A Letter to an Evangelical

by Father Michael

A icon of Christ from Hagia Sophia in Constantinople

Letter to an Evangelical

by Father Michael B. Johnson

Some years ago, I wrote a letter to the editor of an Orthodox publication, responding to a previous letter from an evangelical who had criticized the Orthodox Church for being "unscriptural." My letter too was published, and not long after I received a personal letter from an evangelical who criticized the Orthodox Church in detail - essentially, for "following the traditions of men" instead of the Word of God. Below are some excerpts from my response -

Although you certainly don't agree with me in your letter, I believe it was written in a spirit of frank discussion and mutual respect, so let me try to respond in the same way.

You ask me to give you book, chapter and verse where the Bible says that tradition will save man from hell. One passage that comes to mind is 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15:

In this passage, Saint Paul makes it quite clear that the Thessalonians have been called to salvation (from hell) through the gospel, which was passed on to them in the form of traditions. As you can see here - since the beginning of Christianity, not everything has been written down. St. Paul urges the Thessalonians to keep the traditions passed on by the spoken word as well as those written in his epistles.

Those same spoken traditions have been passed down and preserved in the Orthodox Church to this day. More importantly, the entire Gospel was originally a spoken tradition. Christ himself didn't write a word of it.

At Pentecost, Peter spoke to the crowd in Acts 2:38, saying, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." He was clearly preaching the Gospel - but what "version"? The four evangelists had not yet been inspired to begin their work.

The fact is, the New Testament itself is just tradition written down. As we have seen, St. Paul even refers to his own epistles as "tradition" in 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

I completely agree with the quotation in your letter, from Romans 12:1-2 (written by the same St. Paul who told the Thessalonians to keep the traditions they had received from him). Frankly, you seem to have the feeling that tradition and being Christ-centered are two different things. That's not how I look at it, and not how the Orthodox Church looks at it either.

In your letter you say you "hail the Protestant reformation as a Spiritual break-through and a release of bondage from the church." I can't help wondering why you would want to be released from bondage to the church, if the church is what the Scriptures say it is.

Saint Paul says that we who are in the church are "...of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone" (Ephesians 2:19-20). Isn't that where Christians should really want to be?

Show me one place in the New Testament where Christ says he has come to establish a Bible. By contrast, it is clear from the New Testament that Christ came to establish the church to carry out his mission. The church is referred to time and again - as Christ's body, his people, his bride.

Christ never spoke of a future book which would be the ultimate authority on Christian matters. But he did say in Matthew 16:18, "...I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Again, in Matthew 18:17, Christ says that a sinner should be taken to the church for final judgment. It is clear that the church Christ founded has real authority.

In fact, the church came before the written New Testament. As mentioned above, Peter and the other apostles were preaching the Gospel before a word of it was written down. In fact, it was only gradually that the writings now included in the New Testament were collected in the form we have them today. There were lots of other writings that were supposedly by apostles and could have been included.

It was the church that decided which books were truly the Christian Scriptures. In fact, the first person ever to write down the 27 books of the New Testament in the same order that all Christians have them today was an Orthodox Saint - Athanasius - who lived some three hundred years after the death of Christ. If you take away the church and its authority, then where did the written New Testament come from?

Let me just make a couple comments on your discussion of devotion to Mary. In the Orthodox view, Mary remained "ever-virgin." When Joseph took Mary as his wife, he was an older man, a widower, with existing children - James, Jude, etc., and these are the "brethren" of Christ referred to in the Scriptures.

By contrast, you state that there is a "natural inference" in Matthew 1:25 that Mary and Joseph themselves had other children. You are probably referring to the phrase, "...knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son..." To properly understand "till" or "until" as used in the Scriptures, I would call your attention to Hebrews 1:13 where St. Paul quotes a prophesy about the Messiah, "Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool."

This certainly doesn't mean that Jesus will no longer sit at the right hand of his Father after his enemies are made his footstool! In neither passage does the New Testament Greek word eos imply a change of status in the future.

You mention that Jesus' "brethren" are described as not believing in him until after the resurrection. You are absolutely right - and this is a very telling point in favor of the Orthodox interpretation.

If Jesus had been the oldest brother, he would naturally have had an enormous influence on his younger siblings (especially if Joseph were dead, in which case he would have been the head of the family). But in fact, his "brethren" treat him precisely as you would expect older brothers to treat a younger one - and that's exactly my point.

An icon of the All-Holy Mother of God

Nor can I accept your suggestion that pagan influences caused Mary to be exalted above her Scriptural position as "handmaid of the Lord."

In the first place, Mary is a great deal more than just a "handmaid" in the New Testament. Mary herself says, "...behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things" (Luke 1:48-49).

