Hank Hanegraaff, otherwise known as the radio personality, “The Bible Answer Man,” recently converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. After two years of personal inquiry, Hanegraaff and his wife were chrismated and received into the Greek Orthodox Church, near their home in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Palm Sunday.
In the American evangelical sub culture, Hank Hanegraaff has been one of those influential personalities, known for possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, where radio listeners have asked Bible questions from umpteen different directions, and Hanegraaff has had the ability to field them all live on talk radio. Absolutely amazing.
A number of evangelicals view Hanegraaff’s move to Orthodoxy as a type of betrayal, suggesting that he is no longer a true Christian. Others are confused, not knowing much about what is “Eastern Orthodoxy,” and why people are attracted to this ancient approach to Christian faith. Even the Christian satire site, the Babylon Bee, is poking fun at Hanegraaff, calling him “The Apostolic Tradition Man.”
Hanegraaff responds to criticism by saying, “People are posting this notion that somehow or other I’ve walked away from the faith and am no longer a Christian. Look, my views have been codified in 20 books, and my views have not changed,” according to an article in Christianity Today, the main source for this blog post. Hanegraaff recently posted a letter to ministry supporters reassuring them of his love for Jesus.
What does one make of all this?
Hank Hanegraaff’s Theological and Spiritual Journey
Hanegraaff’s conversion has been a long process. Years ago, Hank Hanegraaff had his start in public evangelical ministry through the late James D. Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida. Have you ever been asked, or asked someone else, “If you were going to die tonight, do you know for sure that you are going to be with God in heaven?” If so, you can thank Reverend Kennedy and his disciples, like Hanegraaff, who pioneered Evangelism Explosion, an evangelistic method for sharing one’s faith with another person.
Later, Hanegraaff joined the staff of the Christian Research Institute (CRI), founded by Walter Martin, co-authoring with Martin an expanded edition of the blockbuster bestseller, The Kingdom of the Cults. CRI has been well-known in Christian circles for years for providing apologetics material to enable evangelicals to share their faith with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and resisting the corrupting influence of the “Word of Faith” and Prosperity Gospel movements.
After Walter Martin’s death, Hanegraaff took over the ministry of CRI, and through that developed the radio ministry of “The Bible Answer Man.” Hanegraaff’s exuberance in fighting against cults hit a turning point when he condemned as a cult the “Local Church,” a movement founded by the well-known Chinese evangelist, Watchman Nee, and brought to America in the 1960s by one of Nee’s disciples, Witness Lee. Witness Lee fought back against Hanegraaff, and within a few years, Hanegraaff, and other countercult leaders, were persuaded that CRI was wrong, and absolved the “Local Church” of straying from orthodox belief.
Hanegraaff continued in his efforts as a “theological watchdog” to stamp out heresy, in the mid-1990s becoming a vocal critic of the “Toronto Blessing,” a charismatic renewal movement at a Vineyard Church near the Toronto, Canada airport, where there were scattered reports of miraculous healing, but also of eccentric phenomena like “barking in the Spirit.” Many charismatics were upset with CRI for using criticisms of the “Toronto Blessing” to repudiate the charismatic renewal movement as a whole.
Hanegraaff’s criticism eventually entered into the very heart of popular evangelical theology. In the early 2000s, Hanegraaff publicly criticized the theology of dispensationalism, a belief system founded in the early 19th century, that classically sees a sharp separation between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church in the future plans of God. Despite claims of being an advocate for “replacement theology,” Hanegraaff’s main contention is against the classic dispensationalist belief that a future temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, with all of the Jewish sacrificial system intact, for the atonement of sins. While still affirming the orthodoxy of dispensationalist beliefs in other areas, Hanegraaff argues that Christ’s death on the cross 2000 years ago did away with the need for another temple. A third temple threatens to undermine the finished work of Jesus Christ, thus denying the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work to deal with sin.
Hanegraaff’s combined attacks on charismatic excesses, dispensationalism, etc. have proven difficult to endure by a number of other evangelical Christian “theological watchdogs,” and Hanegraaff’s and CRI’s reputation have became controversial in some quarters. Hank Hanegraaff knows that “theological watchdogs” are needed to protect against error among the faithful. But as he has discovered, the problem with being a “theological watchdog” is when you find yourself under the scrutiny of other, self-appointed “theological watchdogs.” You have to wonder, who is watching the “theological watchdogs?”
