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My Journey to Orthodoxy
Letters to My Church

December 30-31, 1996

My dear brothers and sisters at the chapel,

I am writing to let you know that, for three months at least, I will not be with you in the upcoming year. More than that, I am writing to let you know why. You are my spiritual family. You brought me up in the fear and admonition of the Lord; you taught me always to seek the truth in God's Word and to put it into practice in my daily life, no matter what the cost; you showed me God's love. I love you and I would not leave you without saying goodbye.

For that matter, I don't know yet whether this is goodbye. I am leaving to more closely investigate the claims of the Orthodox Church. Over the past six months or so I have been researching their theology to see whether it is in harmony with Scripture and I have paid particular attention to examining whether their historical claims may be true. But a church is much more than theology and history. A church, as you have shown me, is people and the revelation of God put into practice in those people's everyday lives. In short, I have done much of the academic thought-work involved, and so far everything seems to check out. But in order to be sure that the theory translates truthfully into practice, in order to know whether they are right or wrong, I need to spend some time with them, to experience and learn the Orthodox Christian life. If they are wrong, you will most likely see me back at the chapel at the end of the three month trial period. We "brethren" are of course not perfect, but I've always appreciated the brethren's commitment to try to put into practice what we see in God's Word, in both church order and everyday life. If they are right, I hope you will still see me, but I will then be entering into fellowship with the Orthodox Church rather than at the chapel. I wish there was some way I could do both, but I'm afraid that, given the nature of the questions involved, "both and" is just not an option.

This may seem rather sudden, but in fact this is an attempt to finally resolve an internal debate that started over eight years ago. The debate started when I met an Orthodox believer who was clearly a true Christian and found myself unable to adequately answer his arguments. Since then I have continued the debate with my Orthodox friend, other friends (Orthodox and otherwise, some remarkably unorthodox!), my family, and, above all, with myself. I do not like uncertainty, but I have had to live with a rather abnormally large amount of it since then. Uncertainty, or at least uncertainty about essential things such as the nature of the true Church, is not a good thing, for we read that (and this is only slightly out of context) "a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways." And so I have kept on returning to the debate, hoping always to resolve it and be certain of what I believe. I have not shared this much, save with my closest friends and my family, largely because uncertainty is not usually shared in church (whether or not this should be the case, I'm not sure), and is definitely not something to be shared in public ministry.

There was one extended exception to this period of uncertainty, which began with an exception to the not-sharing of my uncertainty in public ministry. At the Mission 93 conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, Dr. David Gooding, a spiritual hero of mine, addressed and resolved many of the questions Orthodoxy had raised in my mind. On my return I shared from the platform that, among the many blessings I had gleaned from the conference, perhaps the greatest was the resolution of this ongoing debate about Orthodoxy. This period of confidence and assurance lasted until I returned from Japan, when I learned that Dr. Gooding's arguments against Orthodoxy were not as conclusive as I had thought. Since then I have tried my best, with prayer and with academic investigation, to determine once and for all whether or not the claims of the Orthodox Church are true. My prayer has continually been that the Lord will show me the Truth, whether it lies with us or with them or with others, and that He will give me the strength and the courage necessary to follow or to abide in His Truth. As I've mentioned already, my scriptural and academic investigations have unexpectedly led me to believe, not that we do not have the Truth, but that the Orthodox Church may actually, as it claims, preserve and enact "the fullness of the Truth".

I'd like to make clear two important (if unrelated) points before I close this portion of my letter: (1) the Orthodox Church is not the Catholic Church, and (2) I am not leaving or considering leaving because of any problems with practice or people at the chapel. True, we have our problems, some of them all too long-standing, but love covers over a multitude of sins (even mine!) and I love you all very much. I also believe that leaving is always a very poor, if sometimes necessary, last resort. Leaving because of problems simply perpetuates the problems and leaves behind brothers and sisters still entangled in those problems, when what we should be doing is helping our brothers and sisters out of those problems by staying and working with them and to resolve the problems. But, while we still have problems at the chapel, and have lost many of the brothers and sisters best qualified to help us overcome the problems, I believe that the assembly is healthier now than I have ever seen it in all the time I have been aware of it as a local church (as opposed to being aware of it as the place mommy and daddy took me to Sunday School every Sunday). I really don't want to leave now, but I'm afraid I have to resolve my own uncertainty before I can really be of much help to anyone else.

(I suppose this would be as good a place as any to mention that, when I finally resolved to finally resolve this Protestant-Orthodox question—or brethren-Orthodox question, if you prefer—I set myself a deadline, the end of this school year, to make the final decision once and for all. Otherwise I could just see myself becoming embroiled in endless research and vacillating forever in agonized, unhelpful debate. Not that once I make my decision I will be forever closed to reversing it. I hope I will always be open, as I learn more of God's Truth, to changing and acting on it in both thought and deed. One of my three life-verses, as you know, is "He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise." But since resolving to finally resolve this troublesome question, I have made it the primary focus of my spiritual life. I have already encountered and grappled with most of the major arguments in this debate—I hope that, after having thoroughly investigated the life on both sides of the issue, that my informed decision will, ultimately, be true. At any rate, after deciding one way or the other by the end of April at the absolute latest, this debate will no longer be the main focus of my attention. Pray for me, please, that I will be able to discern and to live in God's Truth! I will pray the same for you as well as for my Orthodox Christian friends.)

As for the Orthodox Church not being the Catholic Church, I will not go into detail about the differences here. Suffice it to say, for now, that the Orthodox Church objected to the bishop of Rome's claims to authority over Church teachings long before Martin Luther ever came on the scene. As the Roman popes went on to lead the Western Church into greater and ever more error, the Eastern Church continued largely unchanged, though of course with many problems of its own. (No church is ever entirely without problems.) The Protestants, led by Luther, were right to reject the Catholic Church's errors, though whether they were right to base their objections on the claim of sola scriptura is a question that gets right to the heart of the Protestant-Orthodox debate.

But I will not discuss such questions in this letter. My intention in this letter has been to outline in general terms what I've been thinking about, how and why I've been thinking about it, and, above all, why this three-month trial is a necessary part of my truth-seeking and decision-making process. I have never wanted to force anyone to consider such difficult and complicated issues (which is probably why I've never been a very good evangelist), but I do want you to understand why I must leave for a while (hence this letter), and I do want to give everyone the opportunity to look into these questions more deeply if (and only if) you desire it. So I have written a second letter about the debate itself. Do with it what you want. Read it and join me in my search for more certain knowledge and a greater understanding of the Truth, or use it to understand my errors and correct me if you are certain that I am wrong. Or, if you feel that reading it might distract or confuse you, please don't read it*—there are many other aspects of our Christian walk equally, or perhaps even more important to concentrate on—and feel free to throw it out or (if you are into recycling) even use it as a door-stopper or fire-starter or anything. Only please understand from this letter that I love you and would not be leaving you if there were any other way to finally resolve this question of who is closer to the Truth.

My prayers remain with you.

Much love in our Lord Jesus Christ,

Ed Hewlett.

* I mean this. There is no shame in putting aside an issue that you are not prepared to deal with. The second letter contains, in some detail, many of the questions and arguments that have forced me to deal with the Protestant-Orthodox debate, so it might be rather hard to read the second letter and not be sucked into the debate yourself. Not dealing with an issue that may throw you into an extended period of confusion and doubt (as the Protestant-Orthodox issue has done with me) may well be the wisest course of action, especially if you have already dealt with the MAIN issue, belief in Jesus Christ, and are now concentrating on "working out your salvation in fear and trembling" in every other area of your life.

