Orthodoxy as Fulfillment II

[Previous post: Part I]

  • The Orthodox Church is the fulfillment of the doctrine in which I’d been raised and educated.

There is an oversimplification of Orthodox doctrine which runs something like this: Orthodox hold to the ancient, unchanged doctrine of the apostles without addition (Roman Catholicism) or subtraction (Protestantism). Orthodox claim that with purgatory, the immaculate conception (based on the dogma of original sin as original guilt), and, preeminently, the filioque, among others, the Roman see has added unauthorized dogma to the Faith. Orthodox also claim that Protestant rejection of the sacraments, icons, apostolic succession, among others, the Protestants have committed unauthorized subtractions from the whole of the apostolic faith. These additions and subtractions, according to Orthodox, result in a distortion of the faith and in schism from the Church who holds to that faith in its entirety.

As I said, this is an oversimplification. But like such generalizations it does hold germs of truth. And, in point of fact, when I first came to Orthodoxy and began to investigate what it is and its claims and arguments for those claims, I began to realize that far from radically altering what it was I believed, I would have to flesh it out.

I had a faith contained more or less in a body of propositions and codes of conduct. I’m not sure when I began to believe that I should go back to the historic Church to really determine what the Bible meant, but it was a couple years prior to coming into contact with Orthodoxy in the summer of 2000. It began with a book of daily readings from the Church Fathers, which I used in my daily devotionals beginning in autumn 1996. But it didn’t reach conscious fruition until late 1999 when I began conscientiously to seek the mind of the Fathers.

At first my method was to try to understand what the Fathers said, and then to justify that within the framework of (what I interpreted from) Scripture. Infant baptism? Sure, since Scripture could plausibly be said to have instances of it. Sacramental Lord’s Supper? Sure, since I already had such an understanding of baptism, and I’d long been bothered by the hermeneutical inconsistencies of affirming what I did about baptism, but rejecting the same hermeneutical base for what I believed about the Lord’s Supper. Bishops? Sure, since the word itself is all over the New Testament and the historical data made sense in light of the New Testament. And so it went.

While I should note that this approach—conforming the Tradition to my own biblical interpretations—is dangerously wrongheaded, for Protestant converts like myself, it is, perhaps, almost inevitable. We Restoration Movement Protestants are, or used to be, raised with a propositional faith, and our transition to the Faith of the Ancient Church will be by propositional stages. One ought normally to be suspicious of those Protestant converts who are ready to accept the dogmae of Orthodoxy wholesale without investigation. I say normally, because God saves us where we’re at. But he can also bring us, in his grace, to where we need to be. It’s a matter of the heart more than it is of the mind, and once one’s heart is ready, the intellect can follow. Some of us have hearts that are much more stony than others.

So, for a time, my movement toward Orthodoxy was a matter of adding propositional content to my faith. I quite literally did not believe enough, I had to fill up what was lacking in my faith. In this sense, Orthodoxy was a direct fulfillment of my already deeply held beliefs. I did not need to come to a more serious conviction about the place and authority of the Scriptures. But I did have to understand that place and authority as one manifestation of the singular Tradition. I did not have to come to an understanding of the person and role of Jesus as the fully human and fully divine Mediator. But I did have to come to understand why that was important in my salvation. It was not merely that Jesus’ death as the God-man was God taking his own medicine, turning away the wrath of God from sinful humanity. It was precisely the means by which we would be united to God, body and soul.

But not merely a filling up of a lack, Orthodoxy is the fulfillment of my Protestant doctrinal beliefs in that they require a move from proposition to disposition. My Protestant faith had a most difficult time moving from propositional truths to living application. These most often could not get past being simply new codes of conduct. Belief A resulted in an obligation to Conduct B. But I was quite literally without any knowledge or recourse as to how to move from A to B. I knew that I was saved by grace through faith, and not through my own works. I knew that God worked in me both to will and to do his good pleasure. But day after day I could not find a way to move from head belief to a heart that willed the code of conduct that my belief demanded. Ironically, for one who would have argued wholeheartedly against works-based salvation, the only thing I knew was to place yet another burden of laws upon my “grace-filled” faith. I could not go the way of antinomianism, for I had read St. Paul’s condemnation of such in Romans 6. But the alternative was just as impossible.

