Most evangelical Protestants, particularly in the United States, know very little about the Eastern Orthodox faith. What they do know is often jumbled together with their understanding of Roman Catholicism. Likewise, many Eastern Orthodox remain unfamiliar with Protestant beliefs.
A lot of that is changing as Eastern Orthodoxy grows in America, with high profile conversions from evangelical Protestantism to Orthodoxy, ranging from apologist Hank Hanegraaff to Christian author Frederica Mathewes-Green. Other well known Eastern Orthodox Christians (or those with appreciative Eastern Orthodox backgrounds) include columnist Rod Dreher and the controversial radio personality Eric Metaxas.
Unlike the Christian West, where Protestantism split from the Roman Catholic Church, about 500 years ago, Eastern Orthodoxy has no exact equivalence of a Protestant Reformation in its history. Essentially, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy constituted one unified church for basically a thousand years, until these movements both split from one another officially in 1054 C.E. But, what exactly makes Eastern Orthodoxy different from evangelical Protestantism?
A Church Built on Rock… or Sand?
Father Josiah Trenham, an Antiochian Eastern Orthodox priest in California, has written a book, Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings, that helps readers answer this very question. Trenham was raised in a conservative Presbyterian church, eventually following the teachings of Ligonier Ministries founder, R.C. Sproul. But partway through his seminary training, Trenham came to see what he saw were weaknesses in the evangelical Protestant tradition, and he was received into the Antiochian Eastern Orthodox church and eventually became a priest there in 1993. Today, he runs a popular YouTube channel, Patristic Nectar.
Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings was written primarily to help Eastern Orthodox believers understand the roots of Protestantism, but I found it a helpful guide, as an evangelical Protestant myself, to understand the differences between the two traditions. As indicated by the title, the aim of Rock and Sand is to show that Eastern Orthodoxy is built on rock whereas Protestantism is built on sand. It is worth exploring how Father Trenham makes the case for Eastern Orthodoxy.
Father Trenham does a commendable job describing the distinctive teachings of the early Reformers, ranging from Martin Luther, to Ulrich Zwingli, to John Calvin. Trenham appreciates those reforms that sought to correct imbalances in the medieval Roman Catholic church, such as rejecting the doctrine of purgatory, indulgences, and papal primacy. He personally values his own experience within Protestant churches, particularly the evangelical Protestant zeal for the Bible and for missionary evangelism.
Trenham recalls a quote made by Martin Luther, when he was first publicly challenged by the papal legate Cardinal Cajetan in 1519, “The truth lies with the Greeks,” meaning the Eastern Orthodox. Trenham acknowledges that Luther had the most Eastern Orthodox-ish view of sanctification among the early Reformers, grounding the Christian life in our union with Christ, thus aligning towards the Eastern Orthodox understanding of theosis. Trenham warmly accepts Calvin’s measured view of the End Times, that avoids endless speculation derived from the Book of Revelation, and judges that Calvin “maintained a brilliant Christocentric hermeneutic” of Scripture. Very few Protestants today even know that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin positively affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary, which agrees with Eastern Orthodox teachings.
Yet in other ways, Father Trenham does not shy away from showing where the Protestant Reformers fell short in comparison to the Eastern Orthodox. At various points, he focuses on certain details that expose the more odd and embarrassing side of the Reformers. Little did I know that Martin Luther argued against certain traditional views of incest, by allowing for Christians to marry their first cousins. Trenham uses Luther’s, Melancthon’s and Martin Bucer’s awkward approval of Philip of Hesse’s bigamy as an unflattering illustration of the Protestant Reformers willingness to compromise with the political powers of the day, in order to gain the favor of the state.
Father Trenham also zeroes in on some of the more idiosyncratic views of certain Reformers, to illustrate the failure of sola scriptura as a coherent doctrine, from his perspective. He blasts the Reformers, like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, for their failure to agree upon the nature of the Lord’s Supper, the central act of worship throughout the entire history of the Christian church. Both Luther and Zwingli believed that the “plain reading of the text” clearly taught their respective views, despite the fact that they contradicted one another. This argument supports Trenham’s contention that only a church guided by the light of tradition, upheld by a college of bishops, apostolic succession, and ecumenical councils can prevent a Christian community from falling prey to idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible, that will inevitably cause church splits, an endemic feature of nearly all Protestant churches.
Father Trenham illustrates that the evangelical Protestant prejudice against church tradition is even reflected in some popular Bible translations. For example, the Greek word paradosis is used in the Bible regarding “tradition” in two senses. In the negative sense, “tradition” refers to the man-made traditions of the Pharisees, which Jesus exposed as hypocrisy, as in Matthew 15:3. But it also has the positive sense of “tradition” in other contexts, where “tradition” is in reference to what Christians are to pass down from one generation to the next generation, as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Unfortunately, the popular NIV translation for years has translated this positive sense of paradosis very differently as “teachings,” instead of “traditions.” Thankfully, more recent translations, such as the ESV and the CSB, correctly translate this as “traditions”: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” At least the NIV does mention “traditions” as a possible translation, in a footnote, for those who bother to notice. Nevertheless, among many Protestant evangelicals, some reading habits are hard to break.
