Mar 14:22, Luk 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24) to substantiate his interpretation of the Real Presence known as consubstantiation. Zwingli pointed to John 6:63 ("It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail") to support his view of communion as a memorial and symbol of the atonement. Their disagreement proved irreconcilable before Zwingli's death and presaged future spats between the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation (to say nothing of the radical reformers that everyone else loved to hate).

What does this say about Luther's democratic view of Scripture, as the infallible basis for the rule of faith? Was one or both of the two unable to read the biblical teaching on the eucharist clearly because of sin? Or is it possible that the Bible itself does not conclusively label one view as "biblical" and not the other? Does it clearly enumerate the difference offices of the church (bishop, elder, deacon...) and their duties, or a comprehensive list of all the spiritual gifts, or instructions for performing the liturgy of the early Church? Does it clearly state how faith and works are supposed to intersect?

What I am trying to get at here is, again, the distinction between reading Scripture and interpreting it (and between interpreting it and rightly interpreting it). The Bible certainly has things to say concerning all of these topics, but if Luther and Zwingli's feud is any indication, it does not give one clear, simple teaching on them, at least not one that is equally evident to everyone. Interpretation is required to come to "biblical" views on these things, and not everyone interprets in the same way. If Scripture can be said to contain everything necessary for Christian teaching, life, and worship, it seems to contain much of it only implicitly, requiring interpretation to unlock. It is not so clear on every subject of interest to Christians that everyone is able to come to the same conclusion by simply reading the Bible themselves. This is roughly the Catholic distinction between the material sufficiency of Scripture and the formal sufficiency, which I find quite helpful.


Does this mean that Scripture really is unclear, that God did not speak intelligibly? This distinction is too simplistic. As I argued above, sola scriptura, the belief that the Bible alone is sufficient to inform Christian faith and practice, tends to place the focus of belief on rational, propositional truth. So here with the clarity of Scripture. The concern of the argument in my previous post was to establish and defend the intelligibility of Scripture to the intellect: no layman is "unqualified" to read Scripture on his own or obligated to defer to an authority outside Scripture itself. This statement is qualified by the admission that our hearts can still keep us from understanding Scripture properly, but this is not taken as a big deal since we have received the Spirit which is from God (1 Cor 2:12) to heal our rebellious hearts and lead us to the truth.

Yet if the point of interpreting the Bible is more than just correct belief (and even Protestants maintain that it is), then this is a big problem. In fact, it's an even bigger problem than not being able to understand the Scriptures intellectually. What difference does it make if we follow the prescribed model of reading Scripture faithfully, understanding it soundly, and then applying it if our hearts refuse to listen? Doesn't this just make us Pharisees? When Protestants quote 2 Peter 3:16, it is almost always in the context of proving that even as the New Testament was still being written, Paul's letters were already being considered "Scripture", indicating their self-authenticating nature. But look at what comes before: "There are some things in [Paul's letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures." Why do we assume that because we call ourselves Christians, Peter's warning never applies to us?

If God does not guarantee that our hearts will understand the Scriptures, then why should we seek any such promise for our heads? Does a well-written textbook on calculus speak clearly? Yes, if the reader has the necessary background learning. Its lack of clarity to an uneducated person is not necessarily due to any mistake on the part of the author, but the nature of the content and the ability of the reader. To argue that calculus is "perspicuous" doesn't do justice to its complexity and depth, in which those able to understand it find its richness. And so with the Bible. Fr. Stephen Freeman writes on the Protestant democratic view of Scripture:
The Scriptures are difficult to understand, simply on the most straightforward level. What often passes for understanding is nothing of the sort. To actually hear the Scriptures without the filters of cultural abuse and twisting they have endured over the centuries (and especially in the modern period) is a great spiritual feat, a miracle. 
This feat is even greater when it comes to reading the Fathers – for there the layers become even denser, the required contextual knowledge yet more complex. 
The scholarly reading of Scripture and the Fathers is inherently non-egalitarian. All are not equal. All will not have equal understanding. But neither is it truly and solely intellectual. For spiritual meaning is also spiritually discerned. And it is here that many make shipwreck of their understanding. For the arrogance of our times convinces many that “at least with themselves” the ability to spiritually discern will be present. Or, more commonly, they will champion this reader or that and choose sides like the crowds of a football match. Theological debate often resembles the conversation of sports clubs.
Orthodox don't believe the Bible is "perspicuous" to the head or the heart, not even on "salvific" subjects (as if the Bible is made to be so divided). But this is not an issue, and does not mean that God has not spoken clearly or doesn't really want to save his people because salvation doesn't come from simply reading Scripture individually and then believing and applying what it says. Salvation is through the Church, which is itself the interpretation of the Scriptures. It is through the instruction of the Church rather than any kind of common-sense principle that we learn to read the Bible correctly, just as it has been from the first century onwards. This is not to discourage anyone from reading the Bible and seeking its riches for themselves, but a reply to the democratic rhetoric of the reformers that makes everyone's personal interpretation of Scripture authoritative for them.

Responding directly to the arguments I put forward for perspicuity last time, Paul's distinction between the "wisdom of men" and the gospel is a contrast between the pretensions of itinerant teachers and philosophers (against whom Paul was being unfavorably compared), not an argument for the simplicity of Scripture. "Making wise the simple" more likely means that the Scriptures are good and useful for the instruction of the simple to make them wise in Christian maturity, not that they are a metaphorically open book to the simple from the get-go.

Jesus' manner of correcting peoples' misreadings of Scripture actually argues for an undemocratic view of the Bible's clarity; in all but one of the cases I cited, Jesus is correcting Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, and other Jewish elites—people who were expected to know what the Scriptures said because they had studied them their entire lives and were considered qualified to teach others, not simply because they are equally clear to all. The exception is Luke 24:25, in which a) Jesus says the disciples are "slow of heart" to believe, not slow of mind, and b) He is about to embark on retrospective journey through the Scriptures to show how he fulfills them in ways not originally expected (and quite possibly allegorical). Paul's letters were written to entire churches, but of course they would have been read publically to the congregations and then expounded upon by a leader or teacher, not simply read and interpreted individually by each parishioner. The rarity of books in the ancient world made this impossible.

Pervasive interpretive pluralism

But perhaps the biggest argument against the clarity of Scripture is that Protestants who rely on the Bible and consider themselves "biblical" Christians disagree so much about what the Bible really says! There are over 32,000 hundreds of Protestant denominations who have divided with each other over almost any biblical subject imaginable—including the number and nature of the salvific "essentials" of the faith that Scripture supposedly speaks clearly about. Is this confusion the result you would expect if the Bible alone is really sufficient for matters of faith and practice? This is the problem of "pervasive interpretive pluralism", as Christian Smith calls it. When Protestants equally seeking to read and apply the Bible aright interpret it in different and incompatible ways, how do you decide which interpretation is right? Can we even know? Who gets to decide this?

And the disagreement isn't just across space, but across time. Most any interpretation stands on the shoulders of some giant or another, so it's almost always possible to consider your view "traditional". But again, how do we know that we are right and the historical interpreters we disagree with are wrong? It seems like we'll always have to be ignoring some part of tradition. Aware of this selective approach, I journaled:
But...ignoring tradition is a kind of epistemological arrogance, albeit an unintentional, institutionalized one. (2014-2-1)
This all comes back to my point that the Bible never just "speaks" on its own. It has to be interpreted, and for a variety of reasons different Christians come to different conclusions. No one has a direct line to God through it. So just relying on "Scripture alone" will only generate pluralism and confusion. The problem, I realized in a pre-echo of the Orthodox approach to the Bible, is the individualism behind the assumption that anyone can pick up the Bible and understand what it means.
The expectation that someone can just pick up a Bible and understand it is unrealistic—it must be read in community to be understood holistically. (2013-6-13)

