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Holy Tradition

The Road That Leads Home

by the Reverend Dorraine S. Snogren, with an Introduction by Bishop Ephraim


The Reverend Dorraine Snogren has been a United Methodist pastor for over thirty years. In the past several years he has come to feel increasingly that most Christians today, while they might have a certain reverence for Church history, are in fact quite ignorant of this heritage. This ignorance can largely be explained by the entire approach to Christianity that emphasizes the freedom of the individual to arrive at his own beliefs, guided only by his interpretation of the Bible. The Christian message, cut off from its heritage, is becoming more and more arbitrary and indefinite.

An Evangelical Protestant who desires to make a careful study of Church history must overcome certain difficulties. This article is a record of such a study, the difficulties encountered, and the conclusions that presented themselves. It was written by a Protestant minister as a help in formulating his own conclusions, and to share with certain members of his congregation.

In the tenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we read the account concerning Cornelius the centurion, a Roman living in the midst of Romans in Caesarea, the administrative capital of all of Judaea, who yet was "a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always," (Acts 10:2) one who also was accustomed to fast until the ninth hour (v. 30). On these accounts he is worthy of praise, as Saint Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans, "But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek: for there is no respect of persons with God" (Romans 2:10–11). Virtue has its own value, wherever it is to be found. And yet these virtues are insufficient in themselves, without faith in Christ and reception into His Church. Before meeting the Apostle Peter, Cornelius neither believed aright concerning God, or taught others the truth. But God, beholding his diligence in that which he knew, and foreseeing also how willingly he would embrace the truth, brought him to know Christ in a wondrous manner. When Cornelius had fasted until the ninth hour of the day, and was in prayer, an Angel appeared to him, announcing to him that his prayers and alms had arisen before God for a memorial, and commanding him to summon the Apostle Peter, who would tell him what he should do. The Apostle Peter was himself prepared to receive the messengers from Cornelius by a vision and a voice telling him, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common," and he was commanded by the Holy Spirit to accompany the messengers from Cornelius. In such a wondrous and extraordinary manner was the Apostle Peter brought to Cornelius, and having heard the Apostle Peter, Cornelius and those with him straightway believed and were baptized. Saint John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, has written, ". . . if He did not overlook the Magi, nor the Ethiopian, nor the thief, nor the harlot, much more them that work righteousness, and are willing, shall He in anywise not overlook." The righteousness of Cornelius was not overlooked by God; it prepared him to receive the Gospel and so to be joined to the Church, wherein was the fulfillment and reward of that righteousness.

The Reverend Dorraine Snogren aptly writes, " ... just because God in His grace and mercy has met us where we are and adapted Himself to our unique cultural and religious circumstances in no way means He has abandoned His original plan." Truth is found in the Church, and those who would apprehend the truth must unite themselves to the Church. If God could in so wondrous a manner provide for the illumination and salvation of Cornelius, who was from among the pagans, how much more will He provide for those who seek Him from among the Protestant denominations.

How diligent we Orthodox should be, who have as our heritage the "Faith which was once delivered unto the Saints" (Jude 1:3), received from the very Apostles, and preserved within the Church unto our own days as that living and holy Tradition. And how we should rejoice, beholding the earnestness with which the Reverend Dorraine Snogren has sought the truth, and discerned it in the Orthodox Church.

Some years ago, one of the Reverend Dorraine Snogren's four sons entered the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, where he has since been tonsured a monk, receiving the name Philaret. In the years since that time, Father Philaret's three brothers have also converted to Orthodoxy. His oldest brother, Andrew, also a former Methodist minister, together with his wife Alexandra and their two children, Krista and Hilary, live in Wentworth, New Hampshire, and are members of the Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos, in Concord, New Hampshire. Another brother, John, with his wife Valerie and their son Nicholas, live in Washington, D.C., and are members of the Church of Saint Cosmas of Aitolia, in Riverdale, Maryland. A third brother, Constantine, lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, and attends services at both the Holy Transfiguration Monastery and the Church of Saint Anna, in Roslindale, where he is one of the chanters.

Since writing this article, the Reverend Dorraine Snogren has resigned from the ministry of the United Methodist Church, and he and his wife Ruth have moved to Concord, New Hampshire, where they plan to become members of the Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos there.

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I am on my way home to the Orthodox Church. For me this is a most unlikely journey. Where I have been doesn’t seem to support where I am allegedly going. Here I am, an evangelical, charismatic, Protestant, having served the Lord faithfully for over thirty years as a United Methodist pastor, now considering becoming Orthodox. It doesn’t make sense. Or does it? It makes a lot of sense when one begins to understand the meaning and function of Tradition in the early Church.

I believe Tradition is the most formidable barrier a Protestant must deal with in his pursuit of the historic and authentic expression of the Faith. And if my experience is at all typical, once one begins to understand Tradition as understood and expressed in the early Church, then Tradition as barrier gives way to Tradition as a road map that leads one safely home to Orthodoxy.

Needless to say, that statement needs a lot of explanation. Let me quickly proceed.

Part I: The Meaning and Function of Tradition

Georges Florovsky, one of the outstanding theologians and writers of our century, made a statement to the effect that he would not isolate himself to his own age. [1]

That thought is not only provocative but also disconcerting. For isolating ourselves to our own age is precisely what the vast majority of Christians are doing today. We are ignorant of our spiritual heritage. We have cut ourselves off from our spiritual roots.

