by Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth
The following is a transcript of a talk about ‘What is the Reformed Christian Movement’ given by Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth at the Missions and Evangelism Conference held in Grand Rapids, MI. Fr. Wilbur is a former Baptist pastor.
The original transcript and an audio of the talk on Ancient Faith Radio can be found here.
Fr. Wilbur’s conversion story can be found here.
Let me ask this, how many of you have heard of the Christian Reformed Church? Now, keep your hands up if you have heard of the Christian Reformed Church, but if you live in Grand Rapids, put your hands down. Okay, how many of you have never heard of the Christian Reformed Church or hardly know anything about it? You have to stay, the rest of you can go take your nap. [laughter]
Now to be serious. The Christian Reformed Church, or the Christian Reformed Movement, is a very important part of Christian Church history, a vital part in understanding Christianity in America. And for interesting little stories in the last couple of minutes.
I got another connection. Deacon Michael Hyatt just said to me, “I came to Orthodoxy through Reformed Theology.” And I can say that, in a very real way, Reformed Theology is a direct link for me into the Orthodox Church because thirty-plus years ago—I was very young but John Maddox was quite old at the time [laughter]—we established the basis for an enduring friendship as a couple of Baptists who got almost downright rabid about Reformed Baptist Theology. I tell you that because this whole matter of understanding who folks are. Some of the most likely people that you will ever encounter in the Protestant world who have yearnings for things Orthodox, will be Reformed Christian people. I want to talk a little bit about why that is and just give you a sense of this.
The people of the Christian Reformed Church in North America number about 300,000 people in just over 1,000 congregations across North America. The particular reason for my being asked to talk about this is that the Christian Reformed Church has an enormous concentration in Western Michigan—that’s here. They are headquartered in Grand Rapids where Calvin College and Seminary are located. So we are in a very important spot today. As a matter of fact if you came in off the interstate and came east, you passed a very large Christian Reformed Church just down the street here.
Let me talk a little bit about the background here, historically. The history of this denomination began in Holland with strong roots in the theology of the great magisterial reformer, John Calvin. The Calvinists came to America as a united group in what was then called—well, some of it is still called that—the Reformed Church, in 1628. They met upstairs over a grist mill in what is now New York City.
Are you writing all this down? This is going to be on the exam. And you can’t write in pencil on the exam. [laughter]
In 1857, the Christian Reformed Church left the Reformed Church in America—that was the original group—over the Christian Reformed Church’s concern for doctrinal preaching, the use of hymns instead of the Psalms in worship, and over a controversy concerning who should be admitted to the Eucharist. Aren’t those interesting issues? Those are serious questions that tore this Calvinistic Movement apart back in the 19th century.
Today, the Christian Reformed Church outnumbers the Reformed Church in America by about 25,000 members. There are all kinds of interesting things about just that, but we’ll keep moving. I hope to get some things here that will help you think about some of this, and we’ll try to have some decent time for questions here.
Some facts of history even before that. The Reformed Movement, per se, is really distinguished from the Reformation in Germany, under Martin Luther, because of the person of John Calvin. Calvin was a French reformer who left France and settled in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1536, to work with others to organize the Reformed Movement in the city of Geneva. Which is a fascinating story all its own.
Calvin wrote commentaries on—I want to say—all of the Bible except the book of the Revelation—just like the Orthodox, we quite often ????? He also wrote multiple editions of his great work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. To say the very least, The Institutes of the Christian Religion is one of the foundational pieces of literature of Western Civilization. It is a hugely important and a very worthy book. It is serious, magnificent theology within the context of Calvin.
Interestingly, of all the reformers, John Calvin was most familiar with, and receptive to, the teachings of the Church Fathers. Calvin was a master student of the Fathers of the Church. This is something for us all to remember: Calvin’s call to the Church was to return to Holy Scripture and to the Fathers. That is not something that endures all that well today, but that was the passion of Calvin—return to the scripture and to the Fathers.
There are many marks of this in the roots of the Reformed Church Movement: the emphasis on the singing of the Psalter; the theology of the Real Presence of Christ at the Eucharist.
Let me stop there and share a little personal story. As I left the Baptist world in 2000, and a year later became pastor of Christ Church in Glen Ellyn—which was essentially a Liturgical, but Evangelical church in that sense—as I began to find ways to introduce the thought of the Real Presence of Christ into the Eucharistic life of the Church, I wanted to just go to the Church Fathers, but I knew that would not be convincing. So I didn’t. I essentially used the writings of John Calvin to teach that which is so close to the Orthodox view of the Eucharist. It was through the writings of Calvin, and then a wonderful book that had a major appendix of Church Fathers in the back, that Christ Church in Glen Ellyn left the Zwinglian, or the non-sacramental view of the Eucharist, and became a church that was committed to the Real Presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table.
