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[The Creation of the Chicken]

An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sola Patriarcha

The flip side of the Sola Scriptura coin is what I call "Sola Patriarcha", which may been demonstrably seen by those who seek to rediscover original Christianity by proof-texting the early Church fathers. Now, don't get me wrong, reading old books (as C.S. Lewis suggests in his introduction to one particular publishing of St. Atahnasios' "On the Incarnation") is to be highly encouraged. But taking a Sola Scriptura mentality toward the Fathers is a really really bad idea.

What you'll end up with is a new version of basically what we have already thanks to Sola Scriptura: thousands of "father(formerly Bible)-believing" denominations. Desperate to find an age in which the Church believed all the same things whether about abortion to global warming to evolution to school vouchers to universal health care or even to theological issues such as whether or not the creation account is primarily allegorical or literal or something in between or if there is free will or if we are saved by substitutionary atonement or something else or something in between. OR, for that matter, anything outside of the Nicene Creed...which of course itself isn't as pristine as we would like since we know a variety of heresies existed very early on. (But, at least they were called as such.) As a tangent, which I'm terribly fond of, I rather suspect there are probably some who seek to gain an opinion on global warming from the early Church fathers. The Psalmist, after all, tells us that God has set a boundary over which the waters shall not pass...so put that in your pipe Al Gore (STOP...THINK before you comment, I'm not saying what you think I'm saying, I bet). Alas, the Church dealt with the issues of their day and so must the Church of today. But...if the church is little more than an immaterial collection of "saved" souls, where do we turn?

Anyway, some have surely fallen into this trap and indeed we do have churches that have "returned to ancient Christianity" by reading the early fathers. But, just like Scripture (or arguably even worse than Scripture), there are writings amongst the fathers that are difficult to understand...difficult to reconcile with other writings. In fact, sometimes the writings are downright contradictory and mutually exclusive of one another. I once analogized the Church to a lab and that we have in our hands today portions of that lab's data (Scripture or, if the case may be, the writings of the early fathers...though some would consider them suspect) and that today we have people desperate to recreate the "experiment" that the "early lab" was working on based on the data. (I shoudl say, I have certainly commended people to read the early Fathers, analogizing their writings to "lab notes" and I stand by this...however I believe it isn't enough.) It makes it rather difficult to assemble the experimental parameters when all you have is a vast collection of data/notes with precious little info on how the experiment was done or when you do there is some disagreement on certain issues or methods. Does anyone know how many thousands of independent labs we have today trying to recreate the lab of the early Church?

Sigh...wouldn't it be nice if that lab never vanished? Why do we assume it has vanished? What if Holy Tradition is more than a collection of writings? The Orthodox Church believes that Holy Tradition is in actuality the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit as promised by Christ Himself who told the early Church that the Holy Spirit would lead them "into all truth" (John 16:13)and that "the gates of hell would not prevail"(Matthew 16:18) against the Church. What if, the Church (and not a collection of any writings) is the "pillar and ground of truth" (1 Timothy 2:15). What if a living Tradition was the context in which the writings were intended to be read and understood, as opposed to a vast spectrum of contexts from insanity to extreme rationalism - all pretty much hinged on an individual at one level or another.

I would contend that the data we have (Scripture) and the lab notes (writings of the Early Fathers) all suggest something: authority is found in a PHYSICALLY existing and living Church. Furthermore, I believe they point to the faith and practice of it(the experiment) as expressed by the Orthodox Church.

I've heard some say the pursuit to become just like "THE" early Church is akin to an adult wanting to put on diapers, suck their thumbs, nurse from their mothers and soil themselves. Sounds crude, but it certainly got your attention. The notion that the Church was ever "perfect" is naive. The Church is growing up, but make no mistake about it, she is the same child she was nearly 2,000 years ago and even LOOKS and acts like that same child in many many ways. In the form of councils, struggles, trials, tribulations, wondrous and beautiful liturgical development, debates, controversies, nourishment, renewals, and Holy men and women who come to her "just in time" the Church is growing up - remaining homoousia with the Person she was in 33AD.

Maybe there isn't any "sola"...except the Holy Spirit guiding the Church. I'll let someone else figure out a clever Latin or Greek phrase for that.

