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A Critique of David Bercot's "Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up?"

Excerpts from a Letter by Patrick Barnes (1997)

Dear Mr. Bercot,

A little of my background first so you can put my comments in context: I am a recent convert to Orthodoxy from a varied evangelical background. I was a charismatic Christian for over 7 years until I kind of "woke up" to the idea of systematic doctrine, a Christian worldview, etc. through an introduction to the Reformation, especially Calvinism. I became a thoroughly convinced "Christian Reconstructionist" and was enamored with the writings of Ray Sutton and Jim Jordan, and the rest of the "Tyler Camp" near you. I became personal friends with the Suttons, Jordans, and Norths. I remained a Presbyterian for a couple of years until I discovered liturgy, sacraments, and other "catholic ideas" largely through reading Thomas Howard’s book Evangelical is Not Enough after being tenderized by Jim’s writings of a similar genre. It wasn’t long until I found myself in Anglicanism as I thought at the time that this was the best of both worlds: reformed-evangelical, and catholic. I joined the Reformed Episcopal Church, and was even a communicant member at Good Shepherd REC in Tyler for a year or so. After leaving the Navy in March of '94 I entered the Philadelphia Theological Seminary of the Reformed Episcopal Church, with Ray Sutton as the President and Dean. Prior to starting summer school there I had read many of the works of the classical Anglican divines. I devoured Jewel’s Apology, Hooker’s Works (Palmer’s edition, I think), and some others. I also read the more recent Anglicanism, and Paul Avis’ Anglicanism and the Christian Church. I was very drawn to the theology of these men and was convinced that this needed to be restored in the Anglican communion in order to become healthy again. I felt like I had a home in the REC and was committed to serving there.

I say all this because I was quite surprised to discover that the very question that was so key for Thomas Howard, myself, and many others who have been in search of the authentic fullness of Christianity, was practically absent from your materials. Despite the many excellent things you have to say, it seems to me and others I know who have read your book, that the most important question of "What is the Church (and its relation to Truth)?" was never adequately answered, if even raised. It is not my intention to be polemic in this letter at all. I consider you to be a gifted follower of Christ who sincerely believes that the route he has chosen bears witness to the fullness and purity of the apostolic Christian Faith. I just wanted to offer up some questions based on your materials in the hopes that perhaps I could learn more about why you chose (if you indeed did so self-consciously) to neglect certain things in your materials. I also hope to stir up some issues for further discussion, if you so desire.

OK, my rough questions and comments:

My opening remarks are on the subject of epistemology. You acknowledge (p. 104) that the sole method of teaching for Christ, and the primary method for the Apostles, was oral; yet your arguments are based upon your personal interpretation of only a portion of the written patristic texts that exist in the English language (which is a very small percentage of the overall Patristic corpus in existence today, a corpus itself which is a small percentage of the writings that were available to the majority of the Fathers; cf. Eusebius' reference to the library at Edessa; Papias' book, etc.). You furthermore acknowledge in Chapter 11 that the effects of time, language, culture, etc. on one's ability to properly interpret the Church's Tradition can be quite pervasive and severe. Does this not apply equally to you and your ability to draw trustworthy conclusions from the small body of English texts you have examined? In short, how can you be even reasonably certain about many of your conclusions, especially the ultimate one that Anglicanism contains the purest "thread"?

Furthermore, would you not agree that the full reality—and thus confident understanding—of the Church's Tradition cannot be found in written texts alone? Would you agree with St. Ignatius of Antioch when he said that his "archives" were Jesus Christ? Certainly for Orthodox Christians Truth is a Person, not written documents. It is my understanding of the Fathers that full knowledge of God the Father, through His Son, and in the Holy Spirit can only come through intimate communion with the living Christ through His Body (cf. Luke 24. They didn't "know" or "understand" until the breaking of the bread)—the one Church (Eph. 1:23-24), which cannot be divided if one's ecclesiology flows properly from Chalcedonian Christology. This "primacy of reality over formulas" is extremely well documented and argued by Yves Congar in his monumental Tradition and Traditions (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966).

