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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?

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Benjamin Cabe

Benjamin Cabe

Benjamin Cabe is an Eastern Orthodox Christian who aspires to learn from, and write within the framework of, the teachings of the Church Fathers. He is an artist, writer, animator, husband, and father. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his family, reading, writing, and composing music.

  • Mrs. Pleepers

    Forgive me, but I will answer this question. I can answer the question. Protestantism is a heresy. All defining aspects of Protestantism have been formally condemned by Orthodoxy. Acquaint yourself (for starters) with the Confession of Dositheus – Synod of Jerusalem 1672 (refutation of Calvinism), and the Encyclical of the Synod in Constantinople 1836 – Against the Protestant Missionaries. For further reading, there is the correspondence between the Lutheran scholars and Patriarch Jeremiah, 1573-1582. You can also find an informative video on Youtube titled “Protestantism: Condemned by 6 Orthodox Councils.”

    The Roman Patriarchate broke away from the Church in 1054, becoming a schismatic entity. Protestants then broke away from the Latin schismatics, and have now broken with one another thousands of times. In no way can any of these communities be considered as part of the Orthodox Church, not being in communion with Her, and teaching alien doctrines – therefore, they are heretics. Their teachings are wrong, and not Orthodox. It’s actually pretty simple.

  • Ben, I’m (obviously) late to the party, but I’d be interested in your response to the the thoughts below (originally composed as part of a now significantly reworked article).

    Ben, you rightly point us to the center of the Christian faith—the Trinity—and discusses mere Christianity. But you do not convinced me that mere Christianity is not enough, that we must sort
    through the bin of Christian denominations and find that Church which is most unified. We here encounter the idea of the “least common denominator,” but that is not how Trinitarian theology has been historically understood by the Church. The Trinity is not the “bare bones” which holds Christian communions together, but rather functions as the enlivening authority, redemption, and power to go out into the world with the message of Christ. Christian Orthodoxy recognized the dynamism of the Trinity in the great ecumenical councils of the early Church, which did not seek to articulate the finer details of God’s ineffable mystery, but rather set boundaries within which proper Christian understandings of God’s person and activity might be encountered. In this sense, then, the question of “What is essential?” seems to miss the point. What is essential is communion (and ultimately union) with God, but the Christian tradition already knows that. What remains for us to do is determine how we participate in the essential.

    Though I am far from opposed to the institutional church, I am wary of your tendency (though not yours along) to identify ekklesia with institution. The rules of antiquity, universality, and consensus—properly understood as distinct from oldest, widest spread, and most popular—can severely undermine some of the claims of both Orthodoxy and Catholicism. For example, the forms of faith practiced in fourth century Egypt would be much closer to the practices of the Coptic Church than today’s Orthodox Church in Russia, where the language, liturgy, and praxis show significant signs of development. To woodenly use the terminology of history to define the boundaries of what is or is not Christianity not only fails to do justice to the complexities of history, but it also ignores Christianity’s longstanding tradition of accepting truth wherever it may be found (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine). Yet I would concur with your statement, 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.” This rightly points us to the question of which authorities, which is obviously a major crux of the issue (and what which I’ll be “officially” weighing in on soon).

    I look forward to hearing your response(s). Blessings, JJP

    • Thanks, Jake! I think you’re exactly right. The Trinity isn’t some “bare bones” dogma. It’s the life of the Church. The question is, how do we participate in it? If there are some ways that are better than others, what does that look like? This is where I would claim the Orthodox Church as the *best* way. But we can have people inside the community that are not practicing, etc. I think your comment is very adequate and thank you for pointing out a tendency I was unable to articulate or parse. Will think more about this in the future 🙂

  • Tama Prahlow

    Hey there Ben!
    I like to think of Christianity in light of the stages of water (Chemistry classes with Joe and Mary this year).
    I like to be watery…flowing, adapting, taking the lowest ground. I can freeze into rigid dogmat of rules, and fear to break them. I could be steamy, loosing myself to heady philosophy and literally get carried away. Being water serves others and myself more. I am sure you could think of alot of analogies. Thanks for taking the time to share. Tama Prahlow

  • Pingback: What is Heresy?! - A Faith-Full Life()

  • brvegmond

    As a Protestant (more specifially, non-denominational with Charismatic tendencies) with little to no familiarity with the EO, RC, non-Protestant churches, I just wanted to point out a couple concerns I have with two points that were made.

