Tuesday, November 21, 2017

LETTER TO A CATECHUMEN — A Letter that will be helpful to anyone interested in the Orthodox Church

Dear N___________, 

Attached are links to some material that I would like you to study as part of your final preparation for reception into the Orthodox Church. 

While you are well prepared for your reception, it is important that you have a clear understanding of the Orthodox teachings on Original/Ancestral Sin, the Atonement, the importance of the Septuagint Text of the Old Testament, and the problems with the Filioque Clause that was inserted into the Nicene Creed by the Roman Church in AD 1014. 

Trying to understand and embrace Orthodox Christianity without correcting some important post-Great Schism doctrinal misconceptions is like trying to put square pegs into round holes. So let’s take another look at these issues.

Original/Ancestral Sin

It is vital that Christians come to a proper understanding of the doctrine of Original/Ancestral Sin. If we get this fundamental doctrine wrong — as non-Orthodox Christians have — it will adversely affect our doctrinal understandings in other areas, including redemption and salvation.

Fr. Matthew Joyner gave an excellent presentation on Original/Ancestral Sin at the Western Rite Clergy Conference held in October of this year. I encourage you to carefully listen to his presentation courtesy of Quad Cities Anglican Radio which was broadcasting from the Conference. Here is the link:

The Atonement

Non-Orthodox Christians hold to the Substitutionary Atonement theory in two  primary forms: the Satisfaction Theory and the Penal Substitutionary Theory. They take the Substitutionary Atonement Theory that they have inherited for granted, and although it is only a theory — and a late one at that — assume that it is a Christian dogma and is what the early Church believed and taught.

The truth is though that these theories have their roots in the teachings of Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th century Norman Archbishop. Archbishop Anselm wrote a book titled, Why Did God Become Man?, in which he explained his innovative theory.

As Fr. James Bernstein, an Orthodox priest,  explains, “Anselm’s view of atonement has come to be called the ‘debt’ or ‘satisfaction’ theory. It was based in part on the concept of total depravity [stemming from a false understanding of Original/Ancestral sin], which holds that man’s sin against God (which is total) must be punished by God absolutely. According to this theory, God’s honor and justice demanded that to avoid punishment, the debt owed Him by the human race must be paid or satisfied. By ourselves we could not pay the debt owed God, because we are all fallen and sinful. Only Jesus Christ could pay what we owe to God, because He is sinless and perfect. In dying on the Cross, Christ completely paid this debt for each of us. If we believe in Jesus’ substitutionary atonement, then we are forgiven, and God is free to bestow on us His grace and mercy.”

The Protestant Reformers built on this theory and constructed the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement. Again, Fr. James Bernstein explains, “The Protestant Reformers built upon the satisfaction theory and developed a third theory of atonement called the 'penal substitutionary' theory. Whereas the debt/satisfaction theory emphasizes that Christ paid the debt that we owe God, the penal theory emphasizes that Christ received the punishment we deserve. In this view, justice demands that our sins be punished. In suffering and dying on the Cross, Christ received God’s punishment for us so that we no longer need to be punished. This view has gained great popularity and is perhaps the best known of the… non-Orthodox theories of atonement we have discussed so far.”

The Substitutionary Atonement in either its Satisfaction Theory or in its Penal Substitutionary Theory is built upon the word “satisfied” in Isaiah 53. However, the word “satisfied” is not found in Isaiah 53 in the Septuagint. In fact, Isaiah 53 reads very differently in the Septuagint than it does in the Masoretic Text.

The fact is that the Old Testament that the vast majority of Western Christians have in their Bibles is the Masoretic Text, although the Apostles and the early Christians used the Septuagint Version. They could not have used the Masoretic Text because it did not come into being until about a thousand years ago. The Septuagint on the other hand antedated the time of Christ by a couple of hundred years and is some 1200 years older than the Masoretic Text.

The New Testament frequently quotes from the Old Testament, but if you look up these quotes in the Old Testament itself, you will find that they often vary considerably from what is found in the New Testament. The New Testament writers were not misquoting the Old Testament Scriptures or paraphrasing them. The New Testament writers were quoting from the Septuagint, but most modern Bibles contain the Masoretic Text, — a Jewish text from nearly a thousand years after the time of Christ. 

The Orthodox Church uses the same Bible that the Apostles and early Christians used. Western Christians no longer do, and that is one of the reasons why their theology has often diverged from that of the Orthodox Church. They may be following their Bible, but they are not using the Bible that the Apostles and early Christians used.

The Protestant Reformers adopted the Masoretic Text because they assumed that the Jews knew best about the Old Testament, but they were wrong. The Septuagint is some 1200 years older than the Masoretic Text. Unfortunately, Rome later adopted the Masoretic Text as well in an effort to keep up with the Protestants. The Masoretic Text was never used by the Apostles or early Christians, is not part of the inheritance of the “undivided” Church, is only about a thousand years old, was unknown to the Christians of the first millennium, and is therefore contrary to the Vincentian Canon.

Both the Satisfaction Theory and the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement are post-Great Schism, were unknown in the “undivided” Church and have their roots in the 11th century. Therefore, these theories could not have been what the early Church believed and are not part of the Deposit of Faith. The Orthodox Church still holds to what the Church of the first millennium taught, and its teaching on redemption is indeed Good News.

