Friday, January 04, 2008

I think denominations are a good thing. I’m glad we have them. I think God uses them and has a purpose for them to serve on this side of eternity to advance His Kingdom. I think that breaking down denominational walls would be a very bad thing. I’m against doing that until Christ returns to establish His Kingdom on earth. I hope the denominations don’t all “get together” someday. I also think it unwise for a church to be independent/non-denominational. I think every church should be held accountable to other local churches of like faith. If you pastor a non-denominational or independent church I would advise you to seek out a denomination which shares your core doctrinal distinctives and missiology and lead your congregation to yoke up with that denomination as soon as possible. It will make your local congregation and the denomination more healthy, balanced and effective in mission.

Why do I hear so many crickets in the back ground? And why are you all looking at me like that?

Ok…let me show you in the Bible how I’ve come to this conclusion.

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” Psalm 133:1 esv

“And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” John 17:11 esv

“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” Romans 12:4-5 esv

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or"I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” 1 Corinthians 1:10-12 esv

Where are those crickets coming from? There’s snow all over the ground! Are you all making that noise? Oh…ok…I get it…I’m hearing that noise and you people are making those faces because it’s rare for someone to stand up and proclaim “I don’t want to break down denominational walls because I think they are a good thing!” And the verses that I’m citing to support my claim are typically passages cited to show you how BAD and STUPID denominations are.

Before I dive in and explain this exotic, foreign, strange, bizarre and outlandish assertion of mine let me begin by saying this. I really think the spiritual life would be much easier if Eastern Orthodoxy was in fact the one true and only Church Christ Himself established in Matthew 16. I actually used to think that about Roman Catholicism…to have a substitute for Christ to stand up and declare what is and is not would be truly fantastic and convenient. But doing my study and learning of Christian history in a more detailed way I now see they are completely ineligible for that claim. Either the Church can evolve, grow and reform or it can not. If it can then Reformed Christianity is the only real and reasonable option. If it can not (or maybe I should say does not) then Eastern Orthodoxy is the only real and reasonable option. Because Rome has indeed evolved and reformed…yet strangely and amazingly claims otherwise.

I want all my evangelicals and reformed Christians to just stop and think about how nice it would be to no longer need to worry about “rightly handling the word of truthpersonally. Just think about that. I hope you are aware that, at least in the reformed understanding of that passage and other like it, we have a personal obligation to God Almighty to handle His Word with reverence and we are obligated to personally see to it that we understand the Scriptures. It is a sin to simply buy what a pastor sells without personal examination of the Scriptures to see if the things he is teaching is true. Now, we must all understand, truly appreciate and really consider the fact that for century upon century most Christians did not live like this nor view spirituality as we in the reformed tradition do today. Devout Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics do not live with our view of spirituality even to this day. Both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, at least in theory, claim that the there is no need for us to (as they say) reinvent the wheel. Faithful men ages ago have already handled the Word of truth and by God’s grace have already explained to us in both word and deed what it means and how it applies to life. It is not up to us to interpret the Bible because it has already been interpreted authoritatively. That is why both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic devotees don’t talk about “essential” doctrines because in their world…every doctrine is essential. On the scale of truth every dogma is a 10…one can not pick and choose which dogmas they except and which they don’t have a real taste for and be eligible to receive Christ (His body and blood they believe).

Oh would that be nice or what? If the Bible was perfectly interpreted for me and all I had to do was follow the prescriptions of Priests and Bishops there would sure be a lot less tension in my head. And of course all the bickering among denominations would cease which would also be a real plus. If only we could all just get along and believe the same thing…

The problem is that such a system is a fantasy and is not to be expected in this lifetime. We do not read of an infallible Church with the mandate or even the ability to pass down the Authority of the Apostles to non-Apostles (Bishops) in the Bible. On top of that Church history does not reveal the heightened level of doctrinal unity which is touted today by either bunch. It’s very difficult to debate Church history because it is 2,000 years old and still going strong. Name anything as old as the Church…there are very few things…if anything…with as much water under its bridge as the Church. (Maybe Judaism…but I would argue the religion practiced by Jews today is not the same as it was in the days of Christ or before Him). Christian history is vast and deep and each branch is generally too careless with the amount of gloss which is applied to it. But suffice it to say…I don’t see the tremendous doctrinal uniformity which is proclaimed today…not in the first 1,000 years especially. One quick example would be that the east and west did not see eye to eye with how the articulated the finer details of the Holy Trinity…maybe ever. There were constant doctrinal bickering and various camps which would emerge in the east and west and then dissolve as others emerged all throughout the first 10 centuries…this lead to the Great Schism of 1054. (I will say at that point Eastern Orthodoxy has maintained incredible dogmatic unity since the Schism.)