    1. “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.”

    I think this conclusion is based on a misunderstanding on sola scriptura, at least what I’ve been taught in my non-denominational communities. Sola scriptura essentially means that only Scripture is truly reliable. It means that pastors, theologians, and even the leaders of the early church are encouraged to teach and we are encouraged to listen, but everything that they say must be firmly grounded in Scripture. What this also means is that everyone is encouraged to look through Scripture themselves, to test the ideas of teachers (Acts 17:11, 1 Thess 5:21).

    2. “It is telling that Evangelicalism neither accepts, nor produces, Saints. And this is the litmus test of a church: its ability to produce Saints.”

    I’m actually very curious as to why this is so. My understanding is that all Christians are saints because we are under Christ and He makes us saints.

    • Hello Byr Van Egmond! Thank you for weighing in.

      1. I think you are right. Sola Scriptura as you are speaking of it is a much more balanced approached than the background I come from. However, from my experience, scripture still needs to be interpreted—the question is actually a matter of whose interpretation you decide to use.

      2. We are all saints. The Saints I am talking about in the article are people who have lived an extremely holy life. A life of asceticism—and, as a result, were overflowing with love—overflowing with the “divine nature” as they themselves were “partakers” in the highest sense. And so, God’s divine energy flowed through them enabling them to heal those who were sick, allowed them the grace of clairvoyance, and many other graces. These are the saints—the ones I am speaking of in the article—were rejected by the reformers.

    • Tyrone Martin

      Bottom line, Martin Luther was not accepted as a Priest so he started his own thing. He added what ever he wanted to his Bible and kept away large parts of it to fit his thinking. He said sin is good , we will be forgiven. Now i don’t know about you., but I will follow the religion right after Christ. Saint peter went to Rome and set up the Catholic Church. Just the prayer of the rosary, Whole armies abandoned cities. Because this heresy was started 1500 years after Christ, people think they can sin and everything is ok.

  • As a Protestant within a Charismatic tradition, I often feel the challenge of finding a clear path from my Christian practice back to the history and tradition of the early church. Thus, I really appreciated the chance to think through some of the questions you raised in this article. In a broader context, I wonder how you would respond to the proposal that Eastern Orthodoxy as a tradition needs to answer the same questions relative to the Roman Catholic and also the Jewish tradition (from which Christianity itself was a change). Furthermore, (even more so than Protestantism) Islam and Mormonism probably need to answer to Christianity as to how they are a continuation and not a complete break with the stream of tradition. If Christianity presented a more united front, these arguments may be easier to address. However, my suggestion here is simply that if your arguments are legitimate (and I think they are) they can and must be explored by Christianity as a whole as well as by any tradition that seeks some sense of legitimacy through its connection to the Abrahamic covenant.

    • Benjamin Winter

      This is a great comment. I just finished reading “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them” by Robert Louis Wilken, and in it he points out that many early attackers of Christianity tried to show that it was discontinuous with Judaism.

      Porphyry (an extremely learned pagan) took the critique even further: even if Judaism and Christianity are connected, what justifies God’s election of the Hebrew people over and against all other nations? This, too, is a question that Christians must struggle with today.

      I think Nostra Aetate makes a good start (this is an extended quote, but I think it’s chock full of interesting stuff):

      One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for
      God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is
      their final goal, God … Men expect from the various religions answers to the
      unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times,
      deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our
      life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does
      it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and
      retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery
      which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?

      From ancient times down to the present, there is found among
      various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the
      course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed
      have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This
      perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious

      Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way
      by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire
      the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through
      higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere
      try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by
      proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred
      rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these
      religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of
      life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from
      the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that
      Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim
      Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men
      may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things
      to Himself.