For that Church, I was not manipulating anything, but I realized that was the point in which there was no turning back. When you face the teaching of the Real Presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table, it’s like those parking lots—“do not back up, those spikes will flatten your tires”—that’s kind of how it is. But we got that at Christ Church in Glen Ellyn. Roger was there for all of those days—taught and taught and taught and let people talk and discuss and argue —and all the rest of it—for months. That church embraced the Real Presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table, from the writings and the teaching and the heritage of John Calvin. That’s not something to ever be passed over. That is a very powerful commonality. Now there are some who’ll say, “Well it’s not exactly the same.” And all the rest will say, “It’s very close. It’s very very close.” And so there is a bridgepoint there.
Calvin, as did Luther, believed in the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos—although, for him, prayers for her intercession were certainly further than he was going to go—but the view of the sacredness of being the vessel, the body, that gave birth to the Son of God. Calvin taught all of his life the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos.
These common themes provide bridges for interesting conversations between Reformed and Orthodox Christians. Just to say, “are you familiar with the fact that…?” and see where it goes. For some, it may require resuscitation, but that’s true.
Those are some of the commonalities. The more prominent divergences between Orthodox Christianity—at this point I’ll say Eastern Orthodox Christianity although I’m not wild about the term Eastern because this is catholic, therefore how can you have “one holy, catholic, apostolic church” that’s Eastern?— the Eastern Church and Western Catholicism and Protestantism. One of our great points of divergence—and I want to be careful about what I say here—finds its roots in the prominence of the teaching of the one whom we call Blessed Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa. Now, I will positionalize myself that I don’t want my comments to be seen as a broadside and a condemnation or a dismissal of this towering Christian of the West. Augustine is a great Christian figure. His writings, his spirit is magnificent. But, this relatively lonely Father in the Western Church was without the benefit of what we had in the East, and that is he did not have the richness of conversation and the involvement with others of his spirit and mind in the West, as the Eastern Church was so richly blessed with. If he had been a part of the Eastern world, I think he would have been fully recognized as Saint Augustine because some of the things that he wrote would have been challenged more freely—they didn’t have e-mail, it was slow-mail. They were still on dial-up in the time of Augustine. There is an isolation in his theology that the East was spared from. But we’ll talk a little bit about some of the divergences there.
Those have been intensified over the centuries, and the Augustinian orientation—now remember Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk, and John Calvin had an enormous debt to the influence of Augustine. One of the primary issues that Augustine introduced into the Church of the West—and this is important for those of you who are theological alert to this kind of thing—the East never had the deep and dark view of man, even in his fallenness and his sin, as did the West. That’s very very important to understand. The reason that’s important is that, in the Augustinian view of sinful humanity, there is nothing left. There are all kinds of interesting things that are said to kind of minimize the totality of this, but in the Western Church, through Augustine, man is so dead he can do nothing. Now there are some other things that come into that that we’ll talk about, and it comes into Calvinism. And that is, since man can do nothing, God must do everything to the point—now we’re coming to an interesting moment. I think we’re coming to a point where most of us who are Orthodox can understand. One of the wonderful things that I came to treasure early on in my study of the Orthodox Church, is Orthodoxy has this amazing courage at certain critical points when all kinds of strange things are trying to be explained. The Orthodox Church has this resolute determination to say,
“we don’t have the faintest idea.”
“Explain yourself further!”
“Well, that’s irreconcilable!”
“Looks like it.”
“What do you call that?”
I’ve had people just about banging my head against brick walls to force me to explain the Real Presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table. And as a faithful Orthodox, and now as an Orthodox priest, I can say, “it’s a mystery.” The closest we can get is that, in the Eucharist, we pray that the Spirit of God will come down upon us and upon these gifts here, spread forth. At that point, we don’t lift anything up to God to offer for him to do something with it, we bow before him and say, “send down your Holy Spirit.” And when God sends down his Holy Spirit, most of us probably are not going to have an explanation that’s sufficient for that mystery. And I think that’s amazing! That talks about the emotional and spiritual wisdom and security. For 2,000 years we’ve been saying, “We have no idea. None. It’s a mystery.”
Now if any of you, likewise, would like to explain exactly how it is the Holy Spirit came upon the Theotokos and the Son of God was conceived. Anybody want to explain that? Isn’t it nice to be in a church that simply says, “it is a mystery that has been told us of God and we worship and we do not even try to explain.”
I think that this matter of the fallenness of the human race, the human person, and the underlying always necessary grace of God is the same kind of an issue. I used to, frankly, say “that’s a copout”. And the Orthodox Church says,
“No, it’s a mystery. Leave it there, and if you don’t, you’re going to get into trouble.”
And that’s exactly what I think happened in terms of all kinds of problems in the Reformation.
That means, for the Reformed Church, that God must then offer an irresistible call. That’s the word: irresistible. Which being translated means “can’t be resisted.” To those who, because this call is irresistible, are unconditionally chosen. Meaning, if God has—and I want to speak in terms of the sincere reverence of the Reformed Church—if God has, for reasons best known to himself, elected or chosen some to be saved, that means that there are people who have been born into the human family, unbeknownst to any of us, who were not so chosen.
That changes everything.
