From Wittenberg to Antioch
September 16, 2007 Length: 32:12
A fascinating interview with Fr. Gregory Hogg, an Antiochian priest in Western Michigan. Fr. Gregory was a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor and professor for 22 years before coming to Orthodoxy. He also recently spoke at the Faith of our Fathers colloquium for Lutherans on Eastern Orthodoxy and his lecture along with many others are available for download on Ancient Faith Radio.
Mr. Kevin Allen: Welcome to this edition of The Illumined Heart radio program. I’m Kevin Allen, and this program is titled, “From Wittenberg to Antioch: The Journey of a Lutheran Pastor to Find the True Visible Church.” Our guest today is the Reverend Gregory Hogg, founding pastor of Holy Cross Antiochian Church in Byron Center, Michigan. Fr. Gregory was a pastor and teacher in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod) before converting along with his family to the Eastern Orthodox Church. He was well-known within the Lutheran world as one of the leaders and proponents of confessional Lutheranism, that is, more traditional and historic Lutheranism. His conversion created quite a stir within Lutheranism, I think it’s fair to say, and we’re very pleased to talk with him about his journey and what led him to the Eastern Orthodox Church. So, Fr. Gregory, welcome to The Illumined Heart radio program.
Fr. Gregory Hogg: Thank you very much.
Mr. Allen: Good to have you with us today.
Fr. Gregory: Good to be here.
Mr. Allen: Father, you come from a family with Lutheran roots, correct?
Fr. Gregory: That’s right.
Mr. Allen: And we were speaking before, and you said that as a college student you left Lutheranism for a time and became a Presbyterian.
Fr. Gregory: That was my senior year in high school, that I had left.
Mr. Allen: And you eventually came back to the Lutheran Church, the Missouri Synod.
Fr. Gregory: That’s right.
Mr. Allen: Where you went to seminary and were ordained.
Fr. Gregory: Right.
Mr. Allen: First of all, which seminary did you go to?
Fr. Gregory: Concordia Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
Mr. Allen: Okay. Tell us briefly what drew you first from the Lutheran Church to the Presbyterian Church, and what is it that brought you back?
Fr. Gregory: Well, that’s a good question. I was in high school, and the Presbyterians had a really good youth group. Our Lutheran church didn’t. Plus, I didn’t really care for the liturgy. It was kind of boring to do the same thing week after week, I thought, so I went to the local Presbyterian church and became a member there. After about two or three months, it occurred to me that they had a liturgy, too, only it wasn’t maybe quite as well thought out. I found the liturgy in part beginning to draw me back to the Lutheran Church. What really moved me back, though, was a crisis of faith I had after reading a sermon by Jonathan Edwards called, “Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Private Prayer.” The Lutheran— the works of Martin Luther in particular kind of called me back to a more objective basis for hope and assurance. “I was baptized,” Luther said, “and therefore I know that I’m a Christian.” So that more objective certainty and the foundation of certainty was what drew me back to the Lutheran Church. But I didn’t go back immediately. I waited four or five years, because I wanted to make sure that I knew what I was doing.
Mr. Allen: You wrote and we’ve spoken about this, that you came to believe, when you eventually were ordained, that the Lutheran Church, the Missouri Synod, was the true visible church of God on earth, and that’s actually a quote from you.
Fr. Gregory: That’s right.
Mr. Allen: What was your understanding, Father, of church, ecclesiology, that caused you to believe initially that the LCMS was the true visible church of God on earth? And then please follow up on that by telling us how that conviction gradually began to change for you.
Fr. Gregory: Okay. My understanding of church was that God’s church was a place where the truth was actually taught, not just in theory or in books, but where it actually took place, where it was actually spoken. As I went through seminary, it seemed to me that the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod was that place. One of the founders of the Missouri Synod, C.F.W. Walther, wrote a book called The Evangelical Lutheran Church: The True Visible Church of God upon Earth. His arguments at that time seemed convincing to me, and then, coupled with that was one of his successors, Francis Pieper, who said that the standard that we use to test the church body is not what’s on its books but what’s actually proclaimed in its pulpits. He said judging by that standard, we’re it. So I left the seminary with that understanding and was ordained in January of ‘83. Then in June or July of ‘83, I participated in an ordination in Cleveland, which was about 40 miles north of where we were. Some of the things I saw in that ordination just made me pause and say there’s a serious problem with the views that I had going out of seminary.