On the other hand, if you would like to enter the Protestant-Orthodox debate or to otherwise help me out in my search (whether by joining me or by showing me my errors), I would ask you to read my second letter before doing so: I think you will find it helpful in that it will give you some background on my thought-processes, methods of investigation, and current beliefs, as well as some of the most important evidences and arguments I've encountered so far. But, of course, whether you read it or not, I will always be happy to chat with you on any subject.

January 2-9, 1997

My dear brothers and sisters at the chapel,

In this second letter, what I'd like to do is to share with you a few of the reasons why I am seriously considering whether Orthodox Christianity may be closer to the Truth than we are, and, more specifically, whether or not the Orthodox Church's claim to be the One True Church may be true. I do not hope to convince you—after all, it's taken me over eight years even to be able to conceive of the possibility that what the Orthodox Church teaches might be true—but I do hope to show you that considering whether the Orthodox Church might be right is not as strange and irrational as it probably appears at the outset.

As I mentioned before, my consideration of the whole question started when I met an Orthodox Christian who was clearly a believer and began to debate the Orthodox Church's claims with him. Now I should mention that this debating with my friends is actually a normal practice with me—indeed, I often make friends with people with whom I strongly disagree about something, and the ability to honorably and amicably disagree with a person is probably the trait that I value most in a friend. Among my closest and most long-standing friends have been Lutherans (well, one at least), atheists, charismatics, and agnostics, so that an Orthodox Christian should become a friend of mine is not something to be surprised at. I should also mention that when I debate with my friends, I try to go about doing so "honestly"—that is, always being open to the possibility that they might be right and I wrong—and I always hope that they do the same. This is particularly important because my debates with my friends usually rise not so much out of love of a good argument (though there is often that), as out of genuine concern on one or both our parts that the other is wrong. The debate over the truth or error of the Orthodox Church's claims was such an argument: each of us was concerned that the other was wrong.

There is one last observation I would like to make on this subject before going on to more substantial matters. In all these years of maintaining friendships and honestly debating with such differently-believing friends, I have not become Lutheran (though I was almost convinced of the necessity of infant baptism at one point, until a little more research and debate showed the belief to be inconsistent with some of the more fundamental beliefs that we shared), I have not become an atheist (though I have questioned the existence of God and, through that questioning, have come to believe more firmly that He indeed exists), I have not become charismatic, and, even when "hanging out" with large groups of agnostics (in company with my brother), I have not become an agnostic (though I have been led to re-think how we know). Even with good friends in each of these groups, I have not been convinced of the truth of what they believe.

I begin this way because some of the family and close friends with whom I have shared my intentions have suggested I am attracted to Orthodoxy because of the friends I have made in the Orthodox Church. This was a possibility I had considered before anyone suggested it to me, and I considered it even more carefully after they did so. After all, "the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. Who can know it?" But after much thought and careful consideration, I have come to two conclusions on this matter. First, as far as I can know my own heart, I do not believe that having Orthodox friends has had that much to do with "attracting" me to the Orthodox faith. (Whether or not one can even say I am "attracted" to Orthodoxy is another point that I might question. I would tend to say rather that I have been reluctantly forced to admit that Orthodoxy may well be true after all.) True, my first Orthodox friend and the other Orthodox friends I have subsequently made have told me what they believe, and their Christ-like lives and friendship have prompted me to seriously consider whether or not what they believe is true, but I have more, older, and (in some cases) closer friends at the chapel, and I have a deep debt of love to you all as my spiritual family and as parents and brothers and sisters who have brought me up in the fear and admonition of the Lord and in the knowledge of His Holy Word. I would rather not leave. But the evidence that my Orthodox friends have presented, as well as that which I've found out in my subsequent research, forces me to consider the possibility that their Church's claims may be true. The second conclusion follows from the first, and from the nature of what I'm trying to find out, the Truth: whether or not my Orthodox friends have "attracted" me to the Orthodox faith is, in a sense, irrelevant. An atheist could say much the same thing of most conversions to the Christian faith: a great many conversions to Christ are brought about by a friendship or some other close relationship with a Christian. My love and respect for my parents played a huge part in my childhood conversion to faith in Jesus Christ. The question is not "Did you make a purely objective decision?" (as if there was such a thing), but rather "Did you make the right decision?" I have not made the decision to try attending the Orthodox Church to see whether it is more fun or more convenient; I have decided to try attendance there to see whether it is the Truth.

Turning then from the subject of friendships to the more relevant subject of the debate and the evidences my friends offered and that I've discovered in my thought and research...

The Orthodox question turned out to be a big debate. Better yet, it turned out to be a thorough and thought-provoking debate. Because Dave (my first Orthodox friend) is an intelligent young man and a good debater, we often ended up tracing the logic of our arguments right back to our underlying assumptions. (Underlying assumptions are, of course, the things you assume by faith to be true, and which you then go on to base logical arguments on.) We both agreed, of course, that the things Christ and His chosen apostles had taught were true and authoritative, but Dave based his arguments on the assumption that the apostles' teachings had been faithfully preserved in the teachings and practices of the Orthodox Church (of which Scripture was an integral part, but not the whole), whereas I based my arguments on the assumption that Scripture alone was authoritative (sola scriptura), and that it alone accurately preserved the teachings of the apostles. Each time we traced our arguments back to these radically different underlying assumptions we were at a stalemate: neither of us could convince the other, a thing that concerned both of us greatly. These were important questions we both agreed, with huge implications for life and doctrine: there had to be some way to resolve the impasse.

We ended up, at this stage, ineffectually sniping at one another's underlying assumptions. I took the standard Protestant line of attack and questioned the reliability of oral tradition; Dave responded by citing early Church history, about which I knew very little, to defend both his claim that the oral tradition of the Church was not as unreliable as I made it out to be, and his claim that the Church had always preserved and taken as authoritative both the written and the oral teachings of the apostles. Because I knew so little about early Church history, I didn't know whether to accept Dave's arguments from Church history as true or not, and countered them with the standard Protestant interpretation of Church history, namely, that after the apostles had died, the Church had gradually or swiftly slipped into massive apostasy, and, corrupted by (among other things) power-mongering bishops, had added to and sometimes even taken away things from the Scriptures. Again stalemate. The question now, and a question which I did not have time to investigate properly, was whose version of Church history was right.

Dave's line of attack was to ask me why I believed the Scriptures were authoritative. It was a good question, and one I had asked myself previously without coming up with an entirely satisfactory answer. The Old Testament was easy: Jesus had quoted it, as had the apostles, and had always treated it as a whole as the Word of God. The New Testament was harder. I couldn't quote verses like "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God..." because in their proper historical context such verses referred more obviously to the Old Testament Scriptures than they did to the New. Revelation 22:19 was likewise no help because it most obviously referred to the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ given to John, not to the whole of the Bible to which it was added later. The best verse that I could come up with was II Peter 3:16, in which Peter indirectly refers to Paul's letters as Scripture. Aside from this (and even here the argument was somewhat circular, for you still had to assume Peter's letters were Scripture and thus authoritative before you could accept his witness about the Scriptural status of Paul's letters as being authoritative), all I could do was say that the books collected in the New Testament were the best and most reliable historical sources we had of Christ's and of the apostles' teachings. But this last, though true, is not how we treat the New Testament: we treat it as part of God's Word, as authoritative Scripture.

Dave then pointed out that what we Protestants were in fact doing, whether we admitted it or not, was accepting as authoritative the early Orthodox Church's pronouncement on what books were and were not a part of the canon of the New Testament. If we accepted that council of the whole Church as authoritative, why didn't we accept any others? I responded with the standard Protestant line of defense, saying that all we were doing was accepting that the Holy Spirit had led that council to the truth about Scripture, and that all we were doing was recognizing that they had come to the right decision. Again stalemate. Now the resolution of the entire question rested on how each of us viewed the Church councils, a question which was primarily a matter of faith and thus difficult, if not impossible, to resolve by logic or reasoned debate.