      The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through
      dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out
      with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they
      recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well
      as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

  • Jeff Hart

    Thanks for this article, Ben. I appreciate the perspective.

    Here are a couple areas where I would like to offer some push-back:

    1) I don’t know all that much about your background, but I wonder whether you “hit a brick wall” in Protestantism or *Evangelicalism.* Granted, there’s a huge question of definition for both of those terms, but when I think of Protestantism, I think of the traditions rooted in the Reformation, not the often wishy-washy evangelicalism of modern America. While your piece is directed at Protestantism at large (although you seem to use the terms evangelical and protestant interchangeably at times), I suspect that your critique has more validity when leveled at evangelicalism, not the Protestantism of the reformers. As I’ve studied Reformed theology in particular, I’ve become more and more aware not only of the depth of Reformed theology, but of the historical roots of that theology as well (reaching back to Augustine and beyond)—roots that broad, generic Evangelicalism has largely been severed from. I, too, would say I “hit a brick wall” in Evangelicalism–but that only drove me into deeper, more theologically robust Protestantism.

    2) It seems at times that you present an overly optimistic view of unity and historical continuity within Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. I’m far more knowledgeable about Catholicism than Eastern
    Orthodoxy, so my critique here applies primarily to the Catholic Church (although I think the principle behind the critique could apply equally within the EO Church). While there may be ecclesiastical unity within the Catholic Church, it seems that such unity is largely symbolic; in practice, there are probably just as many divisions *within* the Catholic Church as there are within Protestantism, both in the pews and among the Church’s theologians (e.g. there are both theologically liberal and conservative people within the Church who may formally subscribe to Church dogma, but who practically dissent). Regarding the historical continuity of the Catholic tradition, specifically Apostolic Succession, I find it very difficult to make the argument that the Catholic Church has a greater claim to continuity than Protestant traditions, especially when you consider the mess that was the Papacy in the late Middle Ages (with Popes and anti-Popes running around, each claiming to be the legitimate Church authority). The principle behind these critiques is this: just because a certain faith was “received” does not mean that it was transmitted without error. Traditions can drift over time. The Reformers viewed the Catholic Church of their day as having deviated from the faith received from Christ and the Apostles; the Church had gone off course, and a reformation was needed to realign Church with the teachings of Scripture. The reformers did not intend to create a new branch of the Church—they only hoped to put the Church back on course, in closer alignment to the historical tradition from which they believed it had deviated. So to sum up, I don’t think that the problems you identify with Protestantism are unique to Protestantism; rather, they’re common to fallen humanity and are manifest within each faith tradition in different ways.

    • Benjamin Winter

      Jeff, this is a responsible critique. Of course, I’m going to let the “EO Ben” respond, but I also want to point above to comments from the “RC Ben” (myself)–especially the paragraph stating that “things are always messier in actual life than in the realm of the ideal, so I think you need to bring forward that distinction.”

      In addition, “the Bens have it” that the question of unity is not really about belief, but about authority. I’m happy that you see continuity between the Reformers and the Early Church. The perennial questions remain: “Whose Church, Whose Fathers, Whose Interpretation, Whose History?” Apostolic Succession provides the only certain way to address these concerns.

      • Jeff Hart

        Thanks, Ben. I read your comment and thought of referencing it in mine, but it seemed that we were making slightly different points. I agree with your comments about the messiness of history, and I think you’re right about the perennial questions. Where I would disagree is over the idea that Apostolic Succession provides as firm a foundation with respect to those questions as Catholic doctrine teaches.

      • Archepoimen follower

        Apostolic succession is indeed “the only certain way to address these concerns”, but actual apostolic succession occurs only within scripture which is why we Protesters proclaim “Graphe Mono”!


    • I agree with you. My critique is certainly more directed to Modern America Evangelicalism. You are also right that I use the terms interchangeably in this article. For my purposes here, I wanted to use the term *broad as it is* to designate a title to those who are neither Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox (as I think there are a number of fundamental differences between Protestantism as I just defined it and Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy). I should have been more clear on this. I also agree with you that there are deep(er) forms of Protestantism (e.g., Historical Protestantism) than Modern American Evangelicalism.