In the years, even prior to my becoming Orthodox, I’m still unworking and unwinding that psychology and mentality of looking at people from the framework there are some who may not be chosen.
I preached a sermon just a couple of weeks ago—I’m always pleased when my wife says “that was amazing”. I always try to see what the tone of that word “amazing” was. [laughter] Because I preached, several weeks ago, that the revelation of Jesus Christ—we had the Epistle reading from Galatians 1—the revelation of Jesus Christ is for everyone. God is revealing Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, to the entire world. No reservations! I was preaching that as a word of hope to people sitting in my own congregation who, even though they’re Orthodox and they believe that truth, they are sunk down in defeat: “I’ve tried. I’m not good enough. It’s not working.” And I am saying to them, “God’s love extends to you and the revelation of his son extends to you. You must and you can embrace the revelation of God.” Now that’s Orthodox preaching.
The Reformed, if they’re consistent with their theology, can’t really say that. It makes an enormous, enormous difference.
What we need to do here as Orthodox, we need to listen to the arguments and to the thoughts deeply held—these are some of the most theologically sincere and serious people on the planet, they really, really are—to respond very slowly and with great restraint, to bring some openness to see the absolute necessity that God grants moral freedom to every human person to believe. And that God truly loves all people.
You know, for a person who was steeped in Reformed Theology, sometimes when I get to the phrase “for thou art a good God and lovest mankind,” I can hardly say the words—out of emotion. Thou art a good God who lovest mankind. You have never met a single person in your life, and you never will, to whom that cannot be said. We don’t have to twist and turn and agonize over 2 Peter 3:9 that God desires that all will come to repentance, because he loves us without exception.
That’s a great difference.
It was at Christ Church some years ago, early on. We started Christ Church in Glen Ellyn, and our first pursuit was to become Reformed because we were looking for roots. I started teaching all the Calvinism that the Maddoxes and the Ellsworths used to talk about back in Ohio, decades before then. People said, “come and tell us where to go and teach us.” So I was teaching them. About 3 months into this I was doing the whole nine yards of Reformed Theology, I began to say, “I don’t like what I’m seeing. These people are listening to me. They’re embracing this Theology and this isn’t good.” That was one of my first moves away and being ready to hear about the faith of the Orthodox Church.
There was a young man in the church who came to me. Good, lovely guy. Seriously involved with a young lady, to marry her. I just loved that couple. He came to me one day and said,
“I am deeply depressed. My soul is dark.”
“I don’t love God the way I should.”
“Tell me why, what’s happening?”
“I don’t love God as I should because I’m not sure he loves me as much as I need. I’m not sure I’m Elect.”
Well if I needed another stab in the heart, that did it. We sat there for 3 hours. Finally, I said to him,
“if you believe you cannot be sure of God’s love for you, then I will admit you can’t love him as you need to.” What does 1 John say? “We love because he first loved us.”
I think this is the cruelest moment I’ve ever had in my entire ministry. I said to him,
“If that is your theology, I have nothing to offer you.”
He just stared at me.
“I don’t believe for a moment that that is the testimony of scripture. That is not the testimony of the Holy Tradition, of the Church. But if you embrace that theology, I sorrowfully agree with you, you’re stuck.”
We talked for about another 10 minutes, and he left under that weight.
I’ve talked to Reformed people over the years and they’ve given me ways around that, but you know what? They’re not convincing. It comes down to that.
In our own lives, as Orthodox, we all have struggles deep within our souls, don’t we? And, I tell you, there are things that I wonder if God will ever give me the grace to overcome. And in my darkest moments, I’m pretty sure he won’t. But then I pray, “Oh good one, who loves mankind.” That’s what I was preaching just several weeks ago, and I was looking out in my own congregation, and I was seeing on faces of Orthodox Christians hope and joy. And I am astonished. If anybody had told me, years ago, I would be saying what I’m saying right now, I would have never believed it. But it’s the greatest joy of my own life.
I look at people whom I love as much as life itself who are not walking with Christ, who are not confessing Christ. It’s never crossed my mind as an Orthodox Christian “well maybe they’re not Elect.” Until the last breath, the story is not over. He is a good God who loves mankind.
There are some pretty unlovely characters running around the world and probably you know some. You’re looking at one actually. But you know, you’ll never meet a person whom God does not love, ever. And because of this necessity that we are so fallen and helpless, that not only is the Election unconditional, the atonement on the cross is limited, or specified, or particularized. So that Christ did not ultimately die for the sins of the entire world, and the entire human race. And when you see the paradigm in the system that has been developed over the centuries, that makes sense. Because, if Christ died for the world, then universalism: “we’re all okay.” “You see? Christ died for every sin, you can’t do anything about it anyway, and if he died for the sins of the whole world, then the whole world is saved. Because he died for the sin of unbelief as well.”
It’s a paradigm that just will begin to drive you crazy. It doesn’t fit. And some of the greatest minds in the history of the Western world have tried to work all this out, and it just doesn’t ever come together.
That’s pretty sobering.