A nasty decision

Faced with this problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism, Protestants tend to pick one of three options to preserve the doctrine of sola scriptura.
  1. The modernist solution: Insist that you have read Scripture correctly or "objectively", and others have misread for various reasons, probably because of their sin or preconceptions. Most Protestants realize why this is not a solution at all—when everyone does it, it merely perpetuates the problem and even makes it worse. It effectively makes your own reading of Scripture as authoritative as Scripture itself.
  2. The postmodernist solution: Admit that maybe this pluralism is the the way it's supposed to be; we can't know what the Bible means for sure, but maybe its truth is found in the plurality of interpretations instead of boiling down to one right answer. Or maybe a truly "objective" reading of Scripture is an ideal that we can draw ever closer to but never actually reach, so we must be humble about our efforts. Aside from looking absolutely nothing like the approach of the early Church towards Scripture, I have found this option profoundly unsatisfying and hard to reconcile with the Bible's inspiration.
  3. The via media: Admit that some things in the Bible ("open-hand issues") are unclear, but the essentials (the "closed-hand issues"/"matters of salvation") are clear and and can be agreed on.
...except they can't. Protestants are unable to agree on even what is "essential" or "salvific". Some Calvinists hold that a Reformed understanding of God's grace is essential to be a Christian, but not all who call themselves Christians agree with this. Some young-earth creationists hold that agreeing with their account of origins is essential, but many Christians disagree. Quite a few Christians believe that a Nicene understanding of the Trinity is necessary to be a Christian, but not everyone self-identifying as a Christian (e.g. unitarians, Mormons) agrees with this. If you define the "essentials" as the things which all Christians can agree on, the set of them quickly shrinks down to nil. If you adopt a stronger definition of what they are, you are asserting the correctness of your interpretation over someone else's. So this approach really reduces to one of the first two, though it is usually more humble about it. I expressed the pessimism of the second approach when I journaled:
There is also an opposite error to epistemological arrogance, on the other side of epistemological humility—an unwillingness to hold to crucial truth, to 'just get along'. But how do you decide what truth is worth holding to—or is that even the right question? (2014-2-2)
This search for the "essentials" or "fundamentals" of the authentic Christian faith also leads to a very boundary-oriented understanding of what Christian faith really is, defined by the beliefs that are merely "sufficient" for salvation. I now consider "mere salvation" an oxymoron, something we shouldn't even concern ourselves with for a moment. Orthodox theology, while it does have some clear boundaries, is much more center-oriented, focused on knowing and celebrating the mysteries of Christ. This is because the boundaries of Orthodoxy are well-known and universally agreed-upon, so no one tries to figure them out anew or challenge them. I also believe it's because they are correct, not excluding parts of the true faith or allowing for blatant heresies to coexist with it, so by and large no one feels called to question them as so often happens in Protestantism.

The search for the correct hermeneutic

To try to create some order in this chaos of different interpretations, Protestants seek a hermeneutical method that will allow people to agree on the "correct" interpretation of Scripture and establish it as the infallible rule of faith that Luther envisioned. (If such a method is needed and apparently not obvious, does that mean that Scripture alone really isn't sufficient?) These include:

Just read the Bible literally. Unfortunately, this doesn't work. As I have pointed out myself, there are plenty of instances where even staunch "biblical literalists" don't read it all literally. Does your church allow women to speak in church, or to worship with their heads uncovered? What about when Jesus said, "This is my body...this is my blood"? Or when the Bible uses anthropomorphic language to describe God the father, or says that he changed his mind? No one reads the Bible entirely literally, and that's a very, very good thing.

The Holy Spirit illuminates our hearts and guides us to the correct interpretation. Unfortunately, this approach compels one to de-Christianize those who disagree with you, since you both can't be led by the same Spirit to conflicting conclusions. Every difference in interpretation that can't be reconciled becomes an implicit accusation of some failure in the other's faith. As the number of denominations grows, it becomes harder and harder for a Protestant to maintain that the Spirit has led just one of them to interpret the Bible correctly—but he or she will probably believe that if it's any denomination, it's theirs.

Scripture interprets Scripture. As the Westminster Confession says, "the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly." Yet, as I have pointed out before, which passages are "clear" and which are "unclear" varies from person to person, dependent on preassumptions. So this approach doesn't work either.

The historical-critical/grammatical method of exegesis. This approach acknowledges the biasing role of preconceptions that makes the above three methods untenable, and seeks to see past them. By studying the Bible "objectively" or "scientifically", it is thought, its true meaning will be revealed. While this approach has yielded much useful scholarship, it runs unto the problem of hermeneutics not being an empirical science. Because of the impossibility of banishing preconceptions entirely, this approach often just results in the scholar reading his or hers back out of the Bible behind a mask of objectivity. Again, if reading the Bible in such an empirical way were really possible, we would expect all historical-grammatical exegetes to agree in their reading (or at least the major points), but again this is not the case. Again there is interpretive pluralism.

Read the Bible with the Church. This approach recognizes the dangers of allowing individual interpretations to rule, and even seems to learn a lesson from more traditional forms of Christianity. But it runs into trouble when applied in the context of a fragmented Church. Yes, you can read your Bible with your church, as part of a tradition of some kind, but what about the church down the street that has a different understanding? How do you adjudicate between different churches' different interpretations? The problem of pervasive intepretive pluralism has simply been kicked up a level to churches rather than individuals. If your definition of the Church is effectively "those who hold the beliefs I consider salvifically essential", letting church tradition guide your reading will do little to produce unity with other churches. Tradition is inseparable from ecclesiology.

Even seeking to align your reading with the historical traditions of the wider Church doesn't work if you continue to hold to the sola scriptura tenet of the Bible as the arbiter of tradition. How can you know which traditions are "biblical" and which are not? For example, on what basis do most Protestants affirm that the first ecumenical council of Nicea (which established the orthodox view of Christ's two natures and promulgated the first version of the Nicene Creed) is "biblical", while the second (which allowed for the veneration of icons) is not? I expressed something like this sentiment when I was coming to terms with the Orthodox view of tradition, not seeing the contradiction:
I might be willing to accept Tradition inasmuch as it expounds, interprets, clarifies, strengthens, applies, etc. Scripture—but not when it contradicts it or innovates on it, as with the perpetual virginity of Mary. (2014-4-23)
It's nice to see Protestants paying an increasing number of attention to the historical tradition of the Church, but as long as these traditions and writings are simply treated as additional "texts" from which to draw, the individual still reigns as the final interpreter, as this post argues. Even if churches seek to consciously draw from the wellspring of tradition, while the plurality of churches remains, people can always just choose the one whose reading of the Bible and tradition aligns the best with their personal interpretation.
It’s not so much that Protestant traditions are the personal domains of individuals—although this does happen, and more traditions begin or are identified with a single person. The real issue is that choosing these traditions is highly individualized—it’s an a la carte approach to belief where we can easily surround ourselves with those we agree with. (2014-3-21)
As my interest in Orthodoxy was growing (but a few significant doubts remained), I journaled:
I’m inclined to remain Protestant (not evangelical) and freely extol the overall truth of Orthodoxy and borrow from its tenets and traditions. Yet this seems like the epitome of hypocrisy; such borrowing is an affront to what Tradition is supposed to be to us. (2014-6-4)
I realized this borrowing approach to Tradition, whether sipping or guzzling from it, was ultimately against the nature of Tradition itself. It is as united as the Church; there can be no picking and choosing.

Eck's challenge

Protestants like to quote Luther's simple statement of the principle of sola scriptura which he gave at the debate in Leipzig: "A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it." Much less popular (for some reason) is the response of his opponent, Johann Eck. (Emphasis added)
But this is the Bohemian virus [referring to the Bohemian proto-reformer, Jan Hus], to attach more weight to one's own interpretation of Scripture than to that of the popes and councils, the doctors and the universities. When Brother Luther says that this is the true meaning of the text, the pope and councils say, 'No, the brother has not understood it correctly.' Then I will take the council and let the brother go. Otherwise all the heresies will be renewed. They have all appealed to Scripture and have believed their interpretation to be correct, and have claimed that the popes and the councils were mistaken, as Luther now does.
Why, objectively, was Luther right and, say, Pelagius wrong? What gave Luther any more of a right to interpret Scripture against the teaching of the Church than Marcion? What guarantee have we that, by following Luther, we are not plunging into heresy like the followers of Arius?

St. Irenaeus, when responding to Valentinianism (an early Christian gnostic sect) and its use of the Scriptures to support heresy, made a famous analogy:
Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked are in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king's form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.
I'm not saying that all Protestants are like the Valentinians. But both follow the same dangerous approach to the Scriptures, that is, following one's own interpretation of them wherever it may lead rather than the "rule of faith" established by the apostles and passed down through the churches. This rule of faith, the teachings of Tradition on how to properly interpret the Scriptures, is the likeness of the king in Irenaeus' analogy, the guide to correctly assembling the mosaic. It is the universal faith, the teaching of the whole Church, which leads us to the truth, not simply whatever we think the text says.

Peter Bouteneff, referring to Irenaeus' analogy:
If Scripture inexorably produced the rule of faith from itself, it would be impossible to emerge from it reading it with the portrait of anything but the King. The apostolic witness—what the apostles preached based on how Christ taught them to understand the Scriptures—is what produces the rule, or canon, of faith. ... Holding to the rule of faith, then, naturally enables the Christian to reconstruct the mosaic of the King correctly, even as it also serves to unite him or her to the true church. Irenaeus readily admits, however, that Scripture does not present explicit solutions to all questions or completely penetrate the mysteries (e.g., of theodicy, the angels, the incarnation,  or the economy in general).
The Scripture itself does not explicitly rule on whatever matter of doctrine we may wonder about. Scripture alone is not sufficient for matters of faith or practice; it has to be interpreted, and if the present state of Protestantism is any indication, relying on your own judgment beholden to no other authority than the Bible is not a solution at all. The Bible does not, cannot, is not meant to establish a rule of faith; rather, the rule of faith guides the interpretation of the Bible and allows sound interpretations to be discerned from faulty ones. Orthodox identify this rule of faith with Holy Tradition, the subject of the next post.

More resources

Many Orthodox have written about sola scriptura and its differences from the Orthodox view of Tradition. Here are some articles I found helpful while composing this one.

