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Our Journey to Orthodoxy
Letters to My Beloved

Table of Contents...

Challenge + Apologia + Post-reading + It fits!
Testing the Church + About these letters + History


Sarah, my dear friend,

Well, once again you have, as you always do, set me one of the greatest challenges of my life. What finally convinced me? There was no one thing that finally convinced me, and to thoroughly describe all the things that finally convinced me would be the project of a lifetime. I have a week.

Actually, though, you already know most of what finally convinced me: I have been sharing the things that have convinced me all along. So my description of what finally convinced me will probably repeat a lot of the things you have already heard. If you are hoping that my description of what finally convinced me will convince you, you are almost certain to be disappointed. Only God can do that. If you are hoping to find reasons not to believe Orthodoxy in my description, you will most likely find them. I am a very fallible and limited human being. There are probably lots of wrong reasons for converting mixed up with all of the right ones. In the end, I have simply put my trust in the mercy of God that He will not let His servant who wants so much simply to know and to live His great Truth—yet even there I cannot claim that my wanting is pure—that He will not let me, His servant, go astray as I have earnestly sought for His Truth. But that is not an argument, nor is it even a description that I would expect to convince anyone—besides me. And even I am only convinced because I have to be. If the Lord is not merciful, if God is not gracious to those who seek Him, then there is no hope for us whatsoever. And I cannot live without hope.

But the question remains. I trust that the Lord has not let me stray. Well and good. I have, in that trust, become convinced that the Orthodox Church's claim to be the One True Church and the Body of Christ is a true claim. Why? And here the challenge begins.



Our gospel is an historical gospel. If it is not true history, it is nothing. How then can we throw the historical Church, which witnessed to and preserved the historical gospel by the blood of its martyrs, into such disrepute? How can we say to it, Yes, you were right about which books were inspired, Yes, you were right to copy them out by the thousands and by the tens of thousands that their witness might be preserved, Yes, you were right to lay down your lives for their preservation, but No, you were utterly wrong about the role that you thought this gospel gave you? You had no right to authoritatively pronounce the heretics wrong—you should simply have let the books speak for themselves. You had no right to claim to be the Church, or to authoritatively pronounce that the heretics were not part of the Church—only God knows who are His. You had no right to guard the gospel, for it is God's message and He does not need men to guard His word.

Of course God does not need men to guard His word. And of course only God knows for certain who is truly His. But the books do not speak for themselves—we have only to look around us at the millions of different individual interpretations of the books to see this is true: the books have spoken, we have imperfectly understood the books' message, and the books, having spoken, have nothing more to say. They cannot clarify themselves or further explain themselves—only men can do that.

God does not need men to guard His word. He could, if He so chose, speak directly to every individual, or write on every wall in letters of fire His judgements against mankind—and His message of mercy. But He has chosen not to. He has chosen, in His infinite mercy, to involve us men in the living preservation and propagation and enactment of His gospel. We are His good news: we, as we submit to God's revelation of Himself in the ultimate union of God with man, the body and bride of the God-man Jesus Christ, the Church—as we do this we actually become a part, an enactment of God's message, the gospel. And the early Christians understood this. It was for this reason that the early Church so jealously and so zealously, and so authoritatively guarded the gospel. They recognized that they were the message. They had every right, every responsibility to guard the gospel's purity. That's why the early Church consistently said that the heretics had no right to re-interpret the Scriptures and often refused even to discuss the interpretation of Scripture with them: the Scriptures were not their books, the Church said, the Scriptures belonged to the Church, because the Church is the gospel in action. The books are snapshots, hugely important snapshots, with our Lord at the center of each one, the Bible is the family photo album, treasured because of the history it accurately and authoritatively preserves, but the Church is the living, breathing reality, the Bride herself, guardian of the precious pictures of her betrothed, able and eager to speak about them to all men, and speaking in the Spirit of Love.

Only God knows for certain who is truly His. In this world we all grope in the darkness. We do not know one another's hearts, which is one of the reasons our Lord told us not to judge. But we are to judge others' actions, their confessions, words, and deeds, and their fruits. Light has come into our world of darkness, and we are to judge all things, and especially ourselves, by the fullness of that light, God's ultimate revelation of Himself in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. And the Church likewise is called to judge itself—indeed, "judgement begins with the house of God"—and is called to judge its members authoritatively. It is a huge and solemn responsibility, but one as necessary to the salvation of the world as judging ourselves is necessary to the salvation of both our own souls and the souls of those around us. We are the message, the message of full re-union with both God and man. If the message is muddied by unconfessed sin or is clouded by uncondemned heresy, how will we, or the Church, save our hearers?

Today we talk about an invisible Church, one made up of all true believers in Christ, no matter how much they disagree on matters of doctrine or on the interpretation of Scripture. I do not doubt that all who put their faith and trust in Christ as their only hope of salvation will be saved in the last day of judgement. But I do not see the Church as it's described in Scripture as being at all invisible. And I do not see disagreement on matters of doctrine or on the interpretation of Scripture as being at all unimportant, either in Scripture or in early Church history. Yes, of course there was never complete unity on all things, but there was always accountability to one another—no church or group of churches ever struck off on its own without either condemning the rest of the Church as heretical or without being itself condemned as heretical by the rest of the Church. The complete lack of accountability between Protestant denominations today is unique in all of Church history. I would suggest that it is unique because it is not apostolic. If the idea of the invisible Church had been apostolic, it would have been easy for almost any of the major heresies, or even for some of the more controversial reform movements simply to split off and say, "Well, we're sorry you don't see things our way, but, since we don't, we'll just go off and do them our way on our own. It doesn't matter if we're not unified, nor does it really matter all that much that you don't see things our way—after all, we're all still part of the same invisible Church, you know. Only God really knows who are His." But, to the best of my knowledge, no one did. The closest you could come would be the state Aryan "church", which tried to enforce intercommunion. Or perhaps the Gnostics who said pretty much anyone was OK, no matter how weird, just so long as they thought about something spiritual (they themselves being the weirdest of the bunch). But the Church never said this, not even for the puritanical, but otherwise orthodox (even trinitarian!) Donatists, and the Donatists certainly never said the rest of the Church was OK!

Thus, in defending the idea of the invisible Church, I found I had to throw into question the reliability of Church history. "Well, all these documents were preserved by the institutional Church..." I might begin, only to remember some other rather important documents that were also preserved by the institutional Church. If the Church had altered or selectively preserved its own history, who was to say it had not done the same with Scripture? And, if I could not trust the Church, who was to say what it had or had not altered over the millennium or so of its pre-Reformation history? How could I know anything for certain? The whole invisible—Church defense was starting to feel remarkably like a conspiracy theory, or like liberal "Christian" scholarship, or, if I took it to its logical extreme, like existential skepticism.