Let’s talk about a good part. We’re going back and forth with the theology of the history of this Movement. This is a surprise for many today. A potential bridge between Reformed Christians and Orthodox Christians is, to this very day, their language about the nature of sin. I just took this off the internet—you know, “profound” research, push the button and here it comes up. The Reformed Church in America, in its Belief Statement, talks about humanity being infested with “sin virus”. That’s a very important symbol. It puts it in a realm of language that is not typically what we think of as Reformed. Because, as the history of the Reformed Movement went on, the Reformed Movement—many of the people wanting to call themselves Calvinists—have not been faithful to the teaching of John Calvin. At the core of Calvin’s teaching about justification (what makes a person right with God) is not a juridical declaration of righteousness. You read in the Institutes, it is a “living, vital union with Jesus Christ.” That shocks people. That Calvin’s essential view of justification, of having peace with God, is not juridical, or legal, or declaring you “not guilty.” It is the vital union with the living Christ. And that influenced his view of the Eucharist. That’s what we have in the Eucharist. We have a living union with the glorified humanity of Jesus Christ.
Some interesting things there that have largely been lost in the theological development of the Reformed Movement in America. It doesn’t solve all of our problems, but at least it helps move us away from this idea of forensic guilt. As a Reformed Baptist of background, I’ll tell you that there’s a profound theological problem with that. Our major problem is not that we’re guilty, that’s not our biggest problem. Our biggest problem is that we’re sinful. We’re corrupt. And we are in varying stages of that corruption unto spiritual death and alienation from God.
So, when we just hear that Christ was paying the price, we’ve now moved away from Calvin and more and more into this idea of paying the price, doing the time. The problem with that is that it is completely non-transformational. Somebody mentioned positional truth. One theologian actually went so far as to call it a “legal fiction.” Wow. Best I can say is O.J. Simpson was declared “not guilty.” How did that work? I think that’s a profound illustration of the problem. He was released by the court and he was declared “not guilty”. He’s back in jail because his essential problem was not touched. That’s the difference between what this Movement—moving away from Calvin’s vital vibrant view and relationship to Jesus Christ—has come to. That’s where we get phrases such as “Once saved. Always saved.” “Once I’ve done the required thing—received Christ—I have now been declared something that’s irrevocable.” That is not the history of the understanding of the Church for 1500 years of the Church’s life. It’s coming more and more into problems today.
One of the things that’s happening is that you have a growing dichotomy, or a separation, different diverging paths in the Reformed Movement. After doing all of my own reflection, what I have known and experienced over the years, I called a close friend who is a Reformed Minister. I said, “Okay, I’m doing this talk for the Orthodox Evangelism Conference, give me the street stuff. Where is the Church today?” I had to do this because I’m kind of busy when the Reformed are doing their services, so I don’t get there. This is a person who knows the Reform scene in America just about as well as anyone. He said to me, “Today, pretty much what we have is a group of academissions—people in seminaries, at Calvin Seminary—and some pastors who really are holding on and trying to pull the Reformed Church back to some of the great roots of John Calvin. But for the most part, that Movement is increasingly moving just into the ethos of the contemporary, evangelical church scene.” And he mentioned several congregations, that I know of, who basically would give you a really great Evangelical worship experience—so called—on Sunday morning. That’s where it is.
There are people at Calvin College and Seminary who are really very serious theologians in the Protestant world on worship, like John Witvliet at Calvin, who have written some thoughtful, wonderful books on worship. But, here again, these books are being written in the academy, not in the Church. I think that we are likely going to see a continuing movement. It’s interesting to me that the Reformed Church Movement—and this goes really beyond just the Christian Reformed Church, it’s the whole Reformed Movement—does not have sufficient roots in the structure, in the life, in the hierarchy, in the authority of the Church, to maintain its stability against the onslaught and the enormous pressures of American secular culture. Do you realize how strong a church has to be these days not to just go with the flow? This is why, with all of these good things that we might say about the Reformed Movement, it has proven it doesn’t have sufficient roots to even stay where it was back in the 16th Century. It isn’t sufficient.
There’s one Movement I want to mention that’s not directly related to the strain of Reformed Theology here in the Grand Rapids area, which is the Christian Reformed Church, or the Reformed Church over in Holland in their college, Hope. But there was a Movement back in the 19th century that I paid a lot of attention to on my way to Orthodoxy. Has anybody here—if you can answer “yes”, you get 500 points. I don’t ever know what to do with points. My wife is always offering the kids in our church points. So if you get these 500 points, I’ll give you her phone number and she’ll have to figure out what she’s going to give you. Have any of you ever heard of the Mercersburg Theology? Ahh. I get the points, alright.
Mercersburg, Pennsylvania—a little town in south-central Pennsylvania—in the 19th century had some German evangelical church people. There was a seminary there in Mercersburg. Some of you will know the names—at least one of the names I’m going to mention. Many of you would know the name Philip Schaff. Right? Yes. You know Philip Schaff because that’s a cheap way to get the creeds of the Church—great church history.
