“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,” -1 Timothy 4:1
“I find it very lamentable that someone who had been very clearly identified with evangelical Christianity would make a shift to Eastern Orthodoxy. And when I say it’s lamentable, I think that it’s an abandonment of the gospel.” -Dr. Albert Mohler
Earlier this year Hank Hanegraaff sent shock waves through the evangelical community by his chrismation into the Greek Orthodox church. A man who had for decades made a name for himself by working to refute the errors of cults and heretical sects of Christianity, had in a strange twist of irony joined a religious organization that denies a traditional biblical understanding of several first order doctrines, including the understanding of the doctrine of salvation. Unsurprisingly, Hanegraaff’s decision affected the radio program which he has run since 1989, The Bible Answer Man, resulting in it being dropped from 100-150 radio stations world-wide.
On April 9th, 2017, Hanegraaff, his wife, and two of his twelve children received chrismation into the St. Nektarios Church of Greek Orthodoxy located in Charlotte, North Carolina. Chrismation is described as the holy mystery by which a person is granted the Holy Spirit though the anointing of holy oil usually following baptism. This anointing is done by a priest and the holy oil is administered to the individual’s forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, ears, breast, hands, and feet as the priest repeats the phrase “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, after anointing each body part. Traditionally, the receiver of chrismation is to leave the oil on the body for seven days with out washing it off, at which time a priest will ceremonially wash off the anointed parts. This is done in order that the individual may partake in the sacrament of communion as well as other rituals and practices within the church.
Some of the issues that we find traditionally with the Eastern Orthodox church in regards to what they teach include: viewing church tradition as a source of revelation apart from Scripture. The perpetual virginity of Mary. Praying to dead saints. Discouragement of congregations to interpret the Bible outside of the tradition of the church. Along with the possibility of losing your salvation, the possibility of being saved after death, and the denial of salvation through faith alone.
Orthodoxy basically holds that the doctrinal development of the Church ended with the ecumenical creeds and the ecumenical councils of the Church in the early Church. So one of the explicit claims of eastern orthodoxy is that their doctrinal authority is rooted in those ancient ecumenical creeds and in those councils. We can understand that, and as evangelicals we have to understand that western Christianity, including Protestantism, is deeply rooted in that theological heritage. When we say ‘how did we end up in 1517 in the reformation?’ Well, you can’t just start there, you have to go back, to the early church and walk through those early councils and you have to understand that reformers were entirely claiming the christological and trinitarian affirmations without question of those ecumenical councils and those early creeds. Just take Nicaea for one example, 325 A.D. The other interesting thing about Orthodoxy is that it claims that the Church and its tradition is a source of revelation on par with Scripture. So immediately this is where we come to recognize, this is a major problem for evangelicals. This is a massive, intentional, explicit, denial of Sola Scriptura. This is the Church’s authority to interpret the Scripture and tradition as the means of revelation whereby the Church is informed. So Scripture is a source of revelation, but so also is, they would claim, the tradition of the Church. The understanding of how the gospel works is also very different in Eastern Orthodoxy. Eastern Orthodoxy aims towards what is known as Theosis, that is divinization of the sinner. The sinner is to be eventually made a saint. Now in Protestant evangelicalism we believe that sinners are made saints in the most important sense instantaneously, in terms of the miracle of regeneration. Now we are made more saintly by the Holy Spirit’s work in us in sanctification, but we’re not eventually made saints. We are made saints by Christ in terms of his atonement. But Eastern Orthodoxy aims towards Theosis in terms of a God-ward inclination of the individual increasingly by means of the sacraments and participation in the church and in the devotional life of Eastern Orthodoxy moving into divinization and increasingly through various stages, into sainthood. The other interesting thing about Eastern Orthodoxy is that it doesn’t have the strict theological definitions that western Christianity has… The Eastern churches have adopted a theological method that is far more deeply steeped in mystery and in the embrace of the church rather than the articulation of doctrine. Participation in the church and in the sacraments of the church rather than the affirmation and the handing down of doctrine… Justification by faith alone, like Scripture alone, is emphatically denied by the Orthodox churches. I believe those are first order theological issues… My concern with the Orthodox churches is the same as my concern with Roman Catholicism, if one is actually following the teachings of those churches, I believe they have not found Christ as Savior and Lord. They are still dead in their sins and trespasses because I don’t believe that justification by faith alone is merely a doctrine, I believe that it is the gospel. Both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches deny justification by faith alone.” -Dr. Albert Mohler
Unfortunately, much like the apparent defection from the truth by Mr. Hanegraaff, there have been many more before him who dot the pages of history. As long as humans were created by God, placed on this earth and Satan has been free to roam to and fro on its surface, he has been doing everything in his power to shield peoples’ eyes from the truth.
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” -1 Peter 5:8
2 Chronicles tells us of a man by the name of King Amaziah: “Amaziah was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jehoaddan of Jerusalem. And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, yet not with a whole heart.” (2 Chronicles 25:1-2). Amaziah was a man that Scripture tells us did what was right externally, but he did so without a full heart. His religion was merely an external work and he did not have a true understanding of the LORD in his heart. Because of this he was eventually led astray and fell into the practice of idolatry. “After Amaziah came from striking down the Edomites, he brought the gods of the men of Seir and set them up as his gods and worshiped them, making offerings to them.” (2 Chronicles 25:14). At the end of his life Scripture records for us the outcome of Amaziah’s rejection of truth and rebellion to the LORD. “He turned away from the LORD” (Chronicles 25:27). This is the sad reality and one of the many examples which we have in Scripture telling us that it is possible to have the outward appearance of a life rightly lived before God, but in the end never have had a right relationship with our creator or accepted the truth’s given to us in Scripture necessary for salvation.
While this may be a difficult reality to reconcile in our minds, how a man who seemed to live by Scripture ended up joining an organization that readily rejects something as basic as a biblical model of salvation, I believe in the end it comes down to a lesson in discernment for the rest of us. The Bereans in Acts 17 were considered more noble than the others in Thessalonica because they listened to Paul’s preaching and then went back and examined what he had said against Scripture. This is really a practice that we need to adopt into our everyday lives, especially in light of the immense amount of Christian literature and other resources that we have available to us. Not everything that is circulated in churches or Christian book stores is biblically accurate, and even if an individual is right on one issue, it does not guarantee that they will be right on everything else. Our loyalty must be to Christ first above all else, including godly men that we know and trust. One way that we can show that loyalty is by forming our theology directly from our own personal study of Scripture, and then going to and refining our understanding through what other men have written that may act as a tool to help strengthen that understanding.
“Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the distance between right and almost right.” -Charles Spurgeon