We might recall that there were Church Fathers, but we are completely ignorant of what they said. Our recollection of the Church’s Seven Ecumenical Councils dims even more, even though the Councils’ decisions, definitions, and directions were understood to be the irrevocable mind of the Spirit upon which the entire Church was forever to be secured and defined.

In other words, vast segments of Christendom are not benefiting from what the Church has been, said, or done. We are not building on the mind of the Spirit, which was pursued so faithfully and defended with such meticulous care by our spiritual forefathers. We are living and thinking as though the Church did not exist until we got on board or that the Church of the past is irrelevant and inconsequential. For many it is as though the Church ended in Acts 28 and did not reappear until the sixteenth century Reformation, or for a few, not until the twentieth century.

What we are saying in all of this is simply that many of us have cut ourselves off from what the Church has called Holy Tradition. This has not only created an anemic condition among us; it has drastically deformed our concept of the Church. When some of my friends say, "I wish we were more like the early Church," I fear they do not know what they are asking and would be reluctant to pursue the only avenue that leads to its restoration. You see, it is Holy Tradition that provides us our living connection with the past. We can be like the early Church, but not without Holy Tradition. It alone "contemporizes" the past with integrity. It alone introduces us to the mind of the Spirit, which never contradicts itself.

I recognize, however, that for many, Tradition has a lot of negative associations. It speaks of man-made rules and regulations; of things antiquated, irrelevant, and formalized; of quaint ideas suited best for a museum. It speaks of a restrictive adherence to the past that handicaps our freedom to pursue the fresh breeze of God’s Spirit. But possibly most damaging is the assumption that Tradition speaks of things that Jesus forthrightly condemned. People erroneously equate Jesus’ condemnation of the "tradition of the elders" with the Church’s Holy Tradition. They fail to see that those human precepts were substitutes for the Gospel, while the Church’s traditions are the very framework that opens the Gospel up to us.

We commonly think of tradition as something handed down to us from the past. Christian Tradition is that, but much, much more. Holy Tradition has to do with the Faith which our Lord imparted to the Apostles and which, since Apostolic times, has been handed down from generation to generation in the Church. It is that understanding and those practices, which have been tested by a long time and were permanently lasting. But let me be more specific.

A Common Understanding

Tradition, first of all, has to do with a body of material, a common understanding, an accepted way of interpreting and dealing with the Faith. The importance of this presumed unity is seen clearly in Scripture. The Apostle Paul passionately appeals to the Christians at Corinth, "that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (I Cor. 1:10). He insists that all church leaders "hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it" (Titus 1:9). Our Lord’s prayer for unity in John 17 has everything to do with His followers being sanctified "in the truth" (v. 17). And again, His promise to be present with those who gather in His Name is predicated by His saying, "if two of you agree . . ." (Matt. 18:19). Then, of course, there is Paul’s unparalleled reference to "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5).

From the time of our Lord there began developing a body of truth, a particular interpretation of the divine events; and the Church leaders from the time of the Apostles were given to preserving and building on that sacred "tradition." So the Apostle Paul exclaims, "stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (II Thess. 2:15). "I commend you," Paul says to the Corinthian believers, "because you . . . maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you" (I Cor. 11:2). [2]

And so, Saint Vincent of Lérins echoes the attitude of the early Church in the matters of faith when he wrote, "We must hold what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all." [3]

The Mind of the Church

Seeing Tradition as encompassing this common understanding, the appeal to Tradition also becomes an appeal to the mind of the Church. It is the thinking capital of the Church. So the fourth century Greek Father Athanasius encourages a Church Bishop: "Let us look at that very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved. Upon this the Church is founded." [4]

Thank God the Church has a mind. It is healthy. It retains. It doesn’t forget. There is an ecclesiastical understanding that lives in the Church. We don’t have to be "tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men" (Eph. 4:14).

Occasionally someone suggests that the early Church quickly became an apostate, but this is so incongruous with the integrity with which the mind of the Church was maintained. If ever there were "fundamentalists," in the best sense of the word, they lived in those early centuries. They were sticklers for the truth. In dealing with heretics, the defenders of the Faith always appealed to the mind of the Church, to that Faith which had been once delivered and faithfully kept.

So instead of becoming apostate, just the opposite was taking place. As one writer said, "In the divine economy of Providence it was permitted that every form of heresy that was ever to infest the Church should now exhibit its essential principle and attract the censures of the faithful. Thus, testimony to the primitive truth was secured and recorded: the language of catholic orthodoxy was developed and defined, and landmarks of faith were set up for perpetual memorial to all generations." [5]

So we have Saint Irenaeus (ca. 130–215) writing of Polycarp:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by Apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by Apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried (on earth) a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the Apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. [6]

Saint Irenaeus further states that the true Faith "is being preserved in the Church from the Apostles through the succession of the presbyters." [7] This speaks of the Church holding the same Faith with one voice as handed down by the Apostles and preserved by the successive witnesses.

Reflecting this mind of the Church, one writer penned it so beautifully:

We preserve the Doctrine of the Lord uncorrupted, and firmly adhere to the Faith He delivered to us, and keep it free from blemish and diminution, as a Royal Treasure, and a monument of great price, neither adding any thing, nor taking any thing from it. [8]

So appealing to Tradition is appealing to the mind of the Church, to an ecclesiastical understanding; indeed, it is our living connection with the fullness of the Church experience. It is the total life of the Church transferred from place to place and from generation to generation as it is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. "For tradition which expresses the voice of the whole Church is also the voice of the Holy Spirit living in the Church." [9] How comforting and securing it is to be a part of that stream of consciousness, that river of truth.

