On Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017, Hank Hanegraaff formally joined the Orthodox Church. Since 1989 Hanegraaff has been the President of the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and (since ca. 1992) the host of CRI’s Bible Answer Man radio program.[1] Hank, his wife Kathy, and two of their twelve children were inducted by a sacramental rite called chrismation into the Orthodox faith at St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, near where CRI is based. In chrismation, a baptized individual is anointed with oil in order to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.[2]

There was no prior announcement of Hanegraaff’s conversion, although there were rumors he was a catechumen (someone in a formal process leading to conversion). Ironically, the day before his chrismation an evangelical blogger, Jason Engwar at Triablogue, documented evidence from Hanegraaff’s radio broadcasts over the past year that suggested he was moving toward Eastern Orthodoxy.[3] Father Thomas Soroka, an Orthodox priest, first broke the news of Hanegraaff’s chrismation on Facebook.

Although Hanegraaff’s conversion to Orthodoxy is a dramatic development, in a way his theology and religiosity has been in almost constant movement throughout his nearly three decades at CRI. Hanegraaff’s family background was Dutch Reformed and his ministry experience prior to CRI included working with Calvinist pastor and broadcaster D. James Kennedy. When he arrived at CRI he was also a staunch young-earth creationist. Over the years Hanegraaff transitioned to old-earth creationism (which happens to be my position as well) but also passed through two or three forms of eschatology, eventually becoming an advocate for the controversial view known as preterism (which views almost all NT prophecy as fulfilled in the first century). Presumably now that he has become Orthodox he will need to support its traditional eschatology, which is amillennial.

Hanegraaff’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy should not be viewed as a mere isolated occurrence. There has been a definite trend for the past few decades of a growing number of American evangelical Protestants converting to either Catholicism or Orthodoxy. As long ago as 1992, the trend of conversions of evangelical clergy to Orthodoxy was noted in a book.[4] I want to suggest some lessons (by no means exhaustive) that need to be learned from this recent turn of events.

First, evangelicals need to understand Catholicism and especially Orthodoxy much better than most of us currently do. It is safe to say that most evangelicals know little about the Eastern Orthodox tradition and are ill-equipped to say anything substantive about the subject. Fortunately, some good evangelical resources on Orthodoxy are available, but more is needed and more teaching generally in evangelical churches and schools is especially needed.[5]

Second, evangelicals need to do a better job explaining and defending the evangelical Protestant view of Scripture and authority. All too often the slogan sola scriptura is understood superficially to mean a naïve biblicism or to denigrate the role of the church as the custodian of God’s revelation to the world. For a classic statement with biblical proof texts of the Protestant evangelical view of Scripture, see (for example) the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith. And how many more evangelicals need to be caught in the vise grip of the objection “But where does Scripture teach sola scriptura?” before we learn how to answer it effectively? I won’t present a fully-developed answer here, but the scriptural case for sola scriptura can be distilled down to the following simple deductive argument (this is a summary of the argument I presented in my debate with Orthodox theologian Laurent Cleenewerck in 2013):

Premise 1: The doctrine of sola scriptura is defined to mean that Scripture alone is the standard verbal communication by which all other verbal expressions of doctrine are to be judged and corrected.
Premise 2: Scripture teaches that only Scripture [sola scriptura] is the word of God in accessible verbal form (Matt. 5:17-18; 22:29; John 10:35; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21; etc.).
Premise 3: Whatever is the word of God is a standard by which any other human communication of doctrine that is not the word of God should be judged and corrected (a rational premise that is also supported by such texts as Acts 17:11; Gal. 1:8-9; Heb. 2:2-4; 2 Pet. 2:1; 3:2; Jude 3-4, 17).

Therefore,

Conclusion A: Scripture teaches that only Scripture is the standard verbal communication by which all other verbal expressions of doctrine are to be judged and corrected (follows from premises 2 and 3).

Therefore,

Conclusion B: Scripture teaches sola scriptura (follows from Premise 1 and Conclusion A).

Third, evangelicals need to learn how to read the church fathers. Time and again testimonies from former evangelical Protestants who have converted to Catholicism, or to Eastern Orthodoxy, feature stories of the Protestants reading the church fathers and being shocked by what they read. However, what is often not appreciated is that such Protestants do not all reach the same conclusion as to where the “true church” or the true Christian practice is to be found. Depending on the Protestant’s background and recent influences, he or she may conclude that the church fathers sound Catholic, or that they sound like Orthodox, or even that they sound Anabaptist.

