Reading Scripture in an Orthodox Manner

Recently my site has been visited with questions about Scripture, in particular (to start with) the Orthodox use of the title “Father” when Christ said, “Call no man on earth your father.” Actually I thought the response posted by William amply demonstrated how this verse should be understood. But there is a larger question – that of the use of Scripture and how it may be interpreted. The questioner claimed only be guided by God and the “clear sense” of Scripture. There was no recognition of any tradition (though he clearly interpreted things in a particular protestant tradition). There was also a denigration of all organized Churches as having somehow diminished the gospel, which could only be corrected by “true believers.” I have chosen not to use this site as a place to debate the various questions. There are too many and not enough common ground for a genuine conversation. Debate has ultimately not been the purpose of this blog.

I reprint here an earlier article on the Orthodox reading of Scripture and hope it is useful reading. For me, it explains why no individual alone can interpret the Scripture and why the Orthodox ultimately do not need to defend what has been received by the Church. There are some brave souls out there who truly have a ministry of apologetics (defense of the faith). I may do a little of it, but it is not my primary ministry. I pray for all who read or post here. May God save us all!


The following quote is from the Christian history website maintained by Christianity Today (an evangelical source).  It describes the crucial teaching role of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, an early Bishop of the Church and later a martyr, and perhaps the most articulate spokesman of Orthodox theology in the 2nd century. The article discusses Irenaeus’ refutation of the Gnostic heretics, particularly their misuse of Scripture. It sheds light on how the Church rightly divides the Word of Truth.

As he wrote these words, Irenaeus had in mind Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:15 about false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing but are inwardly ravenous wolves. The Gnostics sounded, and frequently acted, just like orthodox Christians. They read the Bible, used the Bible, and cited the Bible. But the way they understood the Bible, the way they put its pieces together, differed dramatically from the perspectives of Irenaeus, Pothinus, Polycarp, and John.

Irenaeus believed there was an unbroken line of tradition from the apostles, to those they mentored, and eventually down to himself and other Christian leaders. The Gnostics interpreted the Scriptures according to their own tradition. “In doing so, however,” Irenaeus warned, “they disregard the order and connection of the Scriptures and … dismember and destroy the truth.” So while their biblical theology may at first appear to be the precious jewel of orthodoxy, it was actually an imitation in glass. Put together properly, Irenaeus said, the parts of Scripture were like a mosaic in which the gems or tiles form the portrait of a king. But the Gnostics rearranged the tiles into the form of a dog or fox.

As a pastor, then, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in order to describe the heresies that were threatening his congregation and to present the apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. He revealed the cloaked deception for what it was and displayed the apostolic tradition as a saving reminder to the faithful.

What is clear in Irenaeus’ teaching is that there was what he called the “Apostolic Hypothesis,” a framework of basic doctrine by which Scripture (first the Old Testament, later the New) should be interpreted. This consensus fidelium, or rule of faith, guided the Church century after century into its life, continually enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Though expressed in different ways at different times, the central goal was always the same: that the Church would teach the same Christ as it had received, and proclaim the same salvation it had always known.

Now Irenaeus’ description of the process of interpretation is deeply insightful. He recognizes that Scripture can easily be broken into pieces (we do it all the time when we pull verses here and there). By itself this is not a problem. It’s how you put them back together that matters. Do you reassemble the portrait of a king? or do you make it look like a fox or a dog?

The answer goes to the heart of the matter. What is the matrix by which you seek to interpret Scripture and by what authority do you use it? Anyone who says he just reads the Scripture and that there is no matrix by which he interprets is deceiving himself and his listeners and not admitting that he has already accepted a matrix and on its basis he selects Scripture to fit his point. There really is no other way to read.

Orthodoxy has never denied this. Instead, like Irenaeus, it points to that which it has received. Irenaeus called it the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” It has also been called the “rule of faith,” and various other names. But if you have not accepted this “matrix” you cannot interpret Scripture in the form of the Apostles or their successors or the Church that Christ founded.