Patristic as Well as Apostolic

Our understanding of Tradition is further enhanced when we realize that the early Church considered itself Patristic as well as Apostolic. Apostles and Fathers were coupled together. The Fathers were the theologians, the teachers of the Faith if you please, whom God raised up to give definition to the truth recorded in Scripture. They preserved and developed the Faith in keeping with the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The book of Acts begins with Luke reminding his readers that in his previously written Gospel he "dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach" (Acts 1:1). The implication is that our Lord continued His ministry and teaching long after His Ascension. This is in keeping with Jesus’ promise to His disciples that after His departure, "When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). The Church believed that one of the critical evidences of the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit was in and through the Fathers of the Faith. [10]

The mind of the Church and conforming to the Traditions of the Fathers are synonymous. The heretics were judged by the Church because they had no Fathers. They were innovators; their thinking was not in keeping with the Tradition that the Spirit had revealed and that the Fathers had preserved. And so the eighteenth century monk, Starets Paisii, sums it up well in a letter to a friend:

I plead and ask you from my whole heart to have undoubting faith in the Fathers and in the teachings contained in them, for they agree in all respects with the Divine Scriptures and with the minds of all the ecumenical teachers and the entire Holy Church, because one and the same Holy Spirit was working in them. [11]

Scripture and Tradition

Undoubtedly the most troublesome facet of Tradition for the Protestant is the relationship of Tradition to Scripture. The Protestant puts Scripture above the Church. It is as though the Church was made for the Bible, when in reality the Bible was made for the Church. One must begin by realizing that the Bible and Tradition are not two different expressions of the Christian faith. Holy Tradition is the source of Holy Scripture. The Bible is given to us in Tradition. Holy Tradition is the faith of which Holy Scripture is an expression.

The Scriptural message was given to men not in paper and ink. God’s Word was first placed in men’s souls; His words were engraved and imprinted in spirit and not by letter. Our Lord’s message was first presented orally and only later written down (see Luke 1:1–3).

Early in the Church the Word of God began to develop and take on specific form and expression. A common understanding, a "tradition," if you please, began developing under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles and their converts taught and founded churches all over the Mediterranean world and left them with its oral Tradition (see Acts 2:42; II Thess. 2:15, 3:6, etc.).

Some might say, "Didn’t Tradition get out of hand and impose a lot of excess baggage on the Bible?" It is true that certain doctrines began to take shapes that are only alluded to in the Bible (e.g., the Trinity). Specific forms of worship and practice also began to develop, like the rites of Baptism and the Eucharist. The Fathers, however, always spoke of these as having "Apostolic" origin. It is helpful to think of these so-called "additions" to the Bible as what might be omitted from a biography. A biography does not exhaust the life of its subject. One would never say that because such and such is not in the biography, therefore, it did not happen. Saint Basil (ca. 330–379) spoke of these as the "unwritten mysteries of the Church," all of which were flourishing in the fourth century and were understood to have great authority and significance and were considered indispensable for the preservation of the right Faith. [12] "Some things we have from written teaching," said Saint Basil, "others we have received from the Apostolic Tradition handed down to us in a mystery; and both these things have the same force for piety." [13]

"But shouldn’t the Church be identical with the Church of the Apostles? The Church in the Acts of the Apostles appears so simple." That is like comparing your picture as an adult with your picture taken as a child. There is a correspondence, but something would be woefully wrong if your appearance remained identical. A seed has an entire tree hidden in its smallness. As the seed begins to grow, phenomenal changes take place. However, its identity and continuity with the seed is never lost. Even if that tree should live for one hundred, two hundred, or more years, every single leaf that shall ever appear will have had its origin and existence in that tiny seed from which the tree sprang forth. Apple seeds don’t produce cornstalks. So it is with the Church. The Gospel starts like a seed, but as it takes root and develops, changes do take place. The Spirit, however, does not contradict Himself; so the Church’s development in its self-awareness, doctrine, and practice had to be meticulously in line with the mind of the Spirit as He had always been known and expressed.

Just because an idea was ancient did not automatically make it authentic. Something became a part of Holy Tradition only if a comprehensive consensus of the ancients could be satisfactorily demonstrated. And that consensus, as such, was not conclusive unless it could be traced back continuously to Apostolic origins. [14]

Tradition was never regarded as adding anything to Scripture; it was the means of ascertaining and expressing the true meaning of Scripture. Tradition, therefore, is the true interpreter of Scripture. We would say Tradition is Scripture rightly understood.

Scripture Rightly Understood

It is important to realize that the Church existed before the New Testament was written. Little by little the Gospels and Epistles began to appear. One writer rightly observed:

Moreover, when we take into account how few "books," or manuscripts, there were in those days, and the fact that besides the genuine writings there were other gospels and texts written under the names of the Apostles, it is easy to understand how important the living Tradition of the Church was in safeguarding the true Christian faith. The prime importance of Tradition is plainly shown by the fact that it was not until the fifth century that the Church established conclusively which books in circulation should be regarded as genuinely inspired by God’s revelation. Thus the Church itself determined the composition of the Bible. [15]

As the Church defined the content of the Bible, it is to the Church that we turn for the interpretation of the Bible.

