Is Protestantism a Heresy?
Is Protestantism a heresy? This question has recently been asked of me by a number of sincere Protestants. Well-meaning as they are, their questions have put me in a dangerous position. On the one hand, I could answer as I have addressed similar, though less pointed, questions by hearkening to my ignorance and the mercy of our gracious God. On the other, such an answer may lead those I love, among whom I count you as one, to believe that Protestantism is an equal alternative to Orthodoxy. And so, I am faced with a dilemma.
Saint Raphael of Brooklyn faced a similar dilemma in 1911 when he wrote concerning the American branch of Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches’ union. The tenderness of the first letter, he grievously relates, proved to be “harmful and confusing.” So, after carefully studying The Book of Common Prayer used in Anglican Churches, he wrote a second and third letter with “great reluctance.” It is with such reluctance that I write. For, regardless of how I answer—or if I choose to remain silent—I risk either alienating or accidentally misleading those with whom I long to be united. Thus, fearing the loss of brethren on either side—but mostly the loss of brethren who might come into the Fold—it is incumbent upon me to respond. Love compels me.
Many would like me to say that all Trinitarian Christianities are created equal; that it does not matter where you belong; that there is a kind of mere Christianity that can unite us, though invisibly, as the Church (ekklesia). But a unity in mere Christianity, such as we seemed to have achieved here on Conciliar Post, is a kind of meeting hall, as C. S. Lewis describe it, not the unity of the Church. The unity of the Church is based in the mystery of the Holy Trinity, it is a unity explicitly effected through the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 10:16-17), a mystery that calls us to union with one another, and to Christ in the same manner Christ is one with the Father (John 17:20-26). This kind of union is not based on a stripped down list of essentials, as Paul notes, but in the total unity of mind and judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10). This is of the utmost importance: the Church is the Body of Christ and Christ is not divided, so how can His Church be? With these considerations, it seems that an invisible church based on the unity of a few distinct dogmas that all Trinitarian Christians believe, cannot be what the writers of Holy Scripture had in mind.1
It is natural that a Protestant understanding of the church, and church unity, would consist in a “least common denominator” model since such a model is the only unity any Protestant church achieves. Due to this phenomenon, there will always be a variety of opposing views within the walls of any given Protestant church. Many Protestants may wonder why Orthodox and Roman Catholics will not accept such a model of unity where we can “agree to disagree” on things they consider to be “non-essential.” The biggest problem with this way of thinking is that, for the church of history, those other things are essential. Further, we are forced to ask if, even today, a least common denominator model is viable within the Protestant world. Historically, Protestants have never been united in any substantial sense.
George Aldhizer, who identifies as a Reformed Christian, wrote in a recent article,
once one begins to do historical research on the Reformation, one finds that Protestants never intended to be fundamentally united with one another. There was no comfortableness with a generic “evangelicalism,” or a unity on the five solas, or a simple appeal to an “invisible church.” Countries, governments, and lands were separated based on distinct practices of the Lord’s Supper (among other things), there was simply no Gospel Coalition or Christianity Today or mutual love of Billy Graham with which to create a common ground authoritative center. Maybe if we were more historically aware of the origins of our traditions, Protestants wouldn’t be so comfortable with each other’s supposedly “minor” or “non-essential” beliefs.
It seems clear that neither ecumenism nor the Church (ekklesia) can be based on a kind of abstract essentialism. The Church is one body because of the One Body into which we were baptized and of which we partake (1 Corinthians 12:13; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17). That is, the Church is a concrete reality that exists in the world, though She is not of the world, where She physically receives as members those who are baptized into Her Fold. This Church cannot be divided into various sects, nor can she be overcome (corrupted) by the secularism of the world (cf. Matthew 16:17-19). Historically, and even today, to safeguard this unity, the Church has placed outside of Her Fold those who, even after being confronted by a council of the Church, willfully propound false teachings (cf. Matthew 18:15-20; ). Such was the case with Arius and countless others who propounded false teachings. Arius refused to accept the admonishment of the Church at the council of Nicaea and so he was excommunicated2, or excommunicated himself in a sense by willfully placing himself outside of the Church. This means, above all, that he was deprived of the Church’s sacraments: the Eucharist, par excellence.