The books speak, yes, but men interpret, and the books cannot comment on men's interpretations—only men can do that. Which is why our Lord gave his disciples authority to teach: "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen." Which is why Paul told Timothy to "charge [authoritatively] some that they teach no other doctrine," and himself charged Timothy "before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine", and why he told Titus, "These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee." Is such authority gone from the earth? Or does it reside only in Scripture? But there was Scripture in Paul's day (witness II Timothy 3:16) and still he thought such authority was necessary. Which is why, I would suggest, it is still necessary today, and does exist in the apostles' successors, in the Church as it remains faithful (like Timothy and Titus) to the apostolic deposit entrusted to her (II Timothy 2:2). Which is why—if this is so, as I believe it is—Paul calls this visible, authoritatively-teaching Church, "the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." For how can an invisible Church, which no one but God can see, and possessing no authority but that of Scripture, witness authoritatively, or even effectively, to the truth, never mind be its pillar and ground? Who will be able to discern the Church's witness if they cannot even discern who is the Church? "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?"

Our gospel is an historical gospel, and so the Church is an historical Church. Yes, it is full of blemishes and evil men, just as we ourselves are full of sin. But, just as we have been washed and sanctified and justified, and yet are not yet made pure, but will be, so Christ has sanctified and will sanctify the Church, cleansing it "with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." And, just as we, though imperfect, are His witnesses, so the Church, though imperfect, is His witness. With one difference. Our witness, as individuals, is not complete, for we are none of us the Body of Christ on our own. The Church is—and its collective witness is thus both complete and authoritative. And, being the Body of Christ, the Church's witness is, to some extent, to itself. If to itself alone, its witness is incomplete, for what is a body without a head? But, if to itself and to Christ, witnessing in the power of its life, the Holy Spirit of God, then, in the very fullest of senses, the Church is the gospel, the reality, in history, that God has become man in order to unite men to Him.



If this is true, if the Church is as visible and as readily identifiable a community as it was in the days when it met in Solomon's porch and was seen and magnified by all the people, and if the Church, as this visible community, is continuing as steadfastly "in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" as it was in the days just after Pentecost, then only one possible modern-day candidate is left. The invisible Church is out, obviously, and you know well enough why I think the Catholic Church is out of the running. That leaves the Orthodox Church, and much of what I have already written has been dedicated to showing that the Orthodox Church is the Church of Acts 2:42, not in the "brethren" (or other Protestant) sense of "getting back to the original blueprints", but rather in the sense that "the child is father of the man": with the same genetic code, the same basic practices and beliefs, the same apostolic deposit of faith, expressed differently and yet identifiably the same throughout all the stages of its growth and development.

Hmm... Glancing back over my Evolution of an Apology (my collection of e-mail exchanges with you and other friends about Orthodoxy, culminating in the letters to the chapel), I realize I haven't been as thorough in demonstrating the correspondence between the Orthodox Church's practices and beliefs and the practices and beliefs of the apostolic (NT) and post-apostolic Church as I thought I had, at least not in writing anyway. I was going to refer you to my discussion of the role of the clergy towards the end of my second letter to the chapel, because I thought I had also touched on the principle of Church development there. I hadn't, but I still refer you to the letter for the questions of the role and authority of the clergy and of the real presence of the body and blood of our Lord in the Eucharist. As for the principle of development, it should be obvious to anyone that there were neither deacons, nor elders, nor bishops, nor any clear distinction made between elders and bishops in the Church of Acts 2:42, and that all these things were later developments in the Church as it sought to respond to changing needs and circumstances. If development was approved and initiated by the apostles, and was accepted without question by the whole generation trained up (and, in the case of the bishops, appointed) by the apostles, I would suggest that the principle of Church development is itself apostolic—so long as that development fulfills rather than contradicts the apostolic tradition. (The infallibility of the pope would be a good example of something that contradicts the apostolic tradition.)

On the other key practices and beliefs of the Orthodox Church, and their correspondence with the practices and beliefs of the apostolic and post-apostolic Church, I will touch only briefly, pointing you to a few key passages and readings, and mostly leaving you to consider whether they correspond. They do in my mind, at any rate. These together, then, here in only the very briefest of outline sketches (left so for you to fill in the details), are some more of the things that finally convinced me.

Justin Martyr on baptismal regeneration (155AD):

How we dedicated ourselves to God when we were made new through Christ I will explain, since it might seem to be unfair if I left this out from my exposition. Those who are persuaded and believe that the things we teach and say are true, and promise that they can live accordingly, are instructed to pray and beseech God with fasting, for the remission of their past sins, while we pray and fast along with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are reborn by the same manner of rebirth by which we ourselves were reborn; for they are then washed in the water in the name of God, the Father and Master of all, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. For Christ said, 'Unless you are born again you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.' Now it is clear to all that those who have once come into being cannot enter the wombs of those who bore them. But as I quoted before, it was said through the prophet Isaiah how those who have sinned and repent shall escape from their sins. He said this: 'Wash yourselves, be clean, take away wickednesses from your souls, learn to do good, give judgment for the orphan and defend the cause of the widow, and come and let us reason together, says the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as wool, and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. If you will not listen to me, the sword will devour you; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken these things.' And we learned from the apostles this reason for this [rite]. At our first birth we were born of necessity without our knowledge, from moist seed, by the intercourse of our parents with each other, and grew up in bad habits and wicked behaviour. So that we should not remain children of necessity and ignorance, but [become sons] of free choice and knowledge, and obtain remission of the sins we have already committed, there is named at the water, over him who has chosen to be born again and has repented of his sinful acts, the name of God the Father and Master of all. Those who lead to the washing the one who is to be washed call on [God by] this term only. For no one may give a proper name to the ineffable God, and if anyone should dare to say that there is one, he is hopelessly insane. This washing is called illumination, since those who learn these things are illumined within. The illuminand is also washed in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets foretold everything about Jesus.

I could probably quote you at least seven more clear references showing the post-apostolic and early Church's belief in baptismal regeneration, but if you'll take my word that Justin Martyr's account is representative, I will only ask you to keep it mind and go back and re-read I Peter 3:18-22, Acts 2:38-39, and Romans 6:1-11, and then ask yourself whether an apostolic belief in baptismal regeneration is not the simplest and clearest way to make sense of these passages. As far as I know, the only churches that teach baptismal regeneration today are the Lutherans, the Anglicans (sort of, and if you can still call them a church), the Catholics, and the Orthodox.

