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  • Writer's pictureThe Other Paul

A Response to a Friend Looking East

Introduction

A good friend of mine (and sparring partner on issues of pre-destination, God's sovereignty, and free-will) called Vlad recently posted a small historical takedown of Evangelicalism on Facebook. I normally see such kinds of posts every week from Romanist and Easterner friends and acquaintances, which I would normally pass over. They're in an opposing tradition, of course they'll make such arguments, and I don't have to refute every post out there.

But what interested me is that this friend is not Romanist nor Easterner, but a Protestant, yet is right now feeling pulled towards the East. His post does say a faithful Protestant (presumably meaning those who accept his claims) can go Lutheran or Anglican, but even so his criticisms of Evangelicalism require a response, since I also dislike weak arguments against Evangelicals from my fellow Magisterial Protestants. So, I feel more compelled to make this response now than I otherwise normally would be, in hopes that my friend considers the nuances in these issues that are seldom appreciated by critics of Evangelicalism. This is done out of love and a desire to really make clear the matters at hand, so that Vlad and others in his position can have the most clear perspective on these issues before making big decisions.

I - 2nd Thessalonians 2:15 and Tradition

The first part of his post - which can be read in full in the appendix below - asserts the following:

Modern evangelicalism is a faith without a historical basis. Here I will lay down just 3 of its failures, with a brief comment at the end.

"So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold on to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us." - 2 Thessalonians 2:15

1. Its first failing is the failure to recognize that scripture is a part of the tradition of the Church. It is a member of the set that tradition is. Tradition of extrascriptural teachings of the apostles is simply unrecognized.

Here lies the first immediate problem, one that has been addressed ad nauseum by Protestant apologies, including and especially of the Evangelical variety. Yes, if we had verifiable oral sayings of Christ or the Apostles, we would absolutely be bound to accept them as we do their writings. Problem: does anyone today know any teachings that Paul said to the Thessalonians apart from what was related through his letters to them? I mean specific teachings, doctrines, statements, etc., with historical testimony to verify them (just as we have for the letters). To save us time, no one can nor even pretends to make that claim, except a stubborn few (whom I have encountered) who will give a vague answer like "He preached the Apostolic Tradition/Faith!", ignoring how the question asks precisely what that consisted of.

The inevitable fading of oral testimony (especially when not pegged to verbatim statements) is the key problem that necessitates Sola Scriptura, at least past the period of living memory. The idea of a perpetual oral source of Apostolic teaching with content distinct from that of Holy Scripture developed well after the Apostolic period, and even then it was initially only with respect to church practice and observances, not doctrine {I}, contra Rome and the East's claims regarding Sacred Tradition. I could cite much more material but I don't want my footnotes to become essays in their own right, and I hope the material I do cite is good enough reading for people interested in these issues to start with.

There is also the problem of definitions; Vlad (and many apologists) reads the word "tradition" in this passage and immediately equates it with the particular concept of Apostolic Tradition. But the word can and historically has signified many different things, many of which Protestants gladly accept. For example, in his Examination of the Council of Trent, Martin Chemnitz (a Lutheran reformer) lists 8 different definitions of "tradition," with patristic citations given as examples, in order to show how Rome's counter-reformers twisted the word in early church sources to prove their specific idea of Sacred/Apostolic Tradition. And with respect to this specific passage, it is clear that Paul is not referring to capital-T Tradition (the single deposit of faith passed on via episcopal succession), because it is in the plural, and thus is referring to specific teachings. And so, I simply ask again for anyone to demonstrate any unwritten teachings by the Apostle to the Thessalonians.

II - Irenaeus & Apostolic Succession

Vlad continues:

2. Stemming from the first, it has failed to maintain or seek any sort of apostolic succession of Bishops, which was established as a tradition from the Apostles, which is the identifying mark of the visible Christian Church and as such they lack any continuity with the Apostolic Church.

"It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about" Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chapter 3 - St. Irenaeus

He takes Irenaeus of Lyon's comments to be that of demanding an exact material succession from present leaders to the Apostles, on the grounds that this is "the identifying mark of the visible Christian Church." That is, if you can trace you or your bishop's line of succession down to an Apostle without a break, you are within the canonical bounds of the Church. Otherwise, you are outside the visible Church.

