Changing the unchanging

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.

As a general rule, to be an Orthodox (Catholic) Christian is to be someone who accepts the Tradition, or traditions, of the Church that we established by Christ through the Apostles (i.e. Apostolic) and maintained by the Fathers (the succession of Bishops). (In practice many are often Orthodox Christians because they were baptised by Orthodox priests as infants and not due to an active choice of accepting Orthodox Tradition.) If this is a suitable definition of being Orthodox as opposed to being Protestant or Roman Catholic then the Tradition or traditions that are accepted as being Apostolic must be the same as those established through the Apostles which means that this Tradition or traditions cannot change otherwise have would cease to be the same as the Tradition or traditions of the Apostles. Does this mean though that there is absolutely no change in faith and/or practice?

Roman Catholics in general accept a development of doctrine even while accepting the principle of Tradition by the reasoning that any development of doctrine must be consistent with or implicit in Apostolic doctrine and thus not a change in Apostolic doctrine. To some level this is also accepted by Orthodox Christians with the real issue being the consistency of any ‘developed doctrine’ with Apostolic doctrine. All this reinforces the principle of no change.

Recently, in a conversation, it was mentioned that no change only applies to dogma or doctrine. What does this mean? Is this to divide faith/creed and practice? If so then how does one draw the line between them? It would seem that it should be easy to distinguish between faith/creed and practice. Faith/creed is what one accepts in a mental manner and practice is what one does according to this mental faith/creed. While this is true, to divide the two is another matter because the two are linked: we do a certain practice because we have a certain faith/creed or a certain practice is inconsistent with a certain faith/creed. If they are so linked then a change of practice will have implications to the faith/creed and would imply a certain change of faith/creed. However, there may be multiple consistent practices with a particular faith/creed and a particular practice may be connected to multiple aspects of faith and creed. This can allow for diversity without change or difference and that any particular practice may not necessarily need to be unchanging, although there may be many that are unchanging. Also there can be different faith/credal reasons for a particular practice and also the possibility to have a varied understanding of an issue of faith without that causing a change in practice. Hence, given some room for diversity, it would not be correct to say that only doctrine/dogma is unchanging because it is linked with practice and such links may mean that a particular practice also cannot change.

This latter is borne out in the witness of the Fathers, especially when we consider the Ecumenical Councils. These have always, albeit in two cases in a delayed manner, consisted of two aspects: a definition of faith; and a collection of Canons to guide practice. This demonstrates the link between faith and practice. The greatest part of the reason for the Schism between Old and New Romes was over issues of practice and the ‘faith’ issue surrounding the filioque was one of the matters but not in itself on another/higher level of cause of Schism. It is only in recent times with a move to saying that only doctrine cannot change that one reduces the cause of the Schism to the ‘filioque’ or other dogma.

An example of where it is impossible to draw a line between faith and practice. Baptism is an action (practice) yet it is included within the Creed as an element of faith. It is not a doctrine regarding the Trinity but a practice that unites one to the Trinity in Christ. We say that it is a practice and not doctrine/dogma therefore can be changed/removed. Yet it is in the Creed so it is an element of dogma/doctrine and cannot be changed. This shows the inconsistency between the evidence of Orthodox Tradition and proposal that only dogma/doctrine cannot change. Other practices, such as the use of chrism after baptism, the use of wine and water during the Eucharist, ordaining clergy by laying on of hands are not open to change yet they are not written into the Creed as dogma.

There is evidence of change and diversity in the Fathers. An explanation for diversity and some change has already been given above. Another explanation is the freedom that the hierarchy have to rule; that is they are not mere robots but share in genuine authority to rule the Church with Christ. Thus, each local church, region of churches, and Patriarchate are free to exercise their own practices and have their own customs some differing from the freedom of the Apostles. Nevertheless, they are obliged to maintain the practices confirmed as universal by the Ecumenical Councils and recognised local councils should not be changed by a local/regional/patriarchal/ecumenical council, although they can be qualified if necessary because practice should always be framed by what is physically possible. This also applies to other well recorded Apostolic Traditions. It is not only doctrine/dogma that is non-changing but also practices as established by the Fathers to have universal application. There may be debate about what practices are to be universal and unchanging but there are such universal practices as also there are practices that are not fixed. This can also apply to dogma/doctrine, although this is less flexible because it has a priority over practice and is easier for universal consistency. Variation and change in doctrine/dogma that has not been universally established, and is consistent with that which is, is possible within Orthodoxy.

