There are two great challenges facing the Orthodox Church as it seeks to be faithful to the life and witness of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel of Christ in the 21st century. These challenges are the influence of both Protestantism and Materialism within the cultures of the modern Western world. We cannot avoid these influences, but we must resist them if we are to be able to follow the Orthodox Way, the narrow Way which leads to the Kingdom of God. In this particular lecture we will be looking at the differences between Protestantism and Orthodoxy, and whether or not varieties of Protestantism are a harmful influence. We should make it clear that in this study there is no need to make a judgement about any particular person. Rather, we are judging the truth of a variety of teachings and practices, comparing them with the Orthodox Faith and Tradition, so that we may be sure that we are not being led astray. As St Paul says in many of his letters..
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good….Stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word, or our letter…. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering.
We see that St Paul understands there is a Christian tradition which he has taught, and a profession of faith which he shares with those to whom he writes. But more than that, he describes this tradition as something good, something which must be held on to with all our might. This means that we can lose the good tradition if we are not careful, and we can abandon the profession of the Apostolic faith if we are not always watchful. Indeed he commands us to prove all things. That word prove means to test and to examine. And so not only must we hold on to what we have been taught and what we have believed, but we must examine what we have learned and believe so that we can be sure it is the truth.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, St Paul says..
You gladly tolerate anyone who comes to you and preaches a different Jesus, not the one we preached; and you accept a spirit and a gospel completely different from the Spirit and the gospel you received from us!
Even in the first century, and even in one of the Churches that St Paul had encouraged and kept in contact with, there were those who came and taught a different Jesus and a different Gospel to the one which St Paul had preached. Surely we must be much more careful that we are not opening our ears and our hearts to the preaching of a different Jesus and a different Gospel. Clearly it is possible for a different Jesus and a different Gospel to be preached.
We know that this is so. Let us consider Islam for a moment. This religion also mentions Jesus, but what does it say of Jesus. Let me quote for a moment from a helpful Muslim website that provides the Islamic teaching.
Muslims believe that Jesus, according to the Quran, is a wonderful, humble, generous messenger of God who came down and revealed God’s words to his people, the people of Israel. Muslims do not believe that Jesus is God, nor do they believe that God ever chose to come down to earth in a form of a man to die for our sins to purify us and forgive us.
According to Islam, Jesus never died on the cross, nor ever wanted to die on the cross, nor ever was born to die on the cross. Muslims believe that Jesus was sentenced to death, and people thought that he was executed on the cross. The Quran rejects this idea, and claims that it is a false one. Jesus never died on the cross, nor did he ever die for anyone’s sins.
Now we could look at some quotations from the Quran which support this short description. But this is not a place where we are comparing Islam and Orthodoxy. The reason I think we should consider this material is because it allows us to see very clearly indeed that it is possible to describe a different Jesus to the one which Orthodoxy presents to us. In this case a Jesus who is not the Son of God, and who is not God made man. And it is possible to have a different Gospel, one in which Jesus did not die for our sins, and indeed did not die at all. Almost any Orthodox Christian would look at this Islamic description of Jesus and would recognise that it was not consistent with our Faith, that Apostolic Tradition which St Paul urges us to hold fast to.
If we examine carefully what Islam teaches about Jesus, just as St Paul commands us, then without judging any Muslim at all, we can clearly see that the Islamic Jesus is entirely incompatible with the Christian Faith. It teaches a different Jesus. It offers a different Gospel. And because it is neither the Jesus of the Scriptures, nor the Gospel of Christ, it is a false Jesus and a false Gospel. We can see that the Muslim author of this website I have used has clearly examined the differences for himself, and he says that our Christian teachings are false. Let us commend him for facing facts. It is not possible for Christ to be both the Son of God and not the Son of God, for him to have died and not to have died. The two teachings are not compatible. If a Muslim carefully examines the differences and sees this, then how much more should we.
But of course the issue being considered here is not Islam, but the influence of various Protestant teachings on our Orthodox Church. The example of Islam has been used to allow us to see that simply using the name of Jesus in a religious context does not guarantee truth at all.
If we look a little closer to our Orthodox Tradition we can consider the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as they call themselves. Do these groups teach a different Jesus and a different Gospel?
The Jehovah’s Witnesses can trace the development of most of their distinctive teachings, and even their name, to Joseph Rutherford, who took over, in 1917, an organisation which was already concerned with trying to work out when the end of the world would take place. There were many such groups established throughout the 19th century. What do the Jehovah’s Witnesses say about Christ? They teach that he is not the Son of God, and not God at all, but that he is the first creation of God, and is therefore a created being. They have many other views which are far from the Orthodox Christian Tradition, but it is enough to ask whether they preach a different Jesus and a different Gospel. If Jesus is not God, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses insist, and if he is only the first and greatest of God’s creations, then their teachings are no different to those of the Arian heretics who were opposed by St Athanasius, and which the Creed of Nicaea resisted and rejected. The Orthodox Gospel teaches that it is necessary that Jesus be God made man so that our salvation could be made possible.
St Athanasius says in his work, On the Incarnation..
What, or rather Who, was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.
Now the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe that Jesus is the Word of the Father, they believe that far from being God, he is a created being. Therefore they are preaching a different Jesus and a different Gospel. Because if Jesus is not God Himself made man without ever ceasing to be God then we are not saved, and there is no Gospel or Good News, because only God can save mankind, fallen under the power of sin and Satan.