So I don’t believe the glue which holds the Church together is the dogmas or doctrines of ecclesiastical councils. But there are two certain doctrines which emerge within the heart of all true Christians. Doctrines which the Holy Spirit will usually bring to the attention and then conviction of every believe through the reading of and study of His Word (I’m sure there are some for various reason who were never properly educated in these two issues yet were elect…we are not saved by theological precision or mental aptitude). The Trinity and Salvation by the grace of Christ alone (apart from personal effort, merit or work) are the two fundamentals no true Christian will ever deny. Not all true Christians understand or correctly articulate these doctrines…but no true Christian would ever, if properly informed, deny these two great doctrines.

Those are the two doctrines you will find in every true local Church of Jesus Christ. Simple observation and simple logic will by grace bring us to this conclusion. It is a very difficult thing to speak for the entire Church indeed…because the Church is not a visible thing…it is invisible. Its head is not a council or a pontiff…the head of the Church is our Priest, Jesus Christ. I would repeatedly say to my Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends that the Church is invisible…not all in Christendom today or throughout Christian history are elect. Most church goers are not of the elect. They have a form of godliness yet deny the power (the gospel) of it. So taking a survey of hands in Church history doesn’t necessarily prove much…I would suggest that while not all people in Christendom were unsaved…certainly as is the case today…most were not…which I believe is part of the reason for their collective confusion.

What does all of this have to do with the goodness of denominations? How do the verses presented up top support this assertion I’ve made?

I’ll tell you next time. But I will give you a hint…we need denominations in order to maintain the unity and harmony of Christ’s one and only Church.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. Matthew 16:13-20 esv


Zac said...


I really like this post as well-- you're on a roll! You have here an example of clear thinking on the subject, being honest to your own convictions and willing to follow down other logical paths to see where they lead and the relative merits of the various premises upon which all of these ancient (protestant, catholic, orthodox) arguments are based.

That having been said, I think that maybe I have too much stressed the relative stability you find in Orthodoxy (as opposed to the two other parts of Christendom) and not another very crucial part of the Orthodox Church's own self-understanding.

To explain this part, I would like to quote for you briefly from Fr. John Behr, an English priest who has recently become the Dean of America's foremost Orthodox theological seminary. I have had the privilege of corresponding with him through email and he has been very helpful with explaining how the Church understands both the static and dynamic elements of the Tradition (for brevity's sake I will omit my own question to him):

I think one has to be really careful about what is meant by "grow" or speaking of "tradition" as "alive". Yes, it is certainly the case that we will forever be drawing new riches out of the treasury, but it is still the same treasury that we draw from. [...]

Now, turning to Basil, yes, Basil points to all sorts of things which are "non-scriptural" in the sense that Scripture does not explicitly state them - eg facing East when praying etc. But note how he explains them - we face east when praying, because Eden was planted in the east! Also note what he says in sec. 16 of On the Holy Spirit: "But that it is simply the tradition of the Fathers is not sufficient. For they too followed the sense of Scripture, taking their principles from the testimonies, which a little earlier I extracted from Scripture and presented to you."

So yes, we have a rich and vast tradition of reflecting on the mystery of Christ - a treasury from which there is always more for each and every one to draw. And so in this sense, "the Word grows" as it says in Acts [12:24, 19:20] - but it stays the same Word nevertheless.

So in Orthodoxy we have this one treasury of the faith of Christ: the Scriptures, the charismatic and historical succession of the apostolic communities in the fathers and councils, liturgical worship, and ascetical practice. Orthodox Christians remain, as Muhammad referred to them in the 6th Century, "people of the Book." Holy Tradition for the Orthodox is only the lens through which the brilliant Sun of Righteousness, and His Message, are seen.

So that's why Orthodox have a long, long history of theological reflection in every age. Our difference comes as Orthodox and Protestant when we look at the method by which the Scriptures in each age are expounded and the Gospel of Christ preached.

Boy, now I'm rambling, I think! Forgive me. So all I mean to say is-- the Orthodox don't just say, "Well St. John Chrysostom interpreted this in the 5th Century and said such and such so that's all we need. That's that! (*dusts hands in relief*)" Heaven forbid!

Quite the contrary, I have just bought a rather large tome entitled, Isaiah Through the Ages which documents all the major Orthodox pieces of commentary on Isaiah from the beginning of the Christian era up to our own day: verse by verse!