An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation for Infant Baptism
In his argument against the Anabaptists, Father Trenham gives a very coherent defense of infant baptism, against all forms of “credobaptism”; otherwise known as “Believer’s Baptism.” He demonstrates that the practice of baptizing infants is in continuity with the Old Testament practice of male infant circumcision. However, whereas circumcision was the primary marker for membership in the Old Covenant of the Jews, it has now been replaced by the practice of baptism in the New Covenant. In other words, baptism carries forward the original Old Testament concept of covenant membership to include Jew and Gentile, male and female, and slave and free, as grounded in the New Testament (Galatians 3:25-28).
Interestingly, Father Trenham argues against the Protestant insistence that salvation is primarily an individual act, and his case for infant baptism is used to buttress his more communal understanding of salvation. The repeated experience that entire households were baptized in the New Testament, even though only one member of the household professed faith initially, calls into question the claim that “Believer’s Baptism” is the clear teaching of Scripture. In the case of the conversion of Lydia (Acts 16:11-15), the passage tells only of Lydia’s conversion and no one else in her household. Nevertheless, everyone in Lydia’s household was baptized. In the case of the conversion of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-34), the passage tells only of the jailer’s conversion and no one else in his household. Nevertheless, everyone in the Philippian jailer’s household was baptized.
Is it possible that the other members of Lydia’s household had become believers at that time, and the text never tells us? Yes, but it is also possible that there were infants in Lydia’s household, who were baptized. Is it possible that the rejoicing of the Philippian household in the jailor’s conversion signaled their own faith in Christ? Yes, but it is also just as likely, if not more so, that they all became believers after their baptism, and not before. The Bible’s silence on this issue, in these two cases, is profound. The argument presented by Father Trenham is something that most Protestant proponents of “Believer’s Baptism” rarely address.
On occasion, Father Trenham makes some rather suspect claims about the Protestant Reformers, but these are very rare. He states that John Calvin taught a very clear doctrine of double predestination, but that some of his closest followers after him did not, such as Theodore Beza. This is highly problematic as many Protestant students of Calvin suggest that Theodore Beza developed Calvin’s doctrine of predestination in greater detail and force than did Calvin himself, who relegated the doctrine of predestination to a lesser position in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.
One of the more interesting features of Father Trenham’s book is a summary retelling of the history of dialogue between the Protestant Reformers and the Eastern Orthodox, a topic often completely ignored among historians of the Reformation. Lines of communication between the early Lutherans and the Eastern Orthodox led to a fruitful dialogue between both sides, despite their ultimate disagreements. Cyril Lucaris, an Eastern Orthodox patriarch and theologian in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, urged other Eastern Orthodox theologians to study in Western Europe at Protestant universities, in hopes of stimulating a reunion of the churches. Lucaris was even rumored to have written a confession of faith along Calvinist lines, yet Father Trenham vigorously denies that Lucaris was the real author of such work.
The Achilles Heel of the Protestant Evangelical Movement
The most stinging critique of Protestantism comes in Father Trenham’s chapter on “Evangelicalism”:
Many modern Protestants do not even recognize themselves as the heirs of the Protestant Reformation. The most vibrant and demographically explosive forms of Protestantism are so ahistorical, so radically detached from the historic Christian ethos that an organic association even with their own Protestant lineage is too much of a chronological and dogmatic commitment. For many of these Protestant Christians the only relevant history of Christianity began with the history of their own particular congregation or even the history of their particular preacher and no tangible connection to the Christian past is considered essential. What matters to them is that their spiritual experience is real, not that their spiritual experience is in harmony with that of their forebears.
Ouch. That really hurt. That paragraph alone was the most griping of Rock and Sand.
It pretty much explains my own encounter with evangelicalism, particularly that of the megachurch variety. The relatively ahistorical character of evangelicalism is responsible for the absurd notion that those who wish to defend any 2,000 year old teaching of the church bears the burden of proof for its defense, as though a Bible believer today can simply read something in the Scriptures and declare such tradition to be false, with very little evidence to show for it. This is nothing more than Protestant hubris that devalues the importance of church history.
Evangelicalism brings in the numbers, and reaches a lot of people for Jesus, something that I celebrate (as does Father Trenham), but it does so at the cost of producing a relatively shallow form of faith, that does not always weather well when the storms of doubt trouble the soul. The contemporary “ExEvangelical” deconstruction trend in some circles serves as evidence for that deficiency within Protestant evangelical subculture. Eastern Orthodoxy has its own skeletons in the closet, but that paragraph above from Father Trenham about my own tradition hit me like a two-by-four across the skull.
