The Desire for Well-Being

I have been having a friendly discussion (not a debate, thank God) on whether or not the Orthodox teaching on theosis is just another way of talking about the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory. It is sometimes attributed to “Byzantine”/Eastern Rite Catholics that differences on these things are a question of semantics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The problem here is that there are at least two radically fundamental differences with which to begin discussing this topic: the nature of God and, concomitantly, the nature of salvation. Apart from some understanding on what’s at stake with these differences one cannot really begin to address whether or not St Mark of Ephesus’ answer to the Florentine prelates does or does not address whether Orthodox believe in purgatory as Roman Catholics believe in purgatory. Of course, individual persons and scholars will nuance this or that aspect of these concepts, but in general the differences play out along these general lines.

Continue reading “The Desire for Well-Being”


Development of Doctrine

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Orthodox and Roman Catholics share a common acceptance of the development of doctrine. What is not shared, however, is to what the development amounts. Roman Catholics accept a view of the development of doctrine sometimes analogized as an oak growing from an acorn. Orthodox accept a development of doctrine which is essentially apophatic, characterized more by what it denies than by what it affirms (for example, the four alpha-privatives of the Chalcedonian statement of the union of Christ’s human and divine natures).

For Orthodox, development of doctrine is inherently reactive: it responds to heresy so as to preserve the fullness of the Faith. The seven Ecumenical Councils were all occasioned, whatever their respective historical context, by the need to respond to various heresies: Arianism, Nestorianism, iconoclasm, and so forth. The Creed itself was not promulgated first and then used as a canon, but was, rather, a formulation that developed out of the need to respond to distortions of the Gospel. In its positive pronouncements, it is singularly austere and simple, achieving its fullest “technical” vocabulary in the propositions about the Son. But even those positive pronouncements are, very nearly, entirely restatements of Scripture. The Creed itself is no new declaration, but the summation of the Gospel taught since the Apostles.

To this there will likely be no Roman Catholic objection. So wherein lies the difference? The difference, it appears to me, is that Roman Catholic development of doctrine allows for the notion of an increased understanding of the Faith. That is to say, that those who come later in time, better understand, and thus are able, even better able, to reformulate in new ways with new inferences, the Apostolic Deposit. Proponents of the Roman Catholic understanding of development of doctrine, then, affirm that all they are advocating is the drawing forth of implications and inferences. In this syllogistic defense of development of doctrine, proponents deny that they are creating dogmae or doctrines de novo, but are simply bringing forth the truth(s) already contained in the originating propositions. Like the oak that grows from the acorn, there is no new thing, so the argument goes, the essence remains the same, but, rather, it is simply the natural outgrowth of what lies potentially in the very being of the thing.

The objection here, however, is that one proposition equates dogma to a deductive syllogistic, the other assumes a teleological perspective that it is not clear is warranted.

While it is certainly true that reason is not divorced from faith, and false that dogma and doctrine are not related in any way to reason, nonetheless subsuming dogma to deductive inference is to reverse the order of primacy. Christianity is a revealed religion, not one derived from a priori first principles. The Apostolic Deposit, the Faith once for all delivered to the saints, is not irrational. But it is always already suprarational, for it always already starts from and ends with God who is unknowable apart from revelation. Arius, after all, subsumed the Faith to philosophically rational tenets, and was decried by the Church as a heretic. Indeed, it may not be too hyperbolic to assert that all heresies derive from the reversal of the priority of Faith over reason. Christianity posits nothing no less preposterous than that two natures, human and divine, reside in unity in one Person: Jesus the Christ. Christianity eliminates the dialectic of the one over the many, holding both in tension at the same time. Indeed, Christianity posits the Person over the nature. None of these are subsumable under rationalist dialectical deductive considerations.

If, then, the Faith is not subject to the deductions of rational first principles, then the teleological assumptions of the acorn analogy fall away as well. For the acorn analogy to work, it would be necessary for the teleological endpoint to be known. But for human players in the flow of history, it is not possible to tell if one branching line is in conformity with the essence of the oak, or whether it is a deformation. Only a teleological endpoint perspective would be able to say so with certainty. And to claim such an endpoint is to claim the knowledge which resides in the Godhead. Indeed, it is to claim to know more than the Apostles, whom God ordained to be the foundation of the Church.