Do these commentators all give identical readings of the text? No! One brings out one thing, another brings out something else. Some might even disagree over precise meaning. But ultimately our commentators have an accountability to the consensus of the Church from all previous ages. You will never find an Orthodox theologian opining that the Prophet Isaiah did not mean "virgin" by his use of "alma" in the text. In fact, even St. Jerome countered this argument in the 4th Century! (I can give you that text, if you like).

Ok, now I've really written too much!

There are two (actually three) good books to read on all of this, and I don't know why I didn't think of them for you earlier. One of them I have for you, by a great evangelical teacher, Dan Clendenin: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, A Western Perspective. It's a good, objective look (criticisms included) at Orthodoxy from an evangelical (I think calvinist, even) point of view. I'll give it to you when I come to pick up my icon (although you can keep that if you want it).

The other good book is Counterpoints: Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism by some really great evangelical and orthodox theologians. It's at my local borders and of course you could get it on Amazon.

Ayayay... ok enough! Christ is born!

Zac said...

Oh, and I suppose I should actually comment on the point of your post: that denominations are good. I guess it all depends on what we mean.

I think I'm understanding you to mean that it's enough for reformed Christians to agree on the essential gospel: Trinity, Christ's deity, propitiatory death, third-day resurrection, biblical inerrancy, and salvation by grace through faith. Non-essential, perhaps even bad (you seem to be saying) is something like administrative unity-- like all Southern Baptist Churches being united under the S.B. Convention.

This is thought-provoking. Let me slightly diverge and tell you that this is similar to Orthodox thinking. While each autocephalous Orthodox Church is bound to proclaim the same Christian faith (our own "essentials" you could say), each is administratively free of the others.

Of course what is not ideal for the Orthodox is the American situation, where the Orthodox Churches which are all within the United States are under different governing synods of Orthodox bishops, usually themselves parts of the old world autocephalous churches. The ideal expressed in the canons for Orthodox is that there be one Orthodox bishop in a single diocese and that each locality be administratively united.

Here's a good question for you: would you be opposed to unity for reformed Christians in local areas, like all Southern Baptists in Ohio be accountable to some administrative board that would be able to oversee various disciplinary matters?

Zac said...

I just read your good post yet again and I just want to say one more thing (and please forgive me... I will be patient as you respond to all of these).

You write: "The Trinity and Salvation by the grace of Christ alone (apart from personal effort, merit or work) are the two fundamentals no true Christian will ever deny. Not all true Christians understand or correctly articulate these doctrines…but no true Christian would ever, if properly informed, deny these two great doctrines."

I think on one level you are right-- but the real difference that Orthodox have with Protestants is our definition of those terms-- justification, grace, faith, works, even salvation in some contexts-- all of these can have different meanings.

For the Orthodox, there has never been a controversy over faith vs. works. Faith saves us, and we could never earn the righteousness imputed to us through Christ's atoning blood. But not all faith saves, only the faith which works through love. The work itself is nothing (stinking rags before our Holy God)-- it is the faith-filled obedience to Christ Jesus that saves us, by his grace (God's power, not simply his unmerited favor). But this imputation of righteousness {a good stab at the meaning of "justification" for the Orthodox, rather than mere juridical declaration of innocence) by Christ's Cross to the believer is effected by joining oneself in faith to Him, in the Church.

Again, good post. Sorry for so many responses.

irreverend fox said...

hey zac! wow...I don't know if it is you or Eastern Orthodoxy which confounds me!

I've been warned about Eastern Orthodoxy before you should know...I've been told that there are points where reformed Christians scratch their heads and say, "isn't that what we are trying to say?"

If I can be as kind yet honest as a humble begger like myself can be...I would suggest this:

A. The Eastern Orthodox maintains at the very least, a HIGH percentage or ancient Christian theology and worldview.

B. Ancient Christian theology contained points of logical inconsistency, particularly regarding the nature and means of justification/salvation/deliverance/regeneration.

C. Easthern Orthodoxy therefore mirrors a similar inconsistency.

I don't know...but I think that is where I am at right now. In one sense I suppose you can be glad in knowing that I recognize the most ancient nature of the Easter Orthodox...yet must not be glad in knowing that I'm not sure I trust the ancient Christians with my soul to start with!

I don’t completely disagree with Fr. Behr at all. I need to work through the small portion you have shared more closely. Of course my question would be regarding the nature of the lens itself. Is it a perfect lens?

I am also going to work through the links you’ve provided. I wish there were more materials written by reformed Christians about Eastern Orthodoxy, which are not at a sky high scholarly level, which would work to help bridge the gap of understanding. 90% of the difficulty I believe is that we many times use the same words but have them stuffed with very distinct meanings…which makes things difficult. A ministry of irenic apologetics dedicated to Eastern Orthodox and evangelical theology would be great.