And her cousin, Elizabeth, "filled with the Holy Ghost" (Luke 1:41), says, "And whence is this to me (= "who am I"), that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:43.) Clearly the Holy Spirit, speaking through Elizabeth, considers the Lord's mother to be someone extremely important.

As far as the many pagan analogies to Mary are concerned, they really prove nothing. There is no evidence that the early church actually copied any of them.

Furthermore, there are as many pagan analogies to Christ himself! For example - both Mythra and Dionysius were also associated with dying and rising again. For that matter, Buddha is also supposed to have had a miraculous birth. And the term logos (word) in John 1:1 was borrowed originally from pagan Greek philosophy.

None of these things means that the Christ of the New Testament is a creature of pagan influences. And the same is true regarding the church's view of Mary.

On the subject of Holy Communion - you may be right that the Lord's Supper was a Passover feast (Seder). The synoptic Gospels do suggest that - but John doesn't. If you check the chronology in John, you find the Lord's Supper came to pass on the evening "before the feast of the passover" (John 13:1). If so, the Jewish meal that took place was probably a chaburah, not a Seder. A chaburah could be repeated at any time.

In any case, there is no scriptural evidence for limiting the Lord's Supper to once a year. Quite the contrary, as we see in St. Paul's description of what took place at that all important meal. In 1 Corinthians 11:25, the Lord took the cup and said, "...this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me." In the Lord's own words, His Supper is to be done often - not just annually.

Of course, I agree with you that the Lord's Supper is a memorial of Christ (as he himself said). But why can't this memorial also be a true partaking of the Lord? If Communion is only a symbol then why does St. Paul say, "...whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord "? (1 Corinthians 11:27.) What is the plain meaning of those words?

You suggest that the Orthodox Church is "still interpreting Scripture traditionally of men" because the church buildings, furnishings, priests' robes, etc. can be compared to the Old Testament temple.

I agree, these things can be compared to the temple - but what's wrong with that? Isn't the Old Testament a part of the Bible? The vestments and furnishings of the temple were hardly "traditions of men." They are laid out in Exodus, starting with chapter 25, which begins "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying..." Regarding the priests' vestments, it is God who says, "And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron thy brother for glory and for beauty" (Exodus 28:2).

Where in the New Testament does it suggest that Christ or his followers ever rejected the temple and what it stood for? Quite the contrary - in Matthew 21:13, Jesus cleanses the temple, quoting the Old Testament and calling the temple, "the house of prayer" (Isaiah 56:7).

Later Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for swearing by the temple - telling them, "...whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?" And again Jesus says, "...whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein ." (Matthew 23:17 & 21.)

As we have seen, it was through Moses that God passed the ordinances about the temple to his people. True - Christ did condemn the scribes and Pharisees for following traditions of men. But that was not because they were following Moses. Just the opposite - it was because they were not following Moses (see Mark 7:9-11).

After Jesus ascended into heaven, his followers "... were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. (Luke 24:53). Like Jesus, the early Christians never rejected the temple - what actually happened is that the temple rejected them (at least, the high priests did). No matter, the disciples were soon out founding New Testament temples, Christian churches.

Returning to the Lord's words, if the Old Testament temple could sanctify things (make them holy) and was the dwelling place of God - how much more so would that be true of a Christian church?

The Orthodox Church sees the worship of the Old Testament temple fulfilled in the New Testament. Nowhere is that more clear than in the Book of Revelation, where Christian worship is described as including both heaven and earth.

An icon of St. Nicholas

In just one example, we read in Revelation 4:4, "...I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold." "Elders" is the common New Testament word for "clergy." By clothing her bishops and priests in "holy garments" at Liturgy, the Orthodox Church is simply following the precedent set in Scripture - in fact, bringing the Book of Revelation to life.

As you apparently know, we also offer incense in the Orthodox liturgy. Again, in Revelation 8:3 we read, "And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne."

Let me mention just one more vision that occurs in Revelation, "And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth..." (Revelation 12:1-2). This is a vision of the Christian church, as the mother of Christ.

From that standpoint, each Orthodox icon of Mary is a Scriptural image of the church, bearing Christ into the world. The true precedent for it has nothing to do with paganism whatsoever.

At the close of your letter, you suggest that I should be careful when I point my finger at anyone, and then you quote Jesus' words in Matthew 7:5, "...first cast out the beam out of thine own eye..." I don't claim to be entirely clear-eyed spiritually, but I would say this - I do think you have "a beam in your eye" - because from what you say, you don't understand what the Orthodox Church teaches, and yet you are condemning it.

For your own peace of mind - and perhaps for your own salvation - find out what the Orthodox Church, which has existed for 2,000 years, actually teaches. Could it be the church described in the New Testament? If so, it is "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). By contrast - wouldn't any church founded since the Reformation (i.e. in the last few hundred years) be just "following the traditions of men"?