Sunday, October 28, 2012
Journey to Orthodoxy (part 3)
While I was reading more of the Church Fathers, I also began listening to podcasts at Ancient Faith Radio. Many of the programs there -- such as Our Life in Christ, At the Intersection of East and West, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, and Faith and Philosophy -- focus on issues of the Orthodox church in America, and often the sorts of things that Protestants looking to better understand Orthodoxy would be concerned about. While the content at AFR was (and is) stellar -- addressing issues such as Church history, ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the differences between Orthodoxy and other Christian denominations -- just as importantly, it introduced me to a variety of voices within the tradition, which I found to be extremely favorable not only on matters of the Church, but how the shared tradition seems to shape their convictions in positive ways.
Listening to some of these podcasts dovetailed nicely with reading the Fathers because the programs revealed high esteem for the Fathers and a deep congruence with their thought on many levels. The theology and ecclesiology that I was being exposed to had a very venerable provenance, but also happened to address many of the issues I had felt as deficiencies in the non-denominational evangelical tradition.
One of the central, large differences the Orthodox church has with Protestantism is its understanding of the Church, authority, tradition, and scripture and the relationship between them. Orthodoxy sees a very organic, mutually enforcing relationship between these things and no contradictions. The Orthodox Church sees authority as flowing from Christ of course, but also from the Church itself, which is in-dwelt with the Holy Spirit, and who not only wrote, but decided upon the canon of scripture. And the scripture inherits its authority from the Church, the body of Christ. While the evangelical tradition sees the Bible itself as the ultimate authority for Christian life and practice, as distinct from the Church, with the Holy Spirit having worked to create the Bible through human beings, but not necessarily through the Church as a single, concrete, visible, distinguishable historical entity. While the Orthodox Church also sees the Bible as authoritative and divinely inspired, it believes that the way the Church reads Scripture, and Scripture's place in the whole life of the Church is similarly authoritative. This is a large difference, though it may seem like a fine one to some. The Orthodox understanding is crucially at odds with the foundational Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura.
Now, I had not ever had a problem with sola scriptura, but then I never gave much countenance to alternative views before and so I started to question the position. Or really, to think through it for the first time, since in the tradition I grew up in, even though sola scriptura was tacitly affirmed, it was not something that was ever much preached about or taught explicitly but rather assumed.
Is sola scriptura an absolute doctrine or just a local, temporal principle? After all, if it was a doctrine that all Christians throughout the ages should have held to, what were the scriptures that the Church held to from Pentecost to the year 397 AD, when the New Testament canon of scripture was established at the council of Chalcedon? Almost 400 years is a long time for Christians to go without any authority to turn to. Did God abandon the Church during those 400 years (or at least the years from the time the last apostle died)? Further, given the evangelical emphasis on individual scripture reading and interpretation, in light of your conscience, what about the next 1000 years of lay