      Certainly Church history is not a cakewalk. It seems to me, though, that a kind of “corruption” in the Apostolic Tradition cannot be maintained. Certainly there are corrupt individuals but the individuals are not the embodiment of the Apostolic Tradition, per se, but rather the community. There were times in Church History that particular people or communities decided that they “try something” only for it to be “corrected” over time. This is what gives the *Historical Church, if I can use the term* its reliability. This is also why C.S. Lewis says we should read 3 old books for every 1 new book we read. That being said, I do not subscribe to the idea that there was ever a point that the Apostolic Tradition was corrupted in its entirety—such an idea seems to be a new idea (although, I suppose I would need to read more to be able to say that categorically).

      And certainly the Reformers were merely trying to affect a kind of “correction”. But (at least in my opinion) they threw the baby out with the bathwater.

      I am grateful for everyone in this community and how they have taken the article and corrected / clarified me as needed.

      • mmchanb

        Great points, Ben. Protestants tend to paint Roman Catholicism with an unnecessarily broad brush and tend to conveniently ignore Eastern Orthodoxy, much less Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East. When the Reformation happened, it seems that at least one apostolic branch of the faith was known to be an available alternative. If RCC was completely corrupted (which I do not believe), then why did Luther not do what his successors did by reaching out to the Eastern Orthodox?

        To me, the gravest error of the Reformation seems to be the rejection of 1500 years of Church writings. Augustine is the only name most Protestants know, and they conveniently fail to quote his staunch embrace of the full canon of Scripture while limiting themselves to just 66 books. I have no desire to malign Luther, but it is very hard for me to defend his conduct.

        • Tyrone Martin

          Well said.

  • Wow. Are we doing PC here? Of course Protestantists are heretics by Orthodox standards. By Protestant standards, “heresy” (from Gr. hairesis) has to mean “sect” or “denomination” because that is how the word is used in the New Testament. I’ve been told before, by someone RC or Orthodox–don’t remember which–that Protestants aren’t heretics because they were never formerly part of “the Church.” Irenaeus’ _Against Heresies_ describes gnostic sects as heretics. They were never part of the catholic Church. Tertullian, in several treatises, and Hippolytus in the Refutation of All Heresies use “heretic” the same way. Protestantism is a heresy because of its division. They are heretics because they have deviated from the faith passed down from the apostles in many ways. Making all the sacraments symbolic is a big one, but if we want to be picky, they don’t even believe the biblical or Nicene Trinity (nor do the RCs).

    An Orthodox friend of mine wrote to me recently after a discussion on Facebook explaining that papal infallibility and the filioque make the RCs heretics, too.

    I am not Orthodox, and not RC. Matthew (mmchanb below) calls himself post-Protestant. Like possiby millions before us, we have left the Protestant movement, but we have gone nowhere except to our local brothers and sisters.

    Am I a heretic? By Orthodox standards, of course I am. I reject a couple of their most critical doctrines (consecrated priesthood, for example). Have we become scared of a word? Once we know where we stand, we can have a discussion. If we’re afraid to say where we stand, we just confuse people.

  • The length of this post is a heresy! 🙂


  • George Aldhizer

    I think I’m of the opinion of Orthodox Fr. Lawrence Farley, who cites Kallistos Ware, “There is only one Church [i.e. the Orthodox Church], but there are many different ways of being related to this one Church.” I think this way of thinking about Protestants/Catholics from an Orthodox perspective allows for Orthodox to say that Prots/Caths are “Christians,” without giving up the visibility/exclusive right to the faith of the apostles that Orthodox so want to cling to.

    Of course, I’m not Orthodox, so maybe I shouldn’t be speaking for how they should think.

    • That’s a great article. I highly respect both His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos and Fr. Lawrence. I think Ben is right (hence my hesitation on the title) about the title being a misnomer. Really what I’m getting at is, “is protestantism enough?” I’m not asking “is it enough to be saved” but, rather, “does love demand more?”