...offered by Dn. fdj, a sinner at 10:58 AM [+]


met a very argumentative gent at the st spiridon bazaar who was, all by himself, the holy catholic orthodox church -- for the very reasons you outline. must be lonely to be the only one who is 'right'.

By Blogger Unknown, at 12:27 PM  


I wonder what he does on sunday mornings?

Though there is something to be said about convening ecumenical councils while on the commode.

Really, it is much easier to find consensus in such circumstances and, to be serious, it surely does seem to be the way of the future.

By Blogger fdj, at 1:04 PM  


Just a couple of years before he became Orthodox, Jaroslav Pelikan delivered some lectures that were collected in a little book called The Vindication of Tradition. He offered some very helpful analogies and maxims that, at the time, made me wonder why he wasn't Orthodox. (I was still an Anglican priest then, but I knew the difference between the Protestant, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox views of tradition well enough to recognize that the views he advocated were not those of his current Lutheran affiliation.)

For example, he wrote that there is a difference between traditionalism (the dead faith of the living) and authentic tradition (the living faith of the dead). He also said that the right view of tradition is akin, not to a standing broad jump, where we just launch ourselves into the future as though the past did not exist, but to a running broad jump, in which we travel through the past in order to approach the present and future with wisdom.

The problem of tradition is that it must not be seen as everything that everyone has ever said about everything. That might be a chronicle or an archive, but it is not what Orthodoxy means by Holy Tradition. You are quite right, James, that it is the Church that is the pillar and support of the truth, not some isolated element of tradition (not even Scripture) whose interpretation is attempted apart from or over against the Church. Indeed, Orthodoxy has always contended that Tradition (of which Scripture is a major stream) cannot be rightly understood externally, because Tradition is more like an internal organ of the Body of Christ than it is like an external law code to which she tries to conform.

I also agree that it is folly to try to "recreate the ancient Church." How ancient is ancient enough to the would-be recreators? If one were to attempt recreating the 1st-century Church, such an attempt would have to be undertaken as though the Nicene Creed, the Divine Liturgy, and the New Testament (at least in its eventual form) did not even exist. Such attempts can only be anachronistic at best, and sectarian and heretical at worst. The one thing it is not is possible, even if it were desirable, which it isn't. In fact, if the Ante-Nicene and Nicene fathers had held the view of our contemporary "purist" recreators, we would have only one council: The Jerusalem council recorded in Acts.

We often hear that Orthodoxy is not rationalistic. That's true, if by "rationalism" we mean the more precise philosophical sense of innate ideas. The Faith is not a construct of human concepts that were somehow "already there" in man's brain. The Faith is based on revelation, and dogma is merely the attempt of learned ignorance to describe the data of revelation in necessarily human language and thought forms. Dogma is more about boundaries than exhaustive description. And yet, although Orthodoxy is not rationalistic, it certainly is reasonable and internally coherent. This doesn't remove mystery; it simply refuses to equate mystery with utter absurdity. It is just the recognition of the fact that because the Word became flesh, the Word and the heavenly realities that He opened up to us can be thought, experienced, fruitfully written about, and, by the way, written iconically.

This is also why Tradition must not be identified with everything that saints and fathers said or did. Doing so would immediately land us in irrationality, the forced juxtaposition, not of sacred mysteries, but of actual contradictions. Thus, the Gnosticism so roundly exposed and refuted by St. Irenaeus comes up (no doubt unintentionally) in St. Maximus the Confessor and other contributors to the Philokalia. Do these both constitute Tradition in the sense of the Holy Spirit leading the Church into all the truth? I, for one, certainly hope they don't, and if reason (not rationalism) means anything at all, allow me to assert that I KNOW they don't.

By Blogger Patrick, at 12:24 PM  


...a running broad jump, in which we travel through the past in order to approach the present and future with wisdom.

That is very well put. Jaroslav was a tremendous communicator and scholar. Memory Eternal!

Dogma is more about boundaries than exhaustive description.

I shall have to insist on stealing this line...a wonderful and simple description of apophatic theology I should say!