In Orthodoxy, however, I have seen the fulfillment of my Protestant doctrine. I am, in part, called to certain propositional beliefs. I also am, in part, called to specific acts and behaviors. And I know, as I did in my Protestant doctrine, that God works the transformation within me. But now I know that he does so through his life as manifested in his Son through his Church and, in part, in and through the Mysteries of his energetic grace, especially the Eucharist.

As a history-less Protestant, I needed the historical Life of the Church. As a biblical reductionist Protestant, I needed the Tradition of the Church. And as a Protestant seeking the fulfillment of his faith and conduct, I need the holy and life-giving askesis that the Church offers via her union with the holy and life-giving Spirit proceeding from the Father and sent by the Son, one holy and ineffably perfect Trinity in whose energies is my only salvation.

[Next: the fulfillment of a living askesis.]


Any person who is on the road to becoming Orthodox will have to eventually come to grips with the place of icons and the practice of their veneration. There are, of course, many biblical and theological arguments to be made in favor of the practice and its theology. Two important such arguments are St. John Damascene’s account of icons and St. Theodore the Studite’s important work on icons.

But there are historical arguments as well. After all, even the most intransigent of Protestant iconoclasts has to reckon with the weight of history, especially when a belief or practice goes right back to the apostles. And Orthodox are always ready to affirm that icons and their veneration have apostolic foundations. In fact, not only are icons an ancient practice, both Jews and Christians practiced iconography–though surely with different theologies.

Evidence of this ancient practice goes back to the third century–for both Christians and Jews–and the site of Dura Europos. There, in the early 1920s, was discovered a very well preserved synagogue with extensive iconography, as well as a home that had been converted to a Christian temple (or what we today would call a church building). Both sites date back to as early as AD 230s. That is to say, the first third to half of the third century. Which implies that the practice of iconography at least dated from the second century, and to within the lifetimes of the disciples of the Apostles.

And that is just another way to say that icons go all the way back.

For an informative site that provides evidence for the early use of icons in both Christianity and Judaism, you can see photos here. (See also here.) Be sure to read this article, on a Sepphoris’ synagogue’s iconography, as well.

Gotta love archaeology.

Orthodoxy as Fulfillment I

I have recorded my peregrine spiritual journey elsewhere (see also here and here), so I will not attempt to recreate yet another account of my Orthodox journey. Rather, I want to simply speak to some of the things that Orthodoxy means to me, who am still as yet just outside the doors. I’ve expressed these ideas before, but I want to revisit them again today.

  • The Orthodox Church is the fulfillment of my search for the historic New Testament Church

I grew up in history-less churches. Intent as we were about restoring the beliefs and practices of the New Testament Church, we ignored the seventeen hundred years between the close of the New Testament era/first century and the rise of the Restoration Movement churches at the beginning of the nineteenth. We didn’t even pay too much attention to our own history. What was important was doctrine, interpreting the Bible correctly. History primarily served as a foil to prove our contention that we were correcting the errors of the historic Church.

Ironically, it was through a Church history class taught at one of my heritage churches’ Bible colleges, that I awoke to the supreme problem with this view: the notion that we could ever really know what the New Testament Church believed and practiced without consulting that New Testament Church. That is to say, the view that the New Testament Church was wholly contained in the New Testament did extreme violence to Jesus’ promise of the prevalence of the Church over the gates of hell and his promise to be with Her always till the end of the age. Contrary to the “Constantinian-apostasy” and “trail-of-blood” ecclesiastical history that I’d grown up with, the Church, I discovered in my class, did not, actually, apostasize after the last of the apostles died, nor during Constantine’s reign. Nor did Jesus’ promise fail. The Church has continued to this day. This, of course, was something I obviously had to believe if I wanted to believe myself part of that Church. But the full implications of it—that there was a flesh-and-blood group of people whose history and doctrine could be traced directly back to the Apostle Paul (such as the Church at Thessaloniki)—would take some time to sink in.

Still, to even acknowledge that there was a living, breathing New Testament Church in our day—and not just some doctrinal, theoretical construct built on particular interpretations of the Scriptures—led to the only logical question I could ask: Where is that Church?