But Arius, among others, continued to practice their mutated form of Christianity, deceiving many. This raises a peculiar question: are the sacraments offered “outside” of the Church valid? Is Baptism administered within an heretical sect “valid”? St. Cyprian deals with this in one of his letters (letter 72). He says no (Matthew 18:18). With such an answer echoed in various others throughout history, this is an issue we must take seriously. But with a radical disinterest in the church of history and a total rejection of the sacraments by a portion of Evangelicalism today (a re-hashing in part of the ancient gnostic heresy), how do we speak about this issue?
I suppose the question comes down to, as Joseph Green points out in a recent article, what is the standard of measure? Protestants would like us to believe that Scripture alone can tell us what we need to know, individually, without relying on anyone else’s interpretation. It is this method, however, that led to the tens of thousands of Protestant denominations in existence today. Still, to be logically consistent with sola scriptura, as Joseph points out, it would seem that sermons should only consist of scripture reading without any attempt at explanation on the part of the pastor. Instead, we are left with tens of thousands opposing interpretations of scripture in the Protestant world. So, with everyone disagreeing on what scripture actually means, how do you know what it means?
Instead of answering the original question, I want to pose another. How do you know you are in the church of the Apostles? How do you know you believe what the Apostles believed? How do you know what you believe about God is true? Such questions are frightening when you begin to think about them. Do I believe what I believe because of when and where I was born in history? How do I know it’s the Holy Spirit and not just me? After all, the heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). Such questions plagued me prior to our conversion to Orthodoxy.
A writer3 in the fifth century offers some wise advice: you can know what you believe is true if it can be found in antiquity and if it is view held universally regardless of time period or place. If there is some contention on these two points, he writes that we must look for a consensus among people who lived the faith, not just philosophized. These three rules, Antiquity, Universality, and Consensus, can be helpful for us in our journey today. So, did the majority of Christians throughout time agree upon dogmas that reflect a kind of Protestantism or Orthodoxy (and Catholicism)? Any reader of Church history will be able to answer readily.
“What kind of Christian would you have you been in 4th century Egypt or 8th century Gaul, or 12th century Greece?” asks Fr. Josiah Trenham in his latest book, Rock and Sand. “Certainly not a Protestant since there were no protestants. There were only Orthodox and heretics.” But we are not in the 4th, 8th, or 12th centuries. Post 16th century Christendom looks far different. In our time, the term “Christian” has been broadened to include those who reject the Church and Her Tradition—an action that, every other time in Church history would have carried with it the title “heretic.”
Early in the second century, a disciple of the Apostle John named Ignatius tells us that where the bishop is, there is the Church (Smyrnaeans, 8). And that there is one Eucharist and one Altar (Philadelphians, 4), and anyone outside of this Altar (the Church) is deprived of the Bread of God (Ephesians, 5). Further still, Ignatius proclaims that, “If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Philadelphians, 3). A little later in the second century, Irenaeus names the twelve Bishops of Rome, up to that point in history, who were received by the laying on of hands, the first of whom by the Apostles themselves, and tells us that “by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”4 He goes on to say that we can tell what is the truth by seeing if what is propounded existed before the one who propounded it.5 That is, if it is grounded in the life of the Church all throughout history. After all, it is the Church that scripture proclaims to be the pillar and ground of truth (1 Timothy 3:15).
Irenaeus continues by exhorting us to, “learn the truth from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the apostles, and among whom exists that which is sound and blameless in conduct, as well as that which is unadulterated and incorrupt in speech.” These men who possess this Apostolic Succession are “they [that] expound the Scriptures to us without danger, neither blaspheming God, nor dishonoring the patriarchs, nor despising the prophets.”6 Again, we must “read the Scriptures in company with those who are presbyters in the Church, among whom is the apostolic doctrine, as I have pointed out.”7
So how do you know what you believe about God is true? How do you know you are in the Church of the apostles? According to the witness of scripture and history, we must receive the faith and not turn aside from it; and we receive it from the unbroken succession of the Apostles in the Church. Scripture constantly talks about holding on to that which we received. Paul exhorts us, over and over again, to hold on to the traditions delivered to us (1 Corinthians 11:2) whether by word or epistle (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Again he tells us to avoid those who hold teachings contrary to what we “learned” (Romans 16:17) and that he who teaches a gospel contrary to what we received is accursed (Galatians 1:8-9). Paul tells Timothy not to “neglect the gift in him” by the “laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 4:14). In the same epistle, Paul cautions Timothy not to “hastily lay hands” on anyone (1 Timothy 5:22). Further, Paul explains that he will be a “good minister” if he “instructs the brethren in all these things” (1 Timothy 4:6) and that in the latter days many will depart from this teaching, the faith (1 Timothy 4). Being in the Church and learning from the Church is the standard according to scripture and antiquity—a standard that is reaffirmed over and over again throughout history.