Others accept as their matrix a statement of faith written 1500 years later, constructed on a matrix invented by medieval scholastics who sought to reform the Church. They had no command from God, no conversation with the Apostles, nothing but their own ideas and rationality from which to construct new matrixes. From Germany Luther gave us his “salvation by grace through faith,” and read the Scriptures accordingly. Calvin gave us his matrix of the sovereignty of God. Neither could speak with authority or true assurance and neither would have succeeded in their reform had the state not conveniently enforced it with the sword (read the history). The Reformation never succeeded without the state’s cooperation and frequently suceeded by drastically destroying property and torturing its opposition. Not that this was not followed by a war from Catholic authorities. All of these things happened apart from Holy Orthodoxy. But the myth of a popular uprising cleansing the Church of false doctrine, fostered for years by Protestant historians is simply a fabrication.

More to the point of this post – the matrix of Protestant interpretation, though frequently seeking for something like the Apostolic Hyposthesis, in many places failed to adhere to that primitive standard.

The doctrine of predestination to damnation, discussed in the previous article on the Pontificator Writes Again, is an excellent example of a modern (i.e. Reformation) doctrine that had never been accepted by the Orthodox Church as a proper reading of Scripture. Verses assembled to support this teaching are like the verses of Gnostics, gathered from a shattered mosaic. Instead of a king, they assemble the picture of a wolf.

God has not created any man and preordained him to perdition. To say that He has is heretical. This is not the faith of the Church. It is contrary to the Apostolic Hypothesis and how we have received the understanding of salvation. If a man is lost he has resisted the will of God, “For God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance…” (2 Peter 3:9). At the end of almost every Orthodox service, the words of dismissal affirm, “For He is a good God and loves mankind.”

This is fundamental to the Christian faith. Any other presentation of God, whether under the cloak of sovereignty or the like, is a distortion and falsification of the Christian religion. There is no God who wills the damnation of human beings. To proclaim otherwise is to proclaim another gospel.

The difficulty in proclaiming this, of course, is the number of well-meaning Christians of various sorts who will want to quote Scriptures affirming otherwise. Arius quoted Scripture as did the Gnostics. Either you stand with the Apostles or you do not. If you use the Scriptures in a manner that the Church has not used them, then you stand against the Apostles.

Christian doctrine is not a battle over the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura has not worked and never did. Such an approach simply leads to endless argument and confusion. Either we embrace the faith of the Apostles, once and for all delivered to the saints, or else we exile ourselves to confusion or, worse yet, to the false guidance of those who never sat in the seat of the Apostles.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



22 responses to “Reading Scripture in an Orthodox Manner”

  1. Lucias Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Well written and good points. Do not become discouraged if not all agree and wish to disrupt. Christ himself had to deal with that too.

    I am yet a protestant. But when I look at everyone insisting that the Bible is enough with prayer and God’s leading to arrive at Truth I see irony. All protestants agree with the previous statement of how Truth is arrived at whole heartedly. Yet they do not agree on what the truth is. They are all over the map. The logical resolution to the dilemma is invariably to conclude that everyone who doesn’t interpret things the way you see them is not really studying right or is not listening to God. Anyone can come up with any interpretation to anything and as long as they can muster enough people to rally around them a new church is started, with its own new traditions of interpretation. This is clearly the case of people with itching ears cautioned about.

    In my experience some of the most heinous modern heresies and cults all have one thing in common. They all have someone who has decided to reinterpret scripture on their own in a new way, often claiming divine guidance in a literal sense.

    In my study of scripture it becomes clear that the apostles cautioned against new doctrines. Lest we be blown about is the allusion used. New converts must not teach or preach until they have been trained in the faith, that was the council to Timothy. We are told to continue in everything that the church was told by the apostle or written by the apostle to the church. Questions of doctrine, even in apostolic times, were put to church council for clarification and the conclusions of the councils were authoritative.