That question led me, ultimately, to the Incarnation. Ecclesiology is Christology. If God himself thought it important to take on human history as intrinsic to the Person of the Son, if God did not think it too great a thing to wrap all his divinity in the weakness of human flesh and blood, then who was I to ignore the history, the flesh and blood reality, of the Church? I began to realize that the absence of personal history is the absence of real identity. I could not claim to be part of the Church if I cut off from my faith and practice the history that was essential to that Church. Then, like an adopted child seeking his origins, there was awakened in me a deep hunger for that real identity that could only be fulfilled by the Church that was not only doctrinally but, as importantly, historically connected to the New Testament Church. I began to realize that my identity as a “New Testament Christian” was a construct. It was an empty frame with only bits and pieces inside. That relative emptiness needed to be filled, that identity needed to be made real.

And like many adopted children, I found myself not disparaging or disrespecting my adopted mother, the Restoration Movement churches, but nonetheless dealing with the truth: my adopted mother had raised me well and given me great and lasting gifts. But my origins as a Christian must necessarily lie elsewhere. I needed to shift the incomplete picture of who I thought myself to be to the reality of what I needed to be: a child of Mother Church.

For most of my life, I was a Christian cut off from the rest of the Church. Our group of churches largely did not acknowledge other denominations since we viewed much of their doctrine and practice as not in conformity with the New Testament. This changed quite a bit as I became an adult and our churches began to cooperate more often and more widely with other church groups. But I was also cut off from the Church of history. There was this vast emptiness between myself and my churches and that New Testament Church we believed once existed in purity, and which purity we now sought to restore.

But such a church was still primarily a doctrine, an idea. We often referred to the New Testament as a “blueprint” for our faith and practice. The Church, in my understanding, was not so much a real, live entity as it was a propositional standard. This, of course, was precisely how we could “restore” it. Ideas can always be “restored.” This well-meant, if anemic, understanding of the Church served me well for much of my life. But it could not teach me to pray. It could not teach me how to live and to struggle. It could not in fact, live such prayer and such struggle for me. It could not lead me by example. It was, after all, an idea.

In my discovery of Mother Church, however, I have found not an idea, not a doctrine, but the warm maternal love of a home, the household of faith. Here there is a family related by blood. Over there is the “eccentric grandmother,” fool-for-Christ Xenia. There are the family doctors, Cosmas and Damian. There is the plucky Great Martyr Katherine. And there is the brilliant Confessor, Maximus. But there are plenty of children about, just like in a real home: the children martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion, Lucy of Sicily, the Holy Innocents. And just like the homes we know, there is always Good Food about.

The restoration of my ecclesial maternal ties has not yet been completed. But I have met my Ecclesial Mother. And I am forever grateful to my adopted Restoration Movement mother who raised me to seek Her. I must now devote the rest of my life getting to know Her.

[Next: the fulfillment of doctrine.]

Reading the Bible Like a Catholic (and as an Orthodox)

Al Kimmel, recently received into the Catholic Church from ECUSA, has written a post, “Finding Eucharist in the Bible” in which he takes to task a Protestant blogger who rejects the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist because “it’s not in the Bible.” Says the erstwhile “Fr. Al”:

The problem, of course, is that Steve is reading the Scripture as a Protestant and not as a catholic. A catholic doesn’t come to the Bible with a blank slate, as if one can simply read the text and determine what the Church believes and teaches. A catholic reads the Bible within the context of the Holy Tradition and most especially within the eucharistic liturgy itself. Why does the catholic Christian connect the words of Jesus in John 6 to the bread and wine of the Eucharist? Because the Eucharist, itself instituted by Jesus, identifies the offered bread and wine with the Body and Blood of Christ. Hence the significance of the priestly recitation of the dominical words over the offered bread and wine. The catholic Christian, in other words, interprets the Scripture by the Eucharist and the Eucharist by the Scripture. As St Irenaeus wrote, “Our teaching is in accord with the Eucharist and the Eucharist, in its turn, confirms our teaching” (Adv. haer. 4.18.5).

Of course, most Protestants will roll their eyes at this “circularity.” To which Al replies succinctly:

At this point, of course, the Protestant will accuse the catholic of violating sola Scriptura. Yep.