A long article on the shortcomings of sola scriptura and summarizing the Orthodox approach to truth

Argument that solo and sola scriptura are effectively the same
Response of another blogger to the previous article

Another Orthodox critique of sola scriptura

Several recent blog posts by Fr. Stephen Freeman, one of the Orthodox bloggers I follow, roughly centering around sola scriptura and Tradition:
A contrast between Protestant and Orthodox ways of treating the "Bible"
Follow-up addressing criticisms of the previous post
The "grammar" of faith, or how Orthodox Tradition is broader and much deeper than the Bible
Critique of the democratic assumptions undergirding sola scriptura
The concept of "authority" as understood in Orthodoxy

Q&A with Elder Cleopa on Scripture and its proper use in the Church
Q&A with Elder Cleopa on Holy Tradition and the sufficiency of Scripture

Finally, Orthodox-Reformed Bridge (a site in dialogue with Reformed Christianity form an Orthodox perspective) has a a fairly lengthy four-part series critiquing sola scriptura: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

Friday, October 17, 2014

My Journey, Part 11.1: Sola Scriptura

This is part 11.1 of my rebooted series on my experience with the "gospel". Please read the previous parts if you haven't already:

1.Back to the beginning
2.Cracks appear
3.Questions multiply
4.Questioning the "gospel"
5.The big question
6.A better hermeneutic
7.Explorations in epistemology
7.5.Excursus on oversystematization
8.Back to the gospel
9.The new direction
10.Ecclesiological foundations

This post explains the most important change in my thinking as I shifted from evangelicalism to Orthodoxy: the change from a Protestant understanding of the Bible to an Orthodox one. More than any other, this was the issue that convinced me about Orthodoxy. I am going to be as thorough and careful as possible in explaining my reasoning for rejecting sola scriptura and embracing the eastern understanding of Sacred Tradition. For this reason, the post has been split into three parts. In this part, I'll explain and defend the doctrine of sola scriptura as best I can. In the next, I'll explain why I no longer find it believable. In the third part, I'll describe Tradition as I understand it now.

What is sola scriptura?

Sola scriptura (Latin for "Scripture alone") is a central and distinctive part of Protestant theology. Basically, it is the teaching that as the divinely inspired word of God, the Bible is the ultimate authority in belief and practice for the Christian; that is, Scripture alone gets the final word in these matters. Based on sola scriptura, Luther said, "a simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it."
  • Inspiration: First and foremost, sola scriptura means that the Bible is inspired by God, so that its words are not merely human words but the very words of God himself. "All scripture is inspired by God", says 2 Tim 3:16-17, "and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." 2 Pet 1:20-21 says that "no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." The Bible is truly unique in this manner. Wayne Grudem writes, "The Bible alone is the Word of God written. There are no other written words of God anywhere else in the entire world. And the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God written. Every single bit of this book in the original documents has a fundamentally different character from every other bit of writing in the entire world." The Bible is God's self-revelation to us, a much-needed message of truth and salvation.
  • Perspicuity (clarity): Sola scriptura also holds that Scripture is perspicuous, that is, clear and understandable rather than confusing or muddled, at least regarding matters of salvation. This means that the Bible's message of salvation is freely available to anyone who can read it and whose heart is open to God's voice.  This is a corollary of inspiration, Scripture's being the word of God; why would God speak to his people in an unclear way? "For God is not a God of confusion but of peace." (1 Cor 14:35) No pope, council, bishop, or other external guide is needed to unlock the meaning of Scripture; it is available to everyone who sincerely seeks it. The Westminster Confession says that "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them."
  • Authority: Third, it means that the Bible is not merely informative but authoritative in matters of faith and practice. Everything the Bible says must be accepted as the truth, everything it promises can be relied on, and everything it commands is morally normative for us. This is also a corollary of inspiration; the Bible is God's word, and God does not (indeed, cannot) lie (Num 23:19, Pro 30:5, Tts 1:2), and his promise proves true. (Psa 18:30) It is unthinkable that God would mislead or misinform us in his inspired word. (Whether the Bible can err in nonsalvific matters of science or history is beyond the scope of the present post) Regarding this the Westminster Confession says, "The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God." Again, Scripture is alone in this regard; or more accurately, though there may be lesser theological and ecclesial authorities in a Christian's life, the Bible stands above them all and judges them all; because it is God's inspired word, nothing else can override or contradict it.
  • Sufficiency: Finally, sola scriptura believes that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. Its message, and the truths that can be reasonably inferred from it, give us everything we need to know to live and worship as Christians; we don't need to look anywhere else to find anything necessary to our faith. Regarding this, the Westminster confession states that "The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men." This is not a denial of the usefulness of traditions, creeds, and theological writings old and new, but these things are only true and valid insofar as they align with what Scripture says. They never reveal anything new, as if man could add to the word of God, but may be helpful for elaborating on what the Bible says. Again, recall that 2 Tim 3:16-17 says that "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." Scripture is sufficient to lead us to a complete faith, so we need look nowhere else. Anything not found in Scripture or inferred from it is not binding on the Christian.
In summary, sola scriptura means that the Bible alone is necessary and sufficient to establish the Christian faith in its belief and practice, and to govern God's Church. Everything that is obligatory for all Christians to believe is found in it, anything not in it is thus not essential for being a Christian. In all of this, the Bible is able to stand alone as the inspired word of God. It needs no supplement and needs no church or council to establish its authority; it is self-contained and needing nothing from man, like God himself.

A brief history of sola scriptura

Though others had similar ideas before him, the German monk Martin Luther is the most influential exponent of sola scriptura to those who hold it today. Knowing the historical context from which sola scriptura arose is helpful for knowing its purpose and meaning.

Luther grew up during a time of great trouble in the Church. The papacy was corrupt; it had endured centuries of schism and heavily political clashes with kings and rivals. More recently, several popes seemed more interested in the arts than in wisely heading the Church. Corruption was also widespread among lower-level prelates, who were not above using their positions for personal profit, at the cost of the poor they were supposed to defend. Even worse, the Church's theology seemed to be corrupt. It actively stoked parishioners' hopes for heaven and fear of hell to drive people to the sacraments, rationalizing problems in this life by explaining that it was only a training ground in righteousness for the next. A variety of means were introduced to speed the faithful along the path to salvation which seemed to have no biblical foundation, such as the seven sacraments, pilgrimages, relics, indulgences, and heavenly intercession from Mary and the saints.

This theology of salvation drove a young Martin Luther, who was plagued with thoughts of his own sin and unworthiness, to an Augustinian monastery to pursue holiness as seriously as possible. He tried every measure that his superiors prescribed, but nothing seemed to be able to ease his conscience. He was tormented by thoughts of his own unworthiness compared to God's perfect holiness. How could anyone stand before such a perfect judge? It was then that Luther had his "evangelical experience", the realization of justification by grace through faith. The Reformation had begun.

This, however, put him in a bind with his order and with the Church in general. Luther believed that the Bible truly taught justification by faith, yet it contradicted the Church's teaching about salvation, which it claimed was consistent with the biblical teaching. As in his above-quoted statement from the debate at Leipzig, Luther rejected the authority of the Church as the interpreter of Scripture, which he felt it had corrupted and misused. The Church would no longer be over the Scripture, free to misuse and add to it, but rather Scripture would be over the Church, establishing the rule of faith alone. As this paper argues, Luther did not completely reject the idea of tradition, but held that the Bible, not the Church, was the arbiter of it. Only traditions that were supported by Scripture would be allowed. The word of God was not subject to the traditions of men.

Protestants today continue to apply Luther's ideas. They continue to defend the sufficiency of Scripture alone over against any competing authorities such as the Church or tradition. Sola scriptura means that the Bible must never be subordinated to these things, and its authoritative teaching must never be added to. The result would be a return to the teachings of medieval Rome, which are found nowhere in the faith of the apostles as witnesses by Scripture.

The case for sola scriptura

God's word and human tradition

The first thing to observe is that the Bible draws a strong distinction between the words of God and the words of man. Paul warns the Colossians about being led astray by human tradition: "See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. (Col 2:8) In the beginning of his letter to the Galatians, he says that "For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ." (Gal 1:10-11) Similarly, God warns Jeremiah about prophets who don't speak the word of the Lord: "Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes; they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD." (Jer 23:16) In a few more words, Paul tells the Corinthians:
and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. ... God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. ... And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. (1Co 2:4-5, 10, 13)
He congratulates the Thessalonians for their discernment of the word of God from the word of men: "And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers." (1 Ths 2:13) Jesus criticizes the pharisees for their elevation of human tradition over the word of God: "So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God." (Mat 15:6) And, of course, the two verses that most clearly testify to the inspiration of the Bible make clear that this means it is the word of God rather than of man.
...from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Ti 3:15-17)
First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2Pe 1:20-21)
The import of these verses is clear: God wants us to be on our guard, distinguishing between human and divine words, never allowing the former to impinge on the latter. Furthermore, God expressly commands us not to add to his word (Deu 4:2, Rev 22:18-19).