I believe it was David Bercot who came out with a "Dictionary of Early Chrisitian Beliefs" which reads a lot like a "What the Bible says about..." text, except that he fills this with quotes from the Ante-Nicene fathers. Of course it suffers from the very same short-comings one would expect: only those opinions Bercot chooses are included and contradictory ones are deliberately or erroneously ignored. And of course, he misses the point entirely as we have agreed: the collective writings of the Fathers cannot possibly be used - in and of themselves - as a litmus test for what Christianity is all about.

I think it rather telling that Mr. Bercot is/was a lawyer by trade and this bit from Wikipedia is also telling: In his book, Common Sense, he explains the concept of "Course of Performance." In law, he states, if the terms of a contract are not clearly set forth, the courts will refer to the "course of performance" to determine the original meaning of the contract. How have the parties in the contract carried out the terms of the contract to this point? The contract, if it does not contain specifics, must be interpreted to match that "course of performance." David Bercot chose to apply this principle to the Bible. What was the "course of performance" of the churches the apostles started?

One really could not fall into a deeper western legalistic methodological pit.

By Blogger fdj, at 1:12 PM  


Another crucial distinction, and one that even many Orthodox theologians forget (or never knew) is the distinction between revelation, as such, and Scripture. In non-Orthodox hermeneutics, Scripture and revelation are equated. This was deemed necessary in the light of the perceived attacks of Form Criticism (Bultmann) and higher criticism in general. Both of these trends assumed the Scientific Method, as then constructed, as the be-all and end-all of any discipline whatsoever. The response of the West, and the type of Orthodoxy that was unfortunately subject to the "Roman captivity", was to defend every biblical assertion in terms of pure empiricism. Of course, the problem with this is that empiricism is tacitly admitted as THE criterion of all truth. This is the real basis of Western fundamentalist insistence upon absolute verbal infallibility, and its foredoomed attempt to "debunk" biblical criticism by "reconciling" matters of manuscript variants and other features of textual transmission.

Authentic Orthodoxy, if it sticks to its true identity, never needs to enter this dead end, because it has never simplistically equated the biblical text with revelation as such. Revelation was experienced, for example, by Peter, James, and John on Mt. Tabor when Our Lord Jesus Christ was transfigured. The text that reports that occurrence is NOT the experience of the Uncreated Light, but an account that witnesses to the fact that such an experience has occurred, and therefore can occur again. The point is that the text is one thing, and the revelation is another.

The bottom line is that non-Orthodoxy all too often equates "knowing" something conceptually with actually EXPERIENCING it. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, insists that, while knowledge "about" the revelation is good and even necessary, it is NOT the same as experiencing it.

In this sense, therefore, creedal dogma can be seen as a kind of roadmap or a series of checkpoints for our experience. Such checkpoints are very important because Satan is the great Counterfeiter. Fr. Frank Marangos of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology has said that dogma is like the foundation of a building: It's not what the building is FOR, but it is nevertheless absolutely necessary. For example, (and this is my extension of his analogy) the foundation is once-for-all: You can't lay a new foundation without starting over. Also, the foundation determines the basic shape and character of what can be built upon it. Nor is the foundation the same as the building: There is distinction without separation. This is a very important principle to remember when seeking an understanding of apostolic Christianity, because it applies to the Trinity (three distinct Persons who are not separated in nature or will), the two natures in the one Person of Christ, and even the nature of man in the image of God. I'm sure the analogy could be extended further in all kinds of ways.

In my opinion, Mr. Bercot reads like a reformed alcoholic: He goes too far in the opposite direction so as to avoid even the bare theoretical possibility of being associated with the error that he now sees so clearly. The "problem" of Scripture is only a problem if one first swallows either the rationalistic or empiricistic assumptions of non-Orthodoxy. Once one sees Scripture as one among other internal organs of the Body of Christ, which cannot be rightly understood in isolation from the mind of Christ expressed in and through the Spirit in accordance with the will of the Father, then and only then will we be in accord with Scripture itself!! In other words, it's SCRIPTURE ITSELF that tells me that the Church, and not Scripture, is the pillar and support of the truth. This one passage, all by itself, already casts a very dim light indeed upon denominationalism and the biblicism upon which, paradoxically, almost all denominationalism is based.

By Blogger Patrick, at 12:42 PM  



I think this should cover your request for a clever phrase in Latin:

"In Ecclesia sola moderatio Spiritus Sancti"

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:19 AM  


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