There was another man, in many ways, whose writings, I think, are even more incisive: John Williamson Nevin. These were men who were going back to the Spirit. These men were begging for the Church to fully go back to the great creeds of the early Church. They were begging for the Protestant Church to return to its Sacramental roots, to the Real Presence of Christ. It’s a fascinating bit of history to read the battle that was launched between John Williamson Nevin and another theologian many of you would have heard of, Charles Hodge at Princeton Theological Seminary. This little, not strong, German Evangelical Church in Mercersburg and their seminary, and the mighty power of the Presbyterian Church in Princeton. Hodge and Williamson went after each other in print for some time. Finally the political PACs got into the thing and started putting money into it and the Mercersburg vision was simply crushed by the amount of material and literature that went out from Princeton to deny, effectively, a Sacramental view of the life of the Church. At that point, the real living roots of the historic Calvinist Movement were greatly greatly diminished. That’s kind of where we are today.
There are some great people in the history of the Reformed Movement. In Holland, one of the great and fascinating figures of the late 19th, early 20th century. Was the theologian, politician, and statesman Abraham Kuyper. Abraham Kuyper, right around the turn of the century—19th-20th—was the Prime Minister of Holland. He had a vision of Christianity in cultures. Kuyper’s lectures on Calvinism are still a wonderful thing to read. I’ve seen the whole earth is full of the Glory of God.
The great theologian Herman Dooyeweerd at the Free University of Amsterdam. Serious theological and philosophical people.
And there are still great, serious theological minds, and great spirits in this Movement. But it is moving further and further away and I cannot imagine that there will be anything in the roots of the church to call that church back, sadly, not to say, to the one faith of the first thousand years of Christianity, but even to what Calvin had in the 16th century. Well, there are a lot of other things. Maybe you have some questions or comments, so that’s enough.
I’d like to commend most of you for the gift of sleeping with your eyes open. You have done well. [laughter]
Any comments or questions?
Respondent1: Thank you Father. You began our presentation by making reference that John Calvin was deeply steeped in the Fathers. Two parts: what Fathers touched him deeply and did he accept all that the Fathers offered or did he pick and choose; and other than Calvin, were others perhaps even more motivated or touched by the Church Fathers. And I have someone in mind as Philipp Melanchthon.
Fr. Ellsworth: Your first question, “which Fathers influenced him the most?” I don’t know the literature well enough to answer that question. I don’t know. I’m a good Orthodox, it’s a mystery to me. [laughter] Two, without question, Calvin was selective in his embracing of the Fathers, which is a very important question. Which leads me to another small point. There was, in First Things magazine, a few years back—I’m going to spend 6 weeks some time and find this one little piece—there was a doctoral dissertation written, in the last 15 years, on the study of Church History and the influence of the Reformation on it. It speaks directly to your question. Up to the time of the Reformation, Church History taught what the Church believed. Out from the Reformation came a new kind of Church History. No longer is it what the Church believed, it is what various theologians taught. You see what happened? Right there.
The Orthodox Church claims no infallibility for any Church Father. We don’t do that. We don’t claim infallibility for the Apostles. That’s a little hard to do that since they were getting into scraps (conflicts) right in Scriptures. The thing has always been the Holy Tradition, the regula fide, the Rule of Faith of the Church. Given, not mechanically, not instantly, but ultimately that the Tradition of the Church is the fullness of the faith. Calvin was a reformer and he could not accept that view of the Church or he would not have been able to have left it. Of course that would have been the Roman Church. But that is something we always need to remember as Orthodox. That’s what we believe. We can look at any moment of our own life and our own history and see whatever we’re looking at that’s bothering us and troubling us and remember that is something we must protect at all costs. It is not what one individual says, thinks, or does. It is that the Spirit of God, in the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church, will bring those things that are not to be embraced by the Church, in a very gentle way, to a lovely peace, rest, and be shoved aside. Calvin didn’t have that, so he was selective. Prayers for the intercession of the Theotokos, he did not embrace that. He was, in his mind, free because he was “reforming the church”. He was reforming the church. It’s a very basic part of Orthodox wisdom, no one of us will ever reform the Church. Isn’t that nice? You can sleep easy tonight. You don’t have to reform the Church. That’s good. [laughter] Somebody was asking about Melanchthon. I am not a student of Philipp Melanchthon, so I don’t know enough to answer that question.
Respondent 2: Thank you, Father, for this thoughtful lecture. I especially appreciated the last part of talking about the contemporary issues because I have two close friends, one at Western Theological and one at Calvin Seminary, they’re both on the high church end of things in the Reformed Movement. I would like to ask your advice. I have basically told them, point blank, that “in ten years you’ll be all alone.” It’s just going to keep on going the way it is. I feel like they’re the type of people who would eventually become Orthodox. But they want to stay Reformed so that they can try to reform the Reformed and try to get them to become high church. I’m trying to say, well, it’s not going to happen. No way.