Still, I did not feel entirely comfortable with some of the answers I had given. What if I was wrong? I knew little enough of Church history, so it was quite possible that I might be. And then my lack of knowledge of Church history had prevented me from presenting any sort of convincing argument against the Orthodox interpretation of Church history to Dave. I decided to look into Church history—after all, was I not a historian?—as soon as I could find the time to do so. Then I could resolve the question in my own mind and maybe save Dave from Orthodoxy.

But, somehow or other I never found time to look into Church history very thoroughly. So the debate languished, though the questions Dave had raised kept rattling around in my mind until the Mission 93 conference with my spiritual hero, Dr. David Gooding. An Irish brother, just returned from evangelism in Russia, he attacked Russian Orthodoxy on a number of points (I should mention here the Orthodox Church, though united in fellowship, practice, and doctrine, is divided for administrative convenience into churches roughly corresponding to significant national, regional, cultural, and/or linguistic groups), two of which struck me at the time as being particularly significant. He said that the Orthodox Church did not allow for the practical expression of the priesthood of all believers, and gave as a supporting example the fact that in Orthodox churches only priests were allowed beyond the iconostasis, a screen of icons separating the main part of the church from the part where the altar is found, a part often referred to as the Holy of Holies. All believers, he pointed out from Hebrews 10:19-22, have been given direct access through Christ into the heavenly Holy of Holies—Why then preserve this Jewish custom? he asked. He also pointed out from Galatians 1:11-2:10 that Paul had not consulted in council with any of the other apostles before preaching the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in Arabia, nor would any who heard and believed Paul's message in Arabia have needed to go up to Jerusalem to consult in council before they could know for sure that Paul's words were true and authoritative. The authoritative pronouncements of Church councils were thus obviously unnecessary to our faith.

I returned home much relieved that the question was at last finally settled, and shared with you a little of my internal debate and the blessing of that relief from it in my report on the Mission 93 conference. Then, three months later, unexpectedly, I went off to Japan as a missionary-English teacher.

In Japan I learned many things, two of which are relevant here. From the Japanese, I learned the limitations of confrontational debate. Confrontation, even between friends, tends to make people defensive and thus to polarize both positions. As a result the debaters tend to overlook the good points in the other's position and concentrate solely on the other's bad points. By contrast, the Japanese tend to look for the good parts of everything, producing an eclecticism that, though often helpful, sometimes overlooks the very real negative aspects of the things or ideas they are accepting. Also in Japan I was, for the first time in my life, exposed to a living culture different from my own. As I observed my own and the other missionaries' reactions to Japanese culture, I saw some react negatively to cultural differences simply because they were different. Such reactions never produced a real understanding of Japanese culture because these missionaries were not judging Japanese culture on its own merits or by its own terms, but were instead evaluating it in terms of an automatically unfavorable comparison to their own cultural background. Other co-workers of mine instead entered into Japanese culture as much as was possible without compromising their faith, and, as a result, lived almost Japanese Christian lives. It was these missionaries who were the effective ones. I learned thus that, while confrontation is sometimes necessary, it is always something to be avoided if at all possible. Our Lord was confrontational on occasion, but only when confronted with gross hypocrisy, such as was exemplified by the Pharisees or by the moneychangers in the temple. For the rest he came not in judgement, but to seek and to save that which was lost by living among us as (as much as was possible) one of us. I decided to do my best to conduct myself in the future in the same "peace if possible" manner, in both word and deed, among the Japanese and at home.

The second thing that I learned in Japan I had begun learning at home. I had never been comfortable with the idea that all those who die without hearing the Gospel automatically end up in Hell. Thinking it over more carefully, I had come to the tentative conclusion that perhaps the verses that seem to support this doctrine (John 3:18 is perhaps the most-quoted one) are actually referring not to those who haven't heard, but to those who have heard. How can someone stand condemned for believing something he hasn't heard? I'd heard the old adage, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse," before, of course, but somehow that didn't strike me as being God's way. He always seemed to condemn people for not believing or not doing things that they knew about, or that they should have known about because they were obvious (from nature, for example, or from conscience). Then there were those verses in Romans 2 about the Gentiles' having the requirements of the law written on their hearts, "their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them." Could it be that we had emphasized Romans 3 overmuch?

The intellectual breakthrough on this question came when I came to understand the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:6 (not Hebrews 11:1!) and the implications of this definition's location among a long list of Old Testament saints. "For without faith it is impossible to please God," it says, "because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly [or diligently] seek him." Here we have perhaps the simplest and the most basic description of faith in the entire Bible, the faith by which (as we read elsewhere) "the just shall live". To be saved you must come to God, but before anyone can come to God he must believe that God exists (How are you going to come to someone if you don't believe that he exists?) and that He is findable and worth finding (No one is going to seek someone who is impossible to find or who is liable to punish them for coming to him!). Then the definition's location in a long list of OT saints shows that faith has always been God's way of saving people (whether they have heard of His Son or not—none of the people named in Hebrews 11 had), and the stories show that they were saved by believing in and acting on what little they knew about God. But what of Christ's statement (one of my three life-verses), "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me"? Did not this usher in a new dispensation under which only faith in Christ can save?

Not at all! We have already seen that faith has always been God's way of saving people. Likewise, faith in Christ, God's provision for fallen man, has always been God's way of saving people. The act of coming to God shows that the person who comes recognizes his need for God's gracious and merciful provision. Throughout history, the nature of that provision has become clearer and clearer. In Christ the revelation of that provision is complete. Thus, any who hear of and understand about Christ and yet reject Him, God's ultimate provision, stand condemned already, because they have not believed in God Himself, and because they have rejected God's ultimate and only provision for our sins. Those who have not heard are nevertheless responsible for whatever little they know or are able to know. If they have true and living faith, they will accept any new revelation of God as it is made known to them. If they reject it, their faith was probably dead to begin with. Likewise, we are responsible to God for acting in faith on what we know. Because we have responded in humble obedience to the ultimate revelation of God and His provision for us in the person of Jesus Christ, the New Testament writers often talk about us as safe, saved to the uttermost, and as we continue to abide in that humble obedience of faith, we will be transformed into the image of Him who is our Faith. But should we not continue in subjection to the revelation of Jesus Christ, should we reject the true knowledge of Him, and thus He Himself and His gracious provision for us, we have trampled the grace of God underfoot and no sacrifice for sin is left. For these reasons I am at one and the same time both eager and fearful to share both the revelation of Jesus Christ with unbelievers and my thoughts about Orthodoxy with you. But here I digress.

I said earlier that my intellectual breakthrough on this question came before Japan, and was confirmed (up until the line "their faith was probably dead to begin with") in conversation with Jabe Nicholson (Jr.) and Dr. Gooding. Up until Japan, though, these thoughts were just a comforting theory. In my work in Japan, though, I saw these principles in action. The relevance of this new understanding of faith and salvation to the Protestant-Orthodox debate was not immediately apparent, however, as I was still under the impression that the whole question was finally closed. Upon returning to Canada and discovering that the on-going Protestant-Orthodox debate had not been resolved as thoroughly as I thought it had, the full implications of this new understanding became clear. If faith is not just a one-time event, but is rather a continual submission to God's revelation of Himself and a continual dependence upon His Provision for us, and if we are saved by faith, then salvation is not simply an event: it is a process.

Of course we sometimes say essentially the same thing when we talk about the completion of our salvation at the resurrection ("Who shall deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!") or when we occasionally refer to our sanctification as part of our salvation. But this concept of salvation as a process, of faith as a growing seed, is integral to Orthodox faith and worship: if we cannot at least conceive of this concept, there is no way we can form any accurate understanding of Orthodoxy.

