Submitting to the Church

August 14, 2012

This post is a argument about rather then statement of the Tradition of the Orthodox Church.

What is meant when we say that that Orthodox Christians submit to the teaching of the Church? Unlike the Roman Catholics there is no central magisterium to which one can turn to find the teaching of the Church and to which to submit oneself. On this ground it would seem that speaking of submitting to the teaching of the Church is rather an import from a Roman Catholic model of the Church. The Orthodox Christian has no such authority to which to submit himself. He cannot find a normative Church voice in any particular one of the hierarchy in and of themselves. Any particular hierarch, or synod of hierarchs, is potentially fallible and cannot be said to infallibly present the teaching of the Church. Moreover what is meant by the teaching of the Church? This implies a body that teaches of itself, such again as the Roman Catholic idea of the Church headed by the Pope that operates in a manner autonomously on earth. The Orthodox Churches though have no single voice which speaks for the Church, which also cannot be conceived as separated from the Head, Christ, so the teachings of the Church are properly the teachings of Christ, her Head. The Church does not provide its own teachings but presents those of Christ; that is it teaches the Gospel. How does it present the teachings of Christ? Through its hierarchy, that is the Fathers.

So then, the Orthodox Christian follows the teachings of Christ as preserved and presented by the Fathers and submits to them as to Christ. Which Fathers? Those whom are recognised as authorities by those in the communion of the Orthodox Churches which had been received in continuity and conformity by the previous generations of the Church. Primarily it is certain canonical writings that are maintained as normative beginning with the Scriptures and including the teachings of the Ecumenical Councils, regional councils and individual Fathers. Christ’s teachings are preserved and maintained in all these writings, at least that is what is believed by the Orthodox. All these writings are both useful for salvation and require one’s belief to be in conformity to them. They establish the rule of the orthodox Faith given to the Apostles and not that of one’s own opinion. If one cannot accept any of these teachings then one is not Orthodox. If one reads some of these teachings in a manner that contracts other teachings then one is not Orthodox. If one accepts only part of the teachings held by the communion of Orthodox Churches today then one is not Orthodox in terms of this communion although such a one may consider themselves orthodox in there own opinion or that of a group separated from the Orthodox for self-opinion (heresy). While any particular Father is fallible on account of his humanity, some Fathers have been generally regarded as reliable in all of their writings, as well as those particular writings given direct normative value in the Ecumenical Councils, such as Sts Athanasius, Cyril, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Maximus the Confessor, Photius the Great, Dionysius the Areopagite, Gregory Palamas, Ignatius of Antioch and others. To understand the Faith in contraction to any of these Fathers is to not be orthodox, although on a couple of points any one of these Fathers may not present the teaching of Christ as consistent with the others but it is very unlikely to find such a point.

Being Orthodox though is more that being orthodox in Faith, it requires ecclesiological communion with those hierarchs who teach, present, and preserve the Faith passed on by previous generations of orthodox hierarchs/Fathers; the reason for this is beyond the scope of this post. There is no magic formula for knowing who these are apart from searching the truth and looking at the evidence and of course humble prayer that God leads one aright. Communion with hierarchs is distinct from a communion of believers of one mind because the hierarchy assumes structure, obedience and historical continuity. The system is bigger than an individual believer, or even hierarch, and precludes independent opinion as legitimate in its own right even if individuals, such as St Maximus the Confessor, may need to stand against the majority at that the time to ensure historical continuity of the Faith as well as geographical continuity. It also precludes self-starting a community of believers. The community must be generated by previously appointed hierarchs (Fathers). That is it is God as Father who gives birth to the members of the Church, sons of God, via the hierarchy, who bear the name Father on account of this mystery and who also ordain other hierarchs because it is from God that all authority comes.