The apostolic tradition

In light of this, what do we make of the fact that the New Testament often mentions (and clearly ascribes importance to) tradition? (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Ths 2:15, 3:6) We must draw a distinction between human tradition and inspired tradition. The tradition of teaching and belief that was central to the early Church was the apostolic tradition, the word of God in oral form, which testified to Jesus, the truest Word of God (Jhn 1:1, Hbr 1:1-2, Rev 19:12). Jesus appointed his apostles as his chosen representatives to the world and the early Church after his ascension. As he said to them, "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me." (Mat 10:40) It was the true testimony to Jesus Christ from the men who knew him best, to whom he promised his Spirit to teach them all things and remind them of what he taught them. (Jhn 14:26) After Jesus' ascension, his apostles had everything they needed to pass on his gospel uncorrupted to the early church. This is how Paul can say that "the gospel which was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal 1:11-12), even though he was likely instructed in the basic gospel by the disciples at Damascus after his conversion (see Acts 9:19). What Paul means in his letter to the Galatians is not the immediate means by which he came to know this gospel, but its ultimate source: Jesus Christ himself.

But the apostles did not stay forever. Soon enough they died, often violently. How was the gospel, the apostolic tradition, the true testimony to the living Word of God, to be preserved after their passing? The answer: in writing. The New Testament is simply the apostolic tradition in written form. We see evidence for this in 2 Ths 2:15: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter." What Paul means here is not that the apostolic tradition exists in two parts, an oral part and a written part. Rather, he is saying that the oral and written parts are equivalent; they have the same content. In 1 Cor 4:6 he also commands us "not to go beyond what is written", which means that anything in the oral tradition not in Scripture would thus be in conflict with it. The two kinds of tradition are thus in agreement. The written tradition is simply the continuing form of the oral tradition, preserved well beyond the lifetimes of the apostles. It is to this form of the apostolic tradition that we must hold fast today. Subsequent traditions of the church aren't intrinsically bad, but they are merely human traditions and are only acceptable if they are in agreement with Scripture.

We get further evidence that the apostolic tradition is coextensive with Scripture in the writings of the early church fathers. We never see them appeal to another source of authority than the Scriptures (such as extrabiblical tradition) in refuting heresy or establishing the basic doctrines of the faith. The great ecumenical councils, which formulated the orthodox understandings of Christology and the Trinity (among others) do not base their decisions on tradition or the "authority of the Church", but on the Bible. Even the apostles themselves, when writing Scripture, seemed to prefer to appeal to Scripture (the Old Testament) rather than their own authority. Jesus himself, when tempted by Satan (Mat 4:1-11), refutes him with Scripture. Is any more evidence necessary for the sufficiency of Scripture alone as the objective standard for establishing true belief, governing the Church, and leading men to salvation?

The clarity of Scripture

Since Luther took great pains to free Scripture from the need for interpretation by the Church, a bishop, or any other human authority, I will say a bit more about its perspicuity. In this extended passage from 1 Cor 2, notice how Paul contrasts "lofty words or wisdom"/"plausible words of wisdom"/"the wisdom of men" with the simplicity of this gospel of "Jesus Christ and him crucified."
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him," God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1Co 2:1-14 RSV)
True, this wisdom of God is "secret and hidden", but not because God spoke confusingly. Rather, it is hidden because people reject God's word even as they rejected God himself: "None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." What is needed to understand the gospel. this apostolic tradition that Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians, is not some special qualification or authority in the Church, but simply the Spirit who is given to all believers: "And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned."

Similarly, in Psalm 19:7-9 David says of the law (word) of the Lord:
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.
Look especially at the second affirmation: "the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple" or the similar Psa 119:130: "The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple." This ties in well with the previously-mentioned argument for perspicuity based on God's nature. Scripture is his word, and we can trust that if God speaks to us he means to be understood, not just by a religious elite but by everyone, since he "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:4) You don't need some special understanding to read God's word; it imparts understanding to the reader.

More circumstantially, notice how whenever Jesus corrects someone's reading of the Old Testament, he never seems to sympathize with them or pass any blame onto the Bible's being hard to understand. He always asks "Have you read...?", not "Haven't you understood...?" (See Mat 12;3,5, 19:4, 21:42, 22:31) In Luk 24:25 and Jhn 3:10 he rebukes people for not understanding the Scriptures, not because he is being callous but because Scripture is not, in itself, hard to understand; it shouldn't be hard. We also have abundant evidence that the New Testament epistles were written to be read to the whole congregations of the churches in their destination cities (1 Cor 1:2, Phil 1:1, Col 1:2; see also Col 4:16), again indicating that these epistles were not too difficult for the ordinary people of the churches to understand.

This does not mean that there are not difficult parts of the Bible or that we will understand everything in it, but its message of salvation is never out of reach, even from the simple. And even then, not not everyone will immediately understand this. The great obstacle to our understanding God's word resides not in our head, but in our hearts. A darkened mind is the consequence of a darkened heart (Rom 1:21). In 2 Pet 3:16, Peter does acknowledge that "There are some things in [Paul's letters] hard to understand", but this is not because they are simply unclear but because "the ignorant and unstable twist [them] to their own destruction"; again, the problem is with peoples' disposition, not God's word. Again, as in the 1 Corinthians verse, the illumination of the Spirit is all that is needed to understand.

Whither tradition?

Regrettably, some overzealous Protestants take sola scriptura to mean that all "tradition" is simply bad, and we should reject it all and rely on Scripture alone. This view is often (derogatively) called solo scriptura to distinguish it from the more moderate view. Aside from its failure to contend with the aforementioned value placed on certain "traditions" in the New Testament, this view simply overapplies the reformers' anti-tradition rhetoric. Again, Luther was not categorically opposed to tradition, just the traditions of the Roman Catholic church that were contrary to the Bible. His goal was not to destroy tradition, but merely to set it in its proper place under the direction of Scripture. Therefore, he only got rid of the tradition that he considered unbiblical (unlike the later radical reformers).

There is nothing wrong, then, with getting in touch with the historical and traditional roots of the Christian faith—not just post-Reformation theologians, but the whole history of the Church, "for all things are yours" (1 Cor 3:21). But in this we must be discerning. Sola scriptura means that Scripture is our infallible guide to tradition, not the other way around. No human tradition is infallible, and tradition is only valid insofar as it is supported by Scripture, but in this capacity it is still helpful and authoritative (or rather given authority by its alignment with the Bible), and it can be a rich source of wisdom and perspective. My systematic theology text by Millard Erickson lists four values of tradition: it can give us insight into the Scriptures, help us to detect the essence of doctrines, help us put our beliefs in cultural and historical perspective, and help us relate to those of differing viewpoints.

Request for comments

My reason for writing this post was to make sure I have understood sola scriptura and the arguments for it before I start explaining why I disagree. As my thinking drifts farther from its old evangelical home, I am acutely aware of the potential for misunderstanding and attacking a straw man version of the doctrine. So, I invite any of my more theologically-minded readers to comment on anything I missed or got wrong before I proceed.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

My Journey, Part 10: Ecclesiological foundations

This is part 10 of my rebooted series on my experience with the "gospel". Please read the previous parts if you haven't already:
  1. Back to the beginning
  2. Cracks appear
  3. Questions multiply
  4. Questioning the "gospel"
  5. The big question
  6. A better hermeneutic
  7. Explorations in epistemology
       7.5.  Excursus on oversystematization
  1. Back to the gospel
  2. The new direction
The ways the Orthodox Church struck me as true can be broken down into five main categories: ecclesiology, tradition, epistemology/spirituality, vision of the "gospel", and worship. Each of the last three are dependent on tradition, which is dependent on ecclesiology, so I'll start there.

Ecclesiology is the study of the Church: its origin, nature, extent, purpose, and present reality. It is very closely related to...


The common Protestant story of the Church goes like this: Jesus established His Church by commissioning the apostles to preach and live the gospel and teach others to do the same. So the early church was born, miraculously growing by the apostles' missions. By the Spirit they were inspired to write the words of Scripture, thus preserving the gospel for future generations from our sinful tendency to forget it. Led by this same Spirit, the early Church lived the gospel authentically, a beacon of hope and light in the midst of the pagan Roman empire. It produced some exemplary theologians like Augustine who adeptly expounded the truth of Scripture and fielded them against the heresies of the day. The early Church was not Roman Catholic or Orthodox; it was simply Christian, pure and simple. But then, sometime around when the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Milan in the early 4th century made Christianity the religion of the empire, things started to slip. Corrupted by newfound imperial prestige and drawn away from a faithful reading of Scripture by the expansion of extrabiblical tradition, the church increasingly failed to live faithfully to the biblical vision of the gospel.