So, then, returning from Japan I had revised my method of resolving disagreements and had refined my understanding of salvation.* Still I gave little thought to the Orthodox question, thinking it resolved, until I went to renew acquaintances with another long-standing friend of mine, Sandy, Dave's sister, and found that she had become Orthodox while I was away. I was once again concerned, now for Sandy as well as Dave, and insisted on discussing the matter with her in some depth. Sandy, like Dave, is pretty sharp, and she soon pointed out that my understanding of Orthodoxy was limited and, in some places, erroneous, and I myself had to admit that my knowledge of relevant Church history was almost non-existent. Apparently my rejection of Orthodoxy had not been as well-grounded as I had thought. Sandy challenged me to look into these matters further, and, eventually, I took up her challenge, resolving to settle once and for all (if possible) the truth or error of the Orthodox Church's claims. It was obvious that, until I did so, I would neither be able to help others out of Orthodoxy, nor would I have peace in my own once-again unsettled heart.

I should perhaps give an example here of just how our discussions kept on ending unresolved and of the role misunderstanding played in complicating them. I will take as an example the Orthodox practice of prayers to saints.

Prayers through saints, I should probably say, as it is a part of the Orthodox understanding that the saints do not answer such prayers—God does. The saints to whom they pray simply pass on their prayers to God, the giver of every good and perfect gift.

"A rather round-about route," I might object, "when you can bring your request directly to the throne of God in the name of Jesus Christ."

"No more round-about," my Orthodox friends would reply, "than when you ask a Christian friend of your own to pray for you. Praying to saints does not mean we stop praying to God."

"Ah, but the saints to whom you pray are dead; my friends are alive," might be my response, "and does not the Old Testament forbid communication with the dead?"

"Yes, but Christ has abolished death," would come the (scripturally-based) Orthodox response. "Those who die in Him are present with Him and like Him, though of course He remains Creator and they created."

"But what about the verse that says 'For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus'?" I might ask. "Surely that would indicate that we should only pray to God through Jesus Christ."

"Actually that verse is in reference to salvation," they would likely point out. "Besides, there's a big difference between mediation and intercession. Yes, there is only one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, but at the beginning of the same chapter that your verse comes from we are all urged to make intercession on behalf of everyone. One mediator, many intercessors."

"But we don't have any example of this in the New Testament," I would say, finally getting down to my underlying assumption.

"No, but not everything was written down in the New Testament," they would reply, getting down to their own basic assumption. "Besides, there wouldn't be all that many saints to pray to in New Testament times. Most of them would have been alive and with the Church in the body, so there would be no reason to pray to them: their contemporaries would have just asked them to pray for them, as Paul often did in his letters. The practice of prayers to saints only became wide-spread during later periods of intense persecution."

By this point the role played by underlying assumptions in our debates should be clear. We see here the usual Protestant (and particularly the "brethren") underlying assumption that, if it isn't in the New Testament, we shouldn't be doing it, since Scripture is complete and sufficient. We also see here the Orthodox underlying assumption that Scripture is not complete in the sense of recording everything that a Christian should do, or at least can or cannot do. Scripture is complete and sufficient in the sense that it contains everything that we can be sure the apostles wrote and contains enough of their teachings to make it clear what kind of practices are good and bad, but of course none of the apostles sat down to try and write about everything that Christians should and should not do—we have in the New Testament the Gospels, Acts, Revelation, and letters written by the apostles to address certain problems of doctrine and practice that sprang up in the churches they were teaching; we do not have an exhaustive manual of Church doctrine and practice.

Of course neither of these underlying assumptions are to be found in Scripture—and if you're about to remind me of II Timothy 3:16, I would remind you that the Scriptures referred to there are the Old Testament, which doesn't say a whole lot about the Church or its doctrine and practice. Through discussions like this I determined that both my own beliefs (call them Protestant or "brethren", whichever you prefer) and my friends' Orthodox beliefs were generally internally consistent, that is, they were generally in harmony with and logically followed from our different underlying assumptions. What I needed, then, was some way to determine which set of beliefs and underlying assumptions, taken as a whole, is closer to the Truth, my own "brethren" Protestantism or Orthodoxy.

Actually, this sort of thing is what you have to do every time you want to fairly consider another person's beliefs, and what happens, whether the person is consciously aware of it or not, every time someone converts to Christianity or to any other belief-system. Take, for example, a fairly simple atheist who doesn't believe in anything but the measurable, material universe. If you quote Scripture at him and tell him that he should obey it because it was written by God, he will only laugh at you—after all, he doesn't believe there is such a thing or person as "God". Nor can you use Scripture to prove to him that God exists: that would be rather circular reasoning, saying that he should believe God exists because this book that God (in whose existence the atheist does not believe) wrote says that God exists. In order to get the atheist to re-examine his beliefs, you are going to have to point out to him that his belief-system is inconsistent, either internally or externally or both, and in order to get him to convert to Christianity, you are going to have to show him that the Christian belief-system is both internally and externally consistent.

By internal consistency I mean that a person's beliefs are in harmony with their basic assumptions. For example, if our atheist friend believes that people should not go around killing one another, we could ask him why he believes this. He doesn't believe in God or any other higher power who might disapprove and punish him (never mind lays down or embodies some moral standard), and animals in nature don't usually worry about killing one another—Why then should he believe that killing other human beings is wrong? If he responds that he wouldn't like to be killed by someone else, we can ask him why that should matter? For a materialistic atheist such as our friend to believe in morality without believing in some source or standard of morality (a source or standard which would be, essentially, God) is inconsistent: his belief in morality does not logically fit with his underlying assumption that God does not exist—his beliefs are therefore not consistent with one another, and therefore we say that they are internally inconsistent. Christians, of course, believe in God, so our belief in morality is internally consistent.

External consistency means that a person's beliefs are in harmony with and account for what we see around us. If we were going to point out to our atheist friend that his beliefs are externally inconsistent, we might ask him whether he agrees with the scientists' findings that everything in our universe is constantly decaying and breaking down. If he agrees, the fact that we still see some order around us would seem to indicate that the universe has not been around forever (if it had, everything should have broken down into one large, random schmozzle by now), but instead had a definite beginning. If he agrees to this, we can ask him where the universe came from, and his belief-system will provide him with no answer. His belief-system is therefore externally inconsistent: it doesn't account for what he sees around him. Christians, of course, believe that God created the universe, so the existence and the existence of order in the universe is consistent with our belief-system. Our belief system is externally consistent.

Of course I've not been quite fair here: most atheist belief-systems are considerably more complicated than I've shown in my example, but my intention was not so much to give an accurate picture of atheism as it was to illustrate how we can evaluate belief-systems as coherent wholes (or, sometimes, as incoherent holes!). One more point while we're on the question of fairness: When you're in honest debate with an atheist, it is hardly fair to denounce him for not accepting the Bible as God's Word—until you've settled the question of God's existence, you can hardly expect him to accept the Bible as coming from God! The same sort of thing holds true for the Protestant-Orthodox debate. When you're in honest debate with an Orthodox Christian, it is unfair to denounce him for "adding to God's Word"—one of the central questions in the debate is whether or not only the Bible is authoritative, and until that question is resolved you can hardly expect the Orthodox Christian to ignore the Church whose apostolic traditions (part of which is the Bible) are what he accepts as authoritative.

Returning to the debate: since I hadn't found much in the way of internal inconsistency, I decided to concentrate in my research on whether or not Orthodoxy was externally consistent—keeping an eye out for any major internal inconsistencies, of course, as I went along. To be fair, I also re-examined our own beliefs and underlying assumptions, concentrating in both cases on each belief-system's consistency with my experience as a Christian and as a human being so far, and with recorded Church history (of course it's rather hard to compare anything to unrecorded Church history!). Here then are my results:

Our main underlying assumptions are as follows (correct me if I'm wrong here):

(1) The only authority for Church doctrine and practice is God's Word, the Bible (or, as the Reformers put it, sola scriptura).