    The concept of a church body defining how scripture is to be interpreted is clearly commanded in scripture. And it would be easily accepted by any protestant if they didn’t already have a traditional view that prevented that conclusion from being reached.



  2. Fr. James Early Avatar

    Wonderful, insightful post. Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  3. Ben Avatar

    Thank you father. I agree wholeheartedly (of course as does the whole Church past, present, and future). On my journey towards Orthodoxy I spent some time trying to sort out where the original authentic expression of Christian faith was at and I eventually have found it in the Orthodox.

    Near the beginning of this journey I delved into the new, “emerging churches” thinking that there I would find the true church by the thinking that it was like a new reformation, but all I found was universalism, hype, and shady doctrines.

    I also had a friend who tried to persuade me towards Calvinism. I’ll admit many of their answers made sense, but they didn’t sound quite right. Some of their logic which they claimed “scriptural” took a quantum physicist to decode and it really didn’t seem much like the historic faith that I read so much about in Irenaeus and the like.

    Needless to say, I have sided with the Orthodox on this one. Though the bible is good to read, it should only be interpreted with the Church who wrote it. Any other way, as we have seen in the last few centuries, leads to heinous and subtle heresies that cripple the soul.

  4. Isaac the Syrian Avatar
    Isaac the Syrian

    This distinction in how the Orthodox read scripture can be quite a barrier to fruitful dialogue. There are actually a fair number of convert books that seem to retain the Protestant way of looking at scripture even while they argue for the Orthodox position. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing. I know that a big issue for my wife (who was far less enthusiastic about conversion at the beginning) was how to make sense of the 6th chapter of the gospel of John when the traditions we were raised in framed the “Lord’s Supper” as merely symbolic. Orthodoxy made more sense of the whole of scripture to me even when I was still reading with Protestant eyes. So I guess some of those books can have a useful place so long as the convert eventually moves on in his or her understanding of how to read scripture within the Church. I would probably list my stages of thought like this:

    1. Look at Orthodox teaching and compare it to scripture.

    2. Concede that scripture has almost as many interpretations as there are interpreters, so the interpreting authority becomes the focus rather than the scriptures themselves. This means dispatching with the notion that any individual is qualified to read the scriptures on her or his own or that the Bible as a whole is self-interpreting.

    3. Move on to seeing scriptures as part of the larger Tradition of the Church and not a source for “proof texts” to bludgeon the heterodox with. Recognize that many scripture interpretation battles are fruitless if not destructive and besides the point anyway.

  5. shevaberakhot Avatar

    Once again a brilliant post Father Stephen.

    Holy Orthodoxy’s position as guardian of the unbroken tradition of the Apostles is secure, in my view. Heaven forbid that one word spoken here, by any of us, imparts “spin” to the truth that is found in Jesus Christ alone.

    Ultimately as some of your readers have postulated, we come to the truth from wholly divergent backgrounds. Naturally, this accounts for much of the divergent opinion within Christianity today and while the danger of false teaching is real, ultimately, who truly is a worthy vessel to carry the oil that lights our lamps?

    Holy Orthodoxy need not fear incursion by any of hell’s earthly agents, though indeed, these be legion. Jesus’ promise to Simon who later became Peter, was that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church built on the Rock.

    But Jesus exhorted even the Apostles, and mostly for lack of faith. When this lack becomes institutionalised, the Lord’s anger is inflamed — but even then, it is a call to deeper repentance, for this is where the mystery of God is concealed!

    As we know, St. Paul teaches that whatever is not of faith is, by default, sin. God honours the pure of heart.

    God it seems, has retained the “copyright” to eternal salvation, and I at least, can thank Him for that, for this means that He is able to work through the Holy Church He founded.

  6. Steve Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for the post and for your wonderful, faithful, and thought provoking blog. I always look forward to your posts.

