Beware the Convert

Monday, 01 Jan 2018

You could say that I have been around the theological block a few times. I’ve converted to and from a number of things. Baptized Catholic and raised Episcopalian, I ran through nondenominational groups in my teen years and then was off to the Reformation. I went through some philosophy degree programs and left the Reformation to toy with Scotism, Thomism, and parts of Ockhamism. I eventually landed in the Orthodox Church, where I have been for the last seventeen years. I’ve done a fair amount of on-the-street and classroom apologetics. While I may not have seen everything, as I said, this is not my first time around the block.

I have a pretty good idea of what it means, what it takes, and what happens when someone converts to another theological model and community, particularly Orthodoxy. Friends are gained and lost; families are happy or not happy. There are complications with work or derailed life plans, including marriages. Most important of all, children can be affected, for good or ill. A conversion usually brings some type of sword.

Every so often, a notable figure converts to this or that position. Of late, the popular Hank Hanegraaff has left his religious home, apparently somewhere in popular evangelicalism, for the Orthodox Church. This struck me as odd. I worked for Hanegraaff’s organization, Christian Research Institute (CRI), in the early 1990s, so my perspective is informed by firsthand experience. Second, I am Orthodox and a former Calvinist. I have a good grasp of Reformation theology and understand what classical Protestants mean when they talk about sola fide, sola scriptura, and so on. Given all of the above, Hanegraaff’s shift to the Orthodox Church, while not unprecedented, seemed strange and likely fraught with difficulty. In what follows, I will sketch some prudential “do’s and don’ts” for converts, but particularly high-profile converts, and I will try to bring to light the demarcating lines between Orthodoxy and the Reformation traditions that Hanegraaff appears to have missed or is unclear about.

Prudence is a useful virtue to acquire, but it is difficult to get people excited about it. Prudence can prevent unnecessary suffering for ourselves and others around us and can be beneficial for our long term spiritual welfare. When converting, one wishes to make a clean start. In Orthodoxy this includes forgiveness, both in granting and seeking it from others. Any priest worth his salt will likely impress upon someone seeking to enter the Orthodox Church that they should spend some time reflecting on whom they may have wronged or from whom they may have suffered wrong, prior to making a “life confession” that covers their whole life outside the church. It is wise to make an effort, suck up your pride, and make a phone call. Go that extra mile of admitting wrong-doing, even when it may not be entirely or even mostly your fault. It might not have been your fault at all. Parceling out blame is not the point. At the very least for public figures, setting one’s inner house in order would entail a public statement of repentance for any past wrongs, real or perceived, prior to reception. That way, nothing from your past besmirches your new convictions and doesn’t bring the body of your new allegiance into disrepute. This is especially true for public figures whose livelihood depends on promoting themselves as teachers of the faith and who consequently bear a stricter judgment, as St. James indicates (James 3:1).

Probably, the most commonly required bit of prudence for converts to Orthodoxy is to be quiet—for a few years, to be precise. This is not only to protect yourself, but also to protect the church. There is a lot you don’t know, and the paradigm shift takes a long time to complete, if ever. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, then certainly Constantinople wasn’t either. Don’t set yourself up as an expert in Orthodoxy, attempting to speak publically as a teacher of the faith. Whatever Hanegraaff was prior to reception, he is still a (newly minted) layman. Whatever his ordination was in the world of Protestantism (which was dubious even by Reformation standards), or how many books bear his name as a Protestant, none of that is recognized by the Orthodox Church. So being quiet is prudent, even for converts with relevant education and degrees.

But this is a significant challenge for Hanegraaff, since it is his job to talk about theology and church history five days a week across the airwaves of the nation. In this way, he is unlike other high-profile converts—he has to be ready from day one to discuss complicated Orthodox teachings, such as the doctrine of the divine energies, deification, and the role that Dyothelitism plays in structuring Orthodox soteriology. These may seem obscure teachings, but to really explicate Orthodox teaching, even at a basic level, one has to have a substantial grasp of them. There is no time for on-the-job training. While it is possible to explain Orthodox teaching succinctly and precisely, this takes academic work, which takes time.

It is wise to anticipate a cost to be paid for conversion. A conversion as substantial as from Protestantism to Orthodoxy will have repercussions, especially if you are a high-profile figure like Hanegraaff. It seems to me that Hanegraaff interpreted his being dropped by Protestant radio networks as a kind of religious persecution, which is strange since Protestant radio stations largely exist to promote, well, Protestantism. Being dropped from Protestant venues was highly probable; even a small amount of foresight should have prepared him for this. If Hanegraaff crossed the Tiber tomorrow, the Orthodox venues would behave in exactly the same way and for the same reasons.

It is also unwise to downplay one’s conversion—moving from Protestantism to Orthodoxy is not akin to switching from Oreos to Hydrox-brand cookies. Hanegraaff has given the impression that his change was not theological but rather a change of churches or denomination. On his April 10, 2017, Bible Answer Man (BAM) show he remarked, “I am now a member of an Orthodox Church, but nothing has changed in my faith….I believe what I have always believed, as codified in the Nicene Creed, and as championed by mere Christianity.” And on April 11, “Look, my views have been codified in twenty books, and my views have not changed.” In these and other comments since his conversion, he appears to be communicating the idea that his conversion is not a big deal or a life-altering decision. He has just changed churches and not theology, or if he did, he just changed out “secondary” or “nonessential” doctrines. He maintains “mere Christianity” along the lines of C. S. Lewis.