Tradition is a treasure, a deposit, which a text could never fully represent, and which can only be preserved in a living subject. The Gospel written in men's hearts goes far beyond the written text, despite the fact that what is written is itself, in a sense, inexhaustible. The Fathers were well aware of this. (p. 348) [To quote St. Basil from his On the Holy Spirit, 27: "Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church-some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay;—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more."]

There has been, and still is, some discussion about the dogmatic content of certain texts which touch upon the fundamental mystery of Redemption, but the Church does not take her faith in the mystery from those texts [emphasis his] as such; the Church has seen Christ on the cross, and continues to see him there, where in a special way its faith and understanding of the Redemption was formed. Again, there was infinitely more in the reality of the Eucharist celebrated by Christ than there is in the accounts given of the sacrament and its institution by the New Testament writings. The New Testament witnesses is contained in about forty verses: their great richness has not yet been exhausted by commentary, but they still only constitute a testimony, whereas the Church posesses the reality to which they witness. (p. 350)

"Thus 'tradition' is something more than just continuity" [quoting Fr. George Florovsky]; it is a dynamic, living continuity [emphasis mine—i.e., it goes way beyond the "texts"]. It is not reducible to its external aspects, as these could be constructed by scientific proof; it is not attainable except from within, by living in the communion of the Church, by the principle of that communion, the Spirit of God who interiorizes for each individual, both in the sharing and in the appreciation of the gifts given to each and to all, the truth which God has revealed to our fathers and whose revelation he unceasingly brings about in the Church. (p. 305)

How do you define "Church"? It seems to me that your view of the early Church's ecclesiology is not correct and still largely Protestant. On p. 125 you say that

the Church has never disappeared. Jesus had prophesied that His Church would be built on the rock, and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. The torch of early Christianity-the way of the cross-has continued through the centuries. But that torch has been carried by the few, not the many.

At first I thought that you might be on the right track. But then I find out on p. 127 what you really mean by "Church." After dismantling the popular "pilgrim Church" myth you argue for a "genuine pilgrim Church . . .within the visible body of professing Christians"—in essence, a church within the Church. Now I agree with you that in every period in history there has been a core group of faithful Christians, a "remnant" if you like, who were thoroughly orthodox in faith and life. This core group has varied in size from a few [1] to the many. If I understand you correctly, you seem to be arguing that this "thread" (or threads) of the faithful can be traced through the historic visible body of believers irrespective of the group with which they were in communion (that is, post Great Schism, and later, post-Reformation), and that this thread is the true Church, the "pilgrim Church" that "preserved the very real trail of early Christianity" so that "the spirit of early Christianity did not die out with Constantine" (pp. 127-128). I think that in saying this you seem to equate, and thus confuse, the definition of the Church with the definition of the faithful in the Church. Perhaps unwittingly you have embraced a thoroughly Protestant view of the Church in which the invisible "true" Church is pitted against the impure visible Church composed of lots of tares and a few grains of wheat. This view, which evolved from the spiritual-material dualism found in the writings of St. Augustine [2], is not accepted by the Christian East and is not in the early Church’s writings. Did you realize this when you wrote your book? The logical implication of your reasoning is that the four marks of the Church, as stated in the Nicene Creed, apply only to specific "threads" of true pilgrims, many of whom are not eucharistically one, an idea that would have been completely foreign to the framers of the Creed. [3]

As Orthodox we would say, with the early Fathers, that there is one true visible Church which indeed has within her folds many who are not of her; and we would say that many who are not of her are truly Christian and will be in paradise. But we would never equate the invisible worldwide collection of individual faithful with "the Church." This is clearly a departure from apostolic teaching. In sum, the "pilgrim Church" idea, or any kind of a "branch theory," is not valid in light of Patristic ecclesiology. Fr. Gregory Rogers concludes:

One thing is clear. There was no confusion in the minds of the Fathers about where the lines of the Church were drawn. For all the discussion we may have in our time, in the patristic age things were settled. You were either in the Church or you were not. If you were in communion with the apostolic churches, you were in the Church.