    However, as a Lutheran, I feel I ought to defend what I believe to be William’s misunderstanding and mischaracterization of the blessed Brother Martin and the purpose of his reformation movement (if movement is the correct phrase). More specifically I take exception to a number of statements. First:

    “Others accept as their matrix a statement of faith written 1500 years later, constructed on a matrix invented by medieval scholastics who sought to reform the Church. They had no command from God, no conversation with the Apostles, nothing but their own ideas and rationality from which to construct new matrixes. From Germany Luther gave us his “salvation by grace through faith,” and read the Scriptures accordingly. Calvin gave us his matrix of the sovereignty of God. Neither could speak with authority or true assurance and neither would have succeeded in their reform had the state not conveniently enforced it with the sword (read the history).”

    I can’t speak for Calvinists but I can say with utmost certainty that Luther
    did speak with authority and assurance: authority of holy scripture via St. Paul and of the church fathers as well and assurance that Christs’ atoning work on the Cross is sufficient for salvation for those who believe by his overabundant grace. To say otherwise is false. Also, to say the the doctrine of justification by grace through faith would not succeed if not by threat is not only manifestly false but also a bit repugnant considering that is taken directly from scripture. Putting aside the fact that the Thirty Years War was a military response by the Holy Roman emperor against Protestant states, Luther was sincere in his belief that the practice of indulgences was un-scriptural. We aren’t able in this lifetime to know the intentions of God vis-a-vis the Reformation. However, to the extent that it refocused and stressed this critical doctrine from St. Paul over against what was certainly false doctrine was all for the good.

    And again:

    “The Reformation never succeeded without the state’s cooperation and frequently suceeded [sic] by drastically destroying property and torturing its opposition. Not that this was not followed by a war from Catholic authorities. All of these things happened apart from Holy Orthodoxy. But the myth of a popular uprising cleansing the Church of false doctrine, fostered for years by Protestant historians is simply a fabrication.”

    One scarcely knows how to answer such statements because of the patent misunderstanding of the circumstance that prompted the Reformation.
    The Catholic Church never had State cooperation? The selling of indulgences was Orthodoxy? There wasn’t a popular uprising in Germany to cleans the church of the false doctrine of indulgences?
    My only suggestion for William is to re-acquaint himself with the history of the Reformation before he makes statements such as this. At the very least these type of statements make ecumenical dialog so much harder and does nothing to to add light to his more correct statement on scriptural interpretation.

    Insofar as the idea of interpretive “matrix” is concerned I offer no disagreement. All Christians read and interpret scripture using what is commonly called a hermeneutic lense. This should come as no surprise to anyone who studies theology. Luther’s hermeneutic was that of a Western theologian. Yet Luther consulted not *only* Holy Scripture but also the church fathers as well. And not just Luther, but a great many other Lutherans have and continue to the practice today. I happen to be among them and know a few who consider the holy fathers to be some of the first they turn to for understanding scripture. I would also add that Sola Scriptura is commonly misunderstood — not the least by Protestants themselves . But this misunderstanding doesn’t make the principle unsound or unorthodox. It just means that the original intent and purpose of “Sola Scriptura” has been lost and replaced with a principle that I will admit is incorrect.

    Please forgive me if I sound harsh. My purpose here is not to be belligerent but to correct what I think are incorrect understandings of Luther and Luther’s part in the Reformation. I’m under no delusion as to the problems that later Protestants (including Lutherans) caused for themselves regarding this issue and feel that Orthodoxy is a welcome corrective to these problems. However, if Orthodoxy is to be such a corrective then it should strive to do so in Christian humility and not in a type of supercilious triumphalism.

  7. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Hello Father Stephen,

    You said, “God has not created any man and preordained him to perdition.” I absolutely agree, but I wonder if you could speak to how the fathers dealt with the key text in Romans 9 which seems to support such a notion – the idea of God (when speaking of Pharaoh) “desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.”

  8. Isaac of Syria Avatar
    Isaac of Syria

    Steve’s post has pretty much demonstrated what I wrote about. The authority of the scriptures gets blended with the authority of interpreters such that questioning the interpreters or interpretation winds up seeming like an attack on scripture itself. Until the interpreters are treated apart from the scriptures dialogue becomes nearly impossible.