No, this does not mean that we can’t read the Bible for ourselves and hear God speak to us from that reading. But on the other hand, "private interpretation" (II Peter 1:20) is never the basis for our authority. The judgment of Scriptural interpretation must never be a merely private judgment, but must be a judgment in harmony with the mind of the Church as expressed in Holy Tradition.

It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority. [16]

Saying this puts one on a collision course with what the vast majority of Western Christians believe today. Today we have bowed to the cult of proud individualism. "I can believe anything I want," or "Nobody tells me what to believe except the Holy Spirit" are heard time and again. We freely re-interpret Christ’s teachings according to our personal tastes, guided only by our personal liking. [17] As Georges Florovsky put it, "We are in danger of losing the uniqueness of the Word of God in the process of continuous reinterpretation.". [18] We might preach salvation in Christ, but it is a salvation in egocentric isolation from the Church. As someone observed, the Protestant in protesting the Pope has promoted each individual to the rank of infallible Pope. Private opinion reigns.

The Christian message is becoming increasingly indefinite and appearing as only one more teaching in the series of teachings ancient and new. And all of this because "without the Church the possibility is open for an innumerable quantity of the most arbitrary and mutually contradictory understandings.". [19] Because "the faith of Christ becomes clear and definite for man only when he unhypocritically believes in the Church; only then are the pearls of this faith clear, only then does the faith remain free from the pile of dirty rubbish of all-possible, self-willed opinions and judgments.". [20]

We need the Bible. We need Tradition. We need the Church. George Cronk in his book The Message of the Bible summarizes it well:

Since scripture is given within the context of tradition, it must also be read, interpreted, and understood within that context. And since as we have seen, tradition is the total life and experience of the Church, it follows that the Church is the sole authoritative interpreter of the Bible. Christ is the founder and head of the Church, and the Church is the body of Christ (see Eph. 4:1–16 and 5:21–33). This means that Christ lives in, inspires, and guides His Church through the Holy Spirit. Christ, in and through the Church, provides the correct interpretation of the Bible and of other aspects of holy tradition. It is only within the living Tradition of the Church and the direct inspiration of Christ’s Spirit that the proper interpretation of the Bible can be made. [21]

PART II: The Content and Relevance of Tradition

Everything we have said thus far has to do with defining Tradition and seeing its role in the Church. But we can’t stop with that. The critical issue facing us now is not what Tradition means but what Tradition says. Once we begin developing an appreciation for Tradition we are forced to deal with its message. For the typical Evangelical Protestant, that can become a threatening and destabilizing experience. We are forced to rethink some passages of Scripture, question some of our long-standing beliefs, and re-evaluate our understanding of the spiritual life. We begin to realize that through "Westernization" we have, at least to a degree, lost the "scriptural mind," the idiom of the Bible. [22] In the light of Holy Tradition we appear embarrassingly discordant.

Obviously this paper is not the place to deal with the full scope of Tradition’s content; that is a massive subject. However, as I gained confidence in the integrity of Tradition as my guide, I discovered three specific areas of thought that not only filled my mind with wonderment but also challenged my thinking and further pointed me home to Orthodoxy. I refer to the early Church’s understanding of Episcopacy, Baptism, and the Eucharist. Let me now share some of my findings in those three areas, and let us see how we compare with the understanding and practice of the early Church.

The Place of the Bishop

Many people today are attracted to churches that down play formality and structure in favor of spontaneity and equality. They have the misguided understanding that this is what most authentically reflects the life of the early Church. [23] If that were so, what do we do with the thoughts of Clement, Bishop of Rome at the end of the first century? He gives us a bird’s eye view of church life that not only speaks of order and design in worship, but he sees the regulations of Leviticus as illustrative of Christian worship.

The Lord has commanded that the offerings and services should be performed with care, and done at the fixed times and seasons, not in a haphazard and irregular fashion... . The high priest has been given his own special services, the priests have been assigned their own place, and the Levites [i.e., deacons] have their special ministrations enjoined on them. The layman is bound by the ordinances of the laity. [24]

I find it most interesting that he speaks of "laymen," making a clear distinction between ministers and congregation.

Then we have the writing of Ignatius. He was appointed the second Bishop of Antioch about A.D. 69. This makes him a very early witness and early enough that we dare not discount the tradition that he was a disciple of the Apostle John. His life stretches back to the very roots of our Faith and, therefore, has to be taken very seriously. [25] What we discover in his writings is his overriding emphasis on unity and submission to ecclesiastical authority represented primarily by the Bishop. He says that without the Bishop there is no Church, there is no Baptism, no Eucharist; that the Bishop presides at common worship, and if Presbyters officiate, they do so as his delegates. [26] But let Ignatius speak for himself:

I advise you, be eager to act always in godly concord; with the bishop presiding as the counterpart of God, the presbyters as the counterpart of the council of the Apostles, and the deacons ... who have been entrusted with a service ... so you must do nothing without the bishop and the presbyters. And do not try to think that anything is praiseworthy which you do on your own accord: but unite in one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope; with love and blameless joy... . When you are submissive to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are not living as ordinary men but according to Jesus Christ... . Likewise let all men respect the deacons as they reverence Jesus Christ, just as they must respect the bishop as the counterpart of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and the college of Apostles; without those no church is recognized. [27]