Fr. Ellsworth: I think the answer to that is simply to say, “If Fr. Peter Gillquist can’t reform the Orthodox Church, why should you try to reform the Reformed Church?” [laughter] Again, we have this network that includes the laity of the church. This is not just a few people living in ivory palaces somewhere, handing down what we will believe. The Orthodox Church requires, for the unity of the faith, the affirmation of the people, the laity of God. We don’t move very fast in the Orthodox Church. You’ve heard this tired old joke: How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?
Change?! [laughter] You are tired. But that is exactly right. They will be either standing alone or having two or three people commiserating with each in a living room how bad it’s gotten, but they’re going to stay and be faithful, and the train has left the station. There is not that kind of solidity and basis. One of the things that I have watched, I created—that’s a terrible thing to say, I guess I’m becoming truly Orthodox, I say “I created” and I cringe—I created what I would call a really wonderful liturgical quasi-Evangelical service that we did at Christ Church Glen Ellyn. I miss it every once in a while, yet, the operative word was I “created” it. The question is, “why do you do that?” There was one embarrassing answer, “because I said so.” I could mention a few other very fine people, great authorities in the Evangelical world, who helped me do it, but I was just using their donated dignity beyond my own. Some would say “we think it ought to be a little more this way” and “we think it ought to be a little more that way” and we came to the point at Christ Church where we were neither fish nor fowl. And if you came and you liked the niche in the market that we had created, then you’d stay. And the charge was often placed against us, “well that’s just your taste.”
There are some things about the Orthodox style that are not my taste, up to this point no one’s asked me. I’m losing hope that anybody’s going to. That’s some of the peripheral aspects. I love and I stand in awe of the Divine Liturgy, the theology, the structure of it. And I know that if I tampered with that, I would be, and I’d deserve to be, thrown out of the priesthood. No one asked me what I think of the Divine Liturgy. That’s not a matter of taste, it is a matter of the deep conviction and commitment and theological understanding of 2,000 years of Christian history and worship brought to today. And I desire that we will see, in the future, a unified Orthodox Church in America that really looks and responds and lives out and expresses the great historical tradition of the Church in an American-sensitive Divine Liturgy. I think a person like me would be last guy to try to make that happen. I don’t begin to know enough for that. That is a process that over the centuries, just as in every other culture, will come with prayer, not a lot of political in-fighting, but from the hierarchs down to the laity we say, “this is right for America.” I have no idea how long that will take, but that’s how the Church has always worked. That’s how it’s always happened. And when it does, we will be together by the Grace of God. We won’t be 2 or 3 people over in a living room saying “maybe we’ll get that back”—no we won’t, because the anchors aren’t there. The thing about the Orthodox Church is you can’t move it. Boy you can’t move it. Thank God.
Respondent3: Fr. Wilbur I thank you for your address this afternoon. I come as one who was baptized in the Methodist Church, back in West Virginia, and then at age 12 embraced the Roman Catholic Church—much against my parents’ wishes (this was pre-Vatican II). And was in the Roman Church for over 40 years. Then, just 5 years ago began my journey into Orthodoxy. Through all of this, when I met my now husband of 31 years, I was Roman Catholic and he was Christian Reformed. Early in our marriage, he felt God was calling him into the pastorhood of the Reformed Church and went to seminary. What I am experiencing is that what you say is true. The links between the Reformed faith and the Orthodox faith are many. The ones that you mentioned where we diverge is very true as well. I live this tension daily. And I would like to ask for your prayers for those of us that live in both worlds and yet know where our heart is.
Fr. Ellsworth: Thank you for that and may the mercy of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ give you the grace, as much as it is possible within you, to live in peace with all men. Amen.
Respondent4: Just a comment, as Father mentioned, we are in the absolute seat for both the Christian Reformed and the Reformed Movements here in America. Obviously with Hope College over in Holland, Calvin College here. However, please be informed that at both Calvin and at Hope College, there is an Orthodox group there. Calvin College has perhaps one of the largest Orthodox libraries in the area. So we’re making in-roads and, Father, someday, as you say, it may take awhile but it’s going to happen.
Fr. Ellsworth: Well, may it be so. In their public documents, the Christian Reformed Church expresses that they embrace of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athenasian Creed. So there is a strong statement concerning at least the recognition of the importance of that rootedness. What that means, I think, is somewhat up for varying interpretations.
Respondent5: Yes, Father, in a very simple way I want to comment on the theology of atonement. The way I understand it in the Protestant Church, and even the Catholic, is that God the Father has to be at peace for man’s sin. The consequence of sin is death.
Fr. Ellsworth: Yes.
Respondent 5: So therefore, Christ took his place for us to appease the Father. That is, I understand, the Protestant point of view—and I think it’s even the Catholic. The legalistic “somebody has to pay for it.” So Christ paid to appease his Father. This is the Protestant point of view the way I understand it. What is the Orthodox point of view? How can I explain it? Even in the Bible it says, “Christ died for our sins.” What does it mean?