  9. Alyosha Avatar

    I agree with Isaac that Steve’s post is a good demonstration of what he wrote about. Until a Protestant (and I was one for forty years) recognizes his identification, unintentional though it may be, of Scripture with a given interpretation of Scripture, dialogue is extremely difficult. The following quote, though aimed at liberal theology and not conservative Protestantism, underlines the importance of reading the Bible with the eyes of the Fathers:

    “All theology of the liberal type involves at some point – and often involves throughout – the claim that the real behaviour and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by his followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars. … The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance.” — C.S. Lewis

  10. Isaac of Syria Avatar
    Isaac of Syria


    Sounds like something from “Reflections on the Psalms.”

  11. fatherstephen Avatar


    I don’t think it was William, but me, Fr. Stephen whose quotes you are using. It’s very late in Eastern time (I’ve just arrived in California) so I cannot write at length. However, I do not think I mischaracterize the politics of the Reformation as being from the top down rather than from the bottom up. When it became bottom up in Germany with the Peasants’ Revolt, Luther had to side with the authorities and bless a bloodbath.

    My point in this is not to attack, but to correct what I think is a common misstatement and myth of Reformation history. In England the Reformation was certainly at the point of a sword.

    I do not defend the corruption of the Medieval Catholic Church – as an Orthodox Christian I would find it deeply disturbing, of course.

    But we have all been witnesses to the combined power of an academic elite supported by denominational bureaucracies in our time and have watched them destroy church after church. That experience and reading a bit of Eamon Duffy gave me a greater insight into the mythology of Protestant beginnings.

    Of course there is justification by faith taught in the Scriptures, but Luther misused and misunderstood in some ways and could use a balance.

    My point, however, is the utter necessity of the living Tradition, not simply of interpretation, but of the Church as the Living Interpretation of Scripture.

    I hope to write more tomorrow evening. Thank you all for your patience.

  12. William Avatar


    Just need to clear something up. I did not write this article. It’s a reposting of past piece written by Fr. Stephen. The reference to my name at the top is a reference to a comment I made in a previous post (“Healing the Heart”) a few days ago.

    For what it’s worth, however, I think Fr. Stephen makes solid points in the very matters you take issue with, and none of those statements need be seen as direct challenges to Martin Luther’s sincere convictions regarding scripture, his confidence in his reading of scripture or the fact that he did turn toward the Church Fathers. But the fact is that Luther tried to breathe the fresh air of scripture and the fathers in an environment that was quite polluted, so to speak. He and his followers came to conclusions about the scriptures that diverged from the understanding of the Eastern Church, which had been breathing the air of scripture and the fathers in an continuous environment unpolluted or undisrupted by medieval scholasticism and its developments.

    I very much agree with Isaac of Syria and Alyosha’s take on this discussion. God’s blessing upon you.

  13. William Avatar

    Please forgive my inadvertent wink.

  14. shevaberakhot Avatar

    William, you are forgiven!

  15. Steve Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thanks for your reply and I hope the baptism when well.

    I think we are all getting close to wandering off the ranch, so to speak, and I want to steer us back a bit. The purpose of my post was, again, to correct a misconception about Luther’s place and purpose in the Reformation. As you admit the Catholic church at that time was run by men who were corrupt for money and Germany was their bank. They sold indulgences using a doctrine contrary to even a plain reading of scripture. Luther saw this as an abomination of the role the church is to play in the lives of the faithful. His 95 thesis was a theologian and believers rejection of that doctrine and of the environment in which that doctrine allowed to be created. Insofar as Luther was concerned, if Pope Leo would have seen the error of his ways I think Luther might have been satisfied. But we know how that story ends. This is all I was intending to correct.