We must bear in mind that originally there was only one Church in a given community. And, as is obvious from the above readings, they all met together in one place around a Bishop. As Georges Florovsky says: "It can be asserted with great assurance that ... each local community was headed by its own Bishop, and that he was the main, and probably exclusive, minister of all sacraments in his church for his flock." [28] But when the number of Christians grew and a single meeting of this sort became impossible, the community of believers split into a network of parishes dependent upon it. The Presbyters (Elders) then replaced the Bishop and became his fully empowered deputies, but through the sacrament of the episcopal laying on of hands all congregations retained their organic link with the Bishop as the beneficent organ of Church unity. [29]

Irenaeus was another early Bishop born about A.D. 130. His argument against the heretics of his day was that the truth to be espoused was the truth preserved in the churches through the succession of Bishops. With great confidence he says: "We can enumerate those who were appointed bishops in the Churches by the Apostles and their successors down to our own day." He then lists the Bishops, using the Church at Rome and its succession of Bishops as his example. I personally found this most intriguing. He said:

The blessed Apostles, after they had founded and built the church [at Rome], handed over to Linus the office of Bishop. Paul mentions this Linus in his epistles to Timothy. He was succeeded by Anacletus, after whom Clement was appointed to the bishopric, third in order from the Apostles. He not only had seen the blessed Apostles, but had also conferred with them, and had their preaching still ringing in his ears, and their tradition still before his eyes.

After listing the several other successors he concludes by saying:

... and now Eleutherus occupies the see, the twelfth from the Apostles. In his order and succession the Apostolic tradition in the church and the preaching of the truth has come down to our time. [30]

Interesting indeed! Yes, the early Church was under a great move of God’s Spirit, but not without a developing design and structure and not without highly visible, duly recognized, heavenly ordained leadership.

This answers the question of why the book of Acts gives such prominence to the Apostles. Why is it the Acts of the Apostles? Why not the Acts of all true Spirit-filled believers? Immediately after the death of Judas, the Apostles felt obligated to appoint a successor. There had to be twelve. Then came Pentecost and everyone was filled with the Holy Spirit. There was a great "charismatic revival," in the authentic apostolic and patristic sense of the term, in fulfillment of Christ’s own words, "I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. . . . But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My Name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:18, 25). But what happened? Did this spiritual awakening mean everyone began doing his own thing, starting his own independent ministry, maybe his own church? No. We read: "And they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). The Church was sacramental; the people were subject to the Apostles and were soon to find the same security, nourishment, and leadership in the Bishops as the uncontested successors to the Apostles.

As free-spirited evangelicals, what do we do with this information? Dare we make light of Apostolic Succession? What would those early leaders think of all our freewheeling independent movements? Does our understanding of the Church, its leadership, authority, and functioning correspond with integrity to that early Church?

But let’s hold those questions in abeyance for a few minutes and move on to another area. I refer to the early Church’s understanding of Baptism.

The Meaning of Baptism

All the extant writings of antiquity point to one undeniable fact, and that is that the early Church was a sacramental Church both in theology and practice. Alexander Schmemann put it well. He said: "This double mystery—rebirth from water and the Spirit and the breaking of bread—was not simply a ceremonial service but the source, the content, the very heart of primitive Christianity." [31]

The Scriptures make many references to Baptism and in such a manner that it places Baptism as an indispensable part of one’s salvation experience.

—Jesus’ description of the new birth as a birth by water and the Spirit was always understood by the early Church as the water of holy Baptism (John 3:5).

—Jesus’ commissioning His disciples to go into all the world and make disciples was to be realized first by baptizing them (Matt. 28:19).

—Peter, on the day of Pentecost, directed his congregation that the way out of their sin and into the Spirit-filled life was to "repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38).

—Ananias knew the importance of Baptism as evidenced in his exhorting the new convert Saul: "And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His Name" (Acts 22:16).

—Paul’s exhortation to the Romans was for them not to forget what happened at their Baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by Baptism into death... . We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:3, 4a, 6).

And on and on we could go with Scriptural references (some other references are I Cor. 6:11; 10:2; 12:13; Titus 3:5; I Pet. 3:21; Heb. 10:32.) However, there is one additional reference that is very suggestive. I refer to Mark 16:16: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved." Even though those several verses are omitted in some of the ancient texts, it is nevertheless extremely important because it gives us a keyhole peek into how the early Church regarded Baptism.

It is obvious from these references that Baptism was not like a piece of costume jewelry that was just for show. It was very critical to their understanding and experience of salvation. Baptism was much more than a public testimony. It represented not only the action of man but also the action of God. Most certainly this understanding is found everywhere in the early writings. There is an abundance of testimony.

I think of the writings of Saint Justin the Martyr, born at the end of the first century. In his First Apology, a defense of the Christian faith and practice, he made reference to the threefold immersion in the Name of the Trinity, that there were already established specific instructions for the candidates followed by prayer and fasting for the entire church. He speaks of Baptism as a "washing" and "illumination." And bear in mind that this was written the first generation after the Apostles. Let’s let Justin speak for himself:

I shall now explain our method of dedicating ourselves to God after we have been created anew through Christ... . All who accept and believe as true the things taught and said by us, and who undertake to have the power to live accordingly, are taught to pray and entreat God, fasting, for the forgiveness of their former sins, while we join in their prayer and fasting. Then we bring them to a place where there is water, where they are regenerated in the same way as we were: for they then make their ablution in the water in the Name of God the Father and Lord of all, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. [32]

Later on he continues, saying:

And for this [rite] we have learned from the Apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the Name of God the Father.