Fr. Ellsworth: Thank you. Excellent question. There is no question Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. Now the point and the question is this: Why? And under what instrumentality? The question is, did the Father kill him? Did the Father require his death? Or did our Lord willingly descend into the depths of death, himself, on a mission from the Father? This is hugely important. It is not so. My friend and my mentor Priest, Fr. Patrick Reardon, rails on this. There is nowhere in scripture where God’s anger is satisfied by a blood sacrifice. No. No. Sin has killed the human race. It is the love of the Father who sent his son on a mission to bring his lost children home. And where did Jesus have to go to find us? Into the depths of death. I have been studying the Psalms and actually the study of the Psalter is one of the great reasons I became Orthodox. I don’t think you can understand the Psalter if you don’t understand Orthodoxy.
These Psalms, where the psalmist is crying out, he’s sunk down into the depths of the water. He is stuck at the bottom, in the mire. Do you see what that is saying? That is how far down our Lord went. Because that’s where we are. The early Fathers of the Church—Irenaeus gloriously talks about this (now I’m going into preaching). The devil is lamenting that he ever let this one into his realm, because he thought he got him too. But this Lord of life came into the realm of death and blew the doors off. And the devil says “all is lost”. He went where we are, in the overwhelming dead, killing, depth of sin—down into the muck at the bottom of the sea—and embraced us and said, “I’ve come. I’ve trampled down death by dying. And for you who are tombs, you come with me, because I’m bestowing life.” That’s the Gospel, and that’s Orthodoxy, and that is the love of God in every last moment because the Father sent him there for us.
Thanks be to God.
awesome read. that orthodoxy embraces the humility of “mystery” is one of the things i love about it most. sometimes its ok to not know how it all fits together. God knows…and we really couldn’t get it if we tried.
Thank you Father!
Having been down many a Protestant path over the years and spending some eight plus years as a Hardshell Baptist Ultra Calvinist, I will also never forget the emotions of finally being able to gaze up at the Pantocrator and say “Thou art a good God Who lovest mankind ….”
Thank you for taking the time to explain this, being part of the reformed tradition I have come to some of the same contentions you have, mainly, it is as the scripture says I follow Apollo or I follow Jesus, we follow men not God this needs to change, how? You say by being Orthodox, I still have my doubts.
On another note it appears you are down playing the wrath of God, if this is not the case plaese advise .did and does God not have wrath
One final question, do you see the necessity.for Calvin to break from the Roman church
Kim Batteau says
Hello! I read your text and the responses cursorily. A quick reaction: I became a Christian through an Intervarsity Bible study at Harvard in 1964, and through lectures of Francis Schaeffer. I was then a Pentecostal for some years, but eventually became Reformed through reading Calvin’s Institutes. I am a retired Reformed pastor in The Netherlands, and still love the Reformed faith as the most Biblical expression of Christian faith I know. I like to read the church fathers, but especially the Bible. The depravity of man is a Biblical teaching (Romans 1) as is eternal election (Romans 9-11, Ephesians 1:4). That’s God speaking! So I hope everyone who is “orthodox” will seek to be Biblical, and together we can grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus. God bless you!
joel in ga says
How does one know the Orthodox Church is the totality of the one true Church? I have wrestled with this question: even if the Church only in its totality is infallible, then any given part of the Church is still fallible. It seems possible, even likely given human nature, that a part of the whole Church (being necessarily a fallible part) might mistakenly believe itself to be the whole Church. Any thoughts as to why that cannot the case with the Orthodox Church? Thanks!
Fr. John says
Well, have you actually been to an Orthodox Church? Heard the prayers in a language you understand?
Truth is, even scholars agree that Orthodox Christianity is identical to primitive, patristic, unadulterated Christianity. To say that the Orthodox Church is the actual Church founded by Christ is not a theological statement, it is an historical statement.
I suspect you are still looking at the Church through the jaded eyes of a dissolving western Christianity. Try to see with the eyes of the early Church, before Calvinism, before Scholasticism – read the Apostolic Fathers and see which Church is actually doing and teaching what they did in the late first century. THAT is what brought me to the Orthodox church.
joel in ga says
thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. I’m afraid it spurs more thoughts!
I have been to Orthodox churches before and would love to get the Lord’s permission to become a member. The Orthodox church is clearly, historically, a continuation of the early church of the apostles. I prefer Orthodox doctrine and spirituality over much of what my local Protestant church serves up.
I won’t deny my eyes are jaded, but honestly I do not see Biblical grounds for “unchurching” myself and all other Protestants and Catholics. True, these latter groups have not preserved the church in all its fulness, but I get the impression from the Scriptures that the Lord accepts less-than-perfect Christians and congregations as valid parts of His one Church.
I have read the Church Fathers somewhat extensively, in particular Clement, Ignatius, Lactantius, Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Theodoret, Jerome, Rufinus, the Didache, the Apostolic Constitutions, and a few others. Among them I noticed a few subtle differences with later Orthodox Church doctrine and practice. A mention of icons is absent, for example, as is the invocation of saints. There is not as much emphasis on the Mother of God, if she is mentioned at all. There are several statements, particularly by Gregory of Nyssa, that equate to the Protestant language of sola scriptura. In sum, I haven’t found the Church Fathers (who were after all fallible themselves) making a conclusive case for circumscribing the Church within the limits of today’s Orthodox Church.