On the veneration (reverential, loving treatment) of holy, physical things, especially the bodies of the saints:

This one is considerably more difficult, mainly because this was something that the early Church simply did, as a natural response of the human heart, not something that it really thought about. Hence, the examples that follow are more indicators of a general attitude held by the early Christians towards things physical, not expressions of any systematic theology of things physical—that came later, much later, probably only when people started asking questions about it. Luke 7:37-38; John 12:3, 19:38-42; Acts 8:2, 20:37-38; Romans 16:16; I Peter 5:14, and, illustrating that God does work through physical things if He so chooses (not because of any miraculous or magical power inherent in the things themselves), Mark 5:25-34; and Acts 19:11-12. Note that this attitude towards holy, physical things seems to be one of those appropriate carry-overs from Judaism: the Jews did have a lot of things right—after all, they were God's chosen people, entrusted with the very oracles of God! And, finally, a sample of the attitude of the immediately post-apostolic Church, from The Martyrdom of Polycarp, circa 156AD:

But the jealous and malicious evil one, the adversary of the race of the righteous, seeing the greatness of his [Polycarp's] martyrdom and his blameless life from the beginning, and how he was crowned with the wreath of immortality and had borne away an incontestable reward, so contrived it that his corpse should not be taken away by us, although many desired to do this and to have fellowship with his holy flesh. He instigated Nicetas, the father of Herod and brother of Alce, to plead with the magistrate not to give up his body, 'else,' said he, 'they will abandon the Crucified and begin worshiping this one.' This was done at the instigation and insistence of the Jews, who also watched when we were going to take him from the fire, being ignorant that we can never forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those who are saved, the faultless for the sinners, nor can we ever worship any other. For we worship this One as Son of God, but we love the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord, deservedly so, because of their unsurpassable devotion to their own King and Teacher. May it be also our lot to be their companions and fellow-disciples!
The captain of the Jews, when he saw their contentiousness, set it [i.e., his body] in the midst and burned it, as was their custom. So we later took up his bones, more precious than costly stones and more valuable than gold, and laid them away in a suitable place. There the Lord will permit us, so far as possible, to gather together in joy and gladness to celebrate the day of his martyrdom as a birthday, in memory of those athletes who have gone before, and to train and make ready those who are to come hereafter.

On the subject of prayers for the dead (not a major part of Orthodox worship and thus not one I've looked into in a great deal of detail), I have only one passage: II Timothy 1:16-18. It was a common Jewish practice at the time, particularly among the Pharisees (who, of course, believed in the resurrection of the dead), and I gather that even some Protestant scholars concede that this passage is a prayer for the dead Onesiphorus. Paul prays that the Lord will show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus (but not Onesiphorus himself), continually refers to Onesiphorus' actions in the past tense, and, when he does pray for Onesiphorus, prays, "The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day"—"that day" being, it is fairly safe to assume, the day of judgement. I should have some early Church references here to show continuity, but, as I say, it's not a question I've looked into in great detail, so I don't know of any. I can probably find some later for you, if you're interested. I do know that the basic idea of prayers for the dead is not that our prayers can somehow save those who have died: no prayers are said for those who have died unrepentant in their sin. The idea seems more to be that since, after death, all those who have trusted in Christ are purified (I Corinthians 3:12-16, yes, I know this is primarily in reference to our work on the Church, but it's often—and I think rightly, in light of I Corinthians 6:19—also applied to our own works and salvation as individuals in the day of judgement: note especially 3:15 in this context) and transformed into His image (Philippians 3:21, etc.)—that, just as we pray for one another's purification and transformation into the image of Christ in this life, so, since the day of judgement has not yet come, we can still pray the same sorts of things for those who have departed this life and have gone into, but are not yet raised up in (the resurrection not having taken place yet), the next. Read for yourself some of the Orthodox prayers for the departed if you want to make sure that my explanation is indeed consistent with Orthodox practice and belief. I recognize that this explanation may not be enough for you, but you asked me what had finally convinced me. This explanation, in conjunction with the continual practice of the historical Church (as well as the Jews and, apparently, Paul) and the understanding of the Church as historical, as outlined above in the "Apologia", was enough for me.

On the subject of prayers through the saints, I can't say much more than I've already said in my sample Protestant-Orthodox dialogue on the subject in my second letter to the chapel. As I point out in the letter, if the main underlying Orthodox assumption is granted, the reliability and authority of Church tradition, then rather a lot of things fall into place, including prayers to saints (well, to them and thus through them, but you know what I mean!). The one thing I might add, having experienced prayers to saints "from the inside", so to speak, would be that the feel of it seems to me entirely consistent with the "cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews 12:1, and with the whole idea of being "absent from the body, present with the Lord", and being thus, more than ever, a part of His Body, the Church. Indeed, the whole idea of tradition implies some sort of relationship with those who have gone before, the main change from the Jewish to the Christian tradition being Christ's abolishment of death. In fact, even the Jews prayed to Elijah in times of great trouble, knowing that he was already present with God, and the custom was so widespread and so widely-accepted in our Lord's day that, when he cried from the cross, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani", some of those standing by thought he was calling upon Elijah. Obviously the existence of the Jewish custom itself proves nothing—the Jews also ended up worshipping the bronze serpent, after all—but, if they did have this one right, then it would make sense that, as the Church grew in its understanding of what Christ's abolishment of death really meant, that they would continue the deep love and fellowship in prayer that they had with one another all the more after those who had gone before had gone on to be with the Lord. Nor is it so surprising that we have no examples of prayers to saints in the New Testament: even now the vast majority of the public prayers of the Church are addressed directly to God. Prayers to saints are not, and never have been, an end in themselves—they are by nature prayers to be passed on to God, and are an expression of the Church's living fellowship with those who have gone on before.

On Mary I have not much to say, other than that she is blessed among women, the first to hear and to trust in the gospel of Christ, the new Eve, by whose obedience life came instead of death, a picture of the Church in her role as Christ-bearer, and the Mother of God (not according to His divinity, of course!, but according to His humanity). It is no wonder that the Church accords her a prominent place in its prayers!

On icons I have quite a lot to say, but that is best left to the next e-mail. I could go on like this forever, but this sort of point-by-point examination of Orthodox practices and beliefs was not what finally convinced me of the truth of Orthodoxy. It played a role, of course, and a very vital role—"The heart cannot rejoice in what the head cannot accept"—but what finally convinced me of Orthodoxy (if any one thing could be said to have convinced me) is what I have already outlined in the "Apologia" and what I am about to sketch out in my next e-mail, "It fits!"


It fits!

I did not come to accept the Orthodox Church's claim to be the True Church as true because of a point-by-point consideration of its doctrines. I came to accept it because it fit: it fit with Scripture and with Church history as outlined above in my "Apologia", it fit with my personal experience of God, as I've outlined in so many of my letters, and it fit together in all its aspects, just like the living Truth should fit together if it is truly One—as we who are followers of the Truth know that He is. Orthodoxy, more than any other form of Christianity that I've ever encountered, is not just a set of doctrines, it is a life. The doctrines are there too, of course, but, just as the doctrines of the apostolic Church were not mere logical propositions, but living witness to all that the apostles had seen and heard and experienced, so the doctrines of the Orthodox Church are not cold statements of systematic theology, but instead are living witness to the Church's apostolic and spiritual life. When they are taken apart and analyzed piece-by-piece, the danger is that the analyst may miss the whole Truth of its life, just as a botanist caught up in analysis may miss the beauty of the whole flower as he dissects it.

