As discussed in my previous post here, on April 9 Hank Hanegraaff, the host of the Bible Answer Man radio program and president of the evangelical parachurch ministry Christian Research Institute (CRI), formally joined the Orthodox Church.
In a forthcoming post I hope to delve more deeply into the story of Hanegraaff’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy and its implications for CRI and for evangelicalism. Right now, however, I want to explore some of the initial reactions we are seeing to this story and then point to some resources for those who want to learn more about evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Fundamentalist Reaction: “Hanegraaff…Has Left the Biblical Christian Faith”
Some fundamentalists (and I use that term to distinguish them from mainstream evangelicals) have been quick to judge that in leaving Protestantism, Hanegraaff has left the Christian faith. This is precisely what one blogger, Jeff Maples, claimed at the Pulpit and Pen blog. His post was entitled “The Bible Answer Man, Hank Hanegraaff, Leaves the Christian Faith?” The question mark does not imply that Maples thinks Orthodoxy might be Christian. The only question in his mind at the time was whether the story of Hanegraaff defecting to the Orthodox Church was true. According to Maples,
There are numerous reports that Hank Hanegraaff, the well-known talk show host, and evangelical apologist known as “The Bible Answer Man,” has left the biblical Christian faith for Greek Orthodox tradition…. The Orthodox Church is a false expression of Christianity, much like the Roman Catholic Church, that is highly driven by graven images and denies the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and instead, trusts in meritorious works and a sacramental system for salvation.
For Maples and other fundamentalists, it’s as simple as that: Catholics and Orthodox are not Christians because they don’t understand salvation in the same way that evangelical Protestants do. They are supposedly trusting in their works and religious rituals for salvation.
This sort of sweeping generalization about Catholics and Orthodox is based on an extremely superficial understanding of their churches’ views on salvation, grace, and works. There is no doubt that many, many people in those churches do think of salvation as merited by their good works and religiosity. It would be susprising if this were not the case given that we are talking about more than a billion people worldwide. Sadly, such works-righteousness thinking is found within Protestantism as well. It seems to be the default position toward which religious people gravitate and from which they need to be delivered by grace. But there are also many people in the Catholic and Orthodox communities who are trusting in God’s grace alone for their salvation.
Fundamentalists who rail against works righteousness in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and in other non-evangelical forms of Christianity often unwittingly fall into a different sort of works righteousness. All too often they end up arguing as if getting one’s theology straight is a prerequisite for salvation. That is, in order to be saved one must trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation and one must understand the doctrines of grace and salvation (and other doctrines as well) correctly. In their thinking, if you misunderstand justification to include sanctification, for example, not only are you wrong, but you have missed the gospel and are still in your sins. No wonder critics of fundamentalism (who usually lump all evangelicals into the same basket) characterize it as teaching that God will gladly forgive serial adultery or murder but he won’t forgive denying or misunderstanding forensic justification. For the kind of dogmatic fundamentalists we are discussing here, this isn’t much of a caricature. We might put it this way: In condemning the idea that salvation requires both faith and works, the fundamentalist ends up arguing that salvation requires both faith and words. You must not only have the right object of faith (God’s grace in Christ alone) but you must use the right words to explain how God’s grace in Christ alone accomplishes salvation. Perhaps we could call this error “words righteousness.”
The issue here is easily confused. It is quite true that there are people who profess to be saved through their faith in Christ but who are actually trusting in their works. What they say—their words—may expose this problem and enable us to recognize that they have very likely missed the gospel of grace. An easy example is the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although they profess to put faith in Jesus Christ, on close examination it turns out that they view Christ’s redemptive work as simply giving them a clean slate in order to prove themselves worthy through their good works. Since in their view Jesus during his earthly life was no more than a sinless man, his death does not actually save people but rather gives them a second chance to merit God’s acceptance. Eternal life in this view depends on their own worthiness, which in turn is dependent on faithful membership in the religion and submission to the authority of the Watchtower Society leadership. Members who don’t spend enough time in the religion’s proselytizing activities or who don’t follow the religion’s taboos strictly enough are regarded as endangering their prospects for everlasting life. Thus, anyone who actually follows the Jehovah’s Witness teachings on these matters is following a path of self-righteousness and works salvation that is part of a radically heretical religious system.
The claim that Catholicism and Orthodoxy are equally guilty of teaching salvation by works is inaccurate and unfair. As an evangelical Protestant, I do think their doctrines of salvation are flawed in some significant ways, but those doctrines are not part of a radically unbiblical religion. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches both view Jesus Christ as God incarnate, and they both teach that Christ’s death is an infinite atonement that is the basis for the forgiveness of all our sins. Having the right God (the triune Creator of all things) and the right Christ (the incarnate God the Son who died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave) separates these churches from all heretical religious sects, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism, which get essential truths about the nature of God and the person of Jesus Christ wrong.