From an Orthodox perspective I must still be missing something. That I would be interested to know. I don’t want to get into a debate. I am open to correction. Efkharisto!
Fr. John says
There is no other church which is identical to the primitive ancient Church. Secondly, issues about things like icons, the Theotokos, only became issues when they were taught theologically wrong, which is a little later in Church history (but not much). Remember, the Church doesn’t just start writing about things until the true teaching is challenged. Then, the Tradition is defended. We don’t just add new doctrines – ever.
joel in ga says
thanks again for your gracious and patient reply. Your point is well taken about how doctrines do not necessarily receive a great deal of attention on paper and ink until challenged. I would not be surprised if Roman Catholics appealed to that fact when seeking to defend the historicity of the papacy.
It would certainly make things easier to believe that the Orthodox Church has added nothing to the deposit of faith since the time of the apostles. On teachings that are extra-Biblical, the Orthodox Christian must trust the Church’s testimony. Perhaps my misgivings can be reduced to these two questions:
Can a Biblical case be made that the Church’s testimony is always going to be accurate?
Do the Scriptures require us to leave a church that teaches any error at all?
Fr. John says
In all honesty, do the Scriptures require us to remain at a Church that teaches error?
joel in ga says
One would think not. Our Lord did not require the faithful in Thyatira to leave their church even though error was being taught in it (Rev. 2), so it would seem that every error is not necessarily immediate grounds for breaking fellowship. If that is true, then Protestantism at least has going for it the fact that membership in a Protestant church requires much self-denial and forbearance of others.
Fr. John says
At what point then does one realize that the faith has been so seriously distorted that it no longer saves? well, that is a matter of personal opinion, isn’t it. And personal opinion can never distinguish truth alone. That’s why we have THE church, “The Pillar and bulwark of the Truth.” There is only one Church – everything else is not, again, not the Body of Christ.
People do not become Orthodox because it is the best choice.
They become Orthodox because they realize that it is the only choice.
Until then, it doesn’t matter what anyone says, does it?
Joel from Ga,
How are you doing? I hope well. My name is Kevin and I wanted to respond to your question “How does one know the Orthodox Church is the totality of the one true Church?” I am a native Louisianian now living in Tulsa OK where there is a church on every corner teaching something different. Yet everyone is right in their own minds. Because America has become so relativistic it doesn’t matter if a church contains the TRUTH, peoples mindset is that it doesn’t matter where you go to church JUST that you go to church. Unfortunately even the Truth has become debatable. In protestant circles, the truth is what you want it to be.
For me, I was seeking the truth. I was a protestant for my whole life attending either Methodist or Southern Baptist churches. Ten or eleven years ago I began to read the Holy Bible going over the gospels numerous times. Christ was telling us something about the Kingdom of God. And what I realized was that what he was saying could not be reconciled with the doctrine of the Southern Baptist church. I went to Bible Studies and after Bible Studies and what was most interesting was how blase people were about it. Christ told us 15 plus times “If you love me obey my commandments.” Yet in the Protestant Church it was almost like the Red Letters of Christ were of no importance. Because you were saved it didn’t really matter if you obeyed or didn’t. A Southern Baptist preacher said one morning it doesn’t matter if you forgive another person but if you want to receive the blessings from God you will. Wow.
Last Sunday at the Divine Liturgy a catachumen service was performed for a man seeking entrance into the Orthodox Church. In this service, the Priests says “you are to renounce the vanity of the world and come into understanding of Christ’s commandments.” I remembered those words well and it reinforced my decision to become Orthodox. Quite frankly, the Protestant Church as diverged so far from the Truth that the Red Letters are of no importance. Pauls Epistles have become more important than the Gospels.
II Timothy 3:5,7 states “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” This verse reminds me of the Protestant Church. I have been to so many bible studies and the most amazing thing about them is that it doesn’t matter if you conform your lives to the Bible or not if you have been saved. Yet Christ tells us that he who practices the Truth comes to the light.
Joel, I can quote you church history. I can tell you what I believe. But the most compelling thing I can say is that the Orthodox Church is the church that Christ founded because throughout the prayers of the church, Divine Liturgy, Church Fathers, etc. all of them are telling me that I need to conform my life to the Word of God made flesh. A Southern Baptist friend of mine told me that obedience to God is works based salvation. Wow. I was blown away.
Last but not least, in Acts 9:2 and 19:9 it speaks of the Way. The Way to What? The way to have union with God. Theosis which means union with God. That is what I want. And that is why I am Orthodox. There is no other church in the world today that says there is a path to God.
You should be a part of a contest for one of the most
useful sites online. I am going to recommend this web site!
Fr. John says
Well thanks! But I don’t think they have a contest like that. Do tell others about us, though!