I just went for a walk in the woods behind our house. Wow. Christianity is not just another abstract, monotheistic religion or philosophy. Our God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things, both visible and invisible, Sustainer of all things, present everywhere, in all things and at all times—our God came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man. The Prime Mover, the Primordial Being, the Omnipresent and All-powerful One became present as a human baby-in Bethlehem of all places, a small village in Judea, one single, specific place. And at one single, specific time—our God, the Eternal King, has a birthday! By so doing, the omnipresent One became present at one single place and time, and no other, and by so doing, He has hallowed the particular. The ultimate Abstract has been made ultimately concrete. The Eternal One has entered, and has thus hallowed, history. Of course it was holy before, in one sense: all the particular was created by Him. But now He has hallowed it in a completely different sense: by becoming present in one particular place at one particular time, He has hallowed the particular with His presence. And now all particular places and times and people and all created things are hallowed as they enter into and participate in the presence of Him who hallowed the particular, and all the particular that so enters will be taken up into and participate, as particular, in Him in Whom will be all things, that God may again be All in all. Our Lord, our Lord's Body is not the ultimate melting-pot. It is, instead, and thus He has become the most intricate and beautiful of all mosaics.

In the forest there are trees and smaller plants, and rocks and dirt, and leaves and branches, dead and alive, fallen and unfallen, and insects and worms and birds and all manner of living things, seen and unseen, and I could go on and on like this and never describe the forest. I could pick out one key feature, the trees (for trees, of course, make a forest), but if I consider it in isolation, I will never understand the forest. For the tree is certainly separate from the dirt, but separate the tree from the dirt and you will never have a tree. The tree grows in the dirt, draws up water from beneath the soil, absorbs energy from the sun through its leaves, grows, and, as it grows, breaks up the rocks beneath, brings forth fruit, which the birds and the other creatures and the winds distribute, dies, rots, falls, and is eaten by insects and worms, and, together with the rocks, is made into new dirt in which new trees grow in the forest. Everything is connected because it is all one great Creation, because its one Source is the Source of all life.

So it is with the Orthodox Church. If you begin to describe and analyze all its components, you will most likely miss the forest for the trees. But, because it is all one Life, all one Truth, if you start with any one component, you will find it inextricably connected with all the rest. Take Mary, for example. If you ask why we pray to her, you get into prayers to saints, which gets into what happens to Christians after death, which gets into eschatology, which brings up God's plan for Creation, which... and so on. Or, from prayers to saints, you might get into the saints' relationship with God, and what it means for us to pray to Him, how and by whom we are to pray to Him, which brings up the various roles of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which gets us into the Trinity, which... and so on. Or perhaps instead of considering what it means for us to pray to God, we might consider what it means for us to pray for one another, which brings up both the role God has given us in participating in and bringing about His divine plan and our relationship to one another in the Church (which is itself connected to the role God has give us in participating in and bringing about His divine plan), which brings up the new relationship between God and man in the Church, which... and so on. Or, from the question of why we pray to Mary, we might instead explore her relationship with God, all of what it means for God to have been made man, how He has thus, by His presence, hallowed the particular, what it means that He indwells our physical bodies and has, in the person of His Son, made us into His Body, the Church, and so on. We could go on and on and on like this and never, ever get to an ending. It is all connected.

This is also the case, to some extent at least, in Protestantism and in all other forms of Christianity. But the feeling (for it's hard to judge all these intricate interconnections except by feeling) I always found as a Protestant was of a patchwork quilt in which many of the patches didn't quite fit together, and with a lot of missing pieces and unfinished edges. The basis of our faith is the Bible—why? No answer. Or, occasionally, "because it transforms people's lives." Well... OK, but other books have also transformed people's lives—what makes the Bible special? No answer. Switching topics to the whole faith/works question: Is not faith, the act of choosing to believe something, itself a work? How then are we saved by faith "alone"? No answer. Switching to the question of fellowship: With whom should we have fellowship? "All Christians." How do we know who is a Christian? "Well, if he believes the same things that we do." On all things? "No, on the essentials." How do we know what are the essentials? No satisfactory answer.

Of course the above is intended only as a poetic representation of what I found in Protestantism. There were always answers. Except many of them did not seem satisfactory, and the ones that did didn't always seem to fit with one another. It felt like being lost in a city full of blind alleyways and one-way streets. I do not claim to have understood all the Orthodox answers I have received, but they do all seem to fit together. When I am lost in Orthodoxy, it feels more like being lost, not in a man-made city, but in a naturally supernatural, splendiferous forest. I know, this probably isn't too helpful, but you asked me what finally convinced me of the truth of Orthodoxy, and this is as close as I can come to representing it.

Perhaps it might help if I take up Orthodox iconology and Protestant iconoclasm as an example. Just remember, this is only the consideration of the role of a single tree in a rather large forest!

To start with Protestant iconoclasm then, seeing as it is basically the position I held to begin with. (Insofar as I held any position on the matter, that is—I hadn't thought it through very thoroughly.) Protestant iconoclasm is largely based on a strict interpretation of Exodus 20:4-6 and on a misinterpretation of the Orthodox use of icons. In its strictest forms it condemns all symbolic representations of God, including crosses, as idolatry. But then, words are symbols too, are they not? Might that not make Scripture texts on church walls Bible-olatry? The strict iconoclasts will say that material things do not matter, that showing reverence to any material thing is a form of idolatry, and that the only thing that really matters in our worship of God is the attitude of our heart. "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth," they often quote. Yet these same people condemn vandalism to church buildings with especial vehemence, tell children not to run in the church, advise young men and women to dress up when they come to church, and take particularly good care of their Bibles. Is this not inconsistent? Are churches and Bibles and clothes not all physical things? And it's not that these people are hypocrites, or aren't trying to put their beliefs into practice—they are trying. It's just that they can't because their belief is not natural. God made us body, soul, and spirit, so true worship of Him always ends up being physical as well as spiritual.

Of course not all Protestants are strict iconoclasts in the sense of condemning all Christian symbolism. But most Protestants are iconoclastic in the sense of saying that physical things do not matter—only spiritual things really matter—and that physical representation, when it is used in worship, is somehow dangerous. Actually, these two statements should not be made together, since they are mutually exclusive, but (in my experience, at least) they are often made by the same people. But as soon as you say that physical representation in worship is dangerous you are saying that physical things do matter, and that the physical does have an impact on the spiritual. The first position is, I would say, a natural outgrowth of the classic faith/works dichotomy that is fundamental to pretty much all of Protestantism. Faith is all-important. Works are, by comparison at least, unimportant: they affect our eternal reward, but not our eternal salvation. Thus, the spiritual is all-important, while the physical is, at least relatively speaking, unimportant. Our salvation is an entirely juridical affair, in which, at a single point in time, we are justified by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, pronounced innocent, then and ever after, entirely on the basis of His imputed merit, and not on any merit of our own. Everything that happens afterwards is simply sanctification, and, since there are no works that we can do that have any bearing on our eternal salvation, the "eternal security" branch of Protestantism (actually a form of Calvinism) seems to me to be the most logically consistent of the bunch (for faith comes from God and to say that we have to continue in that faith would imply that some effort of our own—a work-is needed to obtain eternal salvation).

