Friday, June 19, 2015

Journey Through Orthodoxy, Part 1


From the March 2012 E-Block.
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More than once in the past 10 or so years, I've been mistaken for being Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. I had been told that some of my doctrinal stances matched the latter in particular, and owing to friendly challenge from a longtime Orthodox reader, I am taking a closer look at Orthodoxy and offering an evaluation. 

The reader recommended several books, and the first I received was John Romanides' An Outline of Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics (hereafter OOPD). The reader of OOPD immediately notices that it is half in Greek (on the left side), half in English (right), so that it is actually only half as long as it seems to be. However, it seems to provide a suitable basic outline of Orthodox dogma.

As it happens, the first two thirds of the book gives me some idea why I have been occasionally mistaken for an Orthodox (EO) believer. Several elements represent conclusions I have arrived at independently. Orthodox views of theosis are not conceptually far from (though not identical to) my view of the heavenly life as an experience of growth and privilege/honor (which in turn is somewhat more developed than the typical Protestant idea of sanctification) . Romanides' explanation of the Trinity includes references to hypostatic Wisdom. Later in the book, the discussion of the "torments of hell" contain ideas in concert with my own; Romanides explains that while believers will see God as light, unbelievers will see God as fire -- an explanation which, even if not as developed as my own, at least recognizes the metaphor inherent in the concepts of light and fire.

Other aspects of what OOPD presents involve matters that I either have no stake in (e.g., the filoque) or have yet to investigate. So what does that leave in terms of potential problems? 

The first I see is one common to many movements -- whether mainstream groups like Catholicism or fringe groups like the Mormons. The Orthodox vest authority, Romanides explains, in an Ecumenical Council which is regraded as infallible. However, OOPD is regrettably no more forthcoming in terms of providing rational basis for depositing authority in this body. This will undoubtedly be one of the subjects for which I will be seeking worthy arguments in future readings.

Romanides, however, refers only in general terms to EO's "deposit of faith" which is at the center of the "Holy Tradition" and is transmitted down the ages by bishops and presbyters. These Romanides designates as "knowers" with "direct knowledge of the glory and energy of God," as opposed to those who are only "believers," who are apparently to "receive without hesitation the witness and teaching about God" from the knowers. I regard such a system with suspicion in whatever variation it appears -- even as it appears among Protestants, where I regard the current situation with Norman Geisler to be an equivalent (e.g., what I have called the appeal to a "Great Man" speaking). 

Perhaps the most disturbing statement by Romanides is this one: "It is a joke, not only spiritually, but also scientifically, to think that one can interpret Holy Scripture correctly, if he has no idea about the revelation of the Glory of Christ to the Prophets and the Apostles." That's rather a high hurdle to set for one's self, for it means that if you produce even one erroneous interpretation, you have a lot of explaining to do. Unfortunately, the usual resort for those who hold such views is to declare that their interpretation must be right because after all, they have the Spirit -- all you have is (cough) scholarship, research, arguments, etc.

Further on, it is said that "[t]hose who wish to live according to Christ place themselves under the guidance of a father, who has the charism of discernment of spirits, and, consequently, is able to teach the manner through which one becomes a participant in the Mystery of the Cross and the Resurrection." In the Biblical world such claims would have to be validated by prophecy (the Deuteonomic test), and Romanides indicates three things missing outside EO which he thinks shows that a breakaway from Apostolic succession, and presumably as well, theological authority: absence of veneration of saints; absence of veneration of icons and relics, and absence of miracles wrought through them. We have discussed the first two in articles some time ago; as for miracles -- based on precedent, those would be a significant measure, but alas, Romanides stops short of offering details or confirmation. So, count that as something else I'll be looking for (but quite honestly, not expecting at this point to find).

The second major issue is a complex of issues having to do with ecclesiology. I have a number of reservations about what appears to me to be a "one size fits all" approach to participation in ritual functions. The assumption I have perceived so far is that one is obliged to participate in various scheduled liturgies and prayers; allowance is made under certain circumstances to not take part, I am told, but my own reservation -- that such rituals do nothing to enable discipleship in my own life, and if anything, would distract me from what I regard as my assigned task, is not among the exceptions.

I do have some sympathy for the EO idea that the church is not merely invisible, but also in some sense visible. There is a principle of active participation in EO's doctrine, virtually the same as one which I have tried to encourage. What I do question is the determination that a particular mode of participation is demanded of the believer. This is not inclusive of the rituals of baptism and the Eucharist (or as Baptists say, the "Lord's Supper!"), which I do think are mandated, or of enacting certain moral principles in our daily lives. EO goes beyond this, though, finding as well a warrant for observation of many more rituals.

And so we finish there, with little if anything offered beyond an introduction and outline, with practically no effort at validation. Romanides, however, is not so much an apologist as an expositor, so he does not argue for the demands of EO practice in any detail. I will be seeking such defenses in future readings; for now, his book has provided walking papers giving us some idea what burden EO will have to meet in order to validate its claims.

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