Mr. Allen: Well, that begs a follow-up: Like what?
Fr. Gregory: Like there were laypeople participating in ordination, and there was a deaconess giving a blessing to the newly ordained, which just was not even in my radar screen. It was just totally unexpected. I thought something seriously is wrong here. So when I talked to the other pastors about it at a meeting we had about a week after that, I said, “This has never been done before in the church,” and they said, “But ordination is not recorded in Scripture, so we’re free to do with it what we want.” And I remember feeling very strange, like: “I don’t recognize where I am any more.” That was kind of my initial shock, I guess you would say.
Mr. Allen: And that was fairly early on?
Fr. Gregory: It was about six months after I was ordained.
Mr. Allen: My, my. Well, we’re going to certainly come back and pick up on the historical thread, but I want to ask a question that I think fits in here, and that is this: Correct me if I’m wrong about this: Lutherans and Protestants in general, don’t they make the distinction, Father, between the “visible” and the “invisible” Church?
Fr. Gregory: Yes.
Mr. Allen: Whereas we Orthodox see no such distinction?
Fr. Gregory: That’s right.
Mr. Allen: Can you explain that distinction and how that is derived and from where and how you understand that now?
Fr. Gregory: I can try. It comes, in its ultimate roots, from Augustine, I think. Now, sometimes Lutherans will say, “We don’t believe in an invisible church but a hidden church,” but they kind of amount to the same thing. If a Protestant wants to explain how it is that different people can be Christians, can confess a faith in Christ and yet not belong to the same denomination, the question is, “How can that be?” and the answer seems to be that faith in Christ brings us into something, brings us into the church, but that church that it brings us into is not a visible body; it’s an invisible body, because those who are in it don’t necessarily have connections visibly with each other. There’s this distinction between visible and invisible, and the reason it’s relevant for our purposes is because people in a visible body—they’ll refer to it as an organization or something like that—people in an organization which is not pure can take comfort or comfort themselves in the idea: “Well, at least we belong to the invisible church, and that’s always pure.”
Mr. Allen: Sounds to me, just hearing it as you describe it, as really kind of a convenient way of explaining 13,000 different church bodies.
Fr. Gregory: Yeah, I don’t think it was originally intended to do that, but it certainly was a convenient tool that could be picked up whenever Protestantism came about.
Mr. Allen: You know, in having read some of the essays and articles that you wrote while still a Lutheran, it is clear to me that identifying and being identified with the true visible church has been a significant part of your spiritual quest. It seems it’s what led you to question the Lutheran Church and eventually decide to join the Antiochian Orthodox Church. First of all, if that’s true, tell us why finding the true visible church was so important.
Fr. Gregory: Because Christ gave his promise to the Church, that the gates of hell would not prevail against her. He didn’t give that promise to any human organization, founded by humans. So to be in the church is to be in the place where the promises of Christ have been kept. Does that make sense?
Mr. Allen: It makes absolute sense.
Fr. Gregory: It doesn’t guarantee one’s salvation, but it certainly puts you in the right arena.
Mr. Allen: Yes. For me, it was, once I discovered there was a church and that this church was in continuity to the apostles, the question then was: How can I not be part of that body?
Fr. Gregory: Exactly.
Mr. Allen: It was not the other way around.
Fr. Gregory: And I tell people, “As long as you’re not certain, you have every right to ask every question. But the time comes when you become certain, and when you do become certain, if you don’t act according to your conscience at that point, your conscience gets seared.”
Mr. Allen: Yeah. In your writings, again, Father, you really communicate that Lutheranism has divided itself from its defining statement of belief, the Augsburg Confession. You wrote that in your essay, “What Shall We Do?”