“would you be opposed to unity for reformed Christians in local areas, like all Southern Baptists in Ohio be accountable to some administrative board that would be able to oversee various disciplinary matters?”

Hmmmmm. Yes and no. It depends on what we mean by discipline. I believe in the autonomy of the local church. This is where, in my opinion, we are frankly more in line with the most ancient church. You see…we use the word “pastor” commonly…but actually what the man (and I do mean man) should be called, I believe, is Bishop. In the most ancient of times each congregation had a Bishop, various Presbyters and other men called Deacons. You already know this…but I’m hoping those interested and are reading can follow. All Bishops were Presbyters…but not all Presbyters were Bishops. There was only one “senior” Presbyter or pastor (or later the became known as Priests…which I don’t like at all). In our western evangelical lingo we would say that in the most ancient church every congregation of believers had one senior pastor, possibly several associate pastors and then if possible several deacons. No Bishop had authority in a particular Bishop’s congregation. It is always amazing to me how Roman Catholicism can understand the most ancient days of the Church and yet maintain their papacy heresy. (Anyway…I’m actually trying to bring this to a point.) The local Bishops would work in the ordination of a new Bishop but the local congregation would have the final say. I know at least in the SBC we do the same thing we believe. Before men of God laid hands upon me when I was ordained into the pastorate I had to be interrogated by ordained men in the area for what seemed to be forever. They then recommended me to the church and then they accepted me.

ANYWAY…my point is that we believe all Bishops are equal and every church is autonomous. We don’t believe the Church is visible and that is another issue. A denomination, council…whatever…can be as wicked as the devil and the same is true with a local congregation. If “the denomination” walked into a local SBC church and attempted to throw any weight around that church would ask them, “who are you? Hit the road.” Because we don’t see denominations as “the Church” our structure goes from the down-up in a sense. Our denominational agencies and seminaries answer to the local church and give account to the local churches…not the other way around.

So what about a heretic in our midst? Or in what way is accountability held? Well…if a Pastor began to teach heresy or in some other way began to live immorally the local missionary and other Pastors would come to him and implore him to stop. If after many attempts to bring the wayward Pastor or church back into line has failed…we simply disfellowship. We give um the boot. That’s it.

So…I guess my answer is yes and no. I see a distinction between autonomy and independence. Our churches are autonomous but are also accountable. I’m going to get into why I’m a SBC’er. I was not raised in the SBC…but decided to join, cooperate and now plant churches for them. There is a reason and I’m going to get into that soon.

Does that answer that question?

I guess what I hope you get about our view of salvation is that for reformed Christians, salvation is far more then simply God declaring sinners are forgiven. It’s far more then just a judicial matter of clearing people of guilt. No. It’s that but more…not only is our slate cleared…but we are infused with the righteousness of Christ…there is a grand exchange which give me goose bumps whenever I think about it. Unless my righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees I will not see the Kingdom of Heaven. So Christ took my excrement and gave me His righteousness. This infusion of His grace in me will work itself out in sanctification and end in glorification. The one saved will be saved “from glory to glory”…we are not simply saved from the penalty of sin…but from the power of sin as we, also by grace, grow up into maturity in Christ.

Tell me…where do we differ? Maybe instead of me trying to show you how we differ I think it might be easier for you to show me how you see it. Cause half the time I think we are saying almost if not the same thing.

Oh…thanks for the compliments. At times my ego and self esteem really dips...and we all know that a high self esteem is the reason why Jesus I'm glad you pop in here! lol. I’ve read over what I wrote and am horrified at the grammatical errors all over it! Like captain cavemen sat down to pound on the keyboard or something. I decided to get back with you instead of fixing my errors…I was in a hurry and hit “publish” way too soon!

irreverend fox said...


the point I want to stress to help with the bridge is that we don't see a Bishop having authority over regions. every true church has it's own Bishop. that is how we understand the ancient model and so that is how we believe churches should be led today. all of that works hand in hand with local church autonomy.

Zac said...


This is a good explanation. I don't really have much to say about it except that this is similar to the historical development of Orthodoxy. The offices of Bishop, Presbyter, and Deacon-- this is the basic structure of the ancient Church. Local Churches were at first single assemblies-- "the Church at Corinth" was located in a single place, for instance. The Bishop was the one who presided over the celebration of the Mysteries, or one of his presbyters if he was traveling or sick. This changed very early, though. When the Church at Corinth became too large for one assembly, another assembly was started, with one of the Bishop's presbyters to preside.

Well anyway, I'm digressing too far without making my point. My point is that the administrative autonomy of bishops did not mean they were unaccountable to anyone-- they were instead accountable to everyone for their life and teaching.