So it is contended here that rather than speak of the submitting to the Church or the teaching of the Church, it is more appropriate for Orthodox Christians to speak of submitting to the communion of hierarchs that maintains the teaching of the Fathers who have preserved, presented and passed on the teaching of Christ, that is the Gospel. These hierarchs are the present day Fathers who pass on the Tradition once received as did the Apostles, should of course they rightly divide the word of Truth. Orthodox should speak and refer to the Fathers rather than the Church in terms of obedience and teaching. It is not wrong to say Church but it rather betrays a Roman Catholic tendency to see the Church as somewhat autonomous in itself with a single magisterium headed by the Pope. In a wider sense this is the tendency to see the church as the present day organisation without necessary reference to the previous generations so that what a church, rather its present leading authority, says now requires obedience regardless of its consistency to the past.


Sola Scriptura and Pope Gregory the Great

August 3, 2012

On occasion Protestant writers and apologists make claim for their theological distinctives as being found in the fathers. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is one such case where a good many citations are brought forward to establish that this doctrine is nothing novel. And so Protestantism is introducing nothing new in advocating for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  The two major works from which practically all contemporary Protestant cases directly or indirectly depend on are by Whitaker and Goode. If you have read them (I have) there really isn’t much else to read.

One father who is advanced for the case of Sola Scriptura is Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) Gregory is usually enlisted to support a few parts of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, scripture as the ultimate authority, its material sufficiency and perspicuity. The following citations are some of the usual suspects.

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Cosmological/Geological Age, Evolution, Physical laws and Biblical time lines

February 22, 2012

This post is not about presenting a particular view or solution to the issues of the age of the world, evidence of evolution and the timescale recorded in the Scriptures. Rather it is intended to help a discussion on the matter by suggesting various issues that need addressing in attempting to harmonise the physical evidence that we see with the biblical evidence in terms of theological principles. Comments are welcome if they do not accuse others of ignorance, naivety nor betraying the Faith.

Since this is about an Orthodox understanding there are some basic truths that one must hold and that are not open to much debate. The first is that God is the creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. That is the universe cannot be considered to have come into being of its own accord nor by some determination or principle apart from God. Even all the laws of physics and randomness must come from God, so apart from God we cannot explain the existence of the universe. Also, we must be careful not to think of there existing a void or even nothing as a default understanding of existence; one would need to prove that the existence of non-existence can be a legitimate default position. I tend to find that the idea that non-existence exists contradictory. Rather I would argue, particularly as Orthodox Christians, that we start with the default of eternal omnipresent existing existence, that is “I am”, and move from there.

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Hierarchal limits: St Cyprian of Carthage

November 7, 2011

Continuing with the thoughts of the last post and that regarding the eucharist a couple of posts previously, here is a quote from St Cyprian that carries the same line of thought. A quote from St Ignatius of Antioch is included for comparison.

[A]nd they are the Church who are a people united to the priest, and the flock which adheres to its pastor. Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop; and if any one be not with the bishop, that he is not in the Church, and that those flatter themselves in vain who creep in, not having peace with God’s priests, and think that they communicate secretly with some; while the Church, which is Catholic and one, is not cut nor divided, but is indeed connected and bound together by the cement of priests who cohere with one another. Wherefore, brother, if you consider God’s majesty who ordains priests, if you will for once have respect to Christ, who by His decree and word, and by His presence, both rules prelates themselves, and rules the Church by prelates;

And here is a quote from St Ignatius of Antioch saying the same thing:
“Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

In both of these we see that Christ is present in the hierarchs and that our union with Christ is ascertained by our union with the hierarchy. The Church is not apart from the hierarchs and so we are not with Christ if we are apart from the hierarchs even if you have been baptised and partakers of the eucharist; if we depart from the hierarchs then we depart from the Church. When we speak of the Church deciding something we speak of the hierarchy deciding such a thing because it is through them that Christ rules the Church and directs her. The Church is not a separate thing that makes decisions, it is Christ who makes decisions through the prelates that is the hierarchy. The hierarchs do not act as intermediaries to Christ but make him directly present to rule in the Church. They do so though in synergy and not as robots, so they can make human errors and speak heresy, if they speak of their own mind and not that of Christ. Hence, they need to be obedient to Him who rules the hierarchs by decree and word and by His presence. St Cyprian is clear here that membership of the Church is through union with the priests of the Church, that is the hierarchy and in particular the bishop. Union with the hierarchy includes and requires participation in the mysteries that they minister, through which were are united with Christ. The mysteries though are for the hierarchy not the hierarchy for the mysteries. That is the role of the hierarchy transcends the ministration of any particular mystery rather than being confined by them. That is why I use the term hierarchy to include all the mysteries with the bishop, presbyters and deacons (including all the priestly orders). The bishop is the head and completion of the hierarchy but one should not think of him isolated from the complete hierarchy including all its mysteries in various rites. Neither are hierarchic relations that unite us to Christ restricted to the Church hierarchy but they also occur in monastic relations, family relations and civil relations, although apart from the Church hierarchy these relations cannot effect union with Christ of themselves.