Fr. Gregory: Yes.
Mr. Allen: Can you give us some examples of why you feel as if the Lutheran movement has divided itself from its roots?
Fr. Gregory: I can give you examples of ways that it’s done that. As to why, God only knows.
Mr. Allen: Yes, please.
Fr. Gregory: Okay. I have an idea about why, too, but anyway, as to ways it has, for example, in the Lutheran confessional writings, it says that no one should publicly preach or administer the sacraments unless he’s been properly called or rightly called. In the contemporary Lutheran Church, you have laypeople performing all the functions of pastors, laypeople who are not ordained and who don’t intend to be ordained. The recent Missouri Synod convention just ended today, in fact, [and] is still struggling with that same issue, after nearly 20 years.
Grape juice is used in place of wine in the Eucharist. You have non-liturgical worship happening. It’s kind of written every week. And there’s all sorts of things that suggest that the Lutheranism of today is not the same as the Lutheranism of 500 years ago.
Mr. Allen: Even in rejecting, as I’ve read, you’ve pointed out some of the historic teaching and beliefs, like the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary.
Fr. Gregory: Yes. Luther himself explicitly teaches the perpetual virginity of Mary. It’s mentioned in the Formula of Concord, and a colleague of mine who’s more conversant with the original sources tells me that that was put in by Chemnitz deliberately, because one Reformed theologian named Peter Martyr Vermigli had questioned the perpetual virginity of Mary. The early Lutherans were so horrified that they made sure that that teaching was affirmed in the Book of Concord. But now very few Lutherans hold to it.
Mr. Allen: You said you had an idea as to the why. You’ve explained some of the examples of how. Would you care to share your personal opinion on why?
Fr. Gregory: It might sound harsh, but I am reminded of the Lord’s words: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up.” I remember early on in my search—it took me 18 years to figure this out, and this is probably, maybe after two or three years—I had a dream one night that I was in a tunnel that had a lot of ropes in it, and the ropes went into the darkness; I couldn’t see where they went. I thought, “How can I find the most solid rope?” And the thought occurred to me: the one that’s actually anchored to the other end will not give way, but all the other ones will. So just keep tugging until you find the one that doesn’t yield. It was kind of heartbreaking to be tugging on the rope that I thought went all the way to the back and find that it was giving way, that it was yielding to pressure. You don’t find that happening in the Orthodox Church, but you most certainly find it happening in the Lutheran confession.
Mr. Allen: Is it fair to say that the struggle, as you experienced it during the 18-or-so years, was whether Lutheranism was going to be true to its heritage and tradition or rather would it become just another Evangelical denomination?
Fr. Gregory: Yeah, that could be a way of describing it. I would say that Lutheranism is… Let me put it this way: A bunch of pastors and I talked about this about four or five years ago, and we asked ourselves the question: Are the problems with Lutheranism accidental, or are they genetic? And are they just problems with the Missouri Synod or are they problems with all of Lutheranism? And over the years that we talked about it, many of us came to the conclusion that the problems were not limited to the Missouri Synod but to all of Lutheranism, and were not accidental but genetic, that there was a flaw near the beginning that inevitably will lead to this kind of result. It’d be kind of like a town built over an earthquake fault, and no matter how well it’s built, every so often the earth is going to shake and everything’s going to fall down.
Mr. Allen: We can relate to that.
Fr. Gregory: You’re in California.
Mr. Allen: Recording from Southern California! [Laughter] So that kind of hits a little bit too close to home, maybe!
Fr. Gregory: I can say what I think the fault is, if you’re interested.
Mr. Allen: Please, yes.
Fr. Gregory: It seems to me that there is a two-fold problem in the Lutheran confession. The first is the presence of sola scriptura, and the second is the absence of bishops. The presence of sola scriptura is a problem because there really can’t be such a thing as sola scriptura. We never had the Scriptures apart from a context, apart from a tradition. It’s like Khomiakov talks about in his essay, “On the Western Confessions of Faith,” that some of the Protestants have the unfortunate situation of having a tradition, but denying that they have a tradition, and that is the problem with Lutheranism.