The next thousand or so years are a slow process of decline, with the church becoming more corrupt and increasingly encumbered by human tradition until the true gospel message was almost silenced by the clinking of coins in exchange for indulgences, the prayers to the Virgin Mary, the flames of purgatory, etc. But then in came Martin Luther to the rescue, standing for the simple biblical truth of the gospel over and against the extrabiblical traditions of the Catholic church and the tyranny of the papacy which sought to stifle it. From there follows a series of other great, praiseworthy, and exemplary theologians, pastors, preachers, and ministers who advanced Luther's passion for the gospel and reliance on the word of God as the highest authority in belief and practice, which always seems to end in your own church, the most faithful practitioner of "biblical Christianity". (Though that isn't to say that other churches are just wrong or their members definitely aren't saved, not even necessarily Catholics; what matters and makes one a true member of the Church is saving faith in Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior for the forgiveness of sins)

I suspect that something like this story lies somewhere in the mind of most evangelicals. However they nuance it, the basic structure of an exemplary/"biblical" early Church, imperial/medieval backsliding, and ongoing Reformation recovery of a "biblical Christianity" centered around the simple message of the gospel is nearly universal. But even more than this, there is an assumption that church history, except insofar as it involves the earthly ministry of Jesus and the creation of the Bible, is ultimately dispensable. Though the church has not always been faithful to the biblical vision in the past, what matters is following God through His word in the present, learning from the past but not bound by it.

Now, let me tell a different version of the story.

At the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus commissioned His apostles to continue His ministry and pass on His teaching through His body, the Church. The apostles, and the bishops they appointed to carry on their ministry and teaching, would shepherd the Lord's flock as His ministers, manifesting His presence to His people. In particular, He commissioned Peter and his confession of Jesus as the Christ as the solid rock on which His church would guard and develop the faith given to it against persecutions, heresies, and apostasies. Guided and aided by the Spirit, the Church stood firm and preserved the deposit of the faith through intermittent Roman persecutions until the conversion of Constantine made Christianity the religion of the empire. Though imperial acceptance was not without its heresies and temptations, the Church's newfound influence and prestige allowed it to rapidly grow and spread, even beyond the borders of the empire.

In the coming centuries Christendom would be racked by theological controversies in which the Church's core beliefs about Christ, the Trinity, and other essential doctrines would be hammered out. As the eastern church was tossed about by conflicting teachings about these things, the apostolic see founded by Peter in Rome served as a bastion of orthodoxy to help establish and preserve a unified faith. But because of increasing linguistic, cultural, and (following the fall of Rome) political barriers between the eastern and western churches, they grew increasingly estranged. In several notable incidents, the eastern church flouted the authority of the bishop of Rome, leading to its eventual schism in 1054.

The "middle ages" saw the height of the Church's influence on society and significant advances in theological studies (especially via the Scholastics) and art, but also an increasing struggle against the corruption of both monastic orders and church prelates, which were answered by a series of reform movements, some of which went better than others. But not all were content to pursue reform within the Church. Early reformers like Wycliffe and Hus sought to end abuses by separating from the structure of the established church, and their followers formed splinter churches that would later join the Protestants. Then, just after the fifth Lateran council sternly called out corrupt prelates, came the storm.

Incited by the former Augustinian monk Martin Luther, churches and states began leaving the Church en masse, rejecting the apostolic authority and teaching of the Church in favor of their own interpretations of the scriptures. This quickly opened the door to all kinds of "biblical" heresies and errors which quickly multiplied as Protestantism fragmented. The Council of Trent, called thirty years later, provided a more faithful answer to the concerns raised by Luther and others, reforming the corrupted practices of the Church while rejecting the false teachings of the Protestants. In the ensuing centuries, other challenges to papal power would arise from within the Church which, while not leading to schism, did precipitate the decline of of the worldly influence of the Church, a process that was completed in the nineteenth century by the rise of nationalism and governments that did not take kindly to meddling by a foreign power. The bishop of Rome settled into a role somewhat more like that of the first popes, shepherding the Church in matters of faith, doctrine, and ethics while also seeking to remain a voice on these matters to the wider world.

Obviously, this is a Catholic telling of the history of the Church. (Which was quite hard for me to write, not being familiar with the Catholic viewpoint) Let me tell this story one more time.

At the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus commissioned His apostles to continue His ministry and pass on His teaching through His body, the Church. The apostles, and the bishops they appointed to carry on their ministry and teaching, would shepherd the Lord's flock as ministers of His presence, preserving and passing down the apostolic teaching without change. The early Church worshipped God in spirit and in truth, confessing and living the gospel even through Roman persecution. When a doctrinal controversy arose or a higher ruling on a question affecting the whole Church was needed, bishops would come together in councils (dating back to Acts 15) and come to agreement in a demonstration of the spiritual unity of the Church.

After the conversion of Constantine, it finally became possible to convene truly universal councils drawing in bishops from the whole church, through which some of the Church's foundational beliefs about the nature of God and our savior Jesus Christ were established over against numerous heresies. Tragically, though, not all of the churches consented to these decisions, and some (the Nestorian and Miaphysite churches in the east) rejected the rulings of the councils and went into schism from the Church; one can only hope this schism will be temporary.

Though the bishop of Rome served as a pillar of doctrinal orthodoxy during these councils, he began to see himself as a monarch ruling over the other bishops, rather than merely the first among equals, meddling in the affairs of other bishops and even seeking to unilaterally modify the Nicene Creed (which had been universally accepted at the first ecumenical council). As his worldly and spiritual power in the west increased, he clashed with the eastern patriarchs on multiple occasions. Eventually, through a representative, the pope excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople during the eucharist, and the eastern and western churches went into schism. Subsequent attempts at reunion failed to gain any ground, especially after the west sacked Constantinople and established a Latin patriarchate during the Fourth Crusade.

Hemmed in by the Latin church on the west and Muslims in the south and east, the Church had nowhere to take the gospel except north. With the councils and controversies in the past, missionaries were able to bring a fully articulated Christian doctrine to the Slavs, who became wholehearted followers of the Way, especially in Russia, where the Church continued to grow. Though oppressed and persecuted in the following centuries by a number of regimes opposed to Christianity (notably the Turks and the Soviets), the Church has preserved the faith delivered to the apostles in its fullness right up to the present.

Though it may be a bit less familiar, this is my attempt at telling the story of the Church from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. Just like individual Protestant Churches, Catholics and Orthodox also see the history of Christianity in different ways which construe their own tradition as the one that has remained truly faithful to Christ. Clearly simply clinging to your own story and ignoring the ones held by other Christians will get us nowhere constructive. You have to compare stories, try to see them from the perspective of their tellers, and ask yourself: which one holds the most water? After intensively studying the history of Christianity for my master's program, I believe the Orthodox story does.

Comparing the stories

Though I used to hold something like the evangelical telling of Church history that I related above, I no longer accept it for a variety of reasons. First, as I will get to next time, I think this telling is based on a misunderstanding of what "tradition" is in the Church. Evangelicals are prone to contrasting "human" traditions with the "divinely inspired" Bible, which is supposed to preside over them all. But Catholics and Orthodox don't view the Bible as something distinct from tradition, set over against it, but as a product of tradition. It is not so much a constitution or charter for the Church to abide by as it is an expression of the apostolic faith, which predates the completed Bible by centuries. Suggesting that the correct way to "do church" was to base everything on the Bible not only ignores the fact that the Church predated and established the biblical canon (and the books of the New Testament), but also ignores the role oral/liturgical tradition, ecclesiastical authority, councils, and apostolic succession played in the guidance of the early Church. Most people didn't even have Bibles due to the difficulty in making them; the only way they got any Scripture was by hearing it in church rather than by reading, which makes impossible the kind of personal Bible study that is universally recommended by Protestants. Contrasting the divinely inspired Bible with human tradition also forgets that the Bible itself is both divine and human, that the Bible never "speaks" without a human act of interpretation, and the promise of divine guidance even after the writing of the New Testament given to the Church given in John 16:13: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth". Orthodox don't simply believe the Bible is a divine book and the Church is a human institution; they consider both to be incarnational, both divine and human, the testimony to and the body of Christ.

To me, the Protestant telling of church history now seems more like an ex post facto justification for the legitimacy of one's church/denomination than it does an honest look into the history of the church. This is especially hard to deny when one considers all the subtly different versions of this story used by various denominations, many of whom hold different positions on the basic nature and doctrine of the Church. Through my hopefully multi-sided study of church history, it became clear to me that the Protestant reformers were not faithful recoverers of "biblical Christianity", but schismatics little different from others who similarly justified their teachings with Scripture. This is obscured by the fact that Protestantism's story quite consciously sets it apart from the depredations of medieval Roman Catholicism, but virtually (or completely) ignores the Orthodox Church. The claim that the early Church was "simply Christian" is an example of this. Splitting away from a false church does not necessarily place your church closer to the truth. In fact, because of the temptation to define oneself by what you are opposed to (which the early reformers greatly succumbed to regarding the Roman church), you are more likely to destabilize your beliefs and ultimately move even further away from it.

The Catholic telling is more plausible. Catholics have a much fuller view of tradition that I believe is closer to the historical Christian one (though not identical to the Orthodox view). Its telling does not minimize tradition, ecclesiastical authority, or apostolic succession as means by which the Church operates and continues. Its criticisms of Protestantism highlight its rejection of these things in favor of the Bible as the sole mediator of truth, in common with so many other schismatics. Catholicism's disputes with Orthodoxy are also historical in nature, centering around the causes of the Great Schism of 1054: papal supremacy and the filioque. As I will get into later, this issue is too complicated to be conclusively settled with simple arguments, but in my judgment the Orthodox view (that the pope unduly assumed an unwarranted and un-Christlike authority over his fellow bishops) is more plausible, especially in light of the two churches' later developments. Thus, I think the Orthodox Church makes the most plausible claim to having preserved the apostolic faith of the early Church to the present day.