Why have a posted this? Because it is an important key that solves a number of problems. Firstly, it removes a problem of eucharistic ecclesiologists of the parish eucharists and not one episcopal eucharist, which arose because they hold that the hierarchy is for the mystery and so the bishop only has meaning as head of the eucharistic assembly. They argue that there was a change in theology with the growth of parishes but the hierarchal ecclesiology presented here does not have such an problem. Multiple parish eucharists are as consistent as a single episcopal eucharist. Secondly, it refutes Protestantism because there is no room for independent salvation nor private opinion contrary to the hierarchy. Thirdly, because the bishop is the head and completion of each hierarchy there is no place for a bishop of bishops. Also, the purpose of the hierarchy is to make Christ fully present in every place not one place which undermines the papal doctrine of the vicar of Christ being in one place. Yet, it requires levels of primacy as a structure to unite the priesthood with each other yet without having a single head on earth since this would deny that the hierarchy is to present one Christ in many places and that the Head is not on earth but above. Fourthly, it allows for economy and it is not purely mechanical. Fifthly, it is points to person to person relationships rather than any mechanical reception of mysteries. It maintains the focus on master/disciple relationship and in this regard also maintains the Apostolic foundation both as leaders and disciples and that such relationships are the core of our spiritual life again undermining Protestant thinking and exposing it as heresy. Sixthly, it permits one to speak of the Church in terms of the local church with its bishop, the church in terms of its regional or national presence, the church in terms of its patriarchal presence, which should be transnational/trans-regional, and the universal church since each can correspond to a synodal layer and be defined in terms of this. Universal church does not conflict with local church and even though there is no single head, that is no head of a synod of patriarchs who may call such a synod or hear appeals from a patriarchal synod, there can still be an ecumenical patriarch/pope or two with limited powers, hearing appeals instead of another patriarch and writing pastoral letters to any other local/regional/patriarchal church, to reflect the universal church. Seventhly, it allows each church to be both part and whole, including each parish within the diocese. There is no room for either divided autocephalism that ignores each being part nor for centralist papism that ignores each being whole.


Another Anti-Western Orthodox Bigot (Sigh)

August 29, 2011

“For the rest, Augustine’s conception of the oneness of Christ is shown, although with more or less clarity, in the various, likewise traditional ways of describing the incarnation: as an event (fieri), a taking on (susceptio) or assumption (assumptio), a drawing close (accedere), or even a mingling without confusion (mixtio sine confusione). Although in using those terms Augustine is clearly starting from the teaching of the faith according to which only the Son became a human being, he does not yet arrive at the technical formulation of the dogma. That is, he does not use the epxression ‘the one person of Christ’ in order to describe the starting point of theincarnation.  In his thinking, ‘the one person of Christ’ is rather the result of the ineffable union between the godhead and the humanity in Jesus Christ.”

 Basil Studer, The Grace of Christ and the Grace of God in Augustine of Hippo: Christocentrism or Theocentrism?, trans. Matthew J.O. Connell, Liturgical Press, 1997, p. 34.

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What Would Mr. Newman Do?