The unity of the Church cannot be broken or separated. Is Christ divided? The answers the Fathers gave follow St. Paul: No, Christ is not divided. He cannot be divided in light of His Person and nature; therefore the Church, which is the Body of Christ, cannot be divided. In the patristic mind-set there is an organic, visible body that continues and is derived both historically and eucharistically from the Apostles and their teachings; one is either in it or out of it.[4]

Having just touched on your definition of "Church," I will continue with the question of why you make no mention of 1 Timothy 3:15 which speaks of the Church, with the Holy Spirit, as the preserver of Apostolic truth? (I hope you see how this is related to epistemology.) On p. 100 you asked how we can know that we are following the Apostles (p. 100). You correctly surmised that if one attempts to answer that question using the Bible alone that it will quickly degrade to a war of the interpretations. Sola Scriptura is indeed a myth. But from a catholic perspective (that is, of the Church Fathers and the ancient consensus fidelium, still held by the Orthodox today) the question should have then become not "Whose interpretation is more likely to be correct . . ." as if assurance of our Apostolic heritage rested largely, if not solely, upon mere probabilities (see also p. 152 re the "likelihood" of the gnostics being right), but, "What (if anything) preserves this sought-after truth?" Unless I missed it I did not find 1 Timothy 3:15 quoted anywhere in your book. If we are going to have a discussion about the question "What is the Truth?" must we not also include the corollary question of "What Preserves the Truth?"? According to this verse the Church is the "pillar and ground of the truth," not the Bible, the writings of the Fathers, or anything else. These writings testify to, or are a witness of , the Church's Tradition, which in actuality is the Life of the Holy Spirit in the Church [5], but in and of themselves they do not preserve the Truth. No document can do this. The revelation and preservation of Truth in the Church is chiefly the economic function of the Third Person of the Trinity (cf. St. John 16:13; Tertullian Heretics, Ch. 27, 28, as quoted by you on pp. 115-116). In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed we confess not only belief in the Holy Spirit but also in His primary locus of activity, the Church: "and in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." This is something that Protestants have typically overlooked or misinterpreted. I find it fascinating and revealing that the only reference to the Scriptures in the entire Creed is in the section regarding Christ's suffering and death. There is no reference to a belief in a particular canon of Scripture (which, by the way, had been set forth in the Paschal Epistle of St. Athanasius the Great a couple of decades prior to the Second Œcumenical Synod and could have easily been referred to in the Creed), or in the Scriptures themselves, but in the Church. Tradition can only be understood as the work of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the plenitude of truth [6]. The way one knows who is following the apostles is by finding out whether they believe as the apostles taught, which is preserved in the Church of the apostles, where the Holy Spirit abides. But of course, one's definition of "Church" must be correct in order to conclude that one's choices are ultimately limited to either Rome or Orthodoxy.

On what basis or authority do you largely dismiss the last three Œcumenical Synods and focus on the first four centuries of Christian history? I emphasize authority because as I understand it this is a key issue; and if it is not the Church it must be merely yourself, though many others may be in agreement with you. Why do you not accept (if I am correct in understanding your thinking) the idea of the gradual formulation of the Church's doctrine in the face of heresy—something Fr. George Florovsky calls the "transition from kerygma to dogma. Why such an anachronistic focus on the first few centuries? Are you unable to see that every theological controversy that was debated in the Œcumenical Synods, as well as in the fourteenth century with St. Gregory Palamas and the Latinizing monk Barlaam, center around the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and God the Logos, that is, Christ? (For example, the redefining and "baptism" by the Church of the Hellenistic word homoousion in order to counter Arianism; the use of the word Theotokos for the Blessed Virgin, in essence a Christological issue rather than a narrowly "Mariological" one; the development and use of icons in worship—again, chiefly a Christological issue; etc.) Do you not see that to dismiss these Synods and the dogmas they set forth with increasing clarity is to reject Christ Himself?