If we look at the teachings of the Mormons, we see that they also fail to represent Jesus according to the truth of the incarnation. Indeed they are so far from Christian teaching that no Orthodox Christian, and not even a serious Protestant could accept them. They teach that on a planet far away, the God Elohim lives with his spirit wives, who produce countless spirit children who are waiting for the opportunity of inhabiting a physical body. In physical bodies these spirit children have the opportunity to become Gods themselves and have their own planets. Jesus is no different from the rest of us, who are all the spirit children of Elohim, because we can also become a god like he has, and gain our own planet and our own spirit wives.
Can anyone say that this has anything in common with the Christian faith of any kind, let alone the Apostolic teachings of the Orthodox Church which St Paul urges us to hold fast to? Yet there are those Christians who accept the Mormon community as also being Christian simply because they use the name of Jesus in a religious context. In Samoa the Mormons became part of the National Council of Churches in 2013, and the Secretary of the Council of Churches said…
It is a great joy to leaders of the Council of Churches to accept these fellow brethren to work together with them in the witness ministry through the message of the Gospel.
It is very difficult to imagine how there can be a shared witness to the Gospel when the Mormon Gospel is so very different from that of St Paul. Indeed it is another instance of an incompatible Gospel. How can one group of Christians who confess that Jesus Christ is truly God made incarnate for our salvation, agree that they share the same Gospel with Mormonism when it teaches that Jesus is not God at all, but is the spirit child of the god Elohim and one of his many wives? There is no need to judge any Mormon. There is no need to say that those who believe this other Gospel are bad people. On the contrary there are those who can be found in every community who seek to do good and live a virtuous life.
But we must prove and test and examine what is taught. Not only what is taught by groups outside of Orthodoxy but by our own Orthodox Tradition as well, so that we can hold fast to what is true.
So far we have briefly examined the teachings of three groups that are either definitely not Christian, or are not usually not considered Christian, and we have seen that it is very clear indeed that though they use the name of Jesus they are describing another Jesus and another Gospel, as St Paul says. We can also see that we have criticised these teachings as not being consistent with Apostolic Christianity, but we have not judged or criticised any of those holding them.
But it is also necessary for us to consider the teachings of the many Protestant groups which are active around the world, and who influence many Orthodox Christians, leading them to abandon the Orthodox Tradition which we have received, or to adopt Protestant teachings and practices alongside our Orthodox Faith.
In his excellent little book, Comparative Theology, His Holiness Pope Shenouda considered the differences between the Protestant and Orthodox Faith, reminding his readers that the Scriptures speak only of One Lord, One Faith and One Baptism. Indeed he began his study by examining the differences in the understanding of baptism. This is a necessary place to begin, since in our Orthodox Faith we understand that it is by baptism that we are united with Christ and reborn into new life with him. As our Lord Jesus teaches us..
He who believes and is baptised shall be saved. Mark 16:16
And elsewhere in the Gospels our Lord also says of the link between baptism and salvation..
Most assuredly I say unto you, unless one is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. John 3:5
The Orthodox Church believes that it is necessary for a person to be baptised in water, in the name of the Holy Trinity, and anointed with the Holy Chrism, to be able to become a member of the Church, the Body of Christ. St Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the 4th century, produced a series of lectures for those about to be baptised, and those who had just been baptised, in which he describes the Orthodox Faith. He says of baptism..
At the self-same moment you were both dying and being born; and that Water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother… O strange and inconceivable thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised again; but our imitation was in a figure, and our salvation in reality. Christ was actually crucified, and actually buried, and truly rose again; and all these things He has freely bestowed upon us, that we, sharing His sufferings by imitation, might gain salvation in reality. O surpassing loving-kindness! Christ received nails in His undefiled hands and feet, and suffered anguish; while on me without pain or toil by the fellowship of His suffering He freely bestows salvation… [Baptism] purges our sins, and ministers to us the gift of the Holy Ghost, so also it is the counterpart of the sufferings of Christ.
We could turn to any of an almost countless number of Fathers of our Orthodox Church who teach the same, as do our right-believing bishops of this present age. Baptism is truly the new birth to life in Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Yet the variety of Protestant groups which were established in the 16th century and in later centuries do not confess this saving truth at all. At the beginning of the Protestant movement the highly influential Huldrych Zwingli insisted…
They are wrong, therefore, by the whole width of heaven, who think that the sacraments have any cleansing power.
And in another place he says..
Water baptism cannot contribute in any way to the washing away of sin.
Elsewhere he suggested that baptism was useful for stupid people who didn’t understand that their sins were washed away without baptism. But he was sure that Christian baptism was no different to the baptism of John. There could be no sacramental power, it could not grant remission of sin or eternal life. As far as Zwingli was concerned, and all those who have followed his Protestant ideas into the present age, baptism could not be a means of grace or of salvation. It was, at best, a witness to something that had taken place already in a person’s life apart from baptism, or was a witness to the commitment a person wished to make publically to Christ.
Of course Zwingli was entitled to his opinion. But his description of baptism is not an interesting Christian variant that we can discuss as if all opinions were acceptable. On the contrary, it is not a Christian view of baptism at all. It absolutely rejects what Christians have always been taught and have always believed takes place in baptism. If it is not Christian baptism then it is not baptism at all, it is simply a washing with water in a religious context.But this is essentially the teaching about baptism which is held by most Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians around the world.
Baptism will be considered in more detail in due course. For now it is enough to show that there is an incompatibility between the Orthodox and the Protestant view. They cannot be reconciled. Both cannot be true, and the Zwinglian teaching is not ancient at all, certainly not Apostolic. St Paul is clear, there is an Apostolic Gospel, and there is another Gospel. We need to be sure of what we believe. The Orthodox and Apostolic faith is that which was passed on from Christ, and is Good News in Christ. Any other gospel, however well meaning and apparently reasonable, is not a Gospel at all.