Alas, Some Hesitations Regarding Eastern Orthodoxy
Rock and Sand does not address this, but it would have been helpful to touch on some of the problems internal to Eastern Orthodoxy, as a means of self-critique. Ongoing disputes concerning the Protestant doctrines of sola scripture, sola fide, and sola gratia, not withstanding, there are other reasons why many Protestants still wrestle the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Despite the enumerated strengths of the book, and Protestants wrestling with the implications of sola scriptura, the Eastern Orthodox have their own struggles with schism, mostly along ethnic, even nationalistic lines.
A case in point dominates the 2022 news cycle: The 2018 quarrel between the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Russian patriarch, over the jurisdiction of orthodoxy in Ukraine, has served as an unfortunate backdrop, contributing to the tense political situation that precipitated the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. While Father Trenham rightly questioned the ties that 16th century Reformation leaders had with the European political authorities of that day, it is fair to say that certain strands in Eastern Orthodoxy have become enmeshed in an unhealthy way with certain political powers as well, throughout its history. Many Eastern Orthodox Christians have condemned Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, but not all have done so. In the past, I have held out hope that reconciliation among the churches was within grasp, but recent events have rocked that hope for me. The 2022 crisis in the Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s role in Eastern Orthodoxy threatens to raise even more skepticism among non-Eastern Orthodox Westerners about the supposed purity of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Perhaps the primary deficiency of Rock and Sand is the underlying polemical nature of the book, casting serious doubt on the possibility of the reunification of the East and the West. An appendix in the book includes the records of several attempts towards Eastern Orthodox and Protestant reconciliation, including the 1672 Confession of Patriarch Dositheos, at the Synod of Jerusalem, and the more recent 1912 effort by American Episcopalians and Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, the first Eastern Orthodox bishop to be consecrated on American soil. to dialogue with one another. Sadly, none of these efforts have born lasting fruit in favor of ecumenism.
The tone of Father Trenham may come across as negative at times to some readers. The idea of being called a “heterodox believer” is not always very comforting. Father Trenham notes a distinction between “heresy” and “schism,” the latter being less serious, but does at times unflinchingly place Protestantism in the category of “heresy.” A number of Father Trenham’s fellow Eastern Orthodox readers concur that the tone of Rock and Sand comes across as somewhat mixed in this regard.
Rock and Sand: An Excellent Resource for Understanding the Differences Between Protestantism and Easter Orthodoxy
However, in his defense, Father Trenham does seek to be charitable, broadly throughout the book, and frankly his critique of Protestantism is not that far off the mark. In an age where evangelical Protestants have the unceasing propensity towards the division of churches, while simultaneously making awkward pleas for “unity,” it is quite understandable why Eastern Orthodoxy offers a refreshing appeal towards disaffected Protestants who desire to take the best of their Protestant evangelical background and make the move towards of Eastern Orthodoxy, with its extraordinary reverence, and holistic integration of worship and theology, which is so often absent in many Protestant circles today.
My own interest in Eastern Orthodoxy comes from a growing sense that the “agree to disagree” posture of popular evangelicalism, that dominates the greatest segment of megachurch American Protestant Christianity, is extremely difficult to sustain over the long term. Many evangelical churches adopt a very broad concept of handling “disputable matters” in the church, but there is not always a very cohesive understanding as to what the New Testament’s teaching on “disputable matters” even means. Many evangelical churches are extremely weak in catechizing (or teaching) their members about the basics of the faith. Then, when certain persons growing up in evangelical churches later fall away from their faith upbringing, those who remain lament the fact, but they often do not know what to do about it, because they lack the historical perspective offered by older traditions like Eastern Orthodoxy, or even Roman Catholicism.
Eastern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, finds no attraction to this kind of evangelical populism, that ignores the lessons of church history, particularly of the early church. A worship experience in an Eastern Orthodox church is wonderfully awe-inspiring, rich in symbolism and mystery, rooted in centuries of tradition, whereas the typical evangelical megachurch formula of singing a bunch of songs, followed by a TED-talk-style sermon, often lacks depth. Eastern Orthodoxy is not perfect, and some Eastern Orthodox doctrines and practices may have a quirky feel to them, but Protestant evangelicals have a lot to learn from our Christian friends in the East. Protestant evangelicals would do well to read Rock and Sand, even if they are not completely won over by all of Father Trenham’s arguments.
The Bosphorus is the body of water that divides Europe from Asia in modern day Turkey, near Istanbul. But for centuries Istanbul was known as the central home for Eastern Orthodoxy. The slogan of “crossing the Bosphorus” is today commonly used as a metaphor to describe one’s conversion from Protestant or Roman Catholic brands of Western Christianity to embrace Eastern Orthodoxy. A read through Father Josiah Trenham’s Rock and Sand will help Protestants like myself to rethink their own faith experience, and it even might provide the impetus for some to make that journey to “cross the Bosphorus.”
In the following video segment on Gospel Simplicity’s YouTube channel, Father Josiah Trenham offers his reasoning as to why the Protestant doctrine of “sola scripture” begets all of the other “heresies” associated with Protestant faith. View the whole video interview here. Or you can follow the link to Father Trenham’s own YouTube channel.