Obviously I ended up having severe problems with this position. (I told you everything was interconnected. Here we started out with iconoclasm and we've ended up dealing with soteriology—the doctrine of salvation!) Not the least of my problems with it was the second position, that the use of physical representation in worship is somehow dangerous, for it was the Calvinists who ended up being the most iconoclastic of all the Protestants. But if the physical does not matter—if only faith and the spiritual really matter—then whether or not one is surrounded by physical representation, even physical representation of God, should not matter at all! And to say that physical representation distracts from or somehow distorts our worship of God is to admit that the physical does have some bearing, does have some real and significant effect upon the spiritual! Then the works of our hands—or the works of other people's hands, at least—do affect our worship and our salvation! (For if there is anything on our part that can be said to save us, it is wholehearted, sincere, and, above all, right belief that matters—and idolatry in any form would distort that belief, and thus distort our worship and jeopardize our eternal salvation.)

Nor does the extreme "faith is all that really matters" position fit with the Biblical concept of sin. Many sins, such as gluttony, are physical, and to resist them is largely a physical act—a work. Of course if they are resisted merely on the physical level and not on the spiritual (such as lusting after a woman—or man—but not doing anything about it), such resistance is useless: they must be resisted on both fronts—but it's that "both" that undermines both the "faith is all that really matters" position and the whole Protestant faith/works dichotomy. Faith is not separable from works, the two must go together or they have no spiritual value at all! That is the point of James' "faith without works is dead" passage, and that is what Paul means when he says (if in rather more words) that works without faith is equally dead! The two go together. The two are inseparable! The spiritual does affect and impact the physical, and the physical equally affects and impacts the spiritual! We are indeed body, soul, and spirit!

Sorry, I'm getting carried away here, but it was when I realized this that everything started to fall into place. Or, rather, as far as Protestantism was concerned, that everything began to fall out of place, and I finally saw that it could never all fit together properly. Of course I haven't dealt with all brands of Protestantism, but pretty much all of them are founded on some form of the faith/works dichotomy—which makes sense seeing as it was the initiator (if any one person can be said to be the initiator) of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, who added the word "alone" to Romans 1:17 ("the just shall live by faith alone"), and who condemned James as being "an epistle of straw"! But if Protestantism was falling out of place, how then did Orthodoxy fall into place?

Here the new understanding of faith and salvation that I came to (or that was consolidated in my mind) in Japan began to blossom. For I saw in Hebrews 11 that, with all the great heroes of the faith, their faith was expressed in their deeds, and over the course of the whole lives. And, with the idea of faith being a process of continually acting on what we know about God and continually being open to God's continual revelation of Himself to us, the idea of salvation itself as a continual, life-long process began to take shape. And then all sorts of verses began to make sense, finally: "Work out your salvation in fear and trembling," for example, and all the verses about judgement that refer to "works" and "things done in the body" and "what you have done (or not done) unto me" as well as "God shall judge the secrets of men" and "will make manifest the counsels [motives] of the heart", and also Paul's previously enigmatic statements in Philippians 3:8-16 ("not as though I had already attained"?!) and I Corinthians 9:24-27:

Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.

(By the way, there's a fascinating parallel here with the last sentence of the quote from The Martyrdom of Polycarp quoted above in "Post-reading"!)

I finally realized, especially as I looked into Orthodoxy, that the deeds that we do in the flesh really do matter, and matter to our eternal salvation, not in the old Catholic-Protestant sense of earning merit before a holy God (as if we unprofitable servants ever could earn any merit before Him-much less earn our salvation!), but rather in the sense that this life of ours is a spiritual training-ground, in which we are called to discipline ourselves, and in which God is disciplining us as sons, that we might be made ready to meet Him in faith. Every work done in faith is a submission to God's continual revelation of Himself to us in nature, in conscience, in His word, and in our brothers and sisters around us, the Church. Every revelation of Himself comes to us by His Holy Spirit, and even the faith that we have to respond to God's revelation of Himself is itself part of God's grace towards us. For all that we have and are is a gift from Him. We who have responded in faith to God's ultimate revelation of Himself, the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, are, in one sense at least, already saved: for in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily—what more is there left for us to accept? And yet we must also persevere in the faith: for in our relationship with Him He continually reveals more of Himself to us. If at any point we turn away and say, no, I cannot, I refuse to accept that You are like that, we jeopardize the relationship and endanger our eternal souls, for in doing so we are turning our back on the Truth Himself. That, by the way, is why the New Testament so confidently (and authoritatively) pronounces those who turn their backs on the light, the ultimate revelation of God, Jesus Christ, as "condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." And that is why those of us who are saved still need to "work out our salvation in fear and trembling." All of life, then, is a sort of spiritual (and physical) training-ground in which we must learn to submit ourselves in both faith and deed to the revelation of God, in preparation for that final day of judgement when we meet Him face to face and, as C.S. Lewis puts it in The Last Battle:

All looked straight in his [Aslan's—i.e., Jesus'] face, I don't think they had any choice about that. And when some looked, the expression of their faces changed terribly—it was fear and hatred: except that, on the faces of the Talking Beasts, the fear and hatred lasted only for a fraction of a second. You could see that they suddenly ceased to be Talking Beasts. They were just ordinary animals. And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow, which (as you have heard) streamed away to the left of the doorway. The children never saw them again. I don't know what became of them. But the others looked in the face of Aslan and loved him, though some of them were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in at the Door, in on Aslan's right.

This is Orthodox Christian gospel: that as we continue and are built up in our faith in Jesus Christ we are and—in the ultimate sense that is still to come and will come on that final day of judgement when we meet Him face to face—we will be saved. All is of faith, all is of grace, and, above all, all is of Christ.

I have been told, by godly Christian men whom I love and respect very much, that this is "another gospel". I do not think it is, any more than I would say, believing what I believe now, that the gospel that they preach is "another gospel"—which I wouldn't. I would say that what I've given above is a fuller, more complete, and more accurate description of the gospel to which we all point: the spiritual reality of salvation in and through Christ Jesus our Lord. There is such a thing as "another gospel" (one which points away from salvation by faith in Christ to salvation by the dead works of the law would be a good example) and there is of course such a thing as a flawed gospel (I would suggest that a rigorous "faith is all that really matters" gospel or a gospel message preached out of envy and strife might be good examples), but there is a significant difference between the two: one points away from Him who is our Message, while the other, despite its inaccuracies, is still the Message, only the Message distorted by the chipped and flawed glass of our limited understanding and sinful lives. I have no doubt that my own description of the Orthodox Christian gospel is, in places, not as accurate as it ought to be, but I am confident, having investigated and thought and prayed about the matter as thoroughly as I am able, that it is a more accurate (and more orthodox) description of the gospel than the logically (but not experientially) rigorous interpretation of Paul's description of the gospel (James' description having been rather neglected) with which I (and most Protestants) started out. (Sorry about all those parentheses!)

