Review of Trenham, Rock and Sand. Part 1: Historical

The courtly Eastern Orthodox convert from Presbyterianism Josiah Trenham wrote this book with a three-fold purpose: (1) to summarize Protestant doctrine and practice for Orthodox readers (hereafter: EO) as sympathetically as possible; (2) to show areas of overlap between EO and Protestantism; and (3) to summarize the proper EO stance toward Protestant doctrine, i.e. show where Protestantism is wrong in several particulars. An interview with him on the same book can be found here (part 1 and part 2). In a followup post, I will interact more in detail with our heresies outlined in (3), viz.

    • sola scriptura
    • filioque
    • monergistic salvation

Here, I will summarize and comment on the success of (1), the historical origins.

Protestantism is summarized under the rubrics of its five alleged main branches: Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, and Evangelical. I want to criticize this taxonomy, but that is best deferred until a bit later. One general criticism is that the assertions about the chief movers are often not footnoted at all, or merely documented by reference to secondary sources, so this makes it hard to track down context. Occasionally, undocumented assertions are what we know to be false; for example (p. 85) “The slogan, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda is articulated by all the churches of the Reformation.” The PC(USA) does affirm this slogan, in book of order F-2.02, but this is certainly a post-liberal accretion. The arch-bishop of the dissident congregational group known as CREC claims it (D. Wilson, “Reformed” is not Enough, p. 13). It is also true that ignorant writers in the orthodox Protestant churches can be found bandying the expression around, even in my own OPC. But it is not official. Its first utterance was long after the Reformation. One writer found on the ELCA website claims it was coined by Karl Barth, though I have seen a citation earlier than Barth somewhere. At any rate, Father Trenham’s assertion is false. It is not the case that expression “is articulated by all the churches of the Reformation.”

A second general criticism is persistent ignoring of scholarly interactions from Protestant sources. For example Robert Letham’s Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective (orig. published 2007), in which Letham treats the subject with erudition and sympathy, and proposes solutions. This is not even mentioned, let alone interacted with. Trenham’s silence conveys a clear message: we are not interested in discussion or point-counterpoint; we want unconditional surrender. Trenham is willing to survey and summarize, while remaining firmly in control and muttering anathemas (e.g. “damnable heresy” in connection with our saying filioque, p. 174). I realize that this follows from their starting point of being the one and only true church. However, it is a non-starter when engaging with Protestants that are well-informed and desirous of finding the truth on these matters, and who genuinely wish for reunion with other branches of the Church.

Now on to the matter. The treatment of Luther seems generally accurate, though it leaves out the most important thing: Luther’s central existential crisis that eventually found resolution in Justification by Faith Alone, namely his tortured conscience that could find no relief in confession and absolution. This is a serious lacuna. Instead, the narrative jumps to the Indulgence problem and the 95 theses. Trenham finds nothing in the 95 theses that an EO would not agree with. His main criticism is that Luther made the hasty generalization that all Councils err, rather than realizing that only the post-schism Councils err, and that, just by virtue of separation from the proto-church found in EO. However, I do not think Luther said that all Councils err. He says, for example, in the work On the Councils and the Churches

So, too, it was said of the Nicene Council, that its decree existed before it and remained after it. The decrees of the true councils must remain forever, and they have always remained, especially the chief articles, because of which they came into existence and got the name of councils. 

It is fair to point out that Luther emphasizes truth rather than ecumenical authority per se, and main point rather than every jot and tittle. But this is different than saying he affirmed all councils err. Likewise, WCF says only that councils may err, and that many (but not necessarily all) have (WCF 31.3).

After asserting that the foundational error was thinking that an ecumenical council could possibly err, the main two criticisms harp on the indulgence the Lutherans granted to the bigamy of Phillip of Hesse, and Luther’s “breaking his vow of celibacy” in marrying Katy. Then he adds that “Luther was a radical and forced a terrible breach in western Christendom.” This we deny. It was the epicurean pope John Medici and his successors that forced the “terrible breach.” Luther was innocent here, and he was not a radical.

The situation with Phillip is opportunistic and not very germane to the points of contention. On the one hand, Roland Bainton concedes it was a mistake: and mistakes can be made without invalidating an entire movement. On the other hand, it seems to me that it is a debatable question as to whether polygamy cannot be conceded in unusual circumstances, especially when dealing with the head of state. So raising this issue in a book of this kind seems like a distraction.

Even if you show that polygamy is always and in every circumstance wrong, there are several hurdles that must be ascended to use this against Lutheranism. 1. Was it just ordinary infirmity, or a concession that is endemic to the theology? 2. What authority did Wittenberg have over Hesse anyhow? 3. Can an alliance only be entered into with partners that are squeaky clean morally in every department?