If I am not mistaken, this is not the approach of the Orthodox. Orthodoxy prefers to preserve that which has been deposited, guarding it against heresy, but little interested in seeking an advance of dogmatic content. There are certainly new ways to formulate old doctrines. And heresies, inherently innovative themselves, too often mutate and offer new emphases that require such new formulations. But the Orthodox do not claim to know more about Christ by virtue of the Chalcedonian formula, or more about the Holy Trinity by virtue of the essence/energies distinction. Rather, the claim is to preserve the inherent mystery and unknowability of the Persons of the Holy Trinity.

While it is true that God does not cease from creating goods, for humans the primary goal is not the rational explanation of these goods, but the union of body, soul and spirit with God through His Son, in ineffable union and distinction so as to enjoy these goods, which are nothing less than participation in God, and to enjoy them forever.


As a Protestant, one of the key mental operators one has is the opposition to Rome. Depending upon the Protestant group, though I have in mind here and throughout this reflection evangelical Protestants, one more or less defines oneself over against Rome. This, of course, results in a distortion of Roman doctrine and practice (again depending on how much more or less one defines oneself over against Rome), a distortion which can reach Jack Chick proportions. So one thing a Protestant converting to Orthodoxy must be careful of is distorting Orthodoxy into an anti-Roman image.

Thankfully, not a few Protestant converts to Orthodoxy have come to Orthodoxy by way of investigations into Rome. The Protestant turn to Rome is completely normal and natural: many Protestants know very little, sometimes even nothing, about Orthodoxy. Once the inherent contradictions of Protestantism weigh in on the Protestant soul, the convert begins a reconsideration of his stance vis a vis Rome. And not a few conclude that they should find their anchorage in that church.

But Orthodoxy is not as much of a well-kept secret anymore. More and more literature is being published in English–one might dare to call it an explosion in the last ten years or so. Orthodoxy is finding its way into the so-called “new media” especially in the online world. So Protestants looking for resolution of the contradictions of Protestantism are now aware that there is more to investigate than the Tiber crossing. And herein lies the potential danger of turning Orthodoxy into a new Protestantism.

Some Protestant converts, in a normal and laudable effort to make sense of their journey find the differences between Orthodoxy and Rome comforting. We have no Pope. We don’t have the problem of indulgences. We’ve never had Limbo. And so on.

The problem is these differences are superficial in many respects and simply reinstantiate the opposition to Rome, which does not get anywhere close to the heart of Orthodoxy. A Protestant convert to Orthodoxy will find, sooner or later, that he has much more in common with Roman Catholics after his conversion than he does with Protestants. His Bible is the same (with a few extras). He has a sacramental foundation to his Christian life. He has bishops and priests. His babies are baptized. He has the Church as the cornerstone of biblical and doctrinal belief and interpretations. And so on.

Only when a Protestant convert to Orthodoxy can come to grips with the deep similarities he has with Rome can he effectively also come to grips with the deeper differences, differences which do not map out on his former dichotomies.

The Pope. Both Orthodoxy and Rome give primacy to the Bishop of Rome. The difference is of what the primacy consists. Orthodoxy teaches that the primacy is synodal, not jurisdictional.

Mary. Both Orthodoxy and Rome claim for Mary the role of the Mother of God, that Mary was assumed into heaven (there are some differences as to when that took place and whether or not she died prior to her assumption), and that she is the Queen of Heaven. The difference, however, relates to whether or not Mary is an exception to original or ancestral sin or not.

The Sacraments. Both Rome and Orthodoxy teach a sacramental soteriology. The difference, however, is in the view of grace which underlies the sacramental theology. For Orthodoxy, the Sacraments are a real participation in God and not a participation in a creature of God.