To return, then, to the Protestant iconoclasm from which we started out, I would suggest that it, like our logically rigorous interpretation of Paul's gospel, is based more on "logical" thought than on actual Christian experience. But the Christian life is a life, not a system of logically provable doctrines. Life and doctrine are not wholly separable: doctrine arises from and describes life experience ("that which we have seen and heard declare we to you"), and itself re-shapes life as it is passed on ("that ye also may have fellowship with us, [etc.]"), and, as the life is re-shaped by the doctrine, a fuller and deeper appreciation of the doctrine is made possible ("that your joy may be full"—-see also I Corinthians 3:1-2 and Hebrews 6:1-3). Logic and philosophy and even systematic theology are good and important, but they are not, have never been, and should never be the foundation for our rule of faith. The life and witness of the apostles and the prophets is our foundation, Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, "in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord, in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit."

Orthodox iconology, when I finally looked into the matter, seems to me firmly grounded and rooted in this very rule of faith, and a naturally interconnected part of the faith itself. Icons, or images, are symbolic representations of what we have seen and heard, as opposed to idols, of which Moses said, "Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness [of any created thing], and lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord thy God hath divided unto all the nations under the whole heaven." (Deuteronomy 4:15-19) The Israelites, when they heard God, did not see the likeness of any created thing, but we have seen, through the witness of the apostles, the One by whom the whole universe was created take upon Himself the form of a servant and made in the likeness of men, the One who is the image (ikon) of the invisible God, in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, full of grace and truth. "No man hath seen God at any time; [but] the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him" to us!

And we are made His ambassadors and His witnesses, that, just as Jesus said to the twelve when He sent them out, "He that receives you receives Me, and he that receives Me receives Him that sent Me", and, as He said to the seventy when He sent them out, "He that hears you hears Me; and he that despises you despises Me; and he that despises Me despises Him that sent Me", and, as He will say at the last day of judgement, "Inasmuch as ye have done [or not done] it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done [or not done] it unto Me", and again, as He said to His disciples, "For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in My name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward", so, in like manner, honor or dishonor shown to us in the name of Christ and because we belong to Him is honor or dishonor shown to Christ Himself! Thus God rewards honor or dishonor shown to us as His representatives in much the same way as He rewarded honor or dishonor shown to the symbolic representation of His presence among His people in the Old Testament, the ark of the covenant, or even, more generally, in much the same way as He rewards good or evil done to His image in all of us, for, as He proclaimed immediately after the flood, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man" (the same basis for judgement as we have just seen our Lord proclaim above). If this is so, and if even we acknowledge that the deliberate desecration of a Bible or of a crucifix or of an icon of Christ is not hostility directed towards the physical object, but towards God, then how can we help but acknowledge that honor paid to such images of Christ, or to the images of His image in His saints, is honor paid not to the physical objects, but to God? We, as Christians, do not worship nature, but we do honor it as the creation of God. We do not worship men, but we do value and honor them as creatures made in (and still made in, even now, despite the fall—see Genesis 9:6 quoted above) His image. We neither follow nor worship the saints, but we do follow and honor them as they follow Christ and show forth His image (see, for example, I Corinthians 11:1, Philippians 3:17, and Ephesians 2:29-30). And honor paid to them in the name of Christ, as with honor paid to or good done to any man in the name of Christ, as with honor paid to or thanksgiving given for any part of God's creation in the name of Christ (I Timothy 4:4-5), is honor, thanksgiving, good, and glory given to God. We honor God's image in all things, not to worship the image, not to worship and serve the created, but rather to honor and thus to worship and to serve in all things the Creator of all things, the Giver of every good and perfect gift, the invisible God now made visible in Christ, who is blessed forever. Amen.

All of life, then, is, in varying degrees, iconographic, and, as we recognize and honor the image of God in all things, so we worship and glorify God.

Similarly, to quote from the first footnote in my second letter to the chapel, "ultimately, in Orthodox sacramental theology all of life is a sacrament if lived in subjection to Christ." (This connects back to what I said above about soteriology, best summarized by another quote from the footnote: "if submission in faith to Christ and to the revelation of Jesus Christ is a continual thing, then every action that expresses that submission becomes a part of our salvation, and specific works of obedience such as baptism and partaking of the Lord's Supper become especially significant parts thereof. Such specific actions became known as sacraments," acts of our faith by which God makes us "sacred", or holy, thus conforming us as we continually wait on Him in the obedience of faith into the image of His Son.)

Similarly, all of human knowledge is simply experience, witness to that experience, and witness to experience that has been passed on and preserved over time, which is tradition. You were right, in a sense, when you said I was asking a huge thing of you to consider shifting the foundation of your faith from the Bible to Church tradition. But, in another sense, it is not such a huge thing: I am simply asking you to take a step down from the Protestant Christian tradition of sola scriptura, down to the more solid and real foundation of our faith: Church tradition, the faith that God reveals Himself to and works through His chosen people, the Church, those who have, individually and corporately, dedicated themselves to Him. For the Bible is Church tradition, the most important part of it, recognized as such by the Christians who lived it, and proclaimed as such by the Body they were all part of, the historical Church, the Bride who continually shows forth the Scriptures, throughout history, as the ultimate image (ikon) of her Betrothed, the Bridegroom, her Beloved.

This is why I have come to believe that the Orthodox Church is the True Church: it all fits, together, with Scripture, and with everything! It is indeed, as it has claimed to be all along, the fullness of the faith "once for all entrusted to the saints."