So, in an answer to the questions, there is no change in both matters of faith/creed and of practice that are established as Apostolic and are confirmed by the Fathers, particularly in Ecumenical councils. However, change and diversity is freely permitted on other matters.

Due to the length of the post some things have been assumed and not developed in full of please comment or criticise as you think constructive.

7 Responses to Changing the unchanging

  1. Thomas says:

    Welcome, Vladyka.

    One would certainly hope a system would be internally self-consistent and, in the case of the Latins’ magisterium it seems that, as Perry says, it can accommodate most any alteration, therefore permitting it to claim consistency.

    However, I find it strange — to take but one example — how the Latins can accommodate explicit rejection of the ‘Immaculate Conception’ by some of its (by its own estimation) ‘greatest’ (academic/scholastic) ‘theologians’ by arguing the explicit rejections are part of the process of development. (I have seen — from many sources which have an imprimatur from one of their bishops — statements that some ‘theologian’ [I cannot remember the name] ‘solved’ or ‘worked out’ the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ which led to the declaration of the ‘dogma’ of the ‘Immaculate Conception’.)

  2. BT,

    The real problem with organistic development theories is that as a species of holism, they can justify and accomodate any alteration, even if it were false. The coherence of all the parts may increase the probability of the truth of the system, but it does not make it.

  3. BT says:

    I think I goofed up the italics tags. Sorry! 🙂

  4. BT says:

    Monk Patrick,

    You said: “…what they have added is not consistent with the original deposit and fails their own consistency test. This failure may be more to do with a different understanding of the original deposit and providing different premises for testing consistency.”

    I do agree with you that what they have added is, in fact, not consistent with the original deposit. However, I believe it’s accurate to say that their additions cannot fail their own criteria, because implicit in their understanding of development of doctrine, is the infallibility of the magisterium. So by definition, anything promulgated by the magisterium and proclaimed to be a “development” cannot possibly contradict or differ from the earlier deposit of faith, because such a condition is logically impossible from within their system. This is why the more honest apologists will simply admit up front that the Roman Catholic Church, guided by the Infallible Vicar of Christ, cannot be judged by anyone who is not in submission to that Vicar of Christ. And of course anyone who submits, will always find a way to interpret new developments as legitimate, because one must do so.

  5. Jovana says:

    What is there to change? How can one change the beauty and the goodness and the truth?

  6. MG,

    I agree with your understanding. I was only portraying a Roman Catholic understanding of development, as I understand to be expressed by Newman, to show that the sense of unchanging doctrine also underlies a “development of doctrine” idea. I partially linked the Orthodox to this because there is some form of development even if only in language and to say that there was strictly no development could be legitimately open to criticism. Even new propositional content, which I don’t think is an Orthodox position, would not necessarily change the deposit of faith and any issue I may have with Roman Catholic theology is not so much that this could happen but that what they have added is not consistent with the original deposit and fails their own consistency test. This failure may be more to do with a different understanding of the original deposit and providing different premises for testing consistency.

  7. MG says:

    Fr. Patrick (Monk Patrick)

    You wrote:

    “Roman Catholics in general accept a development of doctrine even while accepting the principle of Tradition by the reasoning that any development of doctrine must be consistent with or implicit in Apostolic doctrine and thus not a change in Apostolic doctrine. To some level this is also accepted by Orthodox Christians with the real issue being the consistency of any ‘developed doctrine’ with Apostolic doctrine. All this reinforces the principle of no change.”

    My impression is that some Romans would say that doctrine develops in the sense that new propositional content gets added to the deposit of faith. This is more than just making explicit what was implicit; it is saying that something which was not taught before (even in concealed language) is now being taught. This new content must be consistent with previous content, but it was not in fact part of the content of what was previously taught according to Rome. I suspect that this is not the Orthodox position, and that we are committed to saying that no new content gets added onto the deposit of faith. Instead all “development” is linguistic: we have new ways of articulating the same old thing. What do you think? Is that what you were trying to say, or are we in disagreement?

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