True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and [above all, it consists in] the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts [of God].”8
We are told, further, by Irenaeus who was writing against “all the heresies” at the time, that, “[it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth. And the heretics, indeed who bring strange fire to the altar of God — namely, strange doctrines, — shall be burned up by the fire from heaven, as were Nadab and Abiud.9 From such people we [who hold the doctrine of the apostles] should “keep aloof.”10
So is Protestantism a heresy? Forgive me, but I will not answer this question. I cannot answer the question. Alexei Khomiakov, writing in the 19th century, relates that the (Orthodox) Church can only judge Herself.11 It seems clear, however, that Protestantism is not, and cannot, be considered grounded in history—something that both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics can claim. With respect to this, and the sayings above, this is a serious reality. But does this mean that there is an absence of God’s grace in Protestantism? I do not think so. After all, “All Truth is God’s Truth” as Augustine tells us. Certainly there are some, however, that are closer to the Truth than others. And truth is not an abstract concept, but a person. A person that desires to bring each of us into His life, into full communion with Him. Naturally, then, Truth cannot be fully expressed in rhetoric or dogma, but in worship. And how one worships, is incalculably important. This is why the essence of Orthodox worship has never changed—because Orthodox dogma is inextricably connected to Orthodox worship. As Saint Raphael of Brooklyn writes,
The Holy Orthodox Church has never perceptibly changed from Apostolic times, and, therefore, no one can go astray in finding out what She teaches. Like Her Lord and Master, though at times surrounded with human malaria—which He in His mercy pardons—She is the same yesterday, and today, and forever (Heb. 13:8) the mother and safe deposit of the truth as it is in Jesus (cf. Eph. 4:21).
This is exactly why the Orthodox “do church” the way we do. This is why we have the Apostolic Tradition, a Liturgical Calendar, why we fast during certain periods of the year, why we have confession and the Sacraments of the Church. It is all Christocentric: we are aimed at becoming “partakers of the Divine Nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4) by the purging of our sinful passions and the uniting with Christ, the Truth. And we will be content with nothing less than full communion with Christ—and this requires ascetic effort. The fasting rules, among other things in the Orthodox Church, are not ends in themselves, but a means to reject our self that we may gain a True Self in Christ.12 It is true that, on the outside, the structure of the Orthodox Church seems excessive and rule-based. But on the inside, when you are living it (or in my case trying to live it), it looks much different. What once looked like rigid boundaries—rules—dissolves, and all that remains is love; ascetic effort and self-sacrifice, as Christ tells us, is the apex of love (John 15:13). To “lay down your life” can mean physical martyrdom or martyrdom through asceticism—the denying of one’s will or desires. And so, by way of our daily martyrdom through ascesis we learn to give our whole being to God, as well as prepare for the possibility of our physical martyrdom.
I write all of this without any intention to offend or quarrel. Although I know some may take offense at it, I offer this last thought: as an ex-Protestant, I found that I had reached the limits of what Protestantism could give me. I hit a brick wall. Protestantism was not enough. I was compelled, after much study, to join the Orthodox Church. This move was not based on a preference. I was, in a sense, forced out of Protestantism. I was deeply disturbed to find that the church I was attending as a Protestant was neither grounded in history nor a part of the succession from the apostles. Though Protestantism may claim the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas handed down to us from the great defenders of the faith, they claim something that is not theirs, for they reject everything else that every one of these defenders held in common faith. Orthodox Christians today, clergy and laity alike, are to be defenders of the faith—a faith that was handed down to us from the Apostles—not in arrogance, but in truth and love.13
With this in mind, I must say that not every form of Christianity even if they are Trinitarian is equal in its ability to transform the person into the likeness of God—a perfection we are commanded to achieve (Matthew 5:48). It is telling that Evangelicalism neither accepts, nor produces, Saints. And this is the litmus test of a church: its ability to produce Saints. This raised a troublesome question for me, as a Protestant. If not all Trinitarian Christian “denominations” are created equal, and some are closer to the truth than others . . . . Since Jesus Christ is The Truth, then does that mean that my Western Protestant form of Christianity is holding me back from full communion with Christ? Though there are many virtues in Protestantism, Protestantism is not enough. For love demands all.