      Along with the analogy, I suppose one could ask, how do you have to be related to inherit the fortune (kingdom)?

      • Re-reading that reply, I realize that, though I meant the “is protestantism enough / does love demand more?” without any heightened tone etc. it may sound somewhat argumentative. Forgive me. I have seen a number of conversations on Facebook about this piece and it makes me wonder if I should have even posted it.

      • Or, along with the apology, what is the most intimate way of being related to the Church / really, to Christ?

  • Benjamin Winter

    The title of this piece is something of a misnomer: it’s not wholly appropriate to lump Protestants together into one group. Doing so would appeal to the very leadership model they balked at when splitting off from the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” In my opinion, what truly separates us from our Protestant brothers and sisters is the fact that they remain in “protest” against the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It is not primarily an issue of belief, as I believe you highlight toward the end of this piece.

    Despite my quibbles with some of your language, I believe that your general position in this article is sound.

    Here are my quibbles, just for the sake of encouragement and growth:

    1) You sound like a rigorist at times. For instance, you say “there will always be a variety of opposing views within the walls of any given Protestant church,” and you say it in such a way that one can infer that the opposite is true within an Orthodox Church. But things are always messier in actual life than in the realm of the ideal, so I think you need to bring forward that distinction. One can still be a member of the Orthodox or Catholic Church and have honest doubts about doctrines, or hold opposing views about theologoumenon. To remove those possibilities is to sterilize the Church from her humanity. Unity is the ideal, but we are not all in the same place when it comes to our journey towards God. If a member of my parish is struggling, the first response of the Church is never to excommunicate him or her. It’s the same with the broader picture of Church History in general, which brings me to quibble 2:

    2) Church History is messier than the picture you paint here. Of course, one cannot get a sense of what the is Church without reading beyond the Reformation; and the Church’s Apostolic unity becomes clearer when one reads the Fathers. But there are many difficulties involved in just such a study as well, not the least of which being the fragmentation of the Church not just into East and West, but into Assyrian, Coptic, etc.

    3) Finally, I still think Augustine’s corrective to Cyprian on the question of heretical Baptism won the day (see

    Thanks for writing! You gotta post more often, man =)

    • I agree with you completely. There can certainly be disagreements within the Orthodox / Catholic churches—most explicitly over theologoumenon. I imagine what came through in that statement is my experience as a Protestant in a non-Liturgical Church (a non-denominational church with baptist leanings). In that church, the one I grew up in, there were serious disagreements on what constitutes “salvation,” predestination and man’s role, as well as a number of other fundamental things. With respect to that experience, therein lies the different between “disagreements” or differing opinions.

      2. Church history is messier. That is for sure. It’s hard to convey in an article of this nature without making it a book 🙂

      3. I’m reading that right now. Thanks! (One of the reasons I like this community:)

      • Benjamin Winter

        Ben, thanks for taking my comments with charity. I can see where you were coming from now on #1, agree with you on #2, and as far as #3 goes just wanted to state that the piece I sent was something I found through google that looked short enough to give a summary (not an exhaustive presentation) of what I meant with the Cyprian/Augustine comment.

        Just as a point of reference, today the Catholic Church recognizes all Baptisms as valid–provided that they use the Trinitarian formula (other invocations such as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier,” are occasionally used, but are invalid). One of my teachers said that Baptism is the broadest sacrament, and indeed, we believe that anyone can baptize another person (who has desire to be baptized) in a life and death situation.

        • Hi Ben. Yeah that makes sense. There is a lot of oikonomia here. St. Paisios (recently glorified) noted that if there isn’t enough water to immerse, we pour. If not enough to pour, sprinkle. And if, in the case of an infant facing certain death without a priest near and without water, the parent can lift the child up in the shape of the cross. All of which must be done in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

          It should also be noted that, depending on the Bishop, the Orthodox Church does not rebaptize those who convert who were baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. They are received into the Church by Chrismation. I wonder, though, what the practical implications are. As Augustine says baptized persons outside the Church are “baptized” but it only “benefits them” once they return to the Church.