Protestant ecclesiology

The nature of the Church is a doctrine on which there is fairly widespread agreement among Protestants (even if they begin to differ on the particulars of its operating). Most follow in the tradition of Luther and Calvin, who (according to scholar Don Thorson) "agreed that Jesus Christ established one church; however, the true church was more invisible than visibly existent in a single, monolithic institution, such as the Catholic Church."

Luther, for his part, felt compelled by conscience and Scripture to oppose the teaching of a church that he (rightly) believed had corrupted the gospel, prescribing unbiblical and empty practices for salvation while neglecting to develop any authentic faith in its laity. The church was said to be authoritative, but with its authority the church was teaching lies and misusing Scripture. Unable to believe that it was anything but a false church, Luther needed to rethink what the Church really was. His answer was that it was simply composed of those who truly had a "warm personal faith" in the Lord, not simply those who outwardly claimed to. Roland Bainton explains in his biography of Luther:
Luther was not concerned to philosophize about the structure of Church and state; his insistence was simply that every man must answer for himself to God. That was the extent of his individualism. The faith requisite for the sacrament [of the Lord's Supper] must be one's own. From such a theory the obvious inference is that the Church should consist only of those possessed of a warm personal faith; and since the number of such persons is never large, the Church would have to be a comparatively small conventicle. Luther not infrequently spoke precisely as if this were his meaning.
Thinking through the implications of this view of the Church, Luther saw parallels with the early, pre-Imperial church. The true Church, far from the magisterial institution of Rome, was a diaspora of God's redeemed, obscure and often persecuted, united by the Holy Spirit more than any visible connection.
The true Church for him was always the Church of the redeemed, known only to God, manifest here and there on earth, small, persecuted, and often hidden, at any rate scattered and united only in the bond of the spirit. Such a view could scarcely issue in anything other than a mystical fellowship devoid of any concrete form. This was what Luther meant by the kingdom of Christ. He did not pretend that it could be actualized, but he was not prepared to leave the Church disembodied. The next possibility was to gather together such ardent souls as could be assembled in a particular locality.
When debating Johann Eck at Leipzig, Luther found himself compelled to support two articles of the condemned heretic Jan Hus, which got him into further trouble: "The one holy universal Church is the company of the predestined", and "The universal Holy Church is one, as the number of the elect is one".

Luther did not take this spiritual definition of the Church as far as later Pietists would. His emphasis on personal saving faith was tempered by his continuing support of infant baptism, and his continuing view that the church and state should be coextensive:
This was in tension with his opposition to the individualistic form of believer's baptism held by the Anabaptists: he fell back on the faith of the sponsor, seeing it as necessary to snatch children away from Satan, unable to see the Church and state as separate entities. "The greatness and the tragedy of Luther was that he could never relinquish either the individualism of the eucharistic cup or the corporateness of the baptismal font.
Luther's dilemma was that he wanted both a confessional church based on personal faith and experience, and a territorial church including all in a given locality. If he were forced to choose, he would take his stand with the masses, and this was the direction in which he moved.
The Augsburg Confession, a major statement of the Lutheran faith, defines the Church as "the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments."

Calvin's view of the Church was largely compatible with Luther's. Sounding somewhat like Hus, he incorporated his theology of divine election into his view of the Church:
When in the Creed we profess to believe the Church, reference is made not only to the visible Church of which we are now treating, but also to all the elect of God, including in the number even those who have departed this life.
For Calvin, the true Church consisted of all of God's elect, throughout space and time. This was amenable to a view of the Church as a diaspora of the redeemed, similar to Luther.
Though the devil leaves no stone unturned in order to destroy the grace of Christ, and the enemies of God rush with insane violence in the same direction, it cannot be extinguished,—the blood of Christ cannot be rendered barren, and prevented from producing fruit. Hence, regard must be had both to the secret election and to the internal calling of God, because he alone “knoweth them that are his” (2 Tim. 2:19); and as Paul expresses it, holds them as it were enclosed under his seal, although, at the same time, they wear his insignia, and are thus distinguished from the reprobate. But as they are a small and despised number, concealed in an immense crowd, like a few grains of wheat buried among a heap of chaff, to God alone must be left the knowledge of his Church, of which his secret election forms the foundation.
The unity of the Church consists of Christ's spiritual headship over her, rather than any visible connection. Despite the apparent division of the Church in the midst of which Calvin found himself, he believed that the true Church remained whole, albeit "in concealment".
By the unity of the Church we must understand a unity into which we feel persuaded that we are truly ingrafted. For unless we are united with all the other members under Christ our head, no hope of the future inheritance awaits us. Hence the Church is called Catholic or Universal (August. Ep. 48), for two or three cannot be invented without dividing Christ; and this is impossible. All the elect of God are so joined together in Christ, that as they depend on one head, so they are as it were compacted into one body, being knit together like its different members; made truly one by living together under the same Spirit of God in one faith, hope, and charity, called not only to the same inheritance of eternal life, but to participation in one God and Christ. For although the sad devastation which everywhere meets our view may proclaim that no Church remains, let us know that the death of Christ produces fruit, and that God wondrously preserves his Church, while placing it as it were in concealment.
The full knowledge of the Church belonged to God alone (2 Tim 2:19). But we can gain some idea of where the true Church is, Calvin said, by looking for its marks: the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments.
Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence, since his promise cannot fail, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20).
In summary, Calvin believed the true Church consists of all true Christian believers (the elect).
The Church universal is the multitude collected out of all nations, who, though dispersed and far distant from each other, agree in one truth of divine doctrine, and are bound together by the tie of a common religion.
In regard to individual churches, we can identify them by the aforementioned two marks, but with individual believers it is not so simple. Those who make professions of authentic faith may not actually be part of the true Church, but since we can't know their hearts with certainty we should "leave them the place which they hold among the people of God, until they are legitimately deprived of it."

The Westminster Confession, a major confession of the Reformed tradition, espouses an ecclesiology (unsurprisingly) similar to Calvin's.
The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all. (6.140) 
The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ; the house and family of God, through which men are ordinarily saved and union with which is essential to their best growth and service. (6.141) 
The Lord Jesus Christ is the only head of the Church, and the claim of any man to be the vicar of Christ and the head of the Church is without warrant in fact or in Scripture, even anti-Christian, a usurpation dishonoring to the Lord Jesus Christ. (6.145)
In a more contemporary example, the Barmen Declaration, a statement adopted by German Christians opposing the alliance of the German church with the Nazi government, defines the Church as "the congregation of brothers and sisters in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament, through the Holy Spirit." Wayne Grudem defines the Church more concisely as "the community of true believers for all time." He explains that the true spiritual reality of the Church, as God sees it, is (similar to Calvin) all of the elect throughout time, but the visible Church, as Christians on earth see it, consists of those who outwardly attend and will always include some false believers. Similarly, Millard Erickson (the author of the tome I'm studying for my master's systematic theology class) believes that the church does have a visible dimension, namely the fellowship of professing Christian believers, but the invisible spiritual reality of the Church (all those who have authentic saving faith in Jesus) receives priority. Ideally, these two groups will be identical.

It's fairly easy to pick several recurring themes out of these examples of Protestant ecclesiology. Protestants, generally, accept the traditional definitions of the Church as undivided as well as both visible and invisible, but these things must be qualified. The true Church is an invisible spiritual reality, the body of all true believers in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ throughout time and space, fully known only to God. It is this Church which has always been undivided in its authentic faith. Its visible manifestation, local congregations of believers, is not guaranteed to be so, consisting in many parts and denominations and not without some false Christians in its midst (some members of the true Church might also be outside the bounds of the visible Church). Protestants would probably agree that the visible and invisible Churches were identical in the early years of Christianity, but as the Catholic Church became institutionally corrupt and turned from Scripture to tradition the two increasingly diverged.

Orthodox ecclesiology

Protestants hold that theirs is the biblical and historical definition of the Church. But is it? When I look at the writings of theologians outside or prior to the Protestant tradition, I see a somewhat different picture of the Church. For example, Irenaeus, a prominent father of the eastern Church, wrote in the second century:
True knowledge is the teaching of the Apostles, the order of the church as established from the earliest times throughout the world, and the distinctive stamp of the body of Christ, passed down through the succession of bishops in charge of the church in each place, which has come down to our own time, safeguarded without any spurious writings by the most complete exposition [i.e. the Creed], received without addition or subtraction; the reading of the Scriptures without falsification; and their consistent and careful exposition, avoiding danger and blasphemy; and the special gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which surpasses all other spiritual gifts.
Irenaeus gives three marks of true knowledge (of the Lord). The second is the reading and exposition of the Scriptures, as Calvin affirmed. The third is the presence of Christian love, something John Wesley would have heartily supported. But the first, and most detailed, is something else. It is the Church's faithful preservation of the apostolic tradition, the succession of bishops from the apostles, the continuation of "the order of the church as established [by Christ] from the earliest times throughout the world". The true Church, he says, is known not simply by accurate exposition of the Scriptures and Christlike love, but by its continuity in leadership and teaching with the Church created by Jesus.

