So Hank Hanegraaff has converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Christian Blogosphere looks like a load of drunk folk staggering through Glasgow City Centre. Some are arguing, some are shouting incoherent nonsense – some are singing sectarian battle songs and others just staggering about dazed. What are we to make of this?
The Hanegraaff situation fascinates me and interests me for a number of reasons which are connected to my own spiritual journey.
Icons, statues of the Virgin Mary, Crucifixes, Stations of the Cross and the altar were all early and frequent images for me as a child. Like most people of my generation I walked away from religion and pursued my own path. But later, I came to faith in Christ through the simple preaching of the gospel in a brethren hall. I then spent a number of years trying to make sense of my experience, evangelical teaching, and the glorious-chaos of the evangelical and protestant church. Early on in my conversion, I rejected the exclusivist, and ‘conservative’ brethren approach to church in favour of the more open and experientialist Pentecostal/charismatic church. Yet whilst I appreciated the emphasis laid upon encountering God, and the call of God, I was always concerned about the doctrinal chaos that marked Pentecostalism. The Toronto Blessing and Prosperity theology, in particular, were sources of concern.
In the providence of God, I stumbled upon a book written by Hank Hanegraaff, ‘Christianity in Crisis’. This book was really helpful for me. In this book, Hank highlighted a number of false teachings plaguing the contemporary church, particularly via the Word of Faith movement. I am indebted to that book for its biblical emphasis on discernment.
Unbeknown to me, Hank was the ‘Bible Answer Man’, an evangelical Christian apologist. I never knew that, I just read his book. However, now that the ‘Bible Answer Man’ has converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, many evangelicals are declaring him apostate.
The fact that evangelicals can equate conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy as apostasy, to me, is actually symptomatic of the problem and the reason why guys like Hank end up ‘swimming the Bosporus’. Are we really saying that there were no Christians from the end of the first century up until the reformation? How can we say that someone who sincerely owns the Nicene Creed as their personal faith, is not a Christian? How can we say that someone who genuinely prays the Jesus prayer (“O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”) is not a Christian?
This is the second reason why the Hanegraaff scenario interests me, it’s not only because I’ve appreciated his work in apologetics, it’s also because I totally understand why he has headed into the Eastern Orthodox Church. The evangelical church, by and large is, a-historical, and ever drifting away from solid apostolic Christianity. Rod Dreher in his book, the Benedict Option, demonstrates this issue brilliantly.
Too many of our churches function as secular entertainment centers with religious morals slapped on top, when they should be functioning as the living breathing Body of Christ. Too many churches have succumbed to modernity, rejecting the wisdom of past ages, treating worship as a consumer activity, and allowing parishioners to function as unaccountable, atomized members. The sad truth is, when the world sees us, it often fails to see anything different from nonbelievers. Christians often talk about “reaching the culture” without realizing that, having no distinct Christian culture of their own, they have been co-opted by the secular culture they wish to evangelize. Without a substantial Christian culture, it’s no wonder that our children are forgetting what it means to be Christian, and no surprise that we are not bringing in new converts.
If today’s churches are to survive the new Dark Ages, they must stop “being normal.” We will need to commit ourselves more deeply to our faith, and we will need to do that in ways that seem odd to contemporary eyes. By rediscovering the past, recovering liturgical worship and asceticism, centering our lives on the church community, and tightening church discipline, we will, by God’s grace, again become the peculiar people we should always have been. The fruits of this focus on Christian formation will result not only in stronger Christians but in a new evangelism as the salt recovers its savor.
Dreher, along with many others, is spot on in his analysis of the contemporary evangelical church scene.
But this raises a question. What is the solution?
Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, in their book, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation observe:
Many critiques of Protestantism suggest that if one desires a churchly, sacramental, ancient faith, then one must turn from the Reformation toward Rome or the East. And many have taken to those paths, fleeing what they may perceive to be thin theologies of ministry and of the Christian life in the Reformational world.
This is the path that Hank has taken. However, whilst I would argue that it is wrong, ignorant, and sectarian, to declare the Eastern Orthodox Church an apostate church, it is also, in my view, unwise to run for refuge to Rome or Orthodoxy. Why? Well, as much as I understand the quest for historical-connectedness to the Apostolic church I’m ultimately unconvinced that it can be found in either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism.
To be perfectly at one with the EOC or the RC is to be at odds with the Apostles. If we are looking for a pure stream of the Apostolic faith, we need to look beyond the East which at best is a freeze-frame of 7th or 8th Century Eastern Christianity. We need to look beyond Roman Catholicism – which at best originated in a 4th century development, and instead we need to go to the inspired writings themselves. The Apostles teaching, the Gospels and the Law and the Prophets are a surer foundation for the church than the later developments of the OC or the RC.
I understand the quest for the ancient church. I understand the despair at shallow evangelicalism. I understand the aversion to the schismatic and at times bigoted expressions of Protestantism. Yet having said all that, the Reformation matters. The scriptures matter. The gospel matters.
There is a third way between embracing the errors of the OC and the RC and the mind-numbing banality of evangelicalism. It’s not perfect, and it’s not without its faults and weaknesses. But I do believe that it holds together the best of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Evangelicalism. Where is this place I speak of? It is the confessional, reformed presbyterian community of faith.
I understand that to many ancient-church seekers, the reformation church looks like a novel-schism. It looks less like the ancient church, and more like a modern anomaly. But I would say, look deeper. Read Calvin’s Institutes – a thorough exposition of the Apostles Creed which draws upon the scriptures and the early Church Fathers.
The reformed faith, unlike its evangelical successor, is not anti-catholic or anti-orthodox. Arguably, it retains the best of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. William Perkins, the reformed puritan, argued for a Reformed Catholicity. He said:
“By a Reformed Catholic, I understand anyone that holds the same necessary heads of religion with the Roman Church: yet so as he pares off and rejects all errors in doctrine, whereby the said religion is corrupted.”
In other words, Reformed Christianity is exactly that – reformed. It is the reformation of Catholic faith. It seeks to retain that which is biblical but reject that which is false.
Whilst I can see the attractiveness of the ‘ancient’ liturgy of EC/OC I cannot escape the fact that the gospel and the scriptures are smothered in centuries of human tradition. Historicity is important. But at best, EC/RC can take us back to the 4th—8th century. It’s not ancient enough. And it has too much cultural and traditional baggage. The grace of God is buried by vestments, icons, priests, altars, and incense. The clear voice of scripture is locked in a chest of human tradition. And we can’t really see the light of Jesus because he is overshadowed by his mother. These issues, and many more, is why the reformation mattered and why it still matters today.