August 8, 2011

“Yesterday, the eighteenth of the month, which was holy Mid-Pentecost, the patriarch sent me a message, saying,: ‘What church do you belong to? Constantinople? Rome? Antioch? Alexandria? Jerusalem? Look here, all of them are united together with the provinces subject to them. If, therefore, you belong to the catholic church, be united, lest perhaps you devise a strange path by your way of life and you suffer what you don’t expect…’Listen, then,’ they said. ‘The master and the patriarch have decided, following an instruction from the pope of Rome, that you will be anathematised if you do not obey, and that you will be sentenced to the death they have determined.’”

The Letter of Maxmus to Anastasius, His Disciple (CPG 7701)


Atonement in the Church Fathers

May 25, 2011

Below is a link to an article by Derek Flood which appeared in the April 2010 issue of the Evangelical Quarterly. The article is a review of Pierced for Our Transgressions, which aims to give a historical and biblical defense of the doctrine of the penal theory of the atonement. I myself haven’t read the book or I should say, I didn’t bother to read the book.  It didn’t seem to warrant it for a few reasons. First, the book was published by Crossway which isn’t, so far as I know a peer reviewed press.  Second, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly new with respect to the argument so far as I could tell. And third, the arguments claiming various church fathers held the theory were prima facia comical. But since the book is making the rounds among Protestants, I figured readers would find Flood’s review article helpful.


Necessity of Baptism

March 26, 2011

In a recent discussion, I was told that the baptism of infants in a case of the likelihood of imminent death by a layman was not a matter of necessity for the infant to be baptised but a reassurance for the conscience of the parents. The reason put forward was that it was ridiculous to think that God would punish a child because it wasn’t baptised in time before its death, so emergency baptism is not a necessity but can only be a relief of the conscience. This apparently is a pervading view in some theological circles.

The above reasoning is somewhat troubling. There are a couple of issues that are problematic. One is that this view does not reflect a view found in prominent Fathers; it seems rather to be an opinion that reflects the thinking of Protestants and perhaps Roman Catholics. Another is the theology that underlines the reasoning and the implications of what baptism is and does.

There is not place here to survey a range of Fathers regarding this matter but the statements of St John Chrysostom will be considered as a good representative of patristic thought, especially regarding Scriptural exegesis.

The key Scriptural basis for the necessity of baptism is John 3:3-5. ‘Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen amen, I say to you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born, being old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Amen amen, I say to you, unless someone is born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”‘ The Lord seems to want to make it clear that being born again of water, baptism, and Spirit, is a must to enter the kingdom of God. That is baptism is necessary.

How does Chrysostom deal with this text? Here is a quote from his homily on John 3:3: ‘What He [Jesus] declares is this: “Thou sayest that it is impossible, I say that it is so absolutely possible as to be necessary, and that it is not even possible otherwise to be saved.”’ Here Chrysostom makes clear that Christ was intending by his comment that baptism is necessary. He also ties it in with salvation in case one would argue that entering the kingdom is perhaps different from salvation. Let us look at another quote: ‘That the need of water is absolute and indispensable, you may learn in this way. On one occasion, when the Spirit had flown down before the water was applied, the Apostle did not stay at this point, but, as though the water were necessary and not superfluous, observe what he says; “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?”’ Again, Chrysostom is clear on the necessity of water and so baptism. A third quote to confirm Chrysostom’s view: ‘We risk no common danger; for if it should come to pass, (which God forbid!) that through the sudden arrival of death we depart hence uninitiated, though we have ten thousand virtues, our portion will be no other than hell, and the venomous worm, and fire unquenchable, and bonds indissoluble.’ Here it seems to counter an argument that baptism is necessary for us to enter the kingdom while on earth but one may nevertheless enter the kingdom on judgement day, because Chrysostom speaks of portion of the uninitiated as hell and bonds indissoluble, that is not a only a temporary time in hell but an eternity in hell. This quote also counters those that may think that the last resurrection of the body achieves the same thing as baptism because in that case dying without baptism now would only have temporary consequences until the resurrection. Note also that even ten thousand, or innumerable virtues, does not permit salvation. From his exegesis on this text, Chrysostom is clearly of the opinion that baptism is necessary for salvation and status as a exegete is such that this is likely to be the standard understanding of the matter within orthodox tradition. So, far this is largely a proof text approach to the question, so we should turn to the theology underlining the matter.