Furthermore, in the very earliest centuries, certain churches became known for their apostolic origin, the purity of their teaching, and the holiness of their people. The bishops of these local churches were considered "protos" or "first bishops" of a local area. In other words, if someone wanted to know whether a local group really had the true Christian faith, they could look to see if the community's bishop was in communion with the bishop of the pre-eminent church of the area.

These well-known primates were the bishops of large apostolic communities like Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem-- centers of Christian spirituality and theological study. These places did not have "power" over other churches, but served as places of Christian unity because they were particularly reliable for purity of faith-- even when they had heretical bishops, the communities there quickly deposed them.

This is why even in the apostolic canon 34 (an early collection of the rules of local ancient churches), it is written: "The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent; but each may do those things only which concern his own parish, and the country places which belong to it. But neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit."

So anyway, just from an historical standpoint, this was how Orthodox bishops began to have their presbyters preside over separate assemblies in the same area, AND how local bishops (usually of a single nation, language, and culture) assembled around the pre-eminent churches of their area and regarded that community's bishop as their "head". Notice, however, that the canon mandates also that the head bishop do nothing without the consent of all-- definitely not a papal idea, but nevertheless an Orthodox one.

Concerning salvation, faith and works... I don't have much time now so let me just give you a brief quotation from St. Mark the Ascetic in his short book entitled, On Those Who Think They are Made Righteous By Works. This will help you to sort of delve into the Orthodox treatment of the subject:

"Wishing to show that to fulfill every commandment is a duty, whereas sonship is a gift given to men through His own Blood, the Lord said: 'When you have done all that is commanded you, say: We are useless servants. We have only done what was our duty.' (Luke 17:10). Thus the kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works, but a gift of grace prepared by the Master for his faithful servants."


"Christ died on account of our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3); and to those who serve Him well He gives freedom. 'Well done, good and faithful servant,' He says, 'you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.' (Matt. 25:21)."

"He who relies on theoretical knowledge alone [i.e., "head faith"] is not yet a faithful servant. A faithful servant is one who expresses his faith in Christ through obedience to His commandments."


"Even though knowledge [good theology] is true, it is still not firmly established if unaccompanied by works. For everything is established by being put into practice."


"Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfill the commandments and then expect the kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken. A master is under no obligation to reward his slaves; on the other hand, those who do not serve him well are not given their freedom."

"If 'Christ died on our account in accordance with the Scriptures (Rom. 5:8, 1 Cor. 15:3), and we do not 'live for ourselves,' but 'for Him who died and rose' on our account (2 Cor. 5:15), it is clear that we are debtors to Christ to serve Him till our death. How then can we regard sonship as something which is our due?"


"When Scripture says 'He will reward every man according to his works' (Matt. 16:27), do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in Himself; and He is not a dealer bound by contract, but God our Creator and Redeemer. We who have received baptism offer good works, not by way of repayment, but to preserve the purity given to us."


"One alone is righteous in works, words, and thoughts [i.e., the Lord]. But many are made righteous in faith, grace, and repentance."

irreverend fox said...

hmmm...very good stuff. I guess I believe the ancient church leaving the one bishop per congregation model turned out to be drastic a mistake. from my perspective that seemingly small transition led to all sorts of extra-biblical ecclesiology and was part of the over reaction to the Gnostic heresy controversies where it was thought authoritative oversight was needed over regions to maintain Orthodoxy. I believe that is the obligation of the Holy Spirit…but I don’t want to spin off to far from the point. Certainly each congregation should be accountable equally to all who share like faith.

let me ask you this. is there any distinction between "faith" and "work".

reformed Christians say "yes" in the same way as "head" is distinct from "tail" on the same coin. we don't believe there can be one without the other...true good works are a result of faith.

I'm staring to form the picture of a triangle in my mind. one point says "salvation/justification/regeneration", another point says "faith" and the third point says "works".

from what I am gathering the Eastern Orthodox view of "salvation" is that it flows from faith and works. the reformed view would shift that triangle and show "good works" and "salvation" flowing from "faith". we believe both are results of true faith (by grace). Does the Eastern Orthodox believe “salvation” and “good works” flow from or are a result of true faith?

Zac said...

Here is how we might put it-- true faith can't really exist without works, since faith without works is dead (James 1:20). Our works don't "merit" anything, and yet to have saving faith we must obey the law of Christ.

"You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only." (James 1:24) This does not contradict Paul's letter to the Ephesians in which he says that salvation is "not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Eph. 2:9), because Paul here is saying that our works cannot "merit" salvation (and James says the same), and James is saying that works justify in the sense that they are the manifestation of saving faith-- just as in my quotation of St. Mark the Ascetic: obedience is REQUIRED for salvation-- which consists of active love of God and neighbor-- and yet such obedience could never itself make us deserving of God's grace.