Testing the Church

But it is not possible that you should come to faith in the Orthodox Church by these letters—or, rather, it is not possible without some miraculous work of the Holy Spirit of God, for with Him, of course, all things are possible! It is no more possible to come to faith in the Orthodox Church by these letters than it is to learn Orthodoxy from books—that, in a sense, is the whole point of stressing the importance of a living Church tradition. For no one ever came to faith in Christ simply by reading a book, not the disciples, not the thief on the cross, not the Ethiopian eunuch, not even the noble-minded Bereans—all of the recorded conversions in the New Testament came about because of the personal witness of a member of Christ's Body, the Church. God in His sovereign mercy may occasionally draw people to Himself simply by their reading the Scriptures (I know my friend Tim in Japan was saved in that way)—they are, after all, the solid heartwood of the Church's tradition—but God's primary means of transmitting His gospel and of building us up in the faith is through the preaching and living example of His chosen people, and especially of His Church. (For the distinction I have in mind here, I am thinking of men like Apollos, whom God used even with partial knowledge and then later instructed more adequately through Priscilla and Aquilla, or of the disciples of John that Paul re-baptized, or of the man whom the apostles tried to stop "because he is not one of us" and of whom Jesus said, "he that is not against us is for us.") As Paul said to the Philippians, "Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do", or to the Corinthians, "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ", or again to the Philippians, "Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample", or to Timothy (just before he talks about the role of Scripture), "But continue thou in the things which thou has learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them," and again, "be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity", and again, "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also." Scripture of course plays a hugely important role, but it is the living example and witness of such faithful men that keeps the whole tradition alive: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle." If Scripture is the heartwood of Church tradition, then the collective witness and lives of the saints is the sapwood. (I suppose if we wanted to continue with this—probably imperfect—analogy, we might go on to say that Church dogma is the bark of Church tradition, and that its sap is the Holy Spirit.)

The most that I hope to achieve by these letters is to give, as you have asked me to give, a few of the reasons for the hope that is now within me, to show that my faith in the Church is both rational and consistent with Scripture. But even if after careful consideration and investigation of these things you find that you can acknowledge with me that faith in the Orthodox Church as the Church is both rational and Scriptural, that it at least might be true, in order to find out for yourself whether or not it is real, you will still have to do for yourself what I did for myself and what I have urged you to do: test the Church.

And when I say "test the Church", I do not mean (as I'm sure you already know) "come to the Easter Service and see if it feels like it is true." That would be like testing the Scriptures by reading only John chapters 20 and 21—it is possible for the Holy Spirit to illumine people through the reading of only those chapters, but it is not very probable. Everything leading up to those two (undeniably extremely important) chapters would be missing—though if read as a significant preliminary sample, the experience of reading those chapters would, of course, be valuable.

What I meant, insofar as I had coming to church in mind at all, was come a number of times (even Daniel and his friends asked for a ten-day trial, not just for one) and enter into the worship as much as you are able, and think about and ask about the things you are not able to enter into. And don't just ask me—though you know how happy I always am to try and answer your questions!—don't just take my word for things: ask Father, or some of the other church members who would be well-qualified to answer your questions. But what I had in mind most, I guess, especially at this stage of your investigations, was try out a brief Orthodox prayer rule (though it might not make as much of a difference in your already-established prayer life as it did in my—except for frequent "flash prayers"—virtually non-existent one), keep on reading and thinking about these things, and, above all, challenge Father and me with the toughest questions about and problems with the Orthodox Church's practices and claims that you can come up with, remaining open to the possibility (as I know you always do) that the answers and the solutions that we respond with may not be just rationalizations, but may actually be true (especially if they fit with Scripture, history, and reality, as I've gone on at great—probably too great!—length about above). That's what I did, at least, with both Protestant and Orthodox ecclesiologies (concepts of the Church) and, eventually, with both Protestant and Orthodox churches. You may come up with a different method of testing the Church, but, whatever method you use, I trust it will be no less fair or less thorough than what you would expect of a non-Christian testing the Scriptures. And, above all, pray that God will make clear to you His Truth and His True Church and protect you from all error (as I continually prayed—and still pray—for myself and am continually praying for you)—doubt and uncertainty are the greatest test of faith, but God does want us to eventually pass the test, not to continue in it forever. (Well, there is a sense in which we continue in the test right up until that which is perfect is come and we finally see Him face to face, but you know what I mean, I think...)

My prayers are with you, my friend, and I trust you, knowing that you will never knowingly make the wrong decision. You are too strong in the faith to do that. But, above all, I trust God, knowing that, as we seek Him, He will never let either of us go too far astray. He is the Good Shepherd, He is the Loving Master. I am His, you are His, and our futures are in His hand. Let us leave them there and simply seek, in all things, to follow, to learn more about, to honor, and to obey Him. He will work everything out in the end!


About these letters

Writing these letters has, from the outset, been an holy agony, the ultimate struggle between hope and despair. Hope has won out in the end, as I realized finally that we are both God's bondslaves, to do with what He will, and that He, as the Loving Master, will only do what is best for us.

And there was another sense, besides fear of the future (over which—thank God!—I have no control), in which writing these letters was, from the outset, an agonizing struggle between hope and despair: the questions and the issues I had to deal with and to convey are HUGE and ENORMOUSLY complex! They are all, every one of them, far beyond my ability to deal adequately with them. But hope finally won out as I realized that God holds the future and that your acknowledgment of the Truth does not depend on me, and that I am simply a witness to what little of the Truth I have gleaned and been given. As Father puts it, "We are all simply beggars telling other beggars where we have found some bread." Or, as it came to me as I thought about it, it felt like God was saying to me, "Look. That is a tree. This is a rock. Go straight through the trees, and do not worry about all the details of plant-cell biology and theories of arboreal ecology along the way—they do not concern you right now. Simply go straight through the trees, bringing a cup with you, until you come to a huge rock in the middle of the forest. Do not worry about your lack of knowledge of extrusive geology—you will know the rock when you see it. There is a cleft in the rock, and, springing from the cleft, a stream of water gurgles, pure and clear. Drink from the stream. And, with the cup, bring back some water for Sarah." And so I did. And so I have. Drink, my dear sister, in the name of the Lord. There may be a bitter taste at first—that is the film on our tongues from long fasting. But the water is pure. It is life. Even I, in my sin, have found it so, by the mercy of God.

Love in Christ,

your unworthy friend and brother,

Edward Justin.


A Postscript
(in response to a comment made by my beloved: "History is all messed up.")

Dear Sarah,

Here at last is that historical example that I promised you—I finally thought of the perfect one: the crucifixion and the resurrection of our Lord.

Our gospel is a historical gospel. If it is not true history, it is nothing. The apostles knew this—they founded all the claims of the gospel directly on its historicity. "And we are witnesses of all these things," is the constant refrain of the book of Acts.

Now history, as we all know, is a messy business, and it was no less messy a business back then than it is today. The very first thing that the chief priests and the elders of the Jews did to try and stop the spread of the gospel of Christ's resurrection was to muddy up history by paying off the soldiers who had guarded the tomb. "Say ye, his disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept," they told them. But, so long as there are determined and unbribable, truth-telling eye-witnesses around, there is always a limit to how much one can muddy up history. That is why the psalmists are always saying things like, "What profit is there in my blood when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? shall it declare thy truth?" and "Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; to the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent." The point here is not that death is the cessation of existence, but rather that the dead cannot witness to the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. The rulers of the Jews (who were undoubtedly familiar with the Psalms) were well aware of the power of eye-witness testimony, which was why their next move was to try and shut up and exterminate all these inconvenient eyewitnesses. And the apostles and disciples were equally well aware of the importance of eyewitness testimony to the preservation of history—even to the preservation of the all-important history of God's ultimate goodness to man—which was why they prayed (from the Psalms) for boldness and miraculous confirmation of their witness, and, later, for the deliverance of Peter. The very existence of the gospel was at stake. And the Lord answered their prayers.