He then speaks again of the Trinitarian invocation and then says, "And this washing is called illumination because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. . . . he who is illuminated is washed." [33]

I was so moved when I first read Justin’s statement, "And for this [rite] we have learned from the Apostles . . ." That statement alone gives tremendous authority to all he is saying. Awesome indeed!

A document known as The Shepherd of Hermas was written about A.D. 100, about ten years after the repose of the Apostle John. The Shepherd writes:

They had need to come up through the water, so that they might be made alive; for they could not otherwise enter into the Kingdom of God, except by putting away the mortality of their former life. These also, then, who have fallen asleep, received the seal of the Son of God, and entered into the Kingdom of God. For, he said, before a man bears the Name of the Son of God, he is dead. But when he receives the seal, he puts mortality aside and again receives life. The seal, therefore, is the water. They go down into the water dead, and come out of it alive. [34]

Yes, the early Church believed in Baptism as an indispensable part of the salvation experience. As Saint John Chrysostom so aptly noted, others fish by pulling fish out of the water, whereas we Christians fish by throwing the fish into the water. [35]

One cannot help observing that the form of Baptism was also well established in the Church’s Tradition. Alexander Schmemann in his delightful book Of Water And The Spirit reminds us that in the early Church there was no dichotomy between form and substance in Baptism. For the early Church the form of Baptism was the very means by which the essence was manifested, communicated, and fulfilled. He put it graphically when he wrote:

And the early Church, before she explains if she explains them at all—the "why," the "what," and the "how" of this baptismal death and resurrection, simply knew that to follow Christ one must, at first, die and rise again with Him and in Him; that Christian life truly begins with an event in which, as in all genuine events, the very distinction between "form" and "essence" is but an irrelevant abstraction. In Baptism—because it is an event—the form and essence, the "doing" and the "happening," the sign and its meaning coincide, for the purpose of one is precisely to be the other, both to reveal and to fulfill it. Baptism is what it represents because what it represents—death and resurrection— is true... . Such is the central, overwhelming, and all-embracing experience of the early Church, an experience so self-evident, so direct, that at first she did not even "explain" it but saw it rather as the source and the condition of all explanations, all theologies. [36]

I find it difficult if not impossible to disregard the ancient testimonies. I find it equally hard to imagine that the New Testament’s strong and elevated emphasis on Baptism could have arisen if it were understood simply as a public testimony, as representing only the action of man.

But let us move on to the third area that early captured my attention and further reminded me how far we have wandered from the early Church’s thinking and practice. I refer to the Eucharist.

The Centrality of the Eucharist

The Eucharist was the center of the Church’s worship. It was the "sacrament of sacraments" to which everything in the Church led and from which all things flowed.

The Church took very seriously and quite literally Jesus’ words "This is My Body" and "This is My Blood" (Matt. 26:26, 27). And again, "I am the living bread which came down from Heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh" (John 6:51). And again in John 6:56, "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him."

Again let me quote Justin the Martyr. Remember, these words were shared only some fifty years since the repose of the Apostles, and the immediate disciples of the Apostles were still living and were the leaders of the numerous Churches.

And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the Apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them: that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My Body" and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, "This is My Blood" and gave it to them alone. [37]

Saint Ignatius, who was appointed as the second Bishop of Antioch in about A.D. 69, in writing against people who hold strange, unorthodox views, said: "They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer because they do not acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins." [38] Irenaeus (born ca. 130) supports this when he wrote: "For as the bread, which comes from the earth, receives the invocation of God, and then it is no longer common bread but Eucharist, consists of two things, an earthly and a heavenly . . ." [39]

The fourteenth century monk, Nicholas Cabasilas, expresses most beautifully the Church’s long-standing understanding of the spiritual effect of the Eucharist when it is properly understood, approached, and administered:

O wonder of wonders, that Christ’s spirit is united to our spirit, His will is one with ours, His flesh becomes our flesh, His blood flows in our veins. What spirit is ours when it is possessed by His, our will when led captive by His, our clay when set on fire by His flame! [40]

The above words indicating that the Eucharist must be "properly understood, approached, and administered" were carefully chosen. Some time ago I was teaching a class in my church and the discussion turned to the centrality of the Eucharist in early Christian worship. One of my students, realizing that our church had Communion only once a month, inquired as to why we did not have it more often. My response was that the frequency of Communion does not make it like the early Church’s Eucharist, that we lacked the spiritual context that would make it meaningful. How true, especially when it is regarded only as a memorial supper. "Properly understood, approached, and administered" is critical.

The scholastic endeavor to determine when and how wine and bread become the Body and Blood of our Lord never seemed to concern the early Church. All they knew was that by the sacrament they were partakers of Christ through faith and that their spiritual life was fed and renewed. The Orthodox have never attempted to explain the "reality" by using Aristotelian categories of "essence" and "accidents" and, as occurred in Roman Catholicism, to describe the change as "transubstantiation."

The early Church seemed quite satisfied to simply believe that this is a matter of faith, that there is another reality different from the "empirical" one, and that reality can be entered, can be communicated, can actually become the most real of realities. [41]

As Alexander Schmemann says:

The purpose of the Eucharist lies not in the change of the bread and wine, but in our partaking of Christ, who has become our food, our life, the manifestation of the Church as the Body of Christ.