(2) The Church itself is the invisible Body of Christ, not restricted to any one denomination or organization, made up of all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The corresponding Orthodox underlying assumptions are:

(1) The only authority for Church doctrine and practice is apostolic tradition, the teachings and revelation of Jesus Christ entrusted to the Church by His chosen apostles (whether communicated orally or in writing). The Bible is the pre-eminent part of apostolic tradition, the authority by which all other authorities are judged, but cannot be properly understood outside of the tradition that produced it.

(2) The Church is the Body of Christ, and, insofar as those of us now alive are concerned, is made up of all those who subject themselves to the teachings and revelation of Jesus Christ entrusted to them as a body* by His chosen apostles. But of course the Church also includes all those who have died in Christ, and all those who have endured to the end, subjecting themselves in faith to whatever God has revealed to them of Himself—all these are now also members of Christ's Body, the Church, for as they subjected themselves in life to the revelation of God, so now they subject themselves in resurrection life to the ultimate revelation of God, Jesus Christ.

There are, of course, other underlying assumptions on which both Orthodox and Protestants are agreed, such as the existence of God, His incarnation in the person of His Son Jesus Christ, the centrality of Christ's saving work on the cross and in His death, burial, and resurrection, salvation by grace through faith (though we might encounter some difficulties with definitions of terms here), and so on. I've been particularly concerned with the above pairs of underlying assumptions because both pairs are foundational to what we believe and to how and why we believe it—and because the Protestant and Orthodox assumptions about these things are, fairly obviously, different. These, then, were the basic assumptions on which I focussed most of my thought and research.

The Protestant pair of assumptions look simpler, but, as I thought about them, I found they were not. As soon you assume that the only authority for Church doctrine and practice is the written Word of God, you have to concede that, before the New Testament had been written and its canon determined, the Church had to have some other source of authority for its doctrine and practice, presumably at least partially oral. The Orthodox assumption concerning this, though more complicated in its expression, automatically includes all apostolic teaching, both written and oral. Additionally, to accept the Protestant assumption that now only the Bible is authoritative, you have to make a second assumption that, at some point, the oral passing on of what the apostles taught ceased to be authoritative. The Orthodox position needs no such second assumption. (I suppose you could say I should have included this second assumption as part of the first. Fair enough. My main point here is to share my finding that our basic assumptions are not as simple and clear-cut as they appear on the surface.) I've never been quite clear on exactly when the oral passing on of what the apostles taught ceased to be authoritative, but I suppose the most logical point to select would be when the last of the apostles died—at that point there would be no one left alive to authoritatively correct any errors that had crept into the orally-transmitted apostolic teachings. Of course that would also mean—if the apostles are the only ones whose teachings we could completely trust—that there was no one left alive to authoritatively pronounce upon which letters and books were written by the apostles or their immediate disciples (such as Luke) and were Spiritually-inspired, and which weren't.

The question then becomes, How far do you extend your trust?—a question that also applies to the "brethren" and Orthodox assumptions concerning the Church. As far as the question of which letters and books should be in the New Testament was concerned, it seemed to me that we had to extend our trust a rather large number of post-apostolic generations down the line, at least as far as the early Christians' (or, at least churchgoers') ability to determine which writings were and were not Spirit-breathed was concerned. The earliest list of all the New Testament books exactly as we know them today does not show up until the year 318, and even then it is only found in the 33rd Canon of a local council held at Carthage. Other lists, before and after this one included other books, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas, or excluded books such as Hebrews or Revelation. The canon of Scripture as we have it today, I learned as I researched the matter further, was not finally determined until 382 at the earliest, not at the Council of Nicea (325), as I'd always been taught.

And yet, by 382 the organized Church was firmly under the control of the Roman Empire (or so I'd been taught), was already beginning to be corrupted, and had fallen from the simple purity of apostolic doctrine and practice, with its belief in things like baptismal regeneration and the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and the wine, and with its complex and over-authoritative ecclesiastical hierarchy (never mind its distinction between clergy and laity!). Why should I accept the pronouncement of such an organization as authoritative? Or, if I was simply recognizing that they had got the list right, how did such a Church manage to do so? With so many grievous errors it was hard to see how the Church could be listening to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but even if, by some miracle, it was, that would mean adding a third extra-Biblical assumption (or a third part) to the first assumption (namely that God had worked miraculously to ensure that this otherwise error-ridden Church got the canon of Scripture right, but had not concerned Himself with its judgements in other matters). This was getting complicated— almost more complicated than the Orthodox assumption about the source of authority. And, of course, if there was any possibility that the Orthodox assumption was right, that might mean that most of these "errors" were not errors at all.

So far it seems to me that the Orthodox assumption about the sole source of authority for Church doctrine and practice is simpler, provides a clearer and more convincing reason for the Bible's authority, and is more in line with what we actually do than the corresponding Protestant assumption. Far more conversions to Christianity are the result of preaching, the oral "passing on" of the Gospel, than are from reading the Bible, and when the Bible is later read, questions about it are usually asked and answered orally. This is not wrong; it is natural. We as messengers are an essential part of the Gospel message, chosen by God to take His message to the world. "How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!'" Why do we not recognize our own oral tradition as such, or the teachers through whom it comes?

The question of the nature of the True Church is even more complicated than the question (really only touched on above) of authority and the canon of Scripture, and is made so by the fact that, in order to have anything like a functioning church, it must take the form of a visible, identifiable institution. As a result, we find ourselves forced to make a distinction between the visible local church and the invisible Universal Church, both of which we refer to as the Body of Christ. The Orthodox Church makes no such qualitative distinction. Yes, there are local churches and there is a Universal (or small-"c" catholic) Church, but, as far as those of us alive here on earth are concerned, both are visible, identifiable organizations. (As far as I can tell, both Protestant and Orthodox make an obviously necessary distinction between the Church as it is made up of those of us still alive and as it is made up of those who have gone to be with the Lord. I rather like the Orthodox Church's term for these two parts of the Church: the Church here on the earth they call the Church Militant, those in heaven with Christ, the Church Triumphant.)

Local churches have to be visible organizations, of course, otherwise how can we know with whom to fellowship—or with whom not to? How can we know from whom to learn unless the preachers' lives and doctrines have been carefully scrutinized? Of course, not all who attend a local church are necessarily saved, and even the sermons of those invited by the elders to speak must be judged by Scripture. Likewise, in the Orthodox Church, prayers are made that all the faithful (i.e.: all who belong to the Orthodox Church) may be saved, and the bishop is held accountable to apostolic tradition by his fellow-bishops and by his congregation.

The most significant differences between Protestant and Orthodox churches thus show up not at the local, but at the "Universal Church" level. Most Protestants believe that the True Church is made up of the true believers in Christ scattered throughout the denominations of divided Christendom, and that it is impossible to tell whether any one church or denomination is entirely pure. Because of this, no single church or denomination can ever be considered an entirely reliable source of the Whole Truth. Only Scripture retains this position. Thus, while organizations such as denominations are important, they are not all-important. If I (hopefully listening to the guidance of the Holy Spirit) find that my church or denomination is not acting in accordance with Scripture, it is my responsibility to show them the Truth, and, if they fail to listen, to remove myself from that organization and join or start another one that acts on the Truth. Unfortunately, this has led to the formation of rather a large number of denominations, each of which is based on and teaches a slightly different (and sometimes radically different) interpretation of Scripture. The "brethren movement" started as an honorable attempt to try and counter this tragic tendency by refusing all creeds and accepting only Scripture as the authority for church doctrine and practice. Sadly, we too soon split, and we often disagree on both doctrine and practice—perhaps not so much on "essentials", though even there we often disagree on what doctrines and practices are essentials.