Unfortunately, this is not at all what Irenaeus is arguing, here or anywhere else in Against Heresies. Nowhere does he attack the Gnostic groups for breaking with the succession on sacramental grounds as to render them outside of the visible Church. Rather, his appeal to the succession of bishops/presbyters is fundamentally historical in its concern; we can give an account of where our teaching comes from. This is evident in the very passage cited above ("those who were instituted bishops... down to our own times... who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about") and every other passage in which Irenaeus makes this appeal {II}. This is made even clearer by looking at the world around Irenaeus, in which appeals to succession and succession lists were common in philosophical contexts, entirely focused on the content being passed down itself, and not with the sacramental status of those within the line. Arguably the best example of this is the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers {III} compiled by Diogenes Laertius some time in the 3rd century. This work sought to trace the teachings of the Greek philosophers from the beginning onwards, giving brief accounts of their lives and their teachings, and enumerating who taught - or "succeeded" - who. Here is a short excerpt as an example (bold highlights mine):

But of Philosophy there arose two schools. One derived from Anaximander, the other from Pythagoras. Now, Thales had been the preceptor of Anaximander, and Pherecydes of Pythagoras. And the one school was called the Ionian, because Thales, being an Ionian (for he was a native of Miletus), had been the tutor of Anaximander;—but the other was called the Italian from Pythagoras, because he spent the chief part of his life in Italy. And the Ionic school ends with Clitomachus, and Chrysippus, and Theophrastus; and the Italian one with Epicurus; for Anaximander succeeded Thales, and he was succeeded again by Anaximenes, and he by Anaxagoras, and he by Archelaus, who was the master of Socrates, who was the originator of moral philosophy.

Now, it goes without saying that the above statement is not asserting a sacramental line of ordination through the Greek philosophers outside of which nobody is permitted to interpret philosophical texts, but simply enumerating who taught who, and thus determining where various teachings came from (as the rest of the work explains in great depth), a useful and necessary method in the pre-internet, pre-printing world. We should therefore not make that same assumption of Irenaeus, who uses identical language. And this was but one work amidst an entire genre of literature on philosophical succession, as Laertius' copious citation of other succession accounts makes clear.

In fairness, one difference between Diogenes and Irenaeus is that the latter does mention a specific office, the episcopate, as being handed down, not merely one guy teaching another and so on; this is clear in the bishop list of Rome he gives in Book III chapter 3. However, it's still an unwarranted assumption to presume that mentioning the succession of the office means asserting the existence of a necessary sacramental charism that demarcates the visible bounds of the church, and which can only be passed on by a chain, and not given charismatically in periods of mass apostasy (say, the mainstream European churches under Rome during the Reformation). It is still much more likely given this wider Graeco-Roman context and Irenaeus own words (the origins of teaching, never mentioning concepts like sacramental validity) that the passing on of the episcopate is simply the means of passing on the teaching, which Evangelicals can and do affirm (even if not with words like "bishop"). Additionally, Irenaeus elsewhere recounts the teaching succession of heretics like Marcion {IV}, for whom Irenaeus never mentions a specific institution or office through which they maintain a line of ordination, but simply demarcates the origins of their teachings.

So, in summary, no, Evangelicals whose leadership has breaks in their line of ordination (which is an assumption; the contrary could be true of certain Evangelical ministers) are not outside of the visible Church according to this quote from Irenaeus. He does not mention anything of ordination or consecration to a bishopric as a necessary marker of canonical bounds, but simply a means by which the churches could at his time attest to the Apostolicity of their teaching.

III - The Eucharist

Vlad continues:

3. Rebelling against the structure of the Church and Christian clergy, it has completely forsaken the eucharist, delegating to it a status of a mere remembrance of Christ, with no acknowledgement of it either as a means of grace, nor of it being the body and blood of our Savior.

Right after this, he quotes a long section concerning the Eucharist (which can be read in the appendix) in Ignatius of Antioch's letter to the Smyrnaeans. This section is cited quite often by proponents of the real presence in order to demonstrate that it was the view of 1st - early 2nd century Christians. A problem again arises from not allowing the author to define his own terms and measure them according to his situation, just as we saw with the prior citation from Irenaeus. Let's look at the most relevant section of the Ignatius quote to demonstrate this.

They [the Docetists] abstain from the Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up. {V}

Vlad's core assumption lies in the docetic denial of the Eucharist "being" the flesh of Christ is a denial of the real, ontological presence of Christ's body and blood in the elements. The problem, of course, is that this is nowhere related by the text over and against a Zwinglian reading of Ignatius, if one wanted to go there.

Some context; the Docetists (from the Greek verb δοκεῖν, to seem) denied that Christ came in the flesh at all, only that He appeared to. So, if they were fronted with a Zwinglian view of the Eucharist - that the bread and wine simply represent Christ's flesh and blood - would they be cool with that? Absolutely not, because every view of the Eucharist from Zwingli to even the lowest of low church conceptions assumes that Christ really came in the flesh and that the elements represent that real flesh. One may reword Ignatius' words in accordance with a representative meaning of "is" in the following way:

They [the Docetists] abstain from the Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist represents the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up.

So, Ignatius' statement here does not require the real presence to make sense; the Docetists would've raged against Zwingli as well.

On his statement about the Eucharist being a "means of grace," I simply have to ask Vlad what he means by that given the plurality of interpretations of this concept, from Romanists to Anglicans. I'd also need to see what patristic evidence he has in mind. Without primary source material, this criticism is empty.