Regarding the theology of baptism, Chrysostom’s homily provides a wealth of information. Beginning with the quote noted above regarding virtue, it seems that we must not consider baptism in the same manner as virtue. Chrysostom when speaking of ten thousand virtues is not counting virtues but stating that even if we are perfect in virtue yet die without baptism then our portion is hell. This means that baptism is not something for which we are judged with other virtues or sins on judgement day but is rather better understood as an ontological state that in itself determines our possible salvation independent of our sins or virtues. We could say that baptism brings us into a state where we are able to be forgiven our sins in the future as well as cleansing us from past sins. Sinners, virtuous and innocent persons alike require baptism. We should not say that person x was innocent or virtuous and so should be in heaven regardless of his baptism state. The view that one perishes because one inherits guilt from Adam is also inconsistent with Chrysostom. It places baptism into an way of thinking that our salvation is only about individual sin and virtue because one who is not baptised is punished for his individual, personal guilt inherited from Adam, that is for a sin.

If baptism is independent of the judgement of sin and virtue then what is it? Let us turn to Chrysostom again:

‘The earthly birth which is according to the flesh, is of the dust, and therefore heaven is walled against it, for what hath earth in common with heaven? But that other, which is of the Spirit, easily unfolds to us the arches above. Hear, ye as many as are unilluminated, shudder, groan, fearful is the threat, fearful the sentence. “It is not (possible),” He saith, “for one not born of water and the Spirit, to enter into the Kingdom of heaven”; because he wears the raiment of death, of cursing, of perdition, he hath not yet received his Lord’s token, he is a stranger and an alien, he hath not the royal watchword.’

Here we see the reason that one requires baptism: It is because our birth according to the flesh is walled off from heaven, that is the material world, since the fall, is in a state of separation and alienation from God. What connection does one in the state of death have with Life? This state applies to all those born, it is an ontological condition that is independent of our free choice, virtue and sin. Baptism is necessary to leave this state and to bring man back into a common life with God.

Here is another quote to consider:

For as long as we are divided in this respect, though a man be father, or son, or brother, or aught else, he is no true kinsman, as being cut off from that relationship which is from above. What advantageth it to be bound by the ties of earthly family, if we are not joined by those of the spiritual? what profits nearness of kin on earth, if we are to be strangers in heaven? For the Catechumen is a stranger to the Faithful. He hath not the same Head, he hath not the same Father, he hath not the same City, nor Food, nor Raiment, nor Table, nor House, but all are different; all are on earth to the former, to the latter all are in heaven.

This quote is interesting because it shows that being human is not only an individual experience but one that is also communal and related, one of family. Thus, our salvation depends not only on our individual state of virtue but also on our relationship with the family of God. If we are a stranger to this family then we cannot share the benefits of this family regardless of our individual abilities, such someone not a member of the royal family cannot expect to inherit the royal throne because they are not a member of the royal family and not because of any other disability. Family relationship is part of what it is to be human; it is a means of intimate union but also of separation. To join the heavenly family is not something that is of a mental attribute of sharing a common faith as Protestants effectively believe with ‘faith alone’ because catechumens also share this faith yet they are still considered strangers before their baptism. It is not simply about receiving the Spirit else St Peter would not have mentioned water also. Joining the family is something that requires both a created, the need of water, and an uncreated aspect, the work of the Spirit, because it is a family that is both united to the uncreated God and to other created members. Without a created aspect there can be no union in and of the created nature and without the uncreated there could be no union with the uncreated, God. This union is in Christ who as God-man has perfected the union of God and man and thus enabled our salvation in union with Him.

So, this is the logic that supports the contention that an emergency baptism is not merely something to rest the conscience of the parents but is a necessity for the salvation of the child, who is born in the state of death and alienation from God. This is not the child’s fault but it is a fact of the human condition after the Fall, which it shares. Our lives are not merely the product of our own choices but also those of whom we are dependent; this is what it is to be human. Human existence is of unique persons within community; we cannot divorce the two aspects, although we can distinguish them so that it is true that a son is not judged for the sins of his father but also that the consequences of one’s sin may affect a number of following generations.