The sola scriptura thing simply doesn’t work. In fact, early on—not even early on—I tried to make sense of the Confessional writing, where they say that the Scriptures are the sole norm of doctrine and the clear fount or source of doctrine. In Lutheran circles today, you get a lot of “The Scriptures are the sole source and norm,” which is different phraseology than the Confessions themselves. But that might be kind of a fine point; I don’t know. It probably would require a lot more spinning out.
But anyway, the point is the teaching of sola scriptura was one problem, and then the absence of bishops [was the other]. When each pastor read the Scripture, interpreted the Scripture, and when each layman read and interpreted the Scripture for himself, when disputes would arise, there was no way of settling them. So it became clear to me that not only was the patient bleeding, but all the doctors had been chased away, and there could be no hope of fixing the problems.
Mr. Allen: Yeah, I think I read somewhere that you wrote that the Lutheran Church was a fellowship of brothers, i.e., pastors, without a father.
Fr. Gregory: Yes.
Mr. Allen: And I can understand now in the context of what you’re saying how you meant that.
Let’s follow up a bit on the sola scriptura. Within Lutheranism, was the way we understand sola scriptura today always the case, or was there a different historic Lutheran position on the relationship between Scripture and tradition? Did that change?
Fr. Gregory: Yes, I think it did, although you could make an argument for saying that even within Luther himself you have the seeds of what later become sola scriptura, but in the Lutheran Confessional writings, you have them saying two things. First, that Scripture is the source of doctrine, but secondly they say at the end of the Augsburg Confession: “In teaching and in ceremonies, we have received nothing new against holy Scripture or the Catholic Church.” So that’s what I would call the catholic principle, namely, that you also have the Church as a preserver of the teachings.
In the Lutheran Confessions it says that the Scriptures are that by which all teachings and teachers in the Church are judged, and I could have lived with that; that would have been okay. But then the Lutheran theologian Johann Gerhard said, “The Scriptures judge the Church,” and that is rather incoherent, because it’s one thing to say that the Scriptures judge every teacher within the Church, but if the Scripture judges the Church, then it’s no longer clear where I am who am reading the Scriptures, to judge the Church. I can’t be a part of what I’m judging. So that placed the interpreter over against the Church. And then I think the wheels came off the wagon pretty quickly.
We talked about the semper virgo, the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos, and within a generation after Gerhard, Lutherans began rejecting it. Gerhard himself held to it, but very quickly the wheels came off the wagon there.
Mr. Allen: Your writings and your criticisms must not have especially endeared you to the powers that be within the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, I’m imagining. Were there pressures on you to recant or to stop the public criticism of the Synod?
Fr. Gregory: Oh, no. No, no. No, not at all. No. I wasn’t… I didn’t come up on the radar screen. You’re allowed to be eccentric in the Lutheran Church. [Laughter] And I guess I was probably viewed by some, or maybe many, as a bit eccentric. So, no, nobody fussed about it.
Mr. Allen: Okay. Was there one experience or moment in time, Father, where it became clear to you that you could no longer remain Lutheran and knew you had no choice but to leave, or was it an accumulation of those sorts of moments?
Fr. Gregory: It was probably a single moment that was the accumulation of a bunch of moments. But I think probably—yeah, okay, I’ve got a time here. About a year or it might have been a year or within six months of my leaving, one of my laypeople, a lady who was the head of our altar guild, very faithful Christian, very faithful woman, moved away from our parish. She was looking for another Lutheran parish that did the liturgy and that had weekly communion and respected the sacrament. She found a parish where they did the liturgy, but they were using plastic disposable cups and throwing them in the trash can after the service. So she said to me, “Pastor, don’t worry. I’m going to talk to the pastor, and I’ll get him straightened out. We’ll fix that problem; then you can transfer us.” So I didn’t hear anything from them for about two or three months, and when I did hear back from them again, her husband said, “We’re ready to transfer”—and these are dear Christian people—and I said, “Oh, good, so you worked it out with the pastor,” and he said, “Well… We reached a compromise.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “They told us that they would double-bag the individual cups before they threw them in the trash.”