The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, recognizes from the outset that none of us, saved or unsaved, are pure. Nevertheless, it accepts into its visible organization all who, by word and deed, subject themselves to the apostles' doctrines, and, as long as they continue to do so, it considers them members of the Church, "the pillar and ground of the truth." The Orthodox concept of the Church is thus radically different from our own: they define it as the body of Christ's professing followers, whose Spirit-led collective witness (that is, the collective witness is Spirit-led, though its individual witness is by no means inerrant) preserves the fullness of God's Truth. This collective witness is collective over time as well as space, and because it is witness to apostolic tradition, its preservation and unity is all-important. Thus, though local churches may fall into error, it is inconceivable to the Orthodox that the whole Church could lapse—that would mean that the gates of hell had prevailed against the Church! If local churches or believers persists in their error, they are cut off from the Church. Almost all such cut-off churches, save the Nestorians and Rome, have eventually perished, but the Orthodox Church still remains, its witness undivided and clearly visible.

How does one test such a claim? Most of my letter so far has outlined some of the various ways I've approached it, but now that it is here, staring me in the face, I am at a loss to describe exactly how I have come to think of it as true. It is so BIG! Such a huge claim, such a complex issue! It does not directly contradict any Scripture that I know of—which is perhaps not surprising given that the Orthodox Church, or its historical predecessors, selected and approved the books we now accept as Scripture. The claim is extra-Biblical, but then so is our own claim for the Bible as the only authority. The united witness of Orthodoxy—especially as compared to the divided witness of Protestantism-certainly speaks for their claim, but then Protestants never claimed to speak with one voice. Still, shouldn't God's Church be united? The Orthodox Church's method of preserving and clarifying the Truth in Church councils also speaks for them in my mind: I have always believed that Truth is best sought, and should be sought collectively, in the company of other like-minded men of good conscience and faith. The assumptions on which the claim is based also seem reasonable, but I have no decisive reasons for dismissing the Protestant assumption of an invisible Church. Then again, there's a sense in which I may not need to dismiss that second Protestant assumption: the Orthodox may claim to be the One True Church, but they do not limit the Spirit's work to the Church. Orthodox salvation theology does fit my "salvation is a process" understanding, but then other Protestants have held similar ideas and remained Protestant. As belief-systems, both Protestantism and Orthodoxy are internally consistent, and both seem consistent externally as well, though I would have to say that Orthodoxy is more so.

I would say this last for two reasons, at least. The first is theological, though again, others besides Orthodox have thought this way.

God is unknowable (though I prefer the term incomprehensible, using the word "comprehensible" in its original meaning of able to be comprehended, or completely understood) in His essence, but has made Himself known to us, as much as He can be known by us, in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. "No man has seen God at any time, but the only begotten Son, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." Interestingly enough, this is true of all our knowledge: we do not know exactly what atoms are made of or how they work—their essence—and yet we can know and (mostly) understand the things that atoms make up: trees, flowers, our bodies, chemical compounds—the manifestations of atoms. Our knowledge is like a topographical map, which shows the shape of the earth's surface but not what's underneath it, or like a complex engine whose workings we do not understand, yet we know what it does. Roman Catholic and Protestant theology tends to be essentialist, that is, concerned with essence, trying to get down to the smallest, most detailed possible definitions of things, trying to pin down things like salvation or transubstantiation (or non-transubstantiation) or "means of grace" in order to understand exactly how they work. I think Protestant theology is less essentialist than Roman Catholic, and "brethren" theology even less so than Protestantism, but I've found Orthodox theology least essentialist of all. For example, on the issue of the real presence (or lack thereof) of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and the wine of the Lord's Supper, while you will find some Roman Catholic-influenced Orthodox who will refer to what happens when Christians partake of it as transubstantiation, the actual Orthodox understanding of the "real presence" is that it's a mystery, something we do not and cannot fully understand. This admission of the limitations of human knowledge and logic is a good thing, consistent with the nature of the world around us and with the nature of God's revelation of Himself in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. And I think it is as a direct result of this understanding that the Orthodox Church tends to be so much less legalistic than the Catholic Church or many Protestant churches, while still managing not to slip (for the most part) into either laxity or liberalism. Where Catholic and Protestant rules for church order tend to be prescriptive, trying to come up with legislative laws for every eventuality, Orthodox church order is rather more descriptive, based on apostolic precedent, grace, and individual circumstances (like the best Protestant church orders are). Where Catholic and most Protestant theology (such as Calvinism) tends to be essentialist, Orthodox theology is, by contrast, topographical. While there have been Catholics and Protestants who have avoided these errors, the fact that Orthodox thought and practice is largely based on this right understanding of human understanding speaks well for the Orthodox Way. It is externally consistent with our ability and inability to know God. (And it also accounts, by the way, for why my descriptions of Orthodoxy's two underlying assumptions were more complicated than my definitions of our own: it is always much easier to define an idea than it is to describe a complex, existing reality.)

Last, but certainly not least, for this is probably what has done the most to convince me of the truth of Orthodoxy, I have found Orthodoxy's account and evaluation of Church history to be more accurate and more believable than our own. Unfortunately, since Church history is so large and complicated a subject, and since this letter is already far too long, I will not be able to share more than a very small sample of my findings with you here. Still, I will try to make what I share here a representative sample by choosing two of the most significant issues I encountered: "clerisy", and the real presence of the body and blood of our Lord in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist (the Lord's Supper). I had always been taught, of course, that the Church quickly fell away from the simplicity of the apostles' teachings concerning church order and the symbolic nature of the bread and the wine. I had never realized, though, just how quickly it would have to have happened.

According to Church tradition, the apostle Paul was executed under Nero in 64AD (though some give 66 or 67 as the date). The apostle John, the last of the twelve to die, again according to Church tradition, passed into the presence of his beloved Lord around the year 90 (some say 100). Whether or not these traditions are entirely accurate (and the late date of John's death, in particular, is not usually questioned), these dates give us a reasonable time frame from which to calculate the amount of time separating the various early Christian writers and the apostles. Clement, most likely bishop of Rome, writing in 96AD was thus living one or, at the most, two generations after the death of the apostles. In his epistle to the Corinthians, exhorting them to submit themselves once again to their properly appointed elders (presbyters) and bishops (notoriously contentious lot that they were, the Corinthians had apparently kicked out their elders!), he writes:

Now our apostles, thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ, knew that there was going to be strife over the title of bishop. It was for this reason and because they had been given an accurate knowledge of the future, that they appointed the officers we mentioned. Furthermore, they later added a codicil to the effect that, should these die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. In light of this, we view it as a breach of justice to remove from their ministry those who were appointed by them [i.e., the apostles] or later on and with the whole church's consent, by others of the proper standing, and who, long enjoying everybody's approval, have ministered to Christ's flock faultlessly, humbly, quietly, and unassumingly. For we shall be guilty of no slight sin if we eject from the episcopate men who have offered the sacrifices with innocence and holiness. Happy, indeed, are those presbyters who have already passed on, and who ended a life of fruitfulness with their task complete. For they need not fear that anyone will remove them from their secure positions. But you, we observe, have removed a number of people, despite their good conduct, from a ministry they have fulfilled with honor and integrity. Your contention and rivalry, brothers, thus touches on matters that bear on our salvation.