In his treatise Against Heresies, Irenaeus also wrote words that could almost be referring to the reformers:
But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth... 
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about.... 
In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.
To Irenaeus, it seems that the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments is not enough. Also crucial is the continuity of the true Church's teachings with those of the apostles, maintained by the apostolic succession of bishops. This continuity is how the early Church rebuffed heretics who claimed to base their teachings on Scripture. The preservation of the teachings of the apostolic faith, not simply continually turning back to the Bible, was how Irenaeus had confidence that the faith of the Church in his day was "one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth." Remember, this was in the second century, when the Church was still meeting in private homes or catacombs and suffering under Roman persecution. If the Protestant ecclesiology really was the original belief of the Church, it didn't last long, and there is no patristic evidence for it.

The traditional Orthodox doctrine of the Church, expressed in the Nicene Creed, is that it is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Fr. Thomas Hopko in his invaluable work The Orthodox Faith explains what these descriptors mean far better than I can. I'll just make a few notes..
  • The Church is one visibly and invisibly. Orthodox do not draw the Protestant distinction between the visible and invisible dimensions of the Church, at least not as strongly. Because the Church is the body of Christ, it is equally a visible and an invisible entity, and cannot be divided or broken up in either way. This does not exclude the possibility of someone outside the Orthodox Church having faith, this will not be the apostolic faith in its fullness. A common adage I've heard to explain the visible and invisible dimensions of the Church is that "We know where the Church is, but not where it isn't."
  • The Church is holy not because of the holiness of its members (as the Donatists taught) but because of the holiness of God. Christians participate in God's holiness rather than possessing it. Fr. Hopko writes, "The faith and life of the Church on earth is expressed in its doctrines, sacraments, scriptures, services, and saints which maintain the Church’s essential unity, and which can certainly be affirmed as 'holy' because of God’s presence and action in them." Jaroslav Pelikan, in his history of Christian doctrine, explains that "the church, the Scriptures, the priesthood, the sacraments—all were called 'holy', both because they were holy in themselves and because they made men holy by the sanctifying grace whose instruments they were."
  • The Church is catholic means that it is full, complete, lacking nothing of the Christian faith. This was actually news to me; I thought "catholic" meant "universal" across time and space. "To believe in the Church as catholic, therefore, is to express the conviction that the fullness of God is present in the Church and that nothing of the “abundant life” that Christ gives to the world in the Spirit is lacking to it (Jn 10:10). It is to confess exactly that the Church is indeed “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23; also Col 2:10)."
  • The Church is apostolic in two ways, both connected to the meaning of the Greek word apostolos, "sent one". The Church, thus, is sent into the world just as Christ and the Holy Spirit were. As Jesus said, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." (Jhn 20:21) As well, the Church is built on the apostles who were sent from Christ.
Timothy Ware comments on the visible and invisible nature of the Church:
The Church—the icon of the Trinity, the Body of Christ, the fullness of the Spirit—is both visible and invisible, divine and human. It is visible, for it is composed for specific congregations, worshipping here on earth; it is invisible, for it also includes the saints and the angels. It is human, for its earthly members are sinners; it is divine, for it is the Body of Christ. There is no separation between the visible and the invisible, between (to use western terminology) the Church militant and the Church triumphant, for the two make up a single and continuous reality. "The Church visible, or upon earth, lives in complete communion and unity with the whole body of the Church, of which Christ is the Head.' it stands at a point of intersection between the Present Age and the Age to Come, and it lives in both Ages at once. 
Orthodoxy, therefore, while using the phrase 'the Church visible and invisible', insists always that there are not two Churches, but one. As Khomiakov said: 
"It is only in relation to man that it is possible to recognize a division of the Church into visible and invisible; its unity is, in reality, true and absolute. Those who are alive on earth, those who have fulfilled their earthly course, those who, like the angels, were not created for a life on earth, those in future generations who have not yet begun their earthly course, are all united together in one Church, in one and the same grace of God ... The Church, the Body of Christ, manifests forth and fulfils itself in time, without changing its essential unity or inward life of grace. And therefore, when we speak of 'the Church visible and invisible', we so speak only in relation to man."
This well-researched paper addresses Protestant ecclesiology directly. The author summarizes its basic tenets thus:
  • The True Church is the invisible church, known only to God.
  • The visible church can be divided.
  • There is no necessary correlation between the visible and invisible church. Membership in a local body is merely helpful, but not essential, to one’s salvation.
  • The visible church is not indefectible or infallible; that is, no one church has the fullness of the truth. All have erred and will err.
  • Episcopal government, the ancient three-fold order, is not of the essential nature of the visible church, but merely one allowable form of polity among many.
  • Apostolic succession is of faith alone, not of faith and order.
#3 is somewhat misleading; many Protestants would place more emphasis on membership in a local church than saying it's "merely helpful", though I don't think many would go so far as to say it is essential for salvation. Read the (fairly lengthy) paper if you wish; I'll merely summarize the author's main points.
  • "Not only the content of our reflection on the nature of the Church must be consistent with Holy Tradition, but also our methodology." (p. 9)
  • The Church participates in the image and likeness of the triune God via Christ. Being His body, it is both human and divine.
  • The Reformers, because of the perceived necessity of individual faith in God and the corrupting effects of sin on the human heart as well as all human institutions, believed that God was the only one who could identify who was a "true" Christian.
  • The Reformers often cited Augustine's distinction between the visible and spiritual Church, but rather than denigrating the institutional Church through this distinction Augustine was actually defending its authority and its role as a channel of grace despite the presence of false believers. The Church is the visible means of grace that God has instituted, and man should look nowhere else for salvation. (See the quote on p. 14)
  • The early Church saw little of the distinction between the visible and invisible Church that the Reformers argued.
  • "Eastern Christians believe that dividing the Church into visible and invisible parcels actually contradicts the very nature of the Church. The Church is one, whole organism. The visible is inseparably linked to and a part of the invisible, and vice versa. If the Church is indeed the Body of Christ (not two different bodies, one in heaven and one on earth), then her nature must be an undivided whole." (p. 28-29)
  • There are echoes of both Nestorianism (the heresy that Jesus as a loose union of two distinct persons) and Docetism (the heresy that Jesus was purely divine and only appeared to have a human body and nature) in Protestant ecclesiology.
  • Orthodox and Protestants agree that Christ is the head and the Church is his body. However, Protestants tend to understand these foundational truths differently.
  • "Orthodox cannot accept the Protestant belief that material disunity has no effect on ontological unity. Orthodox believe that material disunity causes an ontological disunity (or rather an ontological separation, since Christ is not divided)." (p. 33)

A summary of contrasts

As we have seen, it isn't quite accurate to say that Protestants believe in an invisible Church while Orthodox believe in a visible Church. They both believe the Church is both visible and invisible, but in different ways. Protestants make a stronger distinction between the visible and invisible Church, and hold that the invisible, spiritual dimension of the Church is the truer, corresponding to the way God knows those who are his. Orthodox refuse any such distinction. As Ware said, the only visible-invisible distinction in the Church is between its earthly members and those in heaven.

Besides this, another big difference is that Protestants seem to regard the Church as consisting strictly of a collection of individual Christians, in both its senses. The visible Church is not identified with a building or institution, but is simply all those who profess the Christian faith. Similarly, the invisible, spiritual Church is simply the whole congregation of the redeemed/elect of God. In contrast, Orthodox believe that the Church is more than a collection of individuals, reflecting its dual human/divine nature. It is more than the sum of its parts, having its own spiritual existence beyond its human members. Ware explains:
The mystery of the Church consists in the very fact that together sinners become something different than what they are as individuals; this "something different" is the Body of Christ. Such is the way in which Orthodoxy approaches the mystery of the Church. The Church is integrally linked with God. It is a new life according to the image of the Holy Trinity, a life in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, a life realized by participation in the sacraments. The Church is a single reality, earthly and heavenly, visible and invisible, human and divine.
I think this is also the basis for the Orthodox/historic Christian view that offices in the Church were intrinsically holy not on the basis of the holiness of the people serving in them, but because of God's holiness. This holiness was not simply imputed or reckoned; it was real, but independently of the person who was instead made holy by it. The office was, in some way, not coterminous with the individual holding it. Pelikan writes:
The church, the Scriptures, the priesthood, the sacraments—all were called "holy", both because they were holy in themselves and because they made men holy by the sanctifying grace whose instruments they were.
One other distinction I've noticed is that for Protestants, the Church is subjectively defined, at least in practice. What I mean by this is that who is "really" in the Church, and even to an extent the authenticity of a local church or denomination, is known by God alone. We can discern clues as to these things, but in the end we can never claim to know for sure whether someone's faith is true (i.e. whether they are a member of the true Church), nor can any one church exclusively claim to be the "true" Church. (A charge often leveled at Catholics and Orthodox) This is because the clues are subjective, like the true preaching and teaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, or loving, Christlike behavior; Protestants hold an abundance of "biblical" views on what all of these things really look like. There is thought to be a spectrum of purity, with even "true" churches having more or less pure teaching; it is no one's place to try to discern who is "in" or "out".