    As to whether the Reformation was top down or “grassroots” as we say these days depends, as my Dad use to say, on who’s ox is being gored. But since the Catholic church has a hierarchy, a defined top, I would say that the Reformation was, empirically, from the bottom up.

    Regarding the Peasants revolt: Imagine your church Father being ransacked by peasants inflamed with feelings of *political* revolt
    and you’ll get a sense of what Luther felt. I don’t de an This is not to say that Luther didn’t ask or receive help from the State. We know that he did regarding the Peasants revolt. But that didn’t make the Reformation “state sponsored” any more than the Catholic church from which is sprang.

  16. Steve Avatar

    Whoops. Accidentally clicked “submit”

    …I don’t defend Luther’s handling of the peasants nor his disdain for them. It seems repugnant to my 21st century ears. But he was up against the destruction of churches so I can see why he did what he did even if I don’t agree. Like I said, asking for help from the state doesn’t make the German reformation “state sponsored” any more that the Catholic church was state sponsored.

    One last comment: it seems all too easy for non Protestants to conflate all parts of the Reformation and its associated ills to Luther. This is incorrect. Luther was only trying to correct gross misconduct by the church of his day. This is all. It was only when the Church resisted time after time to correct this misconduct and then threatened Luther’s life did he become more strident. But the “evangelicals” still held out for communion when they wrote the Augsburg Confession. So it’s not as though they didn’t try.

    Just to be clear, I have no issue with either scriptural interpretation via the living Tradition of the church or of the Church as the living interpretation of the Gospels as long as neither contradicts scripture. I also agree that Protestant denominations have done themselves a real disservice when they don’t fully grasp this understanding of the church. As a Lutheran I see this time and time again.

    Anyway, I hope that you don’t think less of me for my diatribe. We may disagree on history but not on the Love that passes all understanding. And for that I have hope.

    Christ is in our midst!


  17. JTK Avatar

    You said, “God has not created any man and preordained him to perdition.” I absolutely agree, but I wonder if you could speak to how the fathers dealt with the key text in Romans 9 which seems to support such a notion – the idea of God (when speaking of Pharaoh) “desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.”

    I think that when you realize that Paul was not writing about individuals but people groups (Jews vs Gentiles), Romans 9 makes a lot more sense.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar


    Actually I could have written much kinder of Luther. Among Church historical figures, he is in my top five that I’d like to have lunch with and a beer. He was in a frightful situation and as he said, “Ich kann nicht anders.” This I understand.

    There is much room for fruitful conversation between classical Luther and Orthodoxy – in many ways he was among the most orthodox of his generation.

    The Reformation indeed was a mixed bag, decidedly different from place to place. But the political powers certainly used it to their own devices. Such shenanigans have plagued Orthodoxy from time to time as well and mark some of the worst and most difficult periods of our history. As my Archbishop says, “On the whole, the Orthodox experience as a state church has not been entirely pleasant.” I agree. God’s peace.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar


    My best suggestion is to read St. John Chrysostom’s homily on Romans 9 – it’s in the 38 volume series of the Church Fathers (which I think is available online). He is quite clear and helpful on the subject. But also illustrates precisely how the fathers handled that passage.

    Here is some of the most relevant part:

    Ver. 20, 2l. “Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, Why hast Thou made me thus? Hath not the potter (Read Jer. xviii. 1–10) power, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?”