Love it. Al continues:

I am struck by Steve’s easy dismissal of the beliefs of “hundreds of million” of Catholic and Orthodox Christians. The catholic conviction of the real presence (or real identification, as I prefer) has been consistently confessed and believed by catholic Christians for two thousand years. Yet here is the Protestant accusing the Church catholic of tinkering, tweaking, retrofitting, and gerrymandering the Scriptures. On what basis does he decide that his interpretation of Scripture is superior to the interpretation of the Church? By his private judgment. This, and this alone, is the ground of his conviction. He can’t even invoke Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, to support him.

In disputes like this, it is appropriate to invoke the solemn authority of Pontificator’s First Law: “When Orthodoxy and Catholicism agree, Protestantism loses.” Perhaps Pontificator needs to formulate a new law: “When an interpretation of Scripture violates Pontificator’s First Law, it just can’t be right.”


The Rule of Scriptural Interpretation: Antiquity, Ubiquity, Consensus

In my interaction with other bloggers, I find myself coming again and again to the Protestant dogma of sola scriptura. As can be seen on this blog, this is something about which I’ve thought often and wrote about almost as often.

But one problem of sola scriptura that I touched on in a previous post has to do with the lack of consensus that sola scriptura can generate. Given both that Scripture is always interpreted and that sola scriptura cannot generate a single (set of) interpretive practice(s), it is left to each successive generation of sola scriptura advocates to reinterpret the Scriptural texts anew. But here an inescapable dilemma arises: If they appeal to the Tradition to authorize their interpretation, then they privilege the Tradition over Scripture, but all forms of sola scriptura necessarily assert the primacy of Scripture over the Tradition–for even where Tradition agrees with Scripture, it is Scripture which authorizes the Tradition. But if they appeal to their own idiosyncratic interpretations, they privilege the authority of their interpretation over both the Scripture and the Tradition.

So what is the ancient Christian standard for biblical interpretation? St. Vincent of Lerins tells us:

[4.] I Have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

[5.] But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason,-because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

[6.] Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors. (St. Vincent of Lerins, The Commonitory, Ch. II)

But since sola scriptura advocates will not be impressed by a standard explicated by a fifth century Christian, let’s examine the consonance of this tradition with the Scriptures themselves.

Our paradigm for this is clearly Acts 15. They were, indeed, guided by the Holy Spirit to consensus. In fact, if you look at the hallmarks of how to discern the proper faith it is clear: antiquity, or the original teaching and experience of the apostolic Church (vv. 7ff), which was also confirmed by the Scriptures; ubiquity, or the prevalance of the teaching or practice everywhere (vv. 7-9 and 12), which was the original practice not just of Peter and the Jerusalem Church, but of Sts. Paul and Barnabas and the Gentile Church; and consensus, that which is believed by all (vv. 25, 28). Note especially that even in the midst of much dispute (v. 7), Sts. Peter, James, Paul and Barnabas, and all of the apostolic leadership, reached agreement, and this went out for the belief and practice of all the Churches.

So, how can we tell the true apostolic teaching? That it has been believed always (antiquity), everywhere (ubiquity), and by all (consensus). These three things demonstrate a teaching or practice to be apostolic and therefore authoritative and infallible.

I have seen–and myself personally known–the anxiety of “getting it right” with regard to Christian faith. Thankfully, I no longer have to run on that endless treadmill.

The Fatherhood Chronicles LXXXV

What a morning. I woke–wide-eyed, mind-racing awake, mind you–at three a.m. My normal start is five a.m., but I needed to get up at four today to do some school work. So after laying awake for a bit, I realized it wasn’t going to do me any good to try to roll over and sleep for only another forty-five minutes, so I shrugged (mentally) and got up anyway. Yep, I’m suffering for it now. Just like I did on the over-hot bus this morning–I almost missed my stop from dozing!

But what a glorious, wonderful morning. It used to be great having daddy-daughter times in the mornings with Sofie. But on days like today, I get the double-dose. Glory.

It started with Delaina waking up about four. She was wide-awake, but wanted to be held. So I held her, said morning prayers, and she fell asleep in my arms. I wasn’t as attentive in my prayers as I try to be, but I think this once God understood and accepted my “inattention” as another form of prayer. So, I took Delaina back to bed, and then did some more work.