Why the male priesthood?

February 25, 2011

Inspired by an Ancient Faith Radio interview with Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, here are some developing thoughts for why the priesthood is male rather than of both male and female.

Firstly, the priesthood is not exclusively for males. All Christians are members of the royal priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices to God. This is particularly in the case of offering their own bodies. Being a priest seems to be part of being a created person or hypostasis of which also angels share to a degree. If this is the case why are there not women ordained to the presbytery because they are indeed priests? The answer to this question comes from an important distinction found in the Fathers, particularly St John Chrysostom. This distinction is between public and private roles. Thus, there may be different rules for what can happen in a public role and what happens in a private role. The presbytery as a public function of publicly ordained members serves as a public priesthood for the laity in communal worship. Each member of the laity privately serves as a priest in offering himself or herself to God as a living sacrifice.

Why though should the publicly ordained priesthood, the presbytery, be only male? The answer to this is found in an iconic manner. The difference between male and female is really only a matter of form, although there may be other differences these are only of a matter of degree and not fundamental differences, both share the same nature. Thus, the restriction of the public priesthood to men should be seen in the iconic sense that draws its symbolic strength from a distinction in form. Thus, in general, there is a readily identifiable distinction in form between male and female and this can be used to symbolically represent important theological truths or rather an incarnation of the divine in some aspect.

So what is the theological truth to be incarnate in a male priesthood, particularly the presbytery? This truth is that we only have one Teacher, Christ, and one Father in heaven. Yet each presbyter is a teacher and each one is called father. This would be a contradiction, and one that Protestants point out, unless one sees that a presbyter is the iconic presence of Christ, Himself, and the icon of the One Teacher and one Father in heaven. Thus, the presbyter is an icon of the Son of God, of God. The presbyter is a symbol of God for the laity, he stands in a relationship with the laity as God with man. He teaches as Christ, not as man, he is father as God and not as man. He does not perform a human function but a divine function. To establish this iconic relationship, the presbytery is restricted to males. This restriction is to establish that the presbyter is a divine task and not a human task. The distinction between male and female is the ideal ground of distinction to represent this. We see this throughout the Scripture particularly in the case of marriage where this iconic representation is clearly laid out, particularly by St Paul. The most important teaching of St Paul though that establishes this iconic role is when he speaks of men being the image and glory of God and women the glory of men. St John Chrysostom says that the image of God is primarily found in the governance of man particularly over the rest of creation and this is particularly seen in the role of the presbytery, who are appointed to govern the Church. (This is also why women should not have authority over nor teach men in a public context because this would symbolise man teaching or having authority over God. Although in a private context there is some room for this to reflect that we all are created in the image of God, male and female and are all members of the royal priesthood. This iconic function is also why women should cover their heads to symbolise the obedience that man is to show to God, particularly after the Fall which was caused by disobedience. To not wear a covering is symbolically to deny the need of man to be under obedience to God and thus to remain in the original disobedience of the Fall and would be a failure to teach by action how each human person must approach God.)

Thus, the restriction of the public priesthood to male only is an important iconic symbolisation to establish the proper relationship between God and man. The presbytery is not about men leading men but about God leading men and as such the restriction to males only is essential to maintain this mystery. Ordaining women to the priesthood would be to symbolically reduce the presbytery to a human function of men leading men expressing the opinions and teaching of men and there would be no counter to the Protestant claim that the Church is not scriptural by having teachers other than Christ.


Changing the unchanging

February 24, 2011

There is a light bulb joke the asks “How many Orthodox monks does it take change a light-bulb?” The response is “Change??”

There is a sense among Orthodox (Catholic) Christians that there is no change in orthodoxy but what does this mean? Is there absolutely no-change in any aspect of orthodoxy? We may also ask what to we mean by orthodoxy? Is it a description of creed/dogma and practice or only creed/dogma or only practice? Then with any one of these options there is the question of what creed/dogma and what practice and the extent of creed/dogma or practice. Read the rest of this entry »


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