Mr. Allen: My word.
Fr. Gregory: And then I realized I could be faithful. I could do everything that was just right according to the Lutheran Confession to the end of my ministry, and within six months after I died or retired, my own parish could be off the rails. Plus the fact that I have children growing up and moving other places, and I didn’t know where to tell them where to go. That’s the problem. See, you can survive in that kind of situation if you think you’re an island. When it becomes clear to you that you’re not an island, that you’re in actual communion fellowship with these other practices, at that point you face a crisis, and you either have to go or you have to say, “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter.”
Mr. Allen: What are the main reasons that you decided to become Eastern Orthodox, and how did you find out about the Church, and how did you start to make that transition?
Fr. Gregory: I grew up in Pittsburgh, and you can’t grow up in Pittsburgh without knowing a little bit about the Orthodox Church. So I was aware of Orthodoxy growing up, but one thing I would say: Nobody who was Orthodox in my growing-up years ever sort of went that extra step in the little times I would encounter it to say, “Well, why don’t you come and see?” I wish that there were a couple points where I was really intrigued by maybe a visit I made or a friend that I had or something like that, but there was never that sense of “Why don’t you come and see what we have?” And I think about that now whenever people come to visit or whenever I talk to people.
But in any case, the real journey began in 1987-88. It was about five years after I was ordained. I was in Bloomington, Indiana, working on my Ph.D., and I enjoyed going to different churches. Since I wasn’t having to preach every week, I would go to different churches to sort of see what they were doing. And the Lutheran Church has always prided itself on the Gospel, focusing on the good news of Jesus Christ. So I would go to other churches and go, “Hmm, it’s not there, or if it’s there, it’s there in a kind of weak way. So even though we have problems in the Lutheran Church,” I said to myself, “at least we have the pure Gospel.”
Good Friday of ‘87 or ‘88, and I don’t remember which it was—I think it was ‘87—it was on the same day of the year, that time, the Orthodox and the Western calendar—I went to a tiny little ROCOR mission that was meeting in a garage. The iconostas was made of wallboard, with icons from St. Vladimir’s or something hung on it. When people say that the smells and bells attracted them or whatever… [Laughter] Precious few smells and bells, but I heard the words of the Liturgy, and I felt like I’d been punched in the solar plexus. I thought, “My word! This is the absolute most perfect and pure proclamation of the Gospel of Christ that I’ve ever heard in my life!” It was absolutely wonderful, and that’s when my journey began.
Mr. Allen: So the fullness of the liturgical expression was one, I’m assuming, that, having episcopal authority was a second.
Fr. Gregory: Yes.
Mr. Allen: And all of the apostolicity and so on.
Fr. Gregory: This was the Church!
Mr. Allen: Yes.
Fr. Gregory: I still, looking back, I thought, “My word! This is it!” but I thought to myself, “I must be mistaken. There’s probably something I’m not seeing.” I’m trained as a philosopher. I’m trained to be skeptical, to ask questions. There must be something I’m missing here. So that’s when I began to study it, though, and the more I read, the more I thought, “My word!” But I thought, “I mustn’t leave my post” and that what made Orthodoxy beautiful—the Gospel—I also had in Lutheranism, because the Gospel’s like a jewel: the news that God sent his Son to die for us, to rise again, to give us his own life, that’s a jewel, a precious jewel. The difference is that, in Lutheranism, it doesn’t have a setting any more. In Orthodoxy, it’s set in a ring, and so it’s secure. The Liturgy secures the Gospel. In Lutheranism, you’re one pastor’s whim away from saying or doing something else.
Mr. Allen: Did you ever seriously consider Rome, the Roman Catholic Church?