This is why the holy Gifts themselves never became in the Orthodox East an object of special reverence, contemplation, and adoration, and likewise an object of special theological "problematics": how, when, in what manner their change is accomplished. The Eucharist—and this means the changing of the holy Gifts—is a mystery that cannot be revealed and explained in the categories of "this world"—time, essence, causality, etc. It is revealed only to faith: "I believe also that this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own precious Blood." Nothing is explained, nothing is defined, nothing has changed in "this world." But then whence comes this light, this joy that overflows the heart, this feeling of fulness and of touching the "other world"? [42]

In Protestant circles we often hear, "But it’s only a symbol." We, however, need to remind ourselves that Jesus did not say that this represents or stands for my Body. He said, "This is my Body."

Reporters once asked the famous choreographer, Martha Graham, "What does your dance mean?" She replied, "Darlings, if I could tell you, I would not have danced it." [43] Symbols point us to something beyond themselves, to truths that transcend words. Today, however, we tend to think of a symbol as representing and speaking of an absent reality. Symbol as originally understood, however, meant manifesting and making present the other reality, a reality that could not be made present in any other way other than as a symbol. [44]

One writer, after discussing these Holy Mysteries, summarizes it well:

We must answer that the Mysteries of Baptism and the Eucharist "do not merely suggest or express spiritual realities, but positively embody and convey them, as they could not be conveyed by any other mode... . Substance and form are here complementary and inseparable. The outward does not simply represent the inward. It is the inward, clothed in the only form in which it is possible for us to apprehend it by our earthly faculties. Matter is not the antithesis of spirit, but its home and living garment, something used to shadow forth the highest truths, and even to become the dwelling-place of that divine Being Who giveth to spiritual realities a body, even as it pleaseth Him. This tendency finds its warrant and consummation in the sublime Mystery of the Incarnation, which is the Word made Flesh ... God with us." [45]

The above stated truths are further supported when we look at the word "remembrance" in the words of Jesus, "Do this in remembrance of Me" (Luke 22:19). The Greek word we translate "remembrance" is anamnesis. It really has no adequate one-word translation. It carries with it the sense of being there, participating, joining with, rather than the simple commemoration of or looking back on a past event. The French scholar, Louis Bouyer, put it in a much more scholarly manner in his book Eucharist. He said: "It in no way means a subjective, human psychological act of returning to the past, but an objective reality destined to make something or someone perpetually present." [46]

So the Eucharist is not a sacred drama, a mere representation of past events. It is a personal encounter with the living resurrected Christ. It is the place where we meet Christ in the fullness of His redeeming activity, the place where Christ is made present, where He makes Himself present (Luke 24:31).

And so an Orthodox priest writing to his flock says:

At the Liturgy, we are not simply remembering something which happened 2,000 years ago—that is Protestant theology; nor are we repeating something which cannot be repeated, which happened once and for all—that is Roman Catholic theology; we are present at the actual event we remember whether it be the Nativity, the Resurrection, or Pentecost. Actually, all these events are made present to us and we to them in a mysterious but nonetheless real way. God, Who is outside of time, sees all eternity at once. For Him the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ are now and He unites our poor worship to the event which we remember. [47]

Let me bring this paper to a close with a question: What are we to do with this tremendous witness from the past? We know what the early Church was like. With just the three examples I gave—Episcopacy, Baptism, and Eucharist—we can see how far off course we have veered. What are we to do about it?

I would join countless numbers of evangelical Protestants and say I have come to know Christ with fulfilling and life-changing effects and daily witness His grace and leadership in my life. But just because God in His grace and mercy has met us where we are and adapted Himself to our unique cultural and religious circumstances in no way means He has abandoned His original plan. God does not contradict Himself. Truth is intolerant, and truth is found in the Church’s living and Holy Tradition. It is my growing conviction that only a strong living Tradition can protect us from the corrosive and destructive forces of modern life, the insidious and deceptive effects of modern pluralism, and the disheartening and confusing proliferation of religious opinions.

I have heard Bishop Ephraim tell of various conversations he has had with non-Orthodox people who try to convince him of the rightness of their non-Orthodox beliefs. He says they usually begin their apology with the words, "I believe," "I feel," or "In my opinion." At that point Bishop Ephraim feels compelled to say, "Wait, wait, wait. It has no bearing on this matter what you believe, or think, or feel, or what your opinion is, just as it is of no importance what I believe, or think, or feel, or what my opinion is in this matter. The only thing that is of any importance and has any authority in these matters is what the Church has always believed, thought, and felt... . In this, as in every matter, it is the Church and its sacred Tradition which must teach us, and we must listen humbly and be instructed."

What are we to do with this "cloud of witnesses," this Holy Tradition through which they live and speak with such clarity and certitude? Well, for me there seems to be only one logical response. I must turn to the Church and its sacred Tradition; I must listen humbly and be instructed. I cannot let God’s marvelous blessings of the past blind me to what I have missed or deter me from that to which He would lead me still. I must return home to Orthodoxy. [48]


1. Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, p. 11.

2. See also II Thess. 3:6.

3. Florovsky, op. cit., p. 73.

4. Quoted by Florovsky, op. cit., p. 83.

5. Quoted in the study paper, The References to Baptism and the Eucharist in the First Apology of Saint Justin Martyr—The Generation After the Apostles, pp. 5-6.