In contrast, for Orthodox membership in the Church is objective, a visible reality as well as a spiritual one, marked by the sacraments of chrismation, baptism, and the Eucharist, in keeping with their incarnational model of what the Church is. Likewise, the authenticity of the Orthodox Church is not based on its adherence to an invisible, unreachable, "biblical" standard of orthodoxy that no one can claim to know perfectly, but on its historical status as the same visible Church that Jesus founded, which has faithfully preserved the apostolic faith for almost two thousand years.


I have come to prefer the Orthodox view of the Church for at least four reasons.

First, I think the Protestant view involves an implicit dualism. This is seen in the belief that the "true" Church is a spiritual reality, physical only insofar as it is composed of flesh-and-blood people, and also in the contrasting of the divine source of authority for the true Church (the Bible) with "human" institutions and traditions. In Luther's initial formulation, it was based on the need to respond to the evidently false teaching of the established, institutional, visible church; in light of this, Luther felt compelled to envision the reality of the Church in such a way that false Catholic teaching did not really compromise the true Church. But this was unnecessary and ultimately harmful, since the true Church was and is visible, albeit distinct from the Roman church. In contrast, the Orthodox ecclesiology is based on, and inseparable from, Orthodox Christology. The Church is the body of Christ; Christ was both man and God, and likewise the Church is both spiritual and embodied. To me, at least, the latter position is self-evidently true over the former.

Second, Protestant ecclesiology is individualistic. Whatever mysterious connection may exist between them, the Church is ultimately the sum of all those who have individual saving faith. You become a part of it by accepting this faith, independently of your church membership. At worst this leads to "just me and Jesus" Christianity that views the Church as a dispensable vehicle for getting someone into a personal relationship with Jesus. Even in moderation, I think this kind of individualism (not upholding the value of the individual believer, but the practice of reducing things to the individual level) does not belong in Christianity. Well before I found the Orthodox Church, I was expressing dissatisfaction with it:
How is the gospel usually stated in evangelicalism? 'God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, so He sent Jesus so that your sin could be forgiven and you can have a personal relationship with Him.' With such a personal understanding of the gospel—as being all about you and God—is it any wonder that so many American Christians have a self-centered faith? (2013-1-10)
It contributed to my confusion about how Paul wrote about "the gospel":
The view of the law as existing to show us our sin and lead us to the gospel seems to confuse redemptive history with personal application. What about the millions of Jews who lived and died under the law before the gospel was revealed—what was its purpose for them? To convict them of sin and leave them hopeless or dependent on the sacrificial system? (2013-2-4)
Eventually, this individualistic picture of the gospel gave way to a more historical, corporate one:
I thought about all the historical narrative and Jew/Gentile language as if it were the backdrop to God's continuing mission of saving individual souls—which He doesn't always succeed at! (2014-2-25)
Orthodox ecclesiology embraces the historical, corporate dimension of the church. The unity of believers in one body is strongly affirmed in Orthodox theology and worship. The Church has both a concrete nature and a spiritual one, and both are more than the sum of their human members. This is the theology I see in the Bible and the early Church, more than the individualistic Protestant view.

Third, a visible, objectively defined view of the Church is important because it allows doctrinal conflicts to be resolved without lasting schism (usually, at least). Imagine what would have happened if the early Church facing a barrage of heresies had had a modern Protestant ecclesiology. At the very least, there would probably be a church of Alexandria (a theological school which emphasized Christ's divinity) and a church of Antioch (which was concerned about maintaining his humanity), and the western church would have been "farewelled" centuries earlier. As well, there would probably be an Arian church, a Pelagian church, a Montanist church, a Gnostic church, a Nestorian church, a Marcionite church, a Donatist church, a Judaizer church, some kind of Christian/Manichee hybrid church, churches disagreeing with the decisions about the New Testament canon... (Only there would probably not be one of each of these churches by now, but dozens or hundreds due to later stresses)

Because the Protestant definition of the Church, in practice, comes down to "those who adhere to all the beliefs and/or moral standards that I consider essential", it becomes very difficult to actually prosecute heresies; those who adhere to them can simply leave, form a new church, and argue (from the Bible) that it is a truer church than the one they left! Because of this, in Protestant circles heresy usually doesn't get resolved so much as it gets called out and then divided over (fun fact: the Southern Baptist Convention originally formed to protect the "biblical" rights of slaveholders to their property). An ecclesiology that sees the Church as visible, external, objectively "there", more than simply a collection of individuals who believe the same thing, was essential for holding the early Church together.

I often hear the mantra, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity" to describe how Christians should approach doctrinal debates and go about distinguishing authentic Christian belief from false without becoming hyper-exclusive. But this only works if there is agreement on what the essentials are, which in many cases there is not. But the Orthodox Church actually realizes this ideal. The Church itself, not anyone in it, decides what is and is not essential. In the Orthodox Church, there are a variety of views on creation/evolution, on the nature of salvation, on the last things, and others, and no one claims that anyone else is somehow less than a true Christian because of it. Often the views are more compatible than competing, all expressing different facets of the same faith. Orthodox are able to sanely distinguish between what is worth defending and what is not in a way that seems miraculous, nay, impossible to a Protestant like me because the Church is what sets the limits of right belief, not individuals interpreting the Bible for themselves. By making membership in the Church visible and objective, they are able to have charitable, constructive conversation about the things of God without getting into the kinds of endless, often-acrimonious debates that lurk like land mines in Protestant theology.

Finally and proceeding from the previous point, the unity and objective definition of the Orthodox Church leads to a fuller faith than I have experienced in Protestant churches. I think Protestants have become somewhat desensitized to church division. Due to the sheer number of churches out there and the minority of the differences between some of them (and the aforementioned invisible view of the true Church), they are unwilling to conclude that only one church "has it right". So attempts are made to define a set of essential beliefs or attributes that constitute an "orthodox" church. This search for common factors tends to be minimalistic in nature, boundary-oriented: what must a church affirm/do and not affirm/do to be considered a true church? Or, individually, what must someone do/believe to "get saved"? The claim that no one church has the whole truth, but many have part of it even sounds alarmingly like good old relativism (try replacing "church" with "religion"). In contrast, the Orthodox faith is considered "maximalistic", whatever exactly that means (you can imagine), and center-oriented. Though the councils do provide strong limits to Orthodox theology, there is much less of a practical emphasis on finding who is Orthodox or not, since it is obvious unless someone is flagrantly immoral or teaching heresy. There is a lot more attention given to preserving, rejoicing in, and seeking the fullness of the historic Christian faith.

And yet...

For all the ways I've come to agree with Orthodox theology, ecclesiology is also the area of my biggest currently standing disagreement with Orthodox theology. Late in the paper I linked to above, a Protestant participant in an ecumenical discussion read the following quote from Ware's book:
Nor is this unity merely ideal and invisible; Orthodox theology refuses to separate the ‘invisible’ and the ‘visible Church,’ and therefore it refuses to say that the Church is invisibly one but visibly divided. No: the Church is one, in the sense that here on earth there is a single, visible community which alone can claim to be the one true Church. . . . There can be schisms from the Church, but no schisms within the Church.
And gave this response:
This last statement is perhaps the most precise affirmation of that which I would deny. I would deny that the Church is both invisibly one and visibly undivided. No: the Church is invisibly one and is visibly divided. I would deny that there is a single, visible community which alone can claim to be the one true Church. No: no single, visible community can make that claim. I would deny that there can be no schisms within the Church; there have been, and there might yet be. I would affirm, by contrast, that the various traditions which comprise Christendom are all aspects, “branches” if you will, of the visible Church. They are visibly divided, but invisibly unite.
Obviously I don't agree with his branch theory for the Church, but I find that I still agree with him more than not when he says "the Church is invisibly one and is visibly divided. ... I would deny that there can be no schisms within the Church; there have been, and there might yet be." Right now I am at the same (tentative) conclusion, but for different reasons. It's not because I believe that it's always arrogant for any church to claim that it alone is the true Church, that no church has the right to make this claim. I come to this conclusion from a historical perspective, from asking two questions:
  1. The ecumenical council of Chalcedon claimed to speak for the whole Christian world with its Christological definition (the word "ecumenical" comes from the Greek oikoumenÄ“, meaning the whole inhabited earth), yet the Oriental Orthodox churches rejected its canons and went into schism instead. How, then, can it be considered truly ecumenical?
  2. The Great Schism between the eastern and western churches is an even thornier problem. As I explained above, each church tells its own version of the schism depicting how the other church went into schism from it. Each story is at least internally consistent, as far as I can tell. What, then, is there to decide which story (and church) is true besides their own say-so? Even before 1054, the churches became increasingly estranged until they were visibly united in little more than name only.
Though I hope I'm wrong, right now I can't see these events as anything other than real schisms in the Church, not just from it. And even though it hasn't accepted false teaching, it's hard for me to believe the Orthodox Church isn't impoverished at all by the loss of the Latin and Aramaic churches. At least for now, I await an explanation for these things.