The Trinity. Both Rome and Orthodoxy teach the Trinity, of course, but the difference lies in the understanding of God’s Tri-Personality and his essence. The Orthodox teach the distinction between God’s essence and energies and do not accept the teaching of absolute or definitional divine simplicity.

Development of Doctrine. Both Rome and Orthodoxy accept the authority of the Church Councils and the Fathers, as well as the defined dogmas of the Church (though with some obvious differences). And both teach that the doctrine of the Church has developed over time. The difference is in the nature of that development. The Orthodox teach a development that preserves apophasis, the utlimate unknowability of God, whereas Rome teaches a development of understanding, that the Church has come to know these theological matters more deeply.

This is only a partial list, and with thumbnail descriptions at that. But it is meant to emphasize that evangelical Protestants who convert to Orthodoxy must not settle for the easy dichotomies between themselves and Rome that were once the mainstay of their intellectual parameters. The truth is more complex. And only when Protestants can be converted from such former dichotomies can they come to a truer understanding and appreciation of their new Faith and the Church.

Captain Obvious, Meet Clueless Man

So, it turns out the Pope is Roman Catholic, huh.  What a shock.  I suppose the next thing we’ll learn is that the earth is a sphere and not flat.

The media must think that Rome has never declared itself the one, and only, true Church. And, of course, they are playing up the notion of how offensive this declaration must be to everyone else. ‘Cuz, gosh, we all know that the primary thing of utmost importance is to never, ever, for even a teensy weensy moment, hurt someone’s feelings.

It does, of course, seem odd that HH Benedict XVI would state it so starkly given the late John Paul II’s penchant for the use of the term “sister churches” and the “two lungs” analogy (both of which, of course, implicitly call into question Rome’s claim to be the one true, visible Church). But, that is, nonetheless, what Rome has been claiming for centuries: she and she alone is the one true visible Body of Christ.

It is interesting, given recent exchanges between myself and the blogger at Cathedra Unitatis–and my post linking the discussion at Perry’s blog–that this declaration would come out into the media when it did. But it illustrates an important point.

That point is made by the Pope himself. Orthodoxy is not the one true visible Church, because it is defective. And in what is it defective? It has apostolic succession. It has the sacraments. It teaches the Gospel. What’s missing? That’s right: allegiance to the Pope as supreme bishop of the Church.

One call talk all one wants in flowery ecumenical language. One can form and support and maintain “fraternal relations.” One can lift anathemas, and so forth. But it comes down to this one point: the Orthodox Church teaches and has always maintained that the Roman see has a place of primacy (honor, respect, some authority), but it does not have a place of supremacy. The episcopacy, for Orthodox, must be collegial, in which no single bishop rules the others, but that all come together in mutual accord. Orthodox believe that this models the relations of the Trinity, the historical and biblical evidence, and is, in fact, the life of the Church. To make one bishop supreme among all others is to distort this collegiality, with ramifications for other aspects of Christian belief.

I have found it to be the case often in the online world that Orthodox are denigrated and judged for being so abominably stubborn. Roman Catholics will say something like, “Come on! We call you sister churches. We call you the other lung. We admit you have grace. We admit you have apostolic succession. We admit you teach the Gospel. Isn’t that enough? Why hold out on this pope thing? After all, you admit to a primacy of honor. How is that different from what we ask you to join us in believing about the Pope?”

Well, is the Father supreme over the Son? Doesn’t that teach essential subordinationism? Isn’t subordinationism a heresy? Then how is it that one bishop, who partakes of the life of the Trinity along with all the other bishops, elevate himself above his brother bishops such that all must subordinate themselves to him? How is that all the bishops have one head, who is Christ, but all the bishops save Rome also have another earthly head, the occupant of the Roman See?

No, Orthodox resist on just this point precisely of the distortions it brings into the common life in Christ of us all.

For a few Ortho-blogger reactions:

Clay, over at All Saints Forum, guesses that he was wrong.
Fr Stephen, is glad that we cleared that all up.
Reader Christopher gives three cheers for clarity.
James implicitly asks, does a bear wear a funny hat? (No, wait, I’ve got the joke wrong.)