Hanegraaff’s Defense: “My Views Have Not Changed”
If the reaction of fundamentalists to Hanegraaff’s conversion is overstated, Hanegraaff’s response to their criticism is itself problematic. In response to Maples and others questioning his conversion to the Orthodox Church, Hanegraaff insists that his beliefs have not changed at all. On the April 10 broadcast of the Bible Answer Man, Hanegraaff stated:
I am now a member of an Orthodox Church, but nothing has changed in my faith…. In fact I believe what I have always believed, as codified in the Nicene Creed, and as championed by mere Christianity.
The next day, he again claimed that his beliefs had not changed:
Look, my views have been codified in 20 books, and my views have not changed.
Hanegraaff stated that he had been attending the Orthodox Church for about two years before his formal induction, and perhaps his views had not changed during that two-year period. And no doubt he has believed the Nicene Creed all along. However, for him to claim that his views had not changed at all from what he has “always believed” is simply not credible. For example, just prior to claiming that he believes what he has always believed, Hanegraaff stated:
I’ve been impacted by the whole idea of knowing Jesus Christ, experiencing Jesus Christ, and partaking of the graces of Jesus Christ through the Eucharist or the Lord’s Table. And that has become so central in my life….
Throughout Hanegraaff’s years as an evangelical Protestant, he clearly did not view the Eucharist as central to his Christian life. This is a relatively recent development, by his own acknowledgment (“that has become so central”). And obviously if he now views the Eucharist as “central” this is not an inconsequential development. In short, Hanegraaff has shifted from a Scripture-focused form of Christianity (evangelicalism) to a sacrament-focused form of Christianity (Orthodoxy).
From other recent comments on the Bible Answer Man it is apparent that Hanegraaff’s beliefs have shifted away from an evangelical perspective in yet other significant ways. He has defended praying to the saints and veneration of Mary, and he has affirmed that the Orthodox Church is the stream of Christianity that has preserved the faith and practice of the early church. In these and other ways Hanegraaff clearly is no longer thinking in the same way he would have as an evangelical Protestant.
Non-Evangelicals Triumphant: “Hank Hanegraaff Realizes that Protestantism Is a False Religion”
Catholics and Orthodox certainly don’t have the impression that Hanegraaff holds the same views that he always has. One Catholic blogger, Walid Shoebat, entitled his article on the story, “World Renown Bible Answer Man Hank Hanegraff Realizes That Protestantism Is A False Religion, And Accepts Eastern Orthodox Christianity.” Yet Shoebat himself quotes Hanegraaff claiming that his views had not changed.
It is perfectly understandable for Catholics and especially Eastern Orthodox to be elated at Hanegraaff’s abandonment of evangelical Protestantism for Orthodoxy. I do not think we evangelicals should begrudge them for indulging in a bit of trumphalism. By the same token, I don’t think they should begrudge us for expressing some concern about a popular evangelical apologist converting away from evangelicalism. We don’t need to go the fundamentalist route illustrated by the poison pen of Pulpit and Pen to find Hanegraaff’s defection disconcerting.
Shoebat has a variety of interesting things to say. One moment he is explaining that he himself converted to Orthodoxy because of his belief in the Bible:
I became Orthodox, not in spite of the Bible, but because of the Bible! Orthodoxy is biblical Christianity without the Protestant add-ons.
The next moment he is criticizing evangelicals for their belief that Christianity should be based on the Bible only:
For example, nowhere does the Bible teach “the Bible alone.” There are numerous passages about the authority, inspiration, and truthfulness of Scripture, but there is nothing about the Bible as the sole source for faith and practice. What the early Reformers did was to impose this axiom onto the Bible all the while ignoring passages that affirmed Holy Tradition. Once the question popped in my head: “Where does the Bible say ‘the Bible alone’?” I was able to read Bible with an open mind and with surprising results. It was like becoming aware that I was wearing glasses all the time and that the lenses were bending the light in a particular way.
So in response to the doctrine of sola scriptura, which rejects “add-ons” to biblical Christianity, Shoebat argues that the doctrine itself is “a Protestant add-on.” He claims that “Orthodoxy is biblical Christianity without the Protestant add-ons.” Well then, either Orthodoxy is biblical Christianity with Orthodox “add-ons,” which invites the question of what makes their add-ons better, or it is biblical Christianity alone—in which case Shoebat is endorsing sola scriptura in order to refute it.
Resources for Further Study
I close with the announcement of some resources for those who wish to go deep in studying the issues dividing evangelical Protestantism from Eastern Orthodoxy. On my web page at Academia.edu, I have posted four bibliographies that provide a selective list of books and articles of relevance:
Eastern Orthodoxy: An Evangelical Bibliography
Evangelicals and Scripture: A Select Bibliography
Evangelicals and the Doctrine of Salvation: A Bibliography
Studying the Church Fathers and the Early Church: A Bibliography
We all have plenty of room to grow in understanding, wisdom, and discernment in these areas.