    Here it is not to do away with free-will that he says this, but to show, up to what point we ought to obey God. For in respect of calling God to account, we ought to be as little disposed to it as the clay is. For we ought to abstain not from gainsaying or questioning only, but even from speaking or thinking of it at all, and to become like that lifeless matter, which followeth the potter’s hands, and lets itself be drawn about anywhere he may please. And this is the only point he applied the illustration to, not, that is, to any enunciation of the rule of life, but to the complete obedience and silence enforced upon us. And this we ought to observe in all cases, that we are not to take the illustrations quite entire, but after selecting the good of them, and that for which they were introduced, to let the rest alone. As, for instance, when he says, “He couched, he lay down as a lion;” (Numb. xxiv. 9) let us take out the indomitable and fearful part, not the brutality, nor any other of the things belonging to a lion. And again, when He says, “I will meet them as a bereaved bear” (Hos. xiii. 8), let us take the vindictiveness. And when he says, “our God is a consuming fire” (Deut. iv. 24; and Heb. xii. 29), the wasting power exerted in punishing. So also here must we single out the clay, the potter, and the vessels. And when he does go on to say, “Hath not the 468potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?” do not suppose that this is said by Paul as an account of the creation, nor as implying a necessity over the will, but to illustrate the sovereignty and difference of dispensations; for if we do not take it in this way, divers incongruities will follow, for if here he were speaking about the will, and those who are good and those not so, He will be Himself the Maker of these, and man will be free from all responsibility. And at this rate, Paul will also be shown to be at variance with himself, as he always bestows chief honor upon free choice. There is nothing else then which he here wishes to do, save to persuade the hearer to yield entirely to God, and at no time to call Him to account for anything whatever. For as the potter (he says) of the same lump makes what he pleaseth, and no one forbids it; thus also when God, of the same race of men, punisheth some, and honoreth others, be not thou curious nor meddlesome herein, but worship only, and imitate the clay. And as it followeth the hands of the potter, so do thou also the mind of Him that so ordereth things. For He worketh nothing at random, or mere hazard, though thou be ignorant of the secret of His Wisdom. Yet thou allowest the other of the same lump to make divers things, and findest no fault: but of Him you demand an account of His punishments and honors, and will not allow Him to know who is worthy and who is not so; but since the same14791479 Such is plainly the sense, but most mss. have τὸ αὐτο φύραμα τῆς οὐσίας ἐστὶ, it is the same lump in regard of the substance. lump is of the same substance, you assert that there are the same dispositions. And, how monstrous this is! And yet not even is it on the potter that the honor and the dishonor of the things made of the lump depends, but upon the use made by those that handle them, so here also it depends on the free choice. Still, as I said before, one must take this illustration to have one bearing only, which is that one should not contravene God, but yield to His incomprehensible Wisdom. For the examples ought to be greater than the subject, and than the things on account of which they are brought forward, so as to draw on the hearer better. Since if they were not greater and did not mount far above it, he could not attack as he ought, and shame the objectors. However, their ill-timed obstinacy he silenced in this way with becoming superiority. And then he introduces his answer. Now what is the answer?

  20. Gina Avatar

    The political might needed to enforce the Reformation is indeed a story that is not often told. The Reformation churches were state churches every bit as much as the Catholic state churches, and still are in places like Germany, where certain provinces are officially Catholic or officially Lutheran.

    The role of the state is more blatantly apparent in England, where there was a sustained, systematic, parish-to-parish, violent suppression of Catholicism. Fr. Stephen recommended Eamon Duffy, and his books are well worth a read- The Stripping of the Altars and the smaller case study, The Voices of Morebath.

    The fact is that historiography since that time, up until our own generations, has favored the sort of historical narrative you suggest here, that it was the big Catholic states versus the common people fighting heresy and injustice. This narrative has so entrenched itself into popular understanding that it hardly ever goes questioned. Queen Elizabeth burned as many Catholics as Mary did Protestants, but she is “good Queen Bess” and her sister is “Bloody Mary.” In England it eventually became illegal to even BE a Catholic priest. This is to say nothing of what was perpetrated upon Ireland. This is all not to deny that the Reformation was a “mixed bag,” but that in our popular and even academic understanding of the era, the deck has been firmly stacked in one direction. Not to mix my metaphors. 🙂

  21. Isaac of Syria Avatar
    Isaac of Syria

    The other side of failing to embrace the Tradition of the Church, of which scripture is a key part, is that a number of people whose faith was rooted in what they perceived to be the integrity of scripture lost their faith when they discovered that the way the scriptures came together was not as tidy as they imagined.