          I think we can agree, though, that God is gracious and we don’t want these people to suffer in the least—and many may very well be better off than me on the last day. But it is. nonetheless, important to be a part of the Church—even if, as George mentions, they are related in some way to the One Church.

          I am very grateful for the comments on this thread. Unfortunately, the Facebook conversations I witnessed were far less charitable.

          I would like to mention, also, that I agree with you that the term “Protestantism” as a “category” does not really mean anything. Unfortunately, I decided not to mention this in the article because I assumed that my premise would be clearer than it was: I am defining Protestantism as anything that is not Roman Catholic or Orthodox.

          Of course not all Protestants are the same. Like, I would say, the Lutherans and the Methods may be “closer” in some things than, say, a mega-church. But, I think that’s part of the article, too. But there are many virtues in Protestantism (even Mega-Churches) and I would never want to disparage these virtues.

  • Good article Ben. As a former Protestant, I can’t “shoot my mother.” And my Pentecostal background gave me the longing to know the fullness of the faith. For that I am eternally grateful. The Church is a discoverable, enterable, and physical reality. Just as Christ is both Human and Divine, so His Body is the same. But the Body cannot constitute itself without its Head.

    In the end, a robust ecclesiology is the Undiscovered Country for Protestantism. With statistics on American Religion being what they are, it is obvious that we won’t survive this splintered witness forever and the “Me and Jesus got our own thing going” mentality has contributed to this decline. Lord, have mercy.

    • Thank you, Fr.
      Lord have mercy.

  • mmchanb

    Good morning, Ben. This article willl no doubt yield some lively conversation. I deeply appreciate the love and candidness in your writing. I’ve been enjoying Cyprian’s “On the Unity of the Church.” I don’t find room in his writing for anyone to be outside the church and still be a Christian. If I understand you correctly, you define Protestants to operate outside the Church, yet you see them as truly Christian. Is that correct?

    • Hi Matthew. Thanks for asking. This is a difficult question, to say the least. But I do not think I can say. “The Church can only judge herself” as Khomiakov says. And yet, in Cyprian’s time, there were no Protestants. Protestantism is a strange phenomenon. All I will say is that it is quite important to be inside the Church. God is merciful and I hope he has mercy on us all.

      • mmchanb

        Despite my disagreements with EO, I love the fact that they/you offer the deeper waters of which you reference in your article. Specifically, I admire that EO offers a fairly well defined path to living spiritually and has done so for many centuries. I’ve done some research to try to identify the Roman equivalent. If they have one, it is less clear to outsiders. In my experience, Protestantism’s version of spirituality usually boiled down to the three maxims: “Read Scripture more, pray more, and go to church.”

        • Thank you, Matthew. The maxims of Protestantism seemed to change slightly from the time I was a kid to the time I exited Protestantism. As a kid, I was told to “read my Bible and pray” and it was expected that I attend church. But when we switched to a more “contemporary non-denominational Protestant church” the maxims were: “Read you Bible. Pray. Go to Church. Get involved in serving at Church (expected to serve in nursery or something). And the BIG one: join a small group. So I think the three maxims you mention are the baseline and others are added as “practical programs” because two of the three maxims are ambiguous *how to I read my Bible? How do I pray? etc.*

          • Benjamin Winter

            Agreed that EO offers a more clear picture of paths of spirituality; a complement I addressed to Ian in a recent (lengthy) response to my “Journey to Catholicism Part III” where Ian asked why I chose Catholicism over Orthodoxy. But Catholicism does have a variety of monastic orders. Some live apart from the world in seclusion [e.g. Trappists]; others live in cities and serve the poor [Franciscans]; still others emphasize academic study and preaching [Dominicans]; while some go out into the world to engage other cultures [Jesuits]. And of course there are equivalents for women [Carmelites, Poor Clares, Sisters of Divine Mercy, Society of the Sacred Heart, respectively].

            • All of the Roman Catholics I have met personally are quite devoted to their faith and spirituality. I would also like to learn more about the Roman Catholic Monastic Orders.