Much depends on what body of literature one counts as “the church fathers” and what assumptions one brings to the reading of that literature. Catholics generally wish to claim both Latin and Greek church fathers from the late first century through at least the sixth century as “Catholic” fathers. The Eastern Orthodox, while not rejecting the Latin fathers, show clear preference to the Greek fathers, especially after the fourth century. Orthodox theology developed in a decidely non-Augustinian direction, and to this day there is some ambivalence toward Augustine within Orthodoxy.[6] A segment of contemporary Anabaptists based on the work of David Bercot give overt and explicit preference to the ante-Nicene fathers, regarding Nicaea to some extent and Augustinian theology in particular as having taken the church in the wrong direction.[7] Since the church fathers both before and after Nicaea disagreed on some rather important matters, those modern Christian groups that appeal to the church fathers must decide how such an appeal can best be made and how the church fathers’ views are to be related to the teachings of Scripture.

Although evangelicals do not view the church fathers as providing anything of unimpeachable authority, this does not mean we should disrespect them. An admirably balanced statement on the matter was given in the second chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession (1566):

Wherefore we do not despise the interpretations of the holy Greek and Latin fathers, nor reject their disputations and treatises as far as they agree with the Scriptures; but we do modestly dissent from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to, the Scriptures. Neither do we think that we do them any wrong in this matter; seeing that they all, with one consent, will not have their writings matched with the Canonical Scriptures, but bid us allow of them so far forth as they either agree with them or disagree.

And in the same order we also place the decrees and canons of councils.

Wherefore we suffer not ourselves, in controversies about religion or matters of faith, to be pressed with the bare testimonies of fathers or decrees of councils; much less received customs, or with the multitudes of men being of one judgment, or with prescription of long time. Therefore, in matters of religion or matters of faith, we can not admit any other judge than God himself, pronouncing by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what is to be avoided….

We do likewise reject human traditions, which, although they be set out with goodly titles, as though they were divine and apostolical, delivered to the Church by the lively voice of the apostles, and, as it were, by the hands of apostolical men, by means of bishops succeeding in their room, yet, being compared with the Scriptures, disagree with them; and that by their disagreement betray themselves in no wise to be apostolical.

Finally, evangelicals need to do more to address honestly and courageously the weaknesses and foibles of our own “tradition.” The divisions, the pettiness of some of our intramural debates, the ignorance of church history, the tendency to become overly politicized, the pursuit of being trendy sometimes at the expense of substance and continuity—these and other problems in evangelicalism are genuine embarrassments even if our critics sometimes exaggerate them or ignore their own scandals.

Hanegraaff’s defection from evangelicalism after three decades as an influential evangelical teacher is likely to have damaging repercussions for years to come. Those of us who remain convinced evangelicals need to answer this and other challenges by speaking the truth in love.

 

NOTES

[1] Craig Hawkins and Paul Carden were co-hosts for about a year (1989-90) before Hawkins departed the organization. For the next year or so (1990-91) Carden was the host and three other members of the staff—Ken Samples, Ron Rhodes, and myself—rotated in studio fielding the questions from the live radio audience. From that time until late 1995 Carden continued to host or co-host the broadcast, usually with Rhodes in studio, until Hanegraaff gradually transitioned into the role of the sole host and “answer man.”

[2]Chrismation,” OrthodoxWiki, last updated June 13, 2013.

[3] Jason Engwar, “Hank Hanegraaff’s Promotion of Eastern Orthodoxy,” Triablogue, April 8, 2017. See also Father John A. Peck, “The Bible Answer Man and Theosis,” Journey to Orthodoxy, March 2016.

[4] Peter E. Gillquist, ed., Coming Home: Why Protestant Clergy Are Becoming Orthodox (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1992).

[5] For a useful brief introduction, see “Evangelicals and Orthodox: Crossing Paths and Crossing Swords,” East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Fall 2001): 1-4; see also Daniel B. Clendenin, “Why I’m Not Orthodox,” Christianity Today, 6 Jan. 1997. Clendenin is the author and editor of several notable works on the Orthodox Church, e.g., Daniel B. Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003); Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, edited by Daniel B. Clendenin (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). Other important introductory books include James R. Payton, Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007) and Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, edited by Bradley Nassif and James J. Stamoolis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).

[6]Augustine of Hippo,” OrthodoxWiki, last updated June 14, 2016.

[7] David Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up? A New Look at Today’s Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity (Tyler, TX: Scroll Publishing, 1989); A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998). For a brief but vigorous evangelical critique see J. P. Holding, “David Bercot: A Critique,” Tektonics.org, n.d.

Tags: , , , , , ,

This entry was posted on Monday, April 10th, 2017 at 3:25 pm and is filed under apologetics, theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.