  22. Burckhardtfan Avatar

    Dear Father,

    Thank you for this wonderful blog. Your summary on Protestantism is correct – but there is one point you missed mentioning. Their doctrine of justification by faith alone – as they understood it – was a complete novelty. The first – and largest – obstacle is the contradiction from the ‘universal consent of the Fathers.’ As far as I can ascertain, the vast majority of the Fathers taught that faith alone was NOT sufficient for salvation. Are we to believe that the fathers were universally ignorant of the Gospel? Even allowing for some of the early fathers like Clement of Rome (which I’ll discuss below) and St. Augustine (whose writings I’m sure the Reformers twisted), the universal consensus is against the Reformers. Secondly, even allowing for this insuperable obstacle, the doctrine of sola fide AS PROTESTANTS DEFINE IT cannot be found anywhere, even allowing for a few cherry-picked statements from the Fathers.

    Here’s an example of a passage Protestants use to say that sola fide was used taught by the early church (before the Gospel was lost to all men till 1517??):

    “And we…are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Clement of Rome)

    Look closely at this passage. Clement says we are only saved by faith – BUT WHAT FAITH DOES HE MEAN? Faith in Christ alone? Or faith in ‘faith-in-the-doctrine-of-justification-by-faith-alone’, the position of Protestants? There’s a big difference between the two! Protestants – and I should know because I am one – hold that anyone who does not hold to the latter is a heretic and is not saved. And it isn’t enough to say ‘Yes, I believe in salvation by faith alone but I also believe that anyone who adds works and genuine faith can be saved.’ No; one must ascribe to the DOCTRINE OF FAITH ALONE TO THE EXCLUSION OF ALL WORKS FOR SALVATION. Anything less is a damnable heresy. As Jacob Burckhardt notes in ‘Judments on History and Historians’, Luther’s doctrine of sola fide was a complete novelty in the history of the church. Clement’s statement does not necessarily anathematise anyone who holds to a soteriology of faith plus works (although only his faith would save him). The former does appear in Clement – the latter does not, and to insist on this reading is an a priori eisegesis. And what is ‘saving faith’? Even Proestants can’t agree on this; just witness the controversy over Lordship Salvation. So was Clement 1. preaching Lordship Salvation; 2. Easy-believism (just ‘believe that Jesus can save you, with no commitment to a life of discipleship); or 3. A faith that did not exclude someone who added other things to faith? These are all possibilities – assuming I haven’t read Clement in isolation.

    And here I have demonstrated the Achilles Heel of Protestantism: the inability to obtain a clear reading of Scripture through REASON ALONE TO THE EXCLUSION OF TRADITION. I have demonstrated three possible readings of Clement; any one of these could be true.

    By the way father you were right about the State using the Reformation for its own ends. As Jacob Burckhardt noted, this was a golden opportunity for states to loot church property and gain total domination over their territories. The intolerance of the Reformers – who were often fond of invoking the wrath of God and labelling as ‘scorners’ anyone opposed their ‘Gospel’ – was unnecessary to encourage the princes to kill and torture Catholics. For they already saw Catholics as threats to their power and traitors to their authority (wide-scale confiscations can only be maintained by horrific violence). Most of the Protestant princes were not fanatics, yet many of them made Catholicism a capital crime. Why? Because the states had defined themselves against Roman power, and all Catholics were potential fifth columns. So much for Proetestant ‘tolerance’!

    Final point: LUTHER HIMSELF DID NOT BELIEVE HIS OWN DOCTRINE OF SOLA FIDE! Arricle IX of the Augsberg Confession states that water baptism is necessary for salvation! Whatever happened to justification by faith alone? (N. B. This doctrine technically means that an orthodox view of the Trinity is unnecessary for salvation. All one would have to do is believe that Jesus Christ was God. But this does nothing about the heresies of Modalism or Semi-Arianism. To even suggest such a thing is blasphemy, and to believe is heresy and apostasy – which is what consistent Protestants would be required to do!)

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