Hank Hanegraaff himself describes his movement to Eastern Orthodoxy as an attempt to get back to real, true authentic Christianity. Several years ago, Hanegraaff had taken a trip to China to visit Christians there. There he “saw Chinese Christians who were deeply in love with the Lord, and I learned that while they may not have had as much intellectual acumen or knowledge as I did, they had life.” The more he began to investigate Eastern Orthodoxy, the more that he sensed that Eastern Orthodoxy reflected this authentic Christianity he was looking for, that remained elusive to him in Protestant evangelicalism.
Protestant Evangelical to Eastern Orthodoxy: Why?
So, why do people like Hank Hanegraaff feel drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy? Part of the answer comes from the very beginnings of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, where the very distinctive hallmarks of evangelical faith were crystallized. Evangelical Protestants have self-consciously thought of themselves as believers in “sola Scriptura,” holding that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the source of Christian authority for matters of truth. However, while the Bible is most certainly infallible, the Christian’s ability to interpret that Bible is not infallible, and that has created a number of problems.
When Martin Luther championed the Bible alone as his authority, he was convinced that through sensible reasoning and an approach to the Bible with an open mind and heart, every true Christian would see things exactly the same way he did. Unfortunately, Luther’s logic has turned out to be terribly overly-optimistic. When Luther had his famous disputation with his fellow Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, at the colloquy of Marburg, Luther and Zwingli were able to agree on many, many matters of faith. However, they could not agree on the exact nature and doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. As a result, Zwingli and Luther parted ways from one another, and denominational disagreements in Protestant churches have been with us ever since.
This is why you can still finding hundreds and hundreds of churches today all claiming that their interpretation of the Bible is the right one, while supposedly, their neighboring Bible-believing church across the street has gone down the wrong track. Sometimes, the exposure of error is clearly justified. But in other cases, such disputes are an attempt to make the Bible say more than it clearly teaches, reading things into the text that may or may not be really there.
Mainline Protestant liberals go to the opposite extreme, many dropping their statements of faith altogether, abandoning solid Bible doctrine. All the while, a skeptical world looks at the cacophony of Protestant Christian expressions as mind baffling.
In an attempt to try to resolve these difficulties in Bible interpretation, a number of evangelical churches today, like my own, have taken upon themselves the notion of “agreeing to disagree” on matters that are not essential points of Bible doctrine. In other words, Bible-believing Christians find full agreement on core, fundamental Christian beliefs, such as the need for salvation, the deity of Christ, etc,. But they are willing to “agree to disagree” on non-essential matters, such as the specifics regarding a future for ethnic Israel, the mode of baptism, the age of the earth, etc., and therefore, they are content to live with some degree of ambiguity.
However, not everyone is willing to adhere to this type of “agree to disagree” principled ethic. Theological watchdogs are sometimes drawn into a form of theological precision, attempting to resolve such Biblical mysteries, that puts them in unbending intellectual conflict with other Protestant evangelicals, thereby sapping one’s spiritual energies.
As an alternative, Eastern Orthodoxy offers a different approach. Instead of an emphasis on the “Bible alone,” Orthodoxy holds to the idea of the Bible and tradition as being the grounds for the Christian’s authority, where the practice of Christian worship is not separated from Christian doctrine. Christian theology and belief is bound up with what the church has traditionally practiced and taught about the Bible for centuries. Some of the beliefs that the Eastern Orthodox have will sound strange to many evangelical Protestants, such as the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. But such beliefs have the power of years of embedded tradition behind them, resisting the latest theological fads, and focusing instead on the experience of a form of Christian worship that the Eastern Orthodox say goes back to the very early church.
Evangelical critics of Eastern Orthodoxy are not persuaded by this narrative. The most cogent criticism that I have heard is that Eastern Orthodoxy today reflects more of the historical context of the 8th century, when the Eastern church was under the imposing threat of Islam, rather than the period of the early church. Nevertheless, folks like Hanegraaff deflect that criticism. See the YouTube video below to hear Hanegraaff’s description of Eastern Orthodoxy, with particular attention to the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis.
Rod Dreher, a popular Christian columnist and an Eastern Orthodox Christian as well, responded to Hanegraaff’s conversion positively,”What astounding news. Many evangelicals seek the early church; well, here it is, in Orthodoxy.”