But finally, I must strongly protest the portrayal of a "mere remembrance" view as a "forsaking of the Eucharist." For someone (like me) who does not grant that the real presence was preached by Christ or the Apostles or the earliest Christians, this statement means nothing, for it relies entirely on one granting the truth of the real presence to begin with. It may tickle the ears of others who affirm that doctrine, but it won't do anything to convince well thought-out Evangelicals who hold to a form of Memorialism, who are at least a portion of this post's intended audience. What if Christ really did institute the Eucharist as simply a Memorial? Would that make it of no value? Obviously not; the mere fact that this ritual was establish by God Himself would give it the highest value above all rituals, despite the absence of an ontological presence of Christ's flesh and blood.

IV - An Alien Worldview

The final section of Vlad's post is as follows:

As such, it is to me quite foreign and strange when a low-church Evangelical, Baptist or Calvinist quotes the early Fathers in any sort of a support for their position. These men had a Church totally foreign to the one you are a part of. Their beliefs stemmed from things that you do not acknowledge and their Christian life consisted of sacraments you do not recognize. It is enough to read the canons of any of the ecumenical councils, say the Nicene council, for an evangelical to recognize that the Fathers there lacked their beliefs, and would condemn them as schismatics and inovators.

I say this not to put down my brothers and sisters in Christ, but an honest student of history will and must set aside their biases and recognize these truths.

A protestant wishing to remain one can certainly do so, but must be a member of a faithful and apostolic Anglican or Lutheran Church. Evangelicalism has no legs to stand upon.

I took a good while to figure out how I'd respond to this paragraph, due to its dense compacting of many assertions in few words. The first response I will give is noting how it is largely predicated upon the truth of his prior assertions on Tradition, Apostolic Succession, and the Eucharist, all of which I have adequately addressed.

Some other evidence he mentions is the canons of the Council of Nicaea, which allegedly indicate how "the Fathers there lacked their [Evangelicals'] beliefs." But this is just another raw assertion; what canons? How do they deny key beliefs held by most/all Evangelicals? And why should that matter at all given that many canons are in response to specific, time-bound issues? Even if these canons do reflect fundamental worldview in conflict with Evangelicalism, so what? Do you not still need to demonstrate that such canons reflected the views of the Apostles and the earliest Christians (which is a key premise in many topics that Evangelical scholars and apologists attack)? Those are but a few of many necessary questions that need answering before this appeal can have any real bite.

But the first sentence of the paragraph is the most interesting: that he finds it "foreign and strange" when Evangelicals/Baptists/Calvinists cite the fathers "in any sort of a support for their position", because of their allegedly foreign beliefs. Well, even if we grant that they did unanimously believe what was claimed in this article, how does that disallow, say, a Calvinist from citing 1st Clement or Augustine in favour of his beliefs against synergists? It simply doesn't. I've seen this argument employed by other Eastern apologists before, and - without saying this is Vlad's intention (in fact, I'm certain it isn't) - it is purely a tool for bullying Evangelicals out of patristic studies and gatekeeping it for spiritual and intellectual snobs who gloat about how old their church is. It doesn't do anything to refute an opponent's arguments.

V - Where I Sympathize

Despite the last dozen or so paragraphs of criticism, there is a heart in this post that I do strongly agree with. Modern Evangelical worship and Christian life has largely abandoned a concern for continuity with the good of our Christian ancestry. Concern for order, reverence, hierarchy, aesthetic, and so on have been largely abandoned by many Baptist, Pentecostal/Charismatic, and Non-Denom (aka Baptist) congregations. It is scoffed at as old, material, and unspiritual, which is a demonic lie. We are told that smells and bells, beautiful architecture, and stained glass are unnecessary for real worship, and that we're even better off without them. In other words, worship doesn't involve the senses, but is purely platonic. But then these same modernists turn around and set up elaborate lighting plans, image projections, and smoke machines, now deciding to deny their prior premise of purely platonic worship, only to replace it with culturally specific, un-transcendent, uninspired concert displays.

Additionally, apart from discussions on the real presence, the Eucharist really does take an unacceptable back seat in many Evangelical congregations. Many will take every step they can to economize the whole process, allowing little to no time for contemplation, and stripping the meal of any transcendent sense (e.g. through disposable cup and wafer packets, which I despised ever since I first encountered them in Hillsong New York).

I can say much more, an entire essay's worth more, but that about sums up my gripes with modern Evangelicalism, and why ultimately I brought myself to a liturgically minded tradition. In this regard, I greatly agree with Vlad in his recommendation of Anglicanism or Lutheranism (though I'd also add Presbyterianism) as the best, most authentic expressions of Protestant, and by extension Christian worship.