This somewhat difficult passage may indicate that Clement (obviously an important person in the Roman church since he was writing on their behalf) believed in the doctrine of the apostolic succession of bishops. Then again, it may not—translators have apparently interpreted it in different ways, and I am obviously not qualified to judge between them. What is clear is that it indicates that the office of bishop (or presbyter—the two terms were apparently still interchangeable in Rome and Corinth) was, in fact, an appointed office, "the episcopate", not just a "work", and that there is thus a distinction made (even more clearly in earlier references) between clergy and laity. It also seems that the bishops hold at least one role (besides their authority and publicly recognized position) that the laity do not: Clement mentions in passing that it is the bishops who "offered the sacrifices". Which raises another point: What are these "sacrifices" that the bishops offered? They seem to be something specific and significant—indeed, they must be for such a now-cryptic reference to be understood. But these will crop up again later; for now I'll just draw your attention to them. Finally, I would note that, although Clement speaks of the bishops as holding an appointed office, he does not speak of that office as being an unaccountable one. On the contrary, the implication seems to be that if the office of bishop is not held with innocence, holiness, good conduct, honor, and integrity, that might well be a good reason to remove such a bishop from his office. It's possible, of course, that these beliefs of Clement's and of the Church of Rome (on whose behalf he is writing) might be not be fully representative of Christian beliefs at the time, but the Corinthian Church's preservation of Clement's letter would seem to imply that they held these beliefs too—or at least accepted them after receiving Clement's letter.

This clear-cut distinction between clergy and laity is even more obvious in the letters of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria, written to a number of churches in Asia Minor, as well as to the church in Rome. These letters were written as Ignatius was being taken to Rome to face martyrdom under the emperor Trajan, and thus are at most twenty years later than Clement's, but most likely are not much more than ten. Ignatius was made bishop of Antioch in 70AD, so that he was a contemporary and, most say, a disciple of the apostle John, and thus was a well-known and respected, much-beloved old man at the time of his martyrdom. Quite reliable church history records that, after the death of Mary, the mother of our Lord, the apostle John went to Asia Minor to plant and to watch over the churches there, making Ephesus his centre (which would explain why the letters to the seven churches of Asia were entrusted to him in Revelation), so it is more than likely that Ignatius and, even more so, that Polycarp (about whom more later), knew and were taught by John personally.

In the letters of Ignatius, we see the distinction between clergy and laity and between the different members of the clergy expressed even more clearly than in Clement's letter. There is apparently one bishop over each city church, supported by a plurality of presbyters (elders) and deacons. Perhaps the clearest expression of Ignatius' understanding of their relative positions in the church may be seen in the following excerpt from his letter to the church at Magnesia:

Yes, I had the good fortune to see you, in the person of Damas your bishop (he's a credit to God!), and of your worthy presbyters, Bassus and Apollonius, and of my fellow slave, the deacon Zotion. I am delighted with him, because he submits to the bishop as to God's grace, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ.
Now, it is not right to presume on the youthfulness of your bishop. You ought to respect him fully as you respect the authority of God the Father. Your holy presbyters, I know, have not taken unfair advantage of his apparent youthfulness, but in their godly wisdom have deferred to him as to the Father of Jesus Christ, who is everybody's bishop. For the honor, then, of him who loved us, we ought to obey without any dissembling, since the real issue is not that a man misleads a bishop whom he can see, but that he defrauds the One who is invisible. In such a case he must reckon, not with a human being, but with God who knows his secrets.
We have not only to be called Christians, but to be Christians. It is the same thing as calling a man a bishop and then doing everything in disregard of him. Such people seem to me to be acting against their conscience, since they do not come to the valid and authorized services.

Notice especially, besides the submission of the presbytery to the bishop and of everyone else to the presbytery and, ultimately, to the bishop, that the spiritual quality of the bishop matters ("he's a credit to God!") and that the bishop's position is similar to that of the apostles in Acts 5. The apostles were, of course, human—we have records of Peter's and perhaps of Paul's errors (Acts 15:36-41)—but as authoritative representatives of God, Ananias and Sapphira's lies were not lies just to them, but to the Holy Spirit and to God. According to Ignatius, the bishop and, in submission to the bishop, the presbyters, while of course fallible human beings, were in the same sort of representatively authoritative position as the apostles. It's in this sense that Ignatius says a bit later (and much the same elsewhere, in his other letters), "I urge you to aim to do everything in godly agreement. Let the bishop preside in God's place, and the presbyters take the place of the apostolic council, and let the deacons (my special favorites) be entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ who was with the Father from eternity and appeared at the end." It's not that the bishop is God, as some have misrepresented Ignatius' position—Ignatius would be the first to say, I am sure, with Clement, that a bishop or a presbyter who is wrong or acting wrongly should be exhorted in a manner consistent with his position of authority, and, if necessary, disciplined—but as one in the same sort of representative position as the apostles occupied, honor or dishonor, obedience or disobedience, truthfulness or deceit shown to the bishop is, in fact, honor or dishonor, et cetera shown to the One whom the bishop represents, namely God. Note also the references to "valid and authorized services" and to the bishop "presiding". Nothing was to be done apart from the authority of the bishop, and those who were ignoring the bishop were, to Ignatius, like people who called themselves Christians yet ignored the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Ignatius' letter to the church at Smyrna gives us more to ponder, for in it we find a non-metaphorical understanding of the bread and the wine in the Lord's Supper (the Eucharist) being used to combat the Docetist heresy. The Docetists apparently believed that matter was evil, and so our Lord could not have really had a body, He had only seemed to (hence "Docetism", from the Greek dokeo, to seem). In response to this, Ignatius writes, not as something new, but as something understood to be a part of the original revelation:

Pay close attention to those who have wrong notions about the grace of Jesus Christ, which has come to us, and note how at variance they are with God's mind. ... They [the Docetists] hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised.

In addition, Ignatius' letter makes clear the bishop's position of authority over the church and that it was the bishop or the bishop's chosen representative who celebrated (presided over) the Eucharist:

Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop's approval. You should regard that Eucharist as valid which is celebrated either by the bishop or by someone he authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic [i.e., universal] Church. Without the bishop's supervision, no baptisms or love feasts [of which the Eucharist was a part] are permitted. On the other hand, whatever he approves pleases God as well. In that way everything you do will be on the safe side and valid.

The preservation of these letters of Ignatius' prevents us from writing off these beliefs as simply being his own errors: the churches who received them must have accepted them as being well enough in harmony with what they had been taught to warrant preserving the letters. The testimony of Polycarp supports their (small-"o") orthodoxy as well.

Like Ignatius, Polycarp exhorts the church to whom he writes, Philippi, to "be obedient to the presbyters and deacons as unto God and Christ." Indeed, I should say "Polycarp and the presbyters with him"—presumably the presbyters beneath him as bishop of the church at Smyrna—for that is who the letter to the church at Philippi is from. Polycarp, according to his disciple Irenaeus, was taught by John and other apostles, and was appointed to be bishop of Smyrna by "apostles in Asia". He crowned his eighty-six years of faithful service to his Lord with martyrdom in 155 or 156AD, thus he could not possibly have been born any later than 69 or 70 (if he was converted as a child or young man, he must have been born even earlier). Thus, Irenaeus' witness is entirely probable (and especially so if John was working in Asia Minor, as mentioned earlier). At the end of his letter to the Philippians, Polycarp writes,

We are sending you the letters of Ignatius, those he addressed to us and any others we had by us, just as you requested. They are herewith appended to this letter. From them you can derive great benefit, for they are concerned with faith and patient endurance and all the edification pertaining to the Lord.

So now if we are going to dismiss Ignatius' teachings on church order, we must not only reject Clement's, but Polycarp's beliefs as well.

As for the question of the "sacrifices" the bishops offered, it should be clear by now that they were the bread and the wine in the Eucharist. A couple of slightly later references should clarify this, as well as one much earlier reference. From the Didache, a second-century manual of church order:

On every Lord's Day—his special day—come together and break bread and give thanks ["Eucharist", by the way, means "thanksgiving"], first confessing your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure.