6. Ibid., p. 5.

7. Quoted by Florovsky, op. cit., p. 74.

8. Letter of 1718 in G. Williams, The Orthodox Church of the East in the Eighteenth Century, p. 17.

9. Protopresbyter Michael Pomazensky, The Old Testament in the New Testament Church, p. 14.

10. Timothy Ware identifies some of these Fathers in his book, The Orthodox Church, p. 212 as follows: The Orthodox Church has never attempted to define exactly who the Fathers are, still less to classify them in order of importance. But it has a particular reverence for the writers of the fourth century, and especially for those whom it terms ‘the Three Great Hierarchs’: Gregory of Nazianzus [the Theologian], Basil the Great, and John Chrysostom. In the eyes of Orthodoxy the ‘Age of the Fathers’ did not come to an end in the fifth century, for many later writers are also ‘Fathers’—Maximus, John of Damascus, Theodore of Studium, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, Mark of Ephesus. Indeed, it is dangerous to look on ‘the Fathers’ as a closed cycle of writings belonging wholly to the past, for might not our own age produce a new Basil or Athanasius? To say that there can be no more Fathers is to suggest that the Holy Spirit has deserted the Church.

11. Fr. Sergii Chetverikov, Starets Paisii Velichkovskii, p. 246.

12. Florovsky (op. cit., p. 87) discussing these "unwritten mysteries" existing in the Church of Basil’s day as including: "the use of the sign of the Cross in the rite of admission of Catechumens; the orientation toward East at prayer; the habit to keep standing at worship on Sundays; the epiclesis in the Eucharistic rite; the blessing of water and oil, the renunciation of Satan and his pomp, the triple immersion, in the rite of Baptism." Also Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 204, gives the content of Tradition its broader perspective when he says: "It means the books of the Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons—in fact, the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages. The Orthodox Christian of today sees himself as heir and guardian to a great inheritance received from the past, and he believes that it is his duty to transmit this inheritance unimpaired to the future."

13. Ware, op. cit., p. 213.

14. See Florovsky, op. cit., p. 74.

15. Archbishop Paul of Finland, The Faith We Hold, p. 18.

16. Ware, op. cit., p. 207.

17. See William Kirk Kilpatrick, Psychological Seduction, p. 166.

18. Florovsky, op. cit., p. 10.

19. Archbishop Ilarion (Troitsky), Christianity Or The Church?, p. 31.

20. Ilarion, op. cit., p. 32.

21. George Cronk, The Message of the Bible, p. 24.

22. Florovsky, op. cit., p. 10.

23. Kilpatrick, op. cit., p. 165, rightly says: "God did not create a simple world, and He has not given us a simple religion. The doctrine of the Incarnation is every bit as subtle as the doctrine of protons and electrons, and much more so."

24. The Early Christian Fathers, edited by Henry Bettenson, p. 32.

25. The Apostolic Fathers, edited by Jack N. Sparks, p. 73.

26. See Bettenson, op. cit., p. 5.

27. Ibid., pp. 42-44.

28. Georges Florovsky, Christianity and Culture, p. 89.

29. Alexander Schmemann, Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, pp. 28-33. For further reading in early church development read Florovsky, Christianity and Culture, pp. 88-96; Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, pp. 19-25.

30. Bettenson, op. cit.

31. Schmemann, op. cit., p. 29.

32. Bettenson, op. cit., p. 61.

33. As quoted in "The References to Baptism and the Eucharist" in the First Apology of Saint Justin Martyr, p. 13.

34. Quoted in "The Form of Baptism", Bishop Ephraim, p. 3.

35. Quoted in "The Form of Baptism", Bishop Ephraim, p. 3.

36. Alexander Schmemann, Of Water And The Spirit, pp. 55, 56. The Protestant view of Baptism, if not the Sacraments in general, was considerably affected by the 18th Century European "Enlightenment" which depreciated the role of mystery in life. In the "Enlightenment view" everything has to be rational, reasonable and understandable. Human understanding was stressed over divine activity. The focus of faith shifted from God’s action to our action. So when we think of the meaning of Baptism in Enlightenment terms, the answer has to do with our testimony, a means of our understanding certain truth, our means of joining the Church, a little memory exercise that helps us say, remember or think something. From Remember Who You Are by William Willimon, pp. 33, 34.

37. Quoted by "The References to Baptism and the Eucharist" in the First Apology of Saint Justin the Martyr, p. 20.

38. Sparks, op. cit., p. 112.

39. Bettenson, op. cit., p. 96.

40. The Life in Christ, Nicholas Cabasilas, p. 23.

41. See Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, pp. 38, 39.

42. Ibid., p. 226.

43. From Sacred Symbols That Speak, Vol. I, Anthony M. Coniaris, p. 5.

44. Schmemann, op. cit., p. 38.

45. From "The References to Baptism and the Eucharist" in the First Apology of Saint Justin, pp. 22, 23.

46. Louis Bouyer, Eucharist, pp. 103, 104.

47. "Orthodox Light," Vol. 4, April 1988, p. 5.

48. I was deeply moved and encouraged by the comments of one who was working for the restoration of the Orthodox way of life in the West. He recognized that one cannot ignore the thousand years of Western cultural experience that has formed the souls of the Westerners and its genuine values and virtues. Then with compassion and sensitivity he said that Orthodoxy, if it is the fullness of truth, should reveal such largeness of soul, such generosity of spirit, that anything of genuine value and truth in any culture should be purged and transfigured in its radiance. I most humbly say, "Amen!" "So be it!"

This article originally appeared in The True Vine, no. 5, published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Reprinted with permission.