...are the ones that make the biggest difference

9.11.2006

Darn it...back to square one.

I must admit that one of the things that I found so attractive about Orthodoxy was that it came packaged with answers to all kinds of difficult questions. What is the church? Who is in charge? What is the source of authority? How do we know who is right? All these questions, and countless others, had easy, or at least easily accessible, answers within the Orthodox framework. There might be some ambiguity, some varying degrees of disagreement or varieties of interpretation, but at least the foundation upon which these differences existed was the same. And in this common source, the questions didn't matter quite as much because the source was in common to all the questioners - everyone could at least agree on that and seemingly get along quite well.

But alas, I am back to square one with no pre-packaged answers to any of it. Well, most of it, anyways. One of the things that has really been on my mind of late is the nature and identity of the church. This has been partly inspired by a series of posts & comments-debates over on Pontifications regarding these same questions and related issues. At the end of one post, which pointed out a Calvinist site taking on Orthodoxy, he posted a quote by Newman:

“And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this”

If there is one thing that my journey through Orthodoxy over the last couple of years has taught me is that this statement is almost entirely true. A quick review of the first few centuries of the faith shows that Protestantism just doesn't match in many ways. Different structure, different understanding of the sacraments, authority, vocation and certainly different theological emphases. But that is not to say Protestantism is wholly alien to the early church; it is Trinitarian, has a high view of scripture (perhaps higher than the Ante-Nicene Fathers, but they clearly held it in high regard as well), is missional and evangelical (in the non-political sense of the word), and ardently desires to worship and honor Christ. Of course, the Orthodox and Catholic churches believe, despite those important similarities, that the absence of the other stuff clearly separates Protestantism from the historic church. Thus, any Protestant truly concerned with the identity of the church must join one of those communions in order to be in fellowship with true extension of the Apostles.

But the Protestant who studies history rightly turns the tables and asks whether Orthodoxy and Catholicism are really all that similar to the early church. Certainly they share generally similar structures with the episcopal hierarchy, similar views of the sacraments, vocations, and certain theological points. But the Protestant reading history and the Fathers finds marked departures as well. In Catholicism, the role & authority of the Pope is a distinct variation. In Orthodoxy, the lack of missional zeal. In both communions the high veneration of Mary and the veneration of the saints generally, icons, eschatology (purgatory and the toll-houses, for example) and other theological understandings are wide variations from the faith of the early church. While they may not have strayed off the path entirely, I think there is a case to be made that Orthodoxy and Catholicism have strayed. They have innovated, perhaps for very good, holy intentions, but they have innovated nonetheless. Who is to say which set of differences, Protestant or Orthodox/Catholic, is the greater or more injurious to faith? Arguments can be made from either side on why their's is the better, but I don't think either really has an airtight case.

Which leaves me with yet more questions, and only a few conclusions. One of which; we're left to deal with what history has handed us. I think the state of the church, in its most general sense, is a mixed-bag of strengths and weaknesses, highs and lows. We all have a long way to go in living out the Gospel of our Lord, many areas where we need to improve our faithfulness. For me, this realization is actually rather freeing. I don't expect to find a perfect church anymore. I don't expect to find a place of ultimate fulfillment, which is what I was hoping Orthodoxy would be. What I expect, what I hope to find, is rather a community of the faithful honest about their failings, committed to doing better and who are trying to live out the Gospel. That is all, and I believe, that is more than enough.

3 comments:

The Scrivener said...

Nathan,

Just for the record, the "toll-house" teaching you will find in some corners of Russian Orthodoxy is not a matter of dogma and is not officially endorsed or taught in any canonical jurisdiction that I know of. Most Orthodox consider it a plain old falsehood and a perversion of the faith, even if a well-intention saint or two taught it. (As Fr Hopko once said, "Just because a saint said it don't make it true.")

basil said...

Ditto to what the Scrivener said. The toll-houses are theologoumena, an old Greek word for "theological opinion." I have yet to see a spin on them that squares with the orthodox faith, as far as I'm concerned. The idea seems to be based primarily on a tradition of proof-texting various patristic texts. I'm not convinced.

But your primary point is absolutely valid: Both Romans and Orthodox have had some development over the years. Who is to say their shifts are not innovations? Father Alexander Schmemann once said that the Church only changes in order to remain the same. The Council of Nicea introduced to the whole world a word, homoousios, meaning that the Son is "one in essence/nature" or "consubstantial" with the Father. Absolutely unprecedented. (Well, Paul of Samosata first used the word, but that's a fine point.) Is that an innovation? Of course not, because it brings light on an implicit but essential element of the faith that was questioned and rejected by the heretics. ("Heresy," by the way, comes from a Greek word meaning "opinion.")

The important piece here is: traditio, or what has been passed on. Tradition indicates a continuity with what has come before. This continuity is exactly what is rejected in the Reformed paradigm, either explicitly, as with the Calvinist traditions, or confusedly, as with the English Reformation. (Lutherans, in a way, exist as a special case, but their doctrine certainly appears, prima facie, to be a break or discontinuity with the Roman tradition.)

The ancient paradigm of authority was to receive the faith from "the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1Tim 3.15).

As for other, supporting points you mentioned (such as the development of piety towards the Theotokos and the saints), resolving in your mind whether the final authority is you or the church will make them superfluous. This sounds, perhaps, arrogant. When I was inquiring into the Roman Catholic Church many years ago, Peter Kreeft answered my question about Mary in this way: "Catholics do not believe what the Church teaches about Mary because it happens to jibe with their own personal beliefs; they believe it because the Church teaches it." We find in Protestantism a fundamental shift in the nature of revelation. In ancient Christianity, receiving the faith was a family affair, not an individual matter.

Everyone on this journey faces this paradigm shift and chooses their path accordingly. It seems to me you want the ancient faith. Everyone struggles with this shift. This fundamental question is, logically, prior to any of the others. I see that you are still reading sources like Pontifications.This is good; keep struggling. (Fr. Stephen Freeman is my godfather, by the way.)

St. Augustine said, "I do not seek understanding in order to believe; I believe so that I may understand." I cannot stand in front of you and tell you that I always follow this advice. I'm a child of the modern world --- you can see me struggle with this on various issues on my own blog. But, eventually, I must recognize that the consensus of the people of God carries far more weight than my own opinion.

One last bit: the ancient Church (as reflected in both Roman and Orthodox Catholic teaching) held that the Church of Christ could be known on earth. Another way of saying this is to call this classical ecclesiology "incarnational." Reformed ecclesiology, by contrast, holds that only the "Church Triumphant," the invisible Church of those who have completed their earthly fight and passed on, is completely united, only it is the "true" Church. This is a Docetic ecclesiology, at best.

Caldonia Sun said...

Nathan,

I went that route, too. I sorta abandoned my pursuit of Orthodoxy after making a major move to another city. Visited many churches and just kept coming up empty. I'm back in EO now, planning on being chrismated in two weeks.

Caldonia
www.appalachianambiance.blogspot.com