From the First Apology of Justin Martyr, written in the middle of the second century, as part of Justin's description and explanation of Christian baptism (I won't even bother to comment on the doctrine of baptismal regeneration also evident here):

Then [after praying for the baptized believer and after the brethren have greeted one another with a kiss] bread and a cup of water and mixed wine are brought to the president of the brethren [probably the bishop or his appointed representative] and he, taking them, sends up praise and glory to the Father of the universe through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and offers thanksgiving at some length that we have been deemed worthy to receive these things from him. When he has finished the prayers and the thanksgiving, the whole congregation present assents, saying, "Amen." "Amen" in the Hebrew language means, "So be it." When the president has given thanks and the whole congregation has assented, those whom we call deacons give to each of those present a portion of the consecrated bread and wine and water, and they take it to the absent.
This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God's word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.

And from a well known mid-first century work, the first letter of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians:

Behold Israel after the flesh: Are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? What say I then? That the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing? But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils.

As for the common argument that Christ died "once for all", with emphasis on the "once" and with the claim that a sacrificial or "real presence" understanding of the Eucharest would mean that Christ is continually being sacrificed over and over again: the "bloodless sacrifice" of the Eucharist is a memorial of Christ, not so much to remind us to prevent us from forgetting what was done on our behalf, as it is to bring before God this memorial of the sacrifice of His Son, our only claim to be in His presence. It is a proclamation of Christ's death made not so much to the world (which is not usually present) as it is to the thrice-holy God, by which sacrifice we are reconciled to Him. It is not so much a re-enactment of Christ's death as it is a making present of that original, once-for-all sacrifice and the spiritual life that it brings us. Perhaps, then, it is not so much a case of the first- and second-century Christians misunderstanding the apostolic metaphor as it is a case of the sixteenth-century Reformers failing to appreciate the full spiritual significance of I Corinthians 10 and John 6. And perhaps they failed to do so not so much from lack of zeal as from lack of knowledge of context.

In the end I have found it easier to believe that martyrs for the faith like Ignatius and Polycarp, men who were brought up in and became bishops of churches recently established and trained by Paul and further trained and overseen by John, quite probably even men who knew and were trained by the apostles themselves—I have found it easier to believe that such men understood and faithfully passed on the apostles' teachings than to believe that they misunderstood and/or willfully distorted apostolic teaching. I have found it easier to believe that the majority of the post-apostolic Church, made up of men and women who had begun by submitting to the apostles' teachings, who had had their lives transformed by those teachings, and who had often died for those teachings—I have found it easier to believe that a Church made up of such people preserved the apostles' teachings than to believe that it distorted them. Certainly there were men and women in the Church who tried to distort the apostles' teachings, but I find it easier to believe that the elders and overseers chosen by the apostles managed, on the whole, to shepherd their flocks rightly than to believe that they instantly and almost wholly failed as soon as John died. For the collective witness of Clement and Ignatius and Polycarp and the churches these men wrote to and represented, along with the witness of the well-travelled Justin Martyr and the probably Alexandrian Didache—this witness indicates that, within one generation after John's death, the whole Church, from Syria to Alexandria, through Asia Minor and Greece right to Rome—this whole Church had either fallen into much the same error with regards to the authority of the clergy and the nature of the Eucharist (to say nothing of baptismal regeneration, liturgical worship, and other matters which I have had neither the time nor the space to touch on here), or else it had faithfully preserved, for the most part, the apostles' oral as well as their written teachings regarding these matters. I find the latter the easier version of Church history to believe, not because it is necessarily more attractive (or otherwise), but because it is more in accord with what I know to be true of both history and human nature.

I hope by now you have seen where Dr. Gooding's arguments against the Orthodox Church (or at least my recollection of those arguments) were mistaken. In case it has not been clear, let me just say that assigning different roles to different members of Christ's body in no way denies each member's priesthood. Even we agree that it is only the elders who, as shepherds, have authority over God's flock. Does that make us any less God's priests than they? As for Dr. Gooding's misunderstanding of the need for Church councils, it is an understandable misunderstanding when you know that Orthodox Christians often refer to their Church as "the Church of the Seven Councils". Usually they do so to distinguish themselves from Rome, which does not really recognize the Seventh Ecumenical Council. But the councils were held simply to clarify apostolic teaching whenever practices or doctrinal questions came up that the Church hadn't faced or had to deal with before. Individual believers of course put their faith in our Lord and His teachings, as entrusted by Him to His chosen apostles, and as entrusted by them to other members of His Church—and they do so to the best of their abilities as individuals. Individual believers are not expected to resolve every tricky and complicated point of doctrine on their own: that is much better accomplished with the help of other wise individuals who have also submitted themselves to and been trained in the revelation of Jesus Christ entrusted to His apostles and, by them, to His Church. They may meet in council if necessary, and, if really necessary, in a much larger council, but not every question of doctrine requires a Church council, local or ecumenical.

I've written a rather long letter—much longer than I ever intended. But I'm sure it's not adequate to convince anyone, nor was it my intention to do so. My intention was simply to share where I've been, and where I am now and why. If you think it looks logical, I encourage you to join me on my journey: to look into these things (and especially these people) for yourself, and to base your decision as to their truth or error on the best of your knowledge and on faith. I haven't mentioned faith very much not because faith isn't important, but because faith is rather difficult to describe: the best I've been able to do is to describe the knowledge and ways of thinking upon which my faith is now based. If you think instead that all this looks wrong, please tell me! It's entirely possible that I've seriously misunderstood the question, though I suppose there's always the possibility that you may have misunderstood it yourself, or that both of us may have misunderstood things. Whichever of these three possibilities is true, I'm sure we can only benefit from an honest chat about what we believe and disbelieve, especially if we explore the whys. And, as they always say (whoever "they" are), "Two heads are better than one!"

Finally, thank you so much for taking the time to read this letter. I can't tell you how much I appreciate (and have appreciated) your love and concern. Whatever you end up thinking of me and what I've come to believe, I take your reading of this letter as an expression of your love for me and for the Truth, who is our mutual, blessed Lord, to whom be honor, and glory, and power, and our praise for ever and ever. Amen.

Please pray for me. I will pray for you.

Your servant, friend, brother, and son,

in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ,

Ed Hewlett.

*Looking back over the letter, now that I've completed it, I see that, while I've hopefully made most of its contents at least somewhat clear, I don't think I've made clear exactly how these changes in my way of thinking ultimately changed my approach to and understanding of Orthodoxy. Briefly, then, having seen the danger of objecting to each aspect of Japanese life and culture that didn't make sense from a North American perspective, I now saw the same danger in a similarly piecemeal approach to Orthodoxy. Accordingly, after my Japan trip I made an effort to come to know and understand Orthodoxy as a whole, and not to object to any one aspect of it just because it didn't fit into my Protestant understanding of Scripture or history. (If an aspect of Orthodox doctrine or life didn't fit with Scripture or history at all, that would of course be significant.) As for my understanding of faith and salvation as a process, that ended up fitting Orthodox sacramental theology very well. I won't go into any detail on sacramental theology here, except to say that, if submission in faith to Christ and to the revelation of Jesus Christ is a continual thing, then every action that expresses that submission becomes a part of our salvation, and specific works of obedience such as baptism and partaking of the Lord's Supper become especially significant parts thereof. Such specific actions became known as sacraments, but, ultimately, in Orthodox sacramental theology all of life is a sacrament if lived in subjection to Christ. Remember, though, all these works are significant elements of our salvation if and only if they arise from and express living faith—works done without faith are no more a part of salvation in Orthodox theology than they are in Protestant thought.

*In other words, you cannot be the embodiment of God's Truth on your own ("We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.") or even with others if they are out of fellowship with all those who have fully subjected themselves to the apostles' teachings ("Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?"). The second half of this second assumption would further imply that being in fellowship with those who have gone before—i.e., with the historic Church—is also necessary.

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