None of this is intellectually honest. All of the books that bear his name were written when he was Protestant. It is not possible on Protestant or Orthodox grounds that his views haven’t changed. Many of the areas that had to change are at the core of the respective theological systems including the Trinity, Christology, and most obviously soteriology. If his views have not changed, then he was never Protestant or is not now Orthodox. What is more, the Orthodox Church generally requires a public renunciation of theological error and affiliations from either Protestant or Catholic bodies prior to chrismation, which is most warranted in the case of high-profile converts such as Hanegraaff. Besides, if his views haven’t changed, then why convert?

The Orthodox Church does not consider itself to be a denomination. The Orthodox Church takes itself to be the Church of Jesus Christ and his apostles, full stop. As far as they are concerned, Hanegraaff went from being outside the Church, in at least material heresy and schism, to being inside it.

What is more, “mere Christianity” (as C. S. Lewis glossed it) is an abstraction with not a few fairly arbitrary lines. There is no church you can join that is the “mere Christianity” church. It is a pragmatic construct. Does “mere Christianity” include the filioque or sola fide? Does it include that the Father alone is autotheos? Baptismal regeneration? You get the point. It dies the death of a thousand qualifications. Christian theology isn’t compartmentalistic, but rather anatomic—that is, every part is intrinsically and constitutively connected to every other part. Such a compartmentalistic gloss by Hanegraaff would imply that what is distinctive about Orthodox theology, to which he is obligated to adhere down to the last iota, is of secondary importance, which is something the Orthodox Church flatly denies. Conversion is a big deal that shouldn’t be entered into lightly or downplayed as insignificant.

Hanegraaff does provide two doctrinal changes that he views as integral to his conversion: a change in adherence to the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the doctrine of theosis or deification. With respect to the Eucharist, Hanegraaff makes legitimate criticism of the popular nondenominational practices and beliefs on which both classical Protestants and the Orthodox agree. Popular evangelicals tend to treat the Eucharist with a familiarity and casualness I am sure is quite familiar to reformational Christians. Of course, those could be avoided by reception into a Reformation tradition. Adherence to the real presence could be had by becoming Lutheran. The only way the real presence could be singled out as a sufficient theological reason for conversion to Orthodoxy is if it was coupled with a commitment to apostolic succession and sacerdotalism. So far, Hanegraaff has yet to indicate as much.

As to theosis, it is difficult to discern what Hanegraaff thinks that doctrine is exactly, or what it is about the Orthodox view that would be sufficient for conversion. He describes it in the most basic terms—namely, the biblical terms every Christian tradition already adheres to. Every Christian tradition has to have some doctrine of deification or glorification, because that language is in the biblical text. In some academic circles, theosis has reached a somewhat faddish state, with various Protestant and Catholic writers being afflicted with “theosis envy.”  (A priest I know once remarked, “Orthodoxy is the new black.”) Everyone has some doctrine of theosis; this is hardly news. What we need from Hanegraaff is some explanation of what it is about the Orthodox view that was sufficient motivation for him to convert.

With respect to the twin principles of the Reformation, Hanegraaff seems either confused or unwilling to disavow them directly. This is problematic, since the CRI doctrinal statement still lists them both as “essential” Christian doctrines (Article 6), and all CRI employees are required to adhere to it by personal signature. For sola fide, when repeatedly queried about it, he consistently reads from a prepared CRI factsheet, giving the standard Reformation commentary on James 2—namely, that works are the evidence of a saving faith, rather than forming saving faith. Given that the Orthodox Church condemned the former position (Synod of Jerusalem, 1672, Decree 13), this option is not open to him. Instead of saying, “This is what sola fide is, these are the reasons I previously believed it, and I no longer think those are good arguments for the following reasons,” he seems to consistently avoid denying sola fide. It isn’t appropriate to cloak one’s conversion behind equivocal or ambiguous statements.

Much the same problem apparently exists for Hanegraaff with respect to sola scriptura. On the April 10, 2017, Bible Answer Man show, he said, “In terms of sola scriptura, I’ve always been committed to the Bible as the infallible guide for faith and practice. And I think that’s what it means—it means that the Bible is infallible and is inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Either Hanegraaff is redefining sola scriptura, or after thirty years as a Protestant he doesn’t know what it means. The measure of that conceptual content is not what Hanegraaff thinks sola scriptura means but what it has historically meant. There is also that shibboleth of “only”/”alone” that is conspicuously missing. A clear articulation—and substantiated denial—from Hanegraaff is what his theological position requires and what his callers and audiences have a right to expect from someone self-designated as the “Bible Answer Man.” The pertinent question is not whether those doctrines are true, but rather how they are defined—whether or not Hanegraaff believes they are true, and whether or not he can profess them as a member of the Orthodox Church. For the Orthodox, the answer to the latter is clearly no.

There are many other areas besides soteriology that require mastering in the respective theological systems, such as Trinitarianism, Christology, and anthropology—each of which play a critical role in informing and structuring each system’s soteriology. For example, the Orthodox have a different soteriology because they have a different Christology. This is why mastering these other core areas is necessary, and why it takes a good amount of academic work and time to be able to speak accurately about them. Suffice it to say that a person in Hanegraaff’s position should have a deep grasp of these areas before speaking publically. Many converts to various positions have sacrificed as much or more for their newfound faith. A clear articulation would only increase the credibility of his conversion.


Perry C. Robinson teaches high school history and resides in Southern California with his wife and three children. He blogs at Energetic Procession.



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