For more information on the doctrine of Christ’s Death on the Cross for our salvation as taught by the Orthodox Church you will want to read the article, The Original Christian Gospel, by Fr. James Bernstein. Fr. James was born into an Orthodox Jewish family and came to faith in Christ as a young adult. He was an early member and leader of the well-known Messianic Jewish ministry called Jews for Jesus. He later entered the Orthodox Church where he now serves as a priest. I know that you will find this article very helpful. Here is the link:

The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament

The Orthodox Church has always held to the use of the Septuagint Old Testament, and to the wider Canon which includes the Deuterocanonical Books. All Christians everywhere did so until after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The Septuagint and the wider Canon was the Bible of the “undivided” Church and remains the Bible of the Orthodox Church today. 

The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Holy Scriptures made by Seventy (or seventy-two) Jewish scholars some two centuries before the birth of Christ. For centuries Greek was the lingua franca of the ancient world, even in the Holy Land, so use of the Greek Old Testament was widespread among the Jewish communities.

Western “scholars” used to criticize the Orthodox Church for its unwavering commitment to the Septuagint, but time has proven the Orthodox Church to be right. The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press) says, “A significant legacy of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is related to their attestation to the reliability of ancient translations. It is no longer possible to argue that differences from the MT  [Masoretic Text] preserved in the ancient translations… reflect intentional changes introduced by the translator rather than a different underlying text… Readings from the ancient translations hitherto regarded as questionable have now been shown to preserve authentic Hebrew ones” (pp. 1922-1923).

Is it any wonder that post-schism Western Christians have deviated from the teachings of the Orthodox Church when you realize that they are using a Bible that is different from what was used in the “undivided” Church, was unknown to the early Christians, and that reads very differently in many places? 

If you have not already read, Which Bible is Better? How to compare versions of the Bible, by Fr. Joseph Gleason, you need to read this book. Fr. Joseph Gleason was an Anglican priest and pastored a parish of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). He later became an Orthodox priest serving a Western Rite parish. You can get this “Must Read” book, Which Bible is Better for only $7.95. You can order it here:

Orthodox Christians are serious students of the Holy Scriptures, and have a large and ever growing number of commentaries — both from the Fathers and from modern Orthodox writers — as well as other Bible Study materials available to them. In addition, we have the Orthodox Study Bible. If you do not already own a copy of the Orthodox Study Bible, please purchase one now.  You can order it here:

The Filioque Clause

It is also very important that you understand the Filioque Clause that was inserted in the Nicene Creed in the West. Its insertion into the Nicene Creed was pressed by Charlemagne (the Western, or Holy Roman, Emperor) and his successors, but long resisted by Rome. Rome finally inserted the Filioque Clause into the Creed in 1014, precipitating the Great or Papal Schism in 1054.

Archbishop Joseph Raya, Melkite (Eastern Rite Roman Catholic) Archbishop of Akka, Haifa, Nazareth and Galilee wrote, 

“To prevent anyone ever to misinterpret or alter the words of the Creed — which could lead to heresy and destruction of the faith — the Council fathers declared ‘anathema,’ or condemnation on anyone who would ever ‘add to it, or take away from it any word.’ Yet, by his own personal authority, Charlemagne added the word ‘Filioque,’ making the Creed read: ‘Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.’ He imposed the addition upon all the Churches of the West by force of arms. The Church of Rome refused it, and did not add it to its Creed.

“There was no immediate reaction from Constantinople. The Byzantines must have been amused at seeing a ‘Barbarian’ playing a game of absolutism of power and bad taste in theology” (Byzantine Church and Culture, Alleluia Press, p. 41).

In 1014, Rome also adopted the Filioque Clause, falling under the anathema of the Third Oecumenical Council. “In the eleventh century, the addition of the ‘filioque’ became a point of doctrinal contention between East and West. Michael Cerularius [Patriarch of Constantinople] accused the West of heresy; the West retorted by accusing the East of heresy; they excommunicated each other” (ibid, Raya, pp. 41-42). 

It is obvious, of course, who changed the Creed and who preserved it unchanged, and therefore who fell into heresy and schism and who remained Orthodox Catholics.

Before becoming Orthodox I had long understood that the Filioque Clause was an unauthorized addition to the Nicene Creed that caused the Great schism and therefore had to be removed, but I had never studied its doctrinal implications. Like many others, I knew that the Filioque Clause was added unilaterally and without Catholic consent, and that it led to the Great Schism of 1054, but I had had never studied how it affected Trinitarian theology. 

The Third Oecumenical Council placed an anathema on anyone who would tamper with the Nicene Creed, and Rome’s tampering with it led to Rome’s fall from Catholic unity, but the Filioque is much more than a canonical infraction — it is heresy. The Filioque leads to an Arian subordinationism of the Holy Spirit. Due to the Filioque, the Holy Spirit became the all but forgotten person of the Holy Trinity in the West until the 20th century when the pendulum swung back to the other extreme leading to the excesses of the Charismatic Movement. You will want to read the article, Filioquism is Arian Subordinationism Applied to the Spirit. Here is the link:

Please study these materials. When you are finished we can talk about them. The Orthodox Church is the oldest Church in the world, the original Church, the only Church established by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. It is still rooted in Jerusalem and the Middle East, is unchanged and unchanging after 2,000 years, still holding firmly to the Faith of the Apostles and Church Fathers, and still using the Bible used by the Apostles and Church Fathers. 

Please feel free to share this letter with family and friends. The Orthodox Church welcomes everyone.



Fr. Victor Novak
7545 Main Street
Ralston, Nebraska 68127
(402) 573-6558

This Letter to an actual Catechumen at Holy Cross parish has been adapted for the benefit of other readers.