I am curious, what would St. Cyprian think of your ecclesiology? What do you do with all of those references in the Fathers to unity, and the Church as constituted by bishops in universal and eucharistic communion with all other orthodox bishops? Is not unity one of the chief themes of the Fathers?

In making such an issue of the empirical unity of the Church, Cyprian was expressing the conviction of the Church Catholic from the beginning. Heresy and schism were closely related because both of them violated the unity of the Church. It is interesting that in all seven epistles of Ignatius the Church was explicitly called "holy" only once, while the unity of the Church in the bishop was one of the overriding preoccupations of all the epistles, so much so that it seems accurate to conclude that "the most important aspect of the Church for the apostolic fathers is its unity." [7]

Does not the current state of disunity within the "continuing Anglican communion" seem to you highly inconsistent with the theology of the early Church? I acknowledge that many continuing Anglican churches practice intercommunion. But is it for the right reasons, i.e. doctrinal? For example, would the Fathers agree that an Anglo-Catholics can legitimately concelebrate with a low-church evangelical holding a Zwinglian view of the eucharist?

Is it possible to hold to the "branch theory" when: a) this is not at all the view of the early Church; b) it was first formulated in 1838 by the Anglican theologian William Palmer in his two-volume Treatise on the Church of Christ; c) none of the other two "branches" have ever accepted the "branch theory"?; d) this theory is to be found nowhere in Holy Scripture. To the Fathers, schism was a breaking with the Church, not the establishing of a "branch." I include a couple of quotes from Fr. Gregory Mathewes-Green's article in Vol. 2, No. 4 of "The Anglican / Orthodox Pilgrim" journal:

[It is an] undeniable fact that Anglicanism as an ecclesiastical structure had already been around for almost 300 years before there was any formulation of the "branch" theory. And while there were no doubt some embryonic, "branch"-like notions afloat, still it was not until almost three centuries had passed and a catholicizing movement was emerging that needed some theological justification for the existence of a separate English Church that this theory arrived center stage. Apparently even then it was not immediately and universally welcomed.

Christ's intention for the Church of the New Covenant is clear: visible unity expressed through mutually recognized ministerial orders, Eucharistic fellowship, doctrinal agreement, and adherence to Christ's lordship.

How do Protestants, or Anglicans for that matter, get around the confessional aspect of the Creed with respect to the Church—that it is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic? Don't you agree that the Protestant understanding of "mystical, but not visible, oneness" would be foreign to the Catholic Church of the 4th century? Would you not agree that if the Church is the Body of Christ then any definition of the Church must flow from the Chalcedonian definition of Christ? Thus the visible structure and unity of the Church cannot be seen as adiaphora (which, except for the Anglo-Catholics, is essentially how the Anglican tradition views these things). To the Orthodox, Protestant ecclesiology appears to be inconsistent with the formulations of the Fourth Œcumenical Synod, being more theologically consistent with a Nestorian Christology than anything else. Comments?

What is your definition of Apostolic Succession? Do you consider this to be of the esse of the Church? Are you aware of the major shift in the view of Apostolic Succession that occurred through Augustine (who thus influenced the entire Christian West) during the Donatist Controversy? Did you know that the typical western view of this is not the view of the Christian East or the early Church? (cf. Fr. Gregory Rogers' Apostolic Succession)

Do you not agree that true apostolic succession is one of both Faith and Order? Even though the fact of tactile episcopal succession in Anglicanism is for the most part well-established and accepted, why is it that in ecumenical encounters with the Orthodox the discussions concerning inter-communion always focus on the Faith aspect of true succession? Is it not true that this is the key issue, and that from the Orthodox perspective there has been a real departure from the purity, and especially the fullness, of the apostolic Faith? Pressing further, How can you have settled in the Anglican communion when many articles of that Tradition are clearly a departure from the views of the early Church (unless you are of Anglo-Catholic camp—which, I might add, has always been a minority party in Anglicanism, as was the theology of the Caroline Divines, and hardly exists anymore today). For example, to name a few:

  • the doctrine of the eucharist, Apostolic Succession
  • soteriology (it is largely Calvinist—how does this square with your conclusions in Chapters 6 and 7 of Heretics?)
  • Scripture (Article 6 as compared with the Father's view of Tradition and its relation to the Church, as guided and governed by the Holy Spirit)
  • Church order: the nature of Apostolic Succession and whether it is of the esse or bene esse of the Church

The bottom line: how can the Anglican communion claim to have true apostolic succession when in many key points it's Faith is very different from the other two catholic "branches," and the early Church?