Then Sofie got up. She is a “get up and cuddle till I wake up” sort of girl, which I have to confess, Daddy enjoys. So she shuffled out of her bedroom about a quarter of six, hair scattered like Thing 2 (she calls the Dr. Seuss stuffed toy “Monkey”) which she held in one hand. She was all toasty warm from bed and in her fleece jammies. She lay her head on my shoulder with a “Lubby Daddy” and I melted, as I always do.

Yep. Who needs coffee when you’ve got daughters!

Archpriest George Florovsky on St. Gregory Palamas and the Essence-Energies Distinction in God

From Fr. George Florovsky, St Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers (also here):

Actually the whole teaching of St. Gregory presupposes the action of the Personal God. God moves toward man and embraces him by His own “grace” and action, without leaving that φος απροσιτον [light unapproachable], in which He eternally abides. The ultimate purpose of St. Gregory’s theological teaching was to defend the reality of Christian experience. Salvation is more than forgiveness. It is a genuine renewal of man. And this renewal is effected not by the discharge, or release, of certain natural energies implied in man’s own creaturely being, but by the “energies” of God Himself, who thereby encounters and encompasses man, and admits him into communion with Himself. In fact, the teaching of St. Gregory affects the whole system of theology, the whole body of Christian doctrine. It starts with the clear distinction between “nature” and “will” of God. This distinction was also characteristic of the Eastern tradition, at least since St. Athanasius. It may be asked at this point: Is this distinction compatible with the “simplicity” of God? Should we not rather regard all these distinctions as merely logical conjectures, necessary for us, but ultimately without any ontological significance? As a matter of fact, St. Gregory Palamas was attacked by his opponents precisely from that point of view. God’s Being is simple, and in Him even all attributes coincide. Already St. Augustine diverged at this point from the Eastern tradition. Under Augustinian presuppositions the teaching of St. Gregory is unacceptable and absurd. St. Gregory himself anticipated the width of implications of his basic distinction. If one does not accept it, he argued, then it would be impossible to discern clearly between the “generation” of the Son and “creation” of the world, both being the acts of essence, and this would lead to utter confusion in the Trinitarian doctrine. St. Gregory was quite formal at that point.

If according to the delirious opponents and those who agree with them, the Divine energy in no way differs from the Divine essence, then the act of creating, which belongs to the will, will in no way differ from generation (γενναν) and procession (εκπορευειν), which belong to the essence. If to create is no different from generation and procession, then the creatures will in no way differ from the Begotten (γεννηματος) and the Projected (προβληματος). If such is the case according to them, then both the Son of God and the Holy Spirit will be no different from creatures, and the creatures will all be both the begotten (γεννηματα) and the projected (προβληματα) of God the Father, and creation will be deified and God will be arrayed with the creatures. For this reason the venerable Cyril, showing the difference between God’s essence and energy, says that to generate belongs to the Divine nature, whereas to create belongs to His Divine energy. This he shows clearly saying, “nature and energy are not the same.” If the Divine essence in no way differs from the Divine energy, then to beget (γενναν) and to project (εκπορευειν) will in no way differ from creating (ποιειν). God the Father creates by the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Thus He also begets and projects by the Son and in the Holy Spirit, according to the opinion of the opponents and those who agree with them. (Capita 96 and 97.)

St. Gregory quotes St. Cyril of Alexandria. But St. Cyril at this point was simply repeating St. Athanasius. St. Athanasius, in his refutation of Arianism, formally stressed the ultimate difference between ουσια [ousia, essence] or φυσις [physis, substance], on the one hand, and the βουλησις [boulesis, will], on the other. God exists, and then He also acts. There is a certain “necessity” in the Divine Being, indeed not a necessity of compulsion, and no fatum, but a necessity of being itself. God simply is what He is. But God’s will is eminently free. He in no sense is necessitated to do what He does. Thus γεννησις [gennesis, generation] is always κατά φυσιν [kata physin, according to essence], but creation is a βουλησεος εργον [bouleseos ergon, energy of the will] (Contra Arianos III. 64-6). These two dimensions, that of being and that of acting, are different, and must be clearly distinguished. Of course, this distinction in no way compromises the “Divine simplicity.” Yet, it is a real distinction, and not just a logical device. St. Gregory was fully aware of the crucial importance of this distinction. At this point he was a true successor of the great Athanasius and of the Cappadocian hierarchs.