So I guess my point is, works are not separate from faith: they are a part of real faith. Both, according to James, make us righteous (justify us) not because our works deserve salvation but because they are the only way for true faith to be manifested in our lives.

We would hesitate to say that faith comes first, leading separately both to salvation and (separately) to works. Works perfect faith, and before works faith is dead (James 1:23). James makes no "cause-result" distinction, and Paul's example of saving faith is Abraham, whose faith in God was his obedience to the Lord's commands. This is not the same as saying that works of themselves justify-- and far less the jewish customs that Paul has in mind when he is referring to "works" in Romans.

So I guess that's our distinction. The Christians of the East never opposed faith and works, or came to believe that only one was necessary for justification (to be made righteous).

As for the bishop/congregation difference, what can I say? The universal Church did this and it has seemed to work fine so far! =^)

irreverend fox said...

hey zac!

but logically can't you see that faith must be "first"?

I think James does make a distinction between the two. Faith without works...or one without the other. Certainly there is no living or saving faith without works because faith is never alone.

Zac said...

Right. "Faith alone" formulas don't cut the biblical vision of salvation as a becoming a partaker of the divine nature and seeing God. This is what James is saying. If faith is never alone, then why confuse people by saying "faith alone"?

To put faith first is fine, but it is incomplete according to James if not manifested in works. The ancient Christians quickly began to realize the truth of Christ's saying: "If you love me, keep my commandments." That is, we only love God as much as we obey Him. The same applies to faith. The devil's mental assent to Christ's deity is nothing because the devil disobeyed and fell.

But here we get to our different notions of salvation. We Orthodox don't say, "I'm saved" because for us that's like saying we've finished the race after the first lap. Salvation for us is total transformation in Christ, a death to oneself and to the passions that enslave us: gluttony, lust, covetousness, bitterness, etc. Only the people in heaven can say, "I'm saved" and even then it is incomplete since they await the resurrection of their bodies.

Does faith come "first"-- well not perfect saving faith, because until it "works through love" it is dead. For the Orthodox faith and works conceive salvation in unity, like a wife and her husband. It does no good to say: "you only need the husband, then you get the baby and the mother is the natural result." Wife and husband are both essential.

Paul's idea, however, is that this is a "righteousness apart from the deeds of the law." That is, the old law of sacrifices and circumcision. Paul still requires obedience to the law of Christ, whose faithful servants we must become if we are to receive the heavenly kingdom.

It's as though I told you: Gary, I have a present for you. Come to my house and get it. Now, let's think about it. You must believe that I'm true to my word, that I really am offering you a gift. But to receive the gift, you must act on the belief by getting into your car and driving over here.

But imagine how absurd it would be to say that you "earned" the present because of your drive over here. The drive over was necessary to get the present, but it didn't "earn" my gift.

Similarly, if you hung up the phone and said you believed I had given you a present, and began to tell everyone that I had given you the present, without ever coming to get it, then do you really believe me? Obviously not, because why else wouldn't you have driven on over?

So by this example, can you see how the Scriptures can on the one hand say that salvation is the gift of God (my present to you), and yet also that keeping the commandments is required (the drive over) to appropriate salvation personally?

irreverend fox said...


well done! I have thought about responding to your question...but what a lengthy road that is to walk. I believe Saint Paul, Saint Augustine and John Calvin are the giants of the faith who laid out the best understanding of the will, faith, salvation and works. Christ also of course taught us about these things.

But I'm going to refrain and refer to those three giants.

What I would love to do is to ask any of the pastors and teachers who consider themselves less than "5 point Calvinists" to answer Zac's question. THAT would be most interesting me.

irreverend fox said...

aww shucks...I feel convicted that I didn't really respond much to your question at all.

the big point is that justification is not "by" faith alone. first of is never alone. ever.

justification is by grace ALONE...not faith or works.

it is THROUGH faith...not BY faith (in that sense of the word "by"). It is important to keep things in their proper place. Too many times reformed Christianity is simply mischaracterized and the mischaracterization is then easily shredded. IT IS WRONG TO SAY THAT ONE IS SAVED “BY” BELIEVING, HAVING FAITH OR WORKING. It’s all “by” the power of God’s grace. It’s starts and finishes with God (the author and finisher of our faith).

it is evidenced by works (Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.)

Zac said...


This is a good way to start answering, but I'd like to hear more. For you, what is the distinction that the Scriptures are making when it is saying by grace and through faith. It seems that St. James uses these prepositions differently than Paul does, since he says: "You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only."