Likewise, Fr Trenham is all in with the concept of “consecrated celibacy,” but using this as a critique of Luther is question-begging. We deny that I Cor. 7 can be interpreted to sanction taking such an oath. If one has the gift, then an oath is unnecessary; and if one does not have the gift, such an oath is unlawful. There is a difference between swearing to your own heart, and still doing it (Ps. 15:4), vs an intrinsically unlawful oath. But Trenham says “there is no Church without monasticism” (p. 24), including presumably the celibacy oath. Clearly, there was a church without monasticism in Acts. If that is official EO teaching, then I think that error alone is enough to rule out the infallibility of the EO church.

There is perhaps an editing problem in this section, in that after discussing his issues with the Augsburg Confession, he states (p. 33) “It is simply historical fact that even the most conservative Reformed churches have been unable to maintain a strict adherence to their confessions” and cites an anecdote from his own participation in the PCA as proof. But the Reformed churches are not subscribed to the Augsburg Confession. Moreover, the assertion is false. There are a number of Reformed churches that maintain strict adherence to their confessions. We too criticize the PCA for its laxness.

The main burden of the chapter on Zwingli appears to be the tragic Marburg Conference, which demonstrates that “they could not come to an agreement about the significance of the most important sacrament in the Christian faith and the traditional center of divine worship.” This disagreement “would be the very headwaters of a river of Protestant disagreement and theological disunity that would only morph into a dizzying number of Protestant denominations and conflicting confessions of faith right up until the present day.” (p. 50). But there are really only three views on this subject within Protestantism (i.e. not “a dizzying number”) and a maximally sympathetic view would reveal that all the non-anabaptist views (more on this anon) often reveal more of a verbal than actual disagreement. 

Moreover, on Trenham’s own view, why is it even important to “get the Eucharist right” with exacting precision in one’s Confession? For, where has the EO officially defined its understanding of the Eucharist in a binding document? A sympathetic criticism would suggest that Luther and Zwingli should have followed in the EO footsteps and not tried to define the Eucharist in a technical sense at all.

I will skip over the chapter on the Anabaptists, except to observe that it is incoherent to count these groups as Protestants, i.e. in the same camp as us, while also criticizing our founders for approving of their execution! This is more absurd than if we lumped the Nestorian churches in as part of the EO: we could do so with greater justification, since the EO bishops did not even advocate for their execution as far as I know. But suppose we wrote an equivalent book and insisted on including the Nestorian churches as a branch of EO. Or the Armenian National Church. Then against the protests, we say, “well they didn’t affirm sola scripture; they claim immediate continuity with the apostles; they have a similar liturgy; and who are we to adjudicate your internal squabbles?” I will expand this insight below.

He grants Calvin’s exemplary work on commentaries (74-75). Beyond, that, however, there is not much good apparently. The chapter suffers from little throw-away gossipy tidbits (e.g. that Geneva gave him a large salary — how do we know this? what about his expenses? what about his own testimony that he would be leaving very little behind as an estate?). There is also a recurrent damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t theme — on the one hand, he was a dictator (72-73); on the other hand, he can be criticized for acquiescing too easily to the authorities (p. 74). As in the chapter on Luther, the cheap trick of saying someone argues against X because X is not “his” position is frequently utilized (e.g. p 77). You hear this rhetorical trick used a lot today because of the relativism and poisonous post-modernism that the baby boomer generation imbibed so deeply. Luther and Calvin argued against positions they found to be out of accord with Scripture. You could say, “against positions out of accord with ‘their’ interpretations,” but that utterly misses the point in a poisonous way. As if they just “came to” their position, and then opposed others just because the opponent disagreed with themselves. It confuses first order discourse with second order discourse. And note that this trick can be used by anyone, any time with equal (in)validity. “St Photius lashed out against the filioque just because it differed from his position,” etc. etc. 

An interesting obiter dictum is that Reformed churches are “very ugly” (81). Now in the case of my own denomination, the OPC, I concede that many of our churches are quite ugly. However, even in making this judgment, the sympathetic critic will take into account the plundering that took place by the apostate PCUSA at the time we were kicked out for orthodoxy. It takes a lot of money to build a beautiful building. But the early American Reformed churches are quite beautiful, in harmony with the American aesthetic of simple elegance. In contrast, I find the EO churches with their spires and onions to be gaudy and even somewhat Mohammedan in their “look.” They disrupt the American lines in ways that I would call ugly, at least in our context. In Moscow, they look okay; in Peoria, not so much. The EOs simply transplant their own idiosyncratic aesthetic into an alien context. I do not agree they are beautiful. (The catholic gothic cathedrals are something else.)

As a side note, this raises a point that I think is a serious obstruction to being able to further consider union with the EO churches: in addition to the alleged “faith of the Holy Fathers,” they bring an awful lot of specific ethnic baggage along with, usually seen even in the name chosen. We have no intention of becoming Greeks, or Russians, or Ukrainians, or Syrians, or Egyptians. What an indigenous American Orthodox church would look like has yet to be seen.

I will leave the chapters on the Anglican church and the Catholic counter-reformation for the readers’ own perusal, lest this review become too prolix — except to note that characterizing the latter as a flowering “in answer to the Protestant aggression” (p. 115) is quite tendentious, and the exact opposite of our view of matters.