Fr. Gregory: I’m grateful to some Roman Catholics for some things, but I didn’t think Rome would be a very good option for me. You see, having been born a Lutheran… If a Lutheran goes to Rome, he’s saying that the Reformation was fundamentally wrong. If a Lutheran becomes Orthodox, he’s saying that the Reformation was fundamentally incomplete, and it seems to me that the Reformation is fundamentally incomplete, not wrong. The Reformation was an attempt to fix problems that had been there for hundreds of years before, and interestingly in Lutheran polemical writings they all say the Church was fine until about 300-400 years ago. If you look at the time-frame, it’s basically right after the split with Constantinople.
Mr. Allen: Right. I always say that one of the great tragedies was that the Lutherans, Melanchthon and those that followed him, that were communicating with Jeremias II didn’t really link up.
Fr. Gregory: And it wouldn’t have been very possible, given the circumstances.
Mr. Allen: No. I understand.
Fr. Gregory: Given the Tourkokratia and the German situation. It just wouldn’t have been possible.
Mr. Allen: No. Well, Father, unfortunately this will be our last question, and we’ll end with this one. Luther stated that justification by faith alone is the article on which the Church stands or falls. Obviously, that must have been a key point of faith for you as a Lutheran. Can you address what that means now that you’re an Orthodox Christian, and how you and we would assess the claim?
Fr. Gregory: Well, the whole notion of justification as the central article of the Christian faith kind of rests on a juridical picture or metaphor at the basis of theological reflection, whereas in Orthodoxy the basic metaphor is that of a hospital or of a cure; in Lutheranism and in Rome, it’s that of a court—and that fundamental metaphor shapes the whole way that things are done. For Luther it was a quest that he set off to find a God who was gracious, a God who would declare him “not guilty.” Having said that, I’m not sure that the way Luther understood justification is quite the same way that Lutherans understand justification.
There’s been some recent research by the Finnish who document a view of justification in Luther himself that’s much more closely related to theosis than it is to the later Lutheran scholastic understanding of justification. Their research, I think, is bringing to light something that’s needed to be said for a long time. But increasingly over the years, the juridical metaphor just didn’t make sense biblically to me.
I was asked at one time if I would consider writing a dogmatic textbook on justification for Lutheran dogmatics, and as I began to do research on it, I thought, “I really don’t know what you do with justification in connection with the sacraments.” You can deal with the sacraments in terms of life and healing, but it’s a little harder to figure out how they work in terms of a courtroom.
Mr. Allen: It sure is, isn’t it?
Fr. Gregory: Because baptism is a birth and so forth… That gave me pause, and then another… There were a number of books that I read, probably in the past two or three years, all by non-Lutherans and non-Orthodox, that confirmed me: “Yes, you’re heading in the right direction.” One was Alister McGrath’s masterful book on justification. On the first ten pages or so, he says: This teaching was really not known or discussed before St. Augustine. Then I thought to myself, if this is the article on which the Church stands or falls, does that mean there was no Church before Augustine brought up the discussion? McGrath also said the only person who’s ever really talked about this before Augustine was St. Mark the Monk in his little work that’s in the Philokalia on those who think they’re made righteous by works.
And I’ve read that little work of St. Mark the Ascetic, and it’s a marvelous distinction between law and Gospel, showing that it’s God’s mercy by which we’re saved, but that doesn’t excuse us from being obedient. So it was kind of a gradual recognition that the metaphor that was so important at the root of the Western view of God and his relationship to man just really isn’t, in my view, the ruling metaphor of the Scriptures. That’s not the way the Scriptures speak. I mean, they do speak that way—don’t get me wrong—in Romans and so forth, but that’s not… It doesn’t have the exclusivity that Luther wanted it to have.
Mr. Allen: Well, Father, thank you so much for that and for taking the time with us today to give us this fascinating interview. The Reverend Gregory Hogg, founding pastor of Holy Cross Antiochian Church in Byron Center, Michigan. Thank you very much for being with us today on The Illumined Heart.
Fr. Gregory: Thank you.
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