Actually, now that I think of it, Paul does too. "Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."

The Orthodox would agree that the ultimate cause of salvation is entirely grace-- neither faith nor works merit anything. But I think James' and Paul's use of "by" in those passages is simply talking about our part-- he's not trying to rule out grace.

I'm sure there are sophisticated ways of differentiating between the two, but I think that regardless of our disagreement over the role of faith and works we nevertheless agree that ultimately it is God's grace that is the cause of our salvation-- it's just the nitty gritty details of how we view that grace is applied to the Christian.

David Bryan said...

If I may butt into this extremely thoughtful and courteous discussion (bravo, gentlemen!) and humbly submit an article I wrote for an Orthodox online discussion forum that pertains to the subject currently at hand (faith, works and salvation):

Harmonious Salvation well as a post of mine on the subject on the same forum (the post, btw, contains a link to a VERY lengthy but excellent article on the Orthodox view of this subject, Gary -- aw, heck, HERE it is).

Whew! Hope you're a reader, Gary! Sorry if that's too much at once, but the idea was to foster new discussion on other facets of the topic...

David Bryan said...

I've been thinking that the main point of all that stuff ought to be articulated simply here, so as to give a single jumping-off point (if you even want to engage this topic, that is):

(Taken from the forum post)

"[Indeed,] "no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11). Yet, as unique a foundation as Christ is, His work on Calvary, in Hades, and in the Heavenlies at the right hand of the Father should be seen as what it is: a foundation, rather than the whole edifice of our salvation...we would do well to heed the words of St. Paul, who, though he was a great warrior for Christ, spoke thus: 'Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.'

How has Christ laid hold of us? Through His Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. He has laid hold of all humanity. Yet it is up to us individually--yet not only individually but also as a community of individuals, the Church as a whole--to press on, though we be imperfect, that we may lay hold of the very reality which Christ had laid out for us: the foundation that is His shed blood and broken body...which is joined to ours through a life lived out in faith...As for whether or not faith precedes, follows, or accompanies works (or more than one, or all of these...we would say this latter), we would say that trying to separate the two and distinguish one from the other would destroy both."

irreverend fox said...

hey David! I’m really glad you keep popping up here!

first...this is a MASSIVE topic...and I am certainly not trying to dodge anything...but I'm just hesitant to even walk very far down it right now. I've blogged about predestination/election/faith/will here before...the way I do things takes forever because I can't stand glossing over rough spots. so let me first ask you this. how familiar are you with Saint Augustine’s view on this subject? if you have a working understanding of his theology would you give me a brief synopsis of it from your perspective because his insights are in my opinion priceless.

you said, "we would say that trying to separate the two and distinguish one from the other would destroy both"

and I would say that I do not completely disagree. I would certainly agree that trying to separate the two would destroy's like trying to separate the faces of a coin or something...or separating the soul from the body. it's not even hypothetically possible. it's like talking about all the sides and angles of a circle...or talking about the color black. there is no real faith without works. however I think we would both agree that there are certainly good works which can be done without faith and so therefore we can certainly safely distinguish between the two in that way can we not?

Zac said...


If I may have a stab-- yes they are distinguishable only when either are false. But we're talking about the faith that saves, which cannot be held in isolation from the works which manifest it.

Concerning St. Augustine-- there is much to say here. In fact, I plan on doing a blog entry on him. For now, let me turn back the question: have you read any of his works? Reading isolated quotations is far different, since he wrote a lot and actually retracted a lot at the end of his life.

I have some excellent source materials for my upcoming article, including the small volume, The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church which is a profound grasp on all of this.

In the meantime, if you have not, City of God or Confessions are great starters for encountering this great Orthodox bishop of Hippo Regiensis. More later.

BTW, Mark and I particularly love St. Augustine and perhaps I will get Mark to come and comment too, since he has read much more than I have of his writings.

irreverend fox said...

hey Zac!

Saint Augustine the Blessed is one my hero's as well! I find it curious that you mention his later "retractions". Should we trust his wisdom and precision in what he originally wrote or should we trust the wisdom and precision of the retraction? I chose the former and you chose the later I guess. Either one point or another he was mis-speaking.

I'm also glad that you and Mark admire him so. There are a minority of EO throughout the ages who have actually considered him a heretic for several of them is his endorsement of what became known as the "filioque clause" as you know I'm sure.

Yes...I've sat at the great Doctors feet many nights. One Christian Doctrine, City of God and Confessions are of course his most profound works. Retractions is also interesting...something he wrote later in his life, making suggestions on what he would have at that point written differently.