There is also a physical limit to how much one can muddy up history. There was one thing that would have finally silenced the apostles' false testimony to the resurrection of Christ, had it been false—all the chief priests and the elders had to do to refute the apostles' testimony was to produce Jesus' body. It would still have been fairly readily identifiable, despite the decay, for Christ had been crucified, but his legs hadn't been broken (which was fairly unusual), and his side had been pierced, his back flogged, and a crown of thorns thrust on his brow. But that, of course, was the one thing that they could not do, for the simple reason that the apostles' testimony to the resurrection of Christ was not false, but true!

History, then, despite all its messiness, is the very foundation of the gospel. And the apostles, even aside from their claim to be witnesses to the resurrection, made the gospel's undisputable historicity the very foundation of their testimony. "Ye men of Israel," Peter said to his audience at Pentecost, "hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved by God among you [italics mine, of course] by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know, him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain". And again, to Cornelius and his household, "The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: (he is Lord of all:) that word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached". And again, Paul, in his defense before Agrippa and Festus, responding to Festus' outcry, "Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad", said, "I am not mad, most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness. For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner."

But of course the apostles' testimony to the resurrection of Christ was the centerpiece of all their witness and the core of their message, and was, at all times and in all places, and especially in the key speeches quoted from above, represented as just as reliably and as inextricably and as truly and verifiably historical as all the rest of their testimony was true. For no one, not even the chief priests and elders, trying so desperately to muddy the waters of history, was able to deny the historicity of the crucifixion of Christ, not even when apostles accused them of it did they deny it. Nor, as I have already mentioned, could they produce the body of Christ. Nor could they deny the change and the new boldness in the apostles. In the end then, the rulers of the Jews could not muddy the waters of history enough to stop the spread of this historical gospel, so that the only option left open to them was to try and stop it by force. And even this did not work. When the Jews persecuted the Christians in Jerusalem, the Christians fled in all directions to other cities—and so the gospel spread. They soon found that they could not even keep the leading witnesses securely locked up in their prisons! And, as the crowning blow to the campaign to wipe out this historical witness by force, the arch-persecutor of the Christians converted and became the gospel's arch-witness! God was undeniably working in history in His people (and even in those who were not His people!) to preserve His Church and His Church's historical witness to God's own historical gospel.

God's methods have not changed, any more than His message has changed. Yes, history is both messy and muddy, but it is still absolutely foundational to the gospel. "Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." But, praise God, despite the muddiness of history, the witness of His people has been preserved! "But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept." Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Yes, history is all messed up. Yes, the witness of the historical Church is messy and muddied by sin. But, thank God, His Truth is still discernible in amongst all this mess. Be very careful, my friend (as I know you will be), in whose witness you accept and whose you reject, and, above all, in your attitude towards history. Yes, it is a mess—it always was—but it is a mess that God has now hallowed by His presence among His chosen people. And it—or rather God working in it—is the very foundation of our faith.

I've written rather more strongly than I intended, and almost certainly much more strongly than I needed to. Sorry. But your "history is all messed up" statement struck a chord—I have seen that very attitude, or at least an extreme version of that attitude, keep someone very close to me from coming to the faith. I wrote the above for you, but I was inspired by the extreme danger I see in the "history is all messed up" attitude that I have seen in him.

The main point that I wanted to get across, I think, was, yes, history can be misrepresented and re-interpreted, but, so long as multiple witnesses and physical realities are preserved, there is always a limit to the extent to which history can be misrepresented and re-interpreted. Some historical witnesses say that the Jews were right to rebel against Rome, others say Rome was right to put down the Jewish rebellion, but all agree that Jerusalem fell and that the temple was destroyed in 70AD. The fact that there is no temple in Jerusalem today witnesses to that historical reality, and, since every historical witness we have, whether written by friend or by foe of the Jewish rebels, acknowledges that the temple was destroyed by the Romans, there is no sane person, even today, who would dispute either the time or the manner of its destruction. Of course you can always have conspiracy theorists who come up with wild ideas like that the temple was actually destroyed by aliens, or was actually destroyed in 150AD by Jews who wanted to give the Romans some bad press and so re-wrote history, and so on, but most sane people discount such ideas.

I have tried to go about reading Church history with the same sorts of basic, sane assumptions about people's (especially Christians') honesty, and about what sorts of things are actually possible to cover up, and about what sorts of doctrines might plausibly get lost in the shuffle of the post-apostolic generations—in other words, with the same sort of attitude towards witness and history that the apostles and early Christians assumed in their hearers. Reading with this attitude, I have not found any direct evidence, either in the New Testament or in any of the Church Fathers or in any other of the contemporary witnesses that might tell us about what the early Church practiced and believed—I have not found any evidence in any of these sources that clearly and unambiguously indicates that our current Protestant concept of the invisible Church was what the apostles taught about the nature of the Church. Some things do fit, it is true, but not everything (mainly, I would say, because the concept of the invisible Church is not wholly wrong: it is a good way of describing how God deals mercifully with those who seek Him, it's just not a very good description of His Church). But pretty much all of the evidence that I've found, whether apostolic or post-apostolic (and perhaps even all of it), does fit perfectly with the Orthodox understanding of the Church. If you find me to be wrong, please correct me.

You should actually be good at reading history, blessed as you are with the ability to get "inside" other people and see the world as they see it—that is the key to understanding history, to seeing it as it really is, as opposed to just as how you want to see it. I have the same ability myself, I think (no credit to me—it's a gift from God), but, at the beginning of my investigations into Church history, I was so wrapped up in seeing things as I wanted to see them, and in finding proof-texts to support my arguments, that I missed the whole feel of the early Church, both in the writings of the early Church fathers and in the New Testament. Proof-texts can be good things, but they were not why these documents were written. It was only when I stopped proof-texting, and relaxed, that I finally began to get a feel for the early Church that produced these documents, and to whom and for whom they were (usually) written. Then, as I entered into the spirit of these writers and "let the texts speak for themselves" (in the best way—there is also a way in which they can't, of course), I began to see all sorts of things I'd never noticed before, kind of like when you're in the middle of an argument with someone and realize that you're not really listening to them (only thinking up things that you want to say and sifting through their words for things that you can attack) and take a deep breath and really listen, and then realize that what they're actually saying actually makes sense!

When you and your brother speak with one another,
when you and your sister converse face-to-face,
discern in your brother or sister what are their
true interests, don't twist their words to your own taste!

Good advice, eh? If only I'd listened to my own poetry earlier! (I wrote this while I was in Japan, I think.) Oh well. Learning is always a gradual process, especially so with me!

God bless, my dear sister. Hope your day is going well.

Your friend and brother in Christ,

Edward Justin.