Does it not concern you and seem unreasonable that the Anglican communion could have a Tradition that is so hazily defined, comprehensive, and latitudinarian, and yet claim to be inspired and held together by the Holy Spirit as a true "branch" (if we accept that for a moment) of the Church? How could the Holy Spirit be the preserver of a Tradition (the "Faith" aspect of legitimate apostolic succession) that embodies very little doctrinal unity, both within her own Tradition as well as with the Roman Catholics or Orthodox, and in crucial areas such as Church order, the nature of the sacraments, etc.?! The Anglican Faith simply cannot be pinned down or agreed upon by anyone it seems. And these issues go way beyond differences related to the moral purity and faithfulness to Christ of a "pilgrim Church" or "thread" that you argue for. These differences touch upon the very nature of Christ's Body on earth—both the Church's visible structure as well as the very heart of its chief reason for existence: the celebration of the Eucharist in the context of liturgical worship. The liturgy is acknowledged by all catholics (both east and west) as the

privileged custodian and dispenser of Tradition, for it is by far the principal and primary thing among all the actions of the Church. It is, indeed, the active celebration of the Christian mystery, and as it celebrates and contains the mystery in its fullness, it transmits all the essential elements of this mystery. That the liturgy is a locus theologicus of a special kind is too well known at the present time to be in need of proof. This is due to the very nature of the liturgy, which is worship and consequently has the character of a witnessing to or a profession of faith. Even if we take the well-known saying "Lex orandi, lex credendi" in its original sense admitted by Pius XII, it is still true that the Church has invested the whole of its faith in its prayer, and through fervour does not create truth, yet the liturgy contains, offers, and expresses in its own way all of the mysteries, only certain aspects of which have been formulated by our theological understanding and in dogmas. (Congar, 354-5.)

Furthermore, and related to the above quotes, is it not also widely acknowledged that the Anglican BCP was a deliberate compromise and intentionally worded in a vague manner so as to allow for a wide degree of interpretations by the various parties within her folds? Does this seem like something indicative of the work of the Holy Spirit in the preservation of apostolic truth, or the evidence of His true charism in her midst?

The main point I am trying to make in this letter is that your arguments seem to lack a catholic, and even early Church, understanding of ecclesiology and pneumatology with respect to the issue of Truth. I, too, was unaware of the essential interrelation of Tradition, the Church, and the Holy Spirit until I read the two most important books in my journey to Orthodoxy: Yves Congar's Tradition and Traditions, and Fr. George florovsky's Bible, Church, Tradition. After reading these I was convinced of the absolute necessity of the visible (in time and space) one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church—the Body of Christ which is filled and maintained by the Holy Spirit—as the carrier and preserver of Truth. When I subsequently became convinced that apostolic succession was of the esse of the Church I knew I could no longer remain a Protestant. These concepts are largely foreign to Protestant ecclesiology.

However, I am also trying to underscore the seeming precarious nature of your epistemology (which, of course, is related to your ecclesiology). It strikes me as surprisingly uncharacteristic of one as seemingly steeped in the early Fathers as you are. I hope I am wrong in this, but it seems that your approach to discerning the content of the apostolic Faith is quite individualistic and empirical, betraying a distinctly American and certainly post-Enlightenment approach to the acquisition of truth. Do you really trust your own abilities to find the True Faith by merely an appeal to written Tradition—as opposed to finding the Body of God's People, the Church, which has preserved this Truth—especially when you have consulted only those Patristic texts that are available in English and often interpreted through Protestant eyes? In your reading could you have possibly missed the following concepts, articulated by Hierodeacon Gregory in his masterful and succinct critique of Protestant Evangelicalism?