The chapter on the Evangelicals calls for some comments. Every idiosyncratic and crackpot group is pulled in under this rubric. The American church scene over the last century or so is indeed deplorable. It has come to be that a mushroom church can spring up anywhere there is enough moist soil and sunshine. However, there are two currents feeding the evangelical movement that need to be more sharply distinguished and developed.

1. No doubt the Second Great Awakening contributed a lot to this ethos. If Trenham interacted with the Reformed Church (and probably, the Lutheran and Anglican ones as well) with more focus, he would realize that we deplore the Finneyan revivals as spurious, which left “burned out districts” in their wake. They were fake, and we suspect many of their successors are fake. 

2. The still-orthodox Reformed churches do not self-identify as “evangelical,” except in a very specific sense that is probably only still remembered by baby boomers. Here is a quick summary of that history. In the early twentieth century, the mainline churches apostatized, and the internal reaction rallied around the “Five Fundamentals,” which came to define Fundamentalism. Those five fundamentals were

    • inerrancy of Scripture
    • divinity of Christ
    • virgin birth
    • substitutionary atonement
    • literal resurrection

I know that Fr. Trenham might quibble with the fourth bullet, but the others? Can we get an olive branch on the basic legitimacy of the fundamentals?

Then, in the fifties, there was a movement by Carl Henry, Billy Graham, and others to maintain the Fundamentals but with a kinder, gentler face, and more cultural engagement. That, and only that, is what evangelical means in our circles in a positive sense, and this aspect is not skillfully analyzed in this book. 


Even on his own terms, Trenham fails to thread the needle to show weaknesses in our view. The problem is the fallacy of composition. He munges groups together as Protestant, then thinks the whole comes under attack with problems in any part.

The problem is in trying to win the debate by clever statement of definition. Worse yet, he does not even give the definition. This is a serious fault in the whole project. We can only guess that Protestantism is defined by him as either

    • anyone that breaks fellowship with the apostolic trunk, or
    • anyone holding to sola scriptura

But are either of these adequate? To the first suggested definition: then the Coptic, Armenian, and Nestorian Churches need to be identified as Protestant; but then Fr. Trenham needs to add chapters for them: which would make the thesis ridiculous. Moreover, Luther’s break was with the Roman Catholic Church — and does Fr. Trenham grant that Roman Catholic is the apostolic trunk? (For it was from that trunk that Lutheranism and the Reformed emerged.) (And deferring for the moment that Luther didn’t break, he was broken off by Medici.) If yes, will he continue to make that concession when he turns his artillery to the Roman Catholic fellow-apostolic-trunk? But if not, he will need to expand the first criterion to say “…or with any branch already broken.” But then, he should include Quakers, Socinians, and cultists as Protestants — which he would probably be happy to do, but the point is, he didn’t — probably because the plausibility of the project would have been vitiated. 

Dabney reported that the PCUS in 1871 formally committed to a “policy of non-recognition” of the Cambellite societies, i.e. effectively declared them to be outside the church (Discussions, vol. 1, p. 349). Would that our orthodox denominations would repeat this precedent for any number of modern “Protestant” denominations that are far worse off than they were. The point though is that attempting to lump all these groups under a common label is both logically fallacious, and does not correspond to a distinction that we recognize.

To the second suggestion: First, there are different nuances in the definition of sola scriptura. The Anglican 39 articles says Scripture “contains all things necessary to salvation” (Art. 6) but leaves a large area open to tradition. The Presbyterian WCF add to Scripture’s sufficiency “all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life” and clarifies “is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.“ The Methodist church grants the primacy of Scripture for establishing doctrine, but quickly adds the “interpretive” triad of experience, tradition and reason. It seems like that definition is far closer to the EO position than to the Reformed.

It only gets worse if you fast-forward to the present. Here, a vast swath of groups that Father Trenham picks out as Protestant do not hold to sola scriptura in the historical sense. 

To drive the point home, suppose we grant the sola scriptura connotative definition of Protestant; then let us define the complement of that set. The modern Anglicans have effectively neutralized the 39 Articles by often listing them as (mere) “historical document.” I cannot find anything on the official website or google search indicating that ordinands are required to subscribe to them. The PC(USA) mentions “scripture” 17 times in their form of government, but never in a way that could be construed as the principle of sola scriptura — and no orthodox person of any camp could possibly accuse them of following sola scriptura. 

And so, similarly for the other apostate “Protestant” denominations.

Thus, we propose defining denotatively

Protestant = {OPC, PCA, RCUS, LCMS, WELS, …}

Anti-Protestant = {EO, RC, PCUSA, ELCA, Quakers, Anglicans, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses…}

Now, I write a book called “Rock and Sand” (or maybe: “Smoke and Mirrors”) about the “Anti-Protestant Church,” with chapters on Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, mainline Presbyterians, Quakers, Anglicans, and Mormons. So the proof that EO is false is the 48,000 groups that alongside them reject sola scriptura, not to mention the manifest heresies cropping up all over the place in that group.

Do you see the problem? You can’t just define your way to a critique, let alone a solution.