What a Saint...the great Doctor of the Church indeed.

I believe his greatest contribution was his teaching regarding original sin. If my library wasn't packed up I'd thumb through my books and quote him. I could look them up online I guess...but it's easier when I have highlighted books from which to quickly refer. His teaching on original sin very logically led into the doctrine of predestination...that God has in eternity past foreordained those who would be saved. good Calvinist is unfamiliar with Saint Augustine the Blessed.

Zac said...

Blessed Augustine was not a filioquist (in that he never endorsed its addition to the Creed) but did speak imprecisely due to his failure to differentiate the Spirit's economic (or temporal) procession from His eternal hypostatic procession. This wasn't really a "mistake" because he wasn't dealing with the issue.

I'm glad you like him-- yes he opines on the nature of grace, works, faith, and predestination (and for the most part the consensus of the Church is in agreement with him) but later those who twisted his words would find much ammo from this saintly bishop.

It's weird to me, though-- I mean, even in my evangelical days I didn't like Augustine because he was so "sacramental"... I mean, for instance, he held to the beliefs of the Church of his day: the reality of Christ's body and blood in the Eucharist, baptism for salvation, the necessity of personal asceticism, etc. Definitely not a protestant. But I'm glad you like him!

Stay tuned. I still plan on writing about him when I get the chance. For now, I'll just say that yes he did venture into a bit of error-- as any individual can. However, he subjected everything he taught to the final judgment of the Church's consensus, because he knew that was where the truth lay... a profoundly Orthodox sentiment.

irreverend fox said...


what's weird to me is how you can be comfortable admitting that Augustine "venture into a bit of error" and yet you find my same type of qualification as inconsistent or unusual. (of course what I call the bits Augustine’s theological errors are not the same as what you call bits of error).

at least we are both willing to eat the “meat” of Augustinian theology and toss out the bones…just as we would eat fish!

michael said...

You both sure love hearing yourselves talk.

irreverend fox said...


thanks for the encouragment! I think you're onto might be one of your spiritual gifts!

way to go! keep up the good work!

Zac said...

That's right, we have different criteria for truth-- but my guess is that if you read through St. Augustine you would find (as an evangelical, I mean) that he wrote much more for you to disagree with than an Orthodox reader would find. Also, in all the qualitative ways that Protestantism differs from Orthodoxy you will find St. Augustine taking the side of the Orthodox.

So it's not really a matter of saying-- "so you think he's part right and I think he's part right, and those parts are pretty much equal." Not so, I'm afraid. St. Augustine believed, as dogma, in apostolic succession and all the sacraments of the Church, for instance.

Do you see why that's different-- that perhaps it is the Orthodox that use the meat and Protestants that use the bones here? Both qualitatively and quantitatively, any cursory reading of Augustine's writings will reveal that conclusion, although Wikipedia may not. =^)

irreverend fox said...


you are absolutely right in everything you just wrote. I would suggest that anyone interested in any of the Saints to read their actual words and do your best to understand the context in which they were written. wikipedia is for the lazy, certainly, if that is ones primary source, for anything. I love the writings of Saint Augustine and I understand much of the context in which he wrote. I can’t wait for my office to be complete so I can unpack my library and dust off the great doctors works…they are priceless. He was a wretched fool of a sinner…saved by grace alone…just like all who are saved. But wow…what insight and brilliant wisdom…a primitive scholastic and ascetic! what a dangerous combo! too bad there are some in Eastern Orthodoxy down through the ages who have called him a heretic of all things! I'm glad to know those folks have always been in the minority in your tradition.

Zac said...

I don't know that it's really accurate to say that there are Orthodox who have called him a heretic "down through the ages." Only in modern times have a few made that statement in ignorance-- most are not even Orthodox, but are schismatics who are not in communion with any real canonical Orthodox synod (like Michael Azkoul).

That having been said, there have been those who criticized some of his excesses who nevertheless revered him as a saint-- even St. John Cassian did as much when St. Augustine was alive, and certainly the local Council of Orange implicitly criticized some of his errors when it adopted and expressed the fuller Orthodox position on Grace. This is nothing like calling him a heretic, however... this controversy was always "in house" and each position humbled itself to the ultimate resolution of the Church in council.

In fact, this deferment to the whole of the Church (in both time and space) is the hallmark of catholicity. Look up the word "catholic" and you will find that its real definition is not "universal" in the sense that it would somehow mean "everywhere" but its root is based on two Greek words: kat' holos... or "according to the whole."

This is why in the ninth-century the great missionaries to the Slavs, Ss. Cyril and Methodius, translated the word catholic into "sobornuyu" or "council-based."