"...[They] clamour for written proof, and reject as worthless the unwritten tradition of the Fathers [preserved only in the Orthodox Church—PB]." (p.12, quoting Saint Basil the Great from his On the Holy Spirit)

"Saint Ignatios of Antioch thus provides the quintessential Orthodox reply to recurring Evangelical demands for Scriptural proof-texts: '...[I]t is Jesus Christ who is the original documents. The inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith that came by him." (p. 17) [8]

Alas, if the only result of this letter is that you end up reading some of the authors I have quoted here, especially Hierodeacon Gregory's book, I will have considered all of this effort thoroughly worth it. I cannot say enough about that book. It is a paradigm-shifter. I believe it is irrefutable. Protestants who wish to debate issues surrounding the Bible, Tradition, and ecclesiology should first have to answer this book.

I hope you are not offended by this letter. I tend to write passionately and directly to the point; sometimes this is misread. But after hearing about your journey and reading your theological thoughts I considered our paths to be parallel in so many ways that I felt I could (hopefully) in love confront you about some issues and stir up irenic and mutually helpful dialogue. Forgive me for any shortcomings in my character that are perhaps evident through my writing. I eagerly await your response. May God be with you and grant you His peace.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Patrick Barnes


1. I am thinking here in particular of two critical periods in the history of the undivided Church (though I am certain there are many more): the 4th century when the majority of the Church and the Roman Empire was Arian and St. Gregory the Theologian delivered his Theological Orations in a storefront church to about a dozen faithful people; and in the 8th century when the whole Empire was embroiled in the monothelite controversy, the Pope himself even capitulating to heresy, and a lone lay-monk, St. Maximus the Confessor, upheld the essential two natures and two wills of Christ.

2. See footnote 7, below

3. Jordan Bajis, Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian, (Minneapolis: Minnesota: 1989), 121.

4. Fr. Gregory Rogers, Apostolic Succession, (Ben Lomond: Conciliar Press, 1994 [1989]), 24. See also Bajis, p. 121-122: "Eastern Christians believe that dividing the Church into visible and invisible parcels actually contradicts the very nature of the Church. The Church is one, whole organism. The visible is inseparably linked to and a part of the invisible, and vice versa. If the Church is indeed the Body of Christ (not two different bodies, one in heaven and one on earth) then her nature must be an undivided whole. In short, Eastern Christianity holds to a visible yet mystical body of Christ."

5. Vladimir Lossky, "Tradition and Traditions," In the Image and Likeness of God, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 152. This is a very important article that, among other things, critiques the typical western approach to the Scripture vs. Tradition debate. See also "The Catholicity of the Church," The Collected Works of George Florovsky, Vol. 1, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, (Vaduz, Europa: Bechervertriebsanstalt, 1987), 47: "Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words. Tradition is a charismatic, not a historical, principle." [emphasis his].

6. Congar, 105. [Actually, since reading this book I have come across one from a specifically Orthodox perspective that I would recommend more highly: The Church, Tradition, Scripture, Truth, and Christian Life, by Hierodeacon Gregory. See my Suggested Reading List.

7. Jerislav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), (Chicago: Yale University Press), 159; quoting, at the end, Robert Grant, ed., The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary, (New York: 1964), 1:137-138. Pelikan goes on to conclude: "Therefore the efforts to superimpose upon the second and third centuries the distinction made by Augustinianism and especially by the Reformation between the visible and invisible churches have proved quite ineffectual, even in interpreting the thought of Origen, whose dichotomy between the heavenly and the earthly churches might seem to have tended in that direction; but on earth there was only one Church, and it was finally inseparable from the sacramental, hierarchical institution." [emphasis mine]

8. Hierodeacon Gregory, The Church, Tradition, Scripture, Truth, and Christian Life: Some Heresies of Evangelicalism and an Orthodox Response. Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1995.