Where does this leave me as the founder of Conciliar Post? I also struggle with this question. Undoubtedly my desire is to “dialogue” with those of other “traditions” but how is it possible to talk about something that must be practiced to be understood? For Orthodox Christians, theology is worship—and through worship we learn our theology. There can be no parsing of the human person; the human mind cannot be divorced from practice. In Orthodox theology, a popular adaptation of a saying from Evagrius of Ponticus says, “the Theologian is the one who prays.” For us, this is where we draw the line. We mustn’t merely intellectualize—we must read the lives of the saints, see what they did, what they said to do, and do it ourselves. The road is neither easy nor comfortable. But this is the real test—a true self-sacrifice.
Of course, it is possible to be within the Orthodox Church and be worse off in the long run. Because we will be judged harsher (cf. James 3:1). For this, I must admit that I know many sincere Protestants who are better off than I. And for this, and for speaking, I must ask your forgiveness. I pray you will take some time to reflect on whether your Christian tradition is grounded in antiquity, universality, and consensus, and these questions:
Is your church, and everything it believes grounded in history? Has it added something or taken something away? Does your Christian tradition believe that worship-style is a preference? Is what you believe found in history, grounded in universality, and confirmed by consensus?
In order for the Orthodox Church to look into any charge of heresy, the person in question must first be a part of Her fold. I did not answer the question because most Protestants were never a part of the Orthodox Church in the first place. For this reason, I attempted only to lay out the reasons why I think it is important to be a part of the Church.
*“The unity of the Church follows of necessity from the unity of God.” (Alexei Khomiakov, The Church is One. 10).
**I think it should also be noted that both Ignatius and Irenaeus lived approximately 125-200 years before the toleration / legalization of Christianity—that is, 125-200 years before Emperor Constantine. Considering that a vast number of Evangelical Christians believe that the Church was “corrupted” when it became a “state religion,” this is quite important to note.
***It may also be helpful to note that the Orthodox Church is careful whom she accepts into her fold—and, as evident by the Ecumenical Councils, who remains within her Fold. This has enabled the Church to maintain the same Faith handed down from the apostles.
1. It should be noted that within the walls of the Orthodox Church, you will find a distinction between essentials (dogma) and theological opinion (theologoumenon). This “list” developed as the early Christians fought against the heretical teachings of the time. In this sense, we can say that Christian dogma developed in articulation in order to refute false teachings. This is why we have the creeds. It should also be noted that these essentials are agreed upon in every branch of Orthodoxy—unlike in Protestantism where the lists of essentials all differ from one another.
2. Many in the Evangelical community may doubt that “excommunication” does anything to affect one’s “status” of being in the Church. This is natural for a community that has neither a solid understanding of Apostolic Succession nor a substantial ecclesiology. It seems that Western Christianity has abandoned ecclesiology in all its forms—neither understanding it, nor taking it seriously. However, with what is said in scripture and proclaimed by Christians universally (until the Reformation) about apostolic succession / the laying on of hands / the unity of the Church / the ability to bind and lose things on earth that will be bound and loosed in heaven, we should take this seriously (Matthew 18:18).
3. St. Vincent of Lerins
4. Against Heresies, 3.3.3
5. Ibid., 3.4.3
6. Ibid., 4.26.5
7. Ibid., 4.32.1
8. Ibid., 4.33.8
9. Ibid., 4.26.2
10. Ibid., 4.26.4
11. Alexei Stepanovich Khomiakov, The Church is One
12. cf. Matthew 16:25
13. cf. Ephesians 4:11-16