Conclusion

That concludes my response to Vlad's critique of Evangelicalism. I hope it serves to show him and other readers two things: first, that certain major critiques of Evangelicalism do not work; second, that it is dangerous to read historical sources with our later concerns in mind; and third, that one defending Evangelicalism on these points can and should still criticize it on other points, as in the final paragraph. I hope and pray that Vlad and others looking to Rome or the East on the grounds of the arguments addressed above will reconsider their direction.

~~~

I - First, a portion from chapter 27 of Basil's On the Holy Spirit, an oft-cited prooftext for Sacred Tradition:

For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching.

~ Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit, chapter XXVII. https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf208/npnf208.vii.xxviii.html

Note the claims he cites on the authority of unwritten tradition apart from scripture; all liturgical in nature. The wider section is likewise defending a specific liturgical language of "with the Spirit" and not just "in the Spirit," the latter of which is attested in scripture, but not the former, which Basil's opponents charge is against him.

We see likewise in Tertullian's On the Soldier's Crown (De Corona Militis) he says the following:

And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent. To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels.

~ Tertullian, On the Soldier's Crown, chapter III. https://ccel.org/ccel/tertullian/corona/anf03.iv.vi.iii.html

He cites other examples after this section, all of which (alongside the example he cites here) are liturgical in nature; no specific doctrines of faith are proposed on the grounds of unwritten tradition.

That reliance on unwritten tradition apart from scripture was initially exclusive to matters of practice and not of doctrine (though potentially having doctrinal considerations) is affirmed by J.N.D. Kelly:

The creed itself, according to Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine and Cassian, was a compendium of Scripture. An exception to this general attitude might seem to be Basil's reliance, mentioned above, upon tradition as embedded in the liturgy, rather than upon Scripture, to demonstrate the full deity of the Holy Spirit. Even he, however, makes it crystal clear, in the very discussion in question, that there is no contradiction between unwritten tradition and the gospel, 8 for in their traditionally transmitted teaching the fathers have only been following what Scripture itself implies. 1 Indeed, all the instances of unwritten tradition lacking Scriptural support which the early theologians mention will be found, on examination, to refer to matters of observance and practice rather than of doctrine as such.

~ J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (4th Edition), p.47.

and R.P.C. Hanson:

The appeal to unwritten tradition is always made by those writers of the period under review p[ who make it as an appeal to something which is secondary, which can easily be allowed to vary from church to church and from place to place, and which cannot seriously be compared as an authority to Scripture.

R.P.C. Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church, p.238.

See also footnote I and the comments in the Schaff edition of Basil (linked under the quote) that provide other qualifying statements by Basil regarding the total supremacy of scripture and the necessity of direct testimony from it on matters of faith.

II - A couple of the most notable examples being Against Heresies III.4 and IV.26.

III - Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Ca. A.D. 3rd century. www.gutenberg.org/files/57342/57342-h/57342-h.htm

IV - Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, I.27.1 - 2. Ca. A.D. 174 - 189. https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103127.htm

V - Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 6.2. Ca. A.D. 107. Translation: Michael Holmes, 2007.

Appendix - Vlad's Full Post

Modern evangelicalism is a faith without a historical basis. Here I will lay down just 3 of its failures, with a brief comment at the end.

"So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold on to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us." - 2 Thessalonians 2:15

1. Its first failing is the failure to recognize that scripture is a part of the tradition of the Church. It is a member of the set that tradition is. Tradition of extrascriptural teachings of the apostles is simply unrecognized.

2. Stemming from the first, it has failed to maintain or seek any sort of apostolic succession of Bishops, which was established as a tradition from the Apostles, which is the identifying mark of the visible Christian Church and as such they lack any continuity with the Apostolic Church.

"It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about" Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chapter 3 - St. Irenaeus

3. Rebelling against the structure of the Church and Christian clergy, it has completely forsaken the eucharist, delegating to it a status of a mere remembrance of Christ, with no acknowledgement of it either as a means of grace, nor of it being the body and blood of our Savior.

"Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God ... They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes" See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid." Ignatius, disciple of the Apostle John - Epistle to Smyraeans, 6-8

As such, it is to me quite foreign and strange when a low-church Evangelical, Baptist or Calvinist quotes the early Fathers in any sort of a support for their position. These men had a Church totally foreign to the one you are a part of. Their beliefs stemmed from things that you do not acknowledge and their Christian life consisted of sacraments you do not recognize. It is enough to read the canons of any of the ecumenical councils, say the Nicene council, for an evangelical to recognize that the Fathers there lacked their beliefs, and would condemn them as schismatics and inovators.

I say this not to put down my brothers and sisters in Christ, but an honest student of history will and must set aside their biases and recognize these truths.

A protestant wishing to remain one can certainly do so, but must be a member of a faithful and apostolic Anglican or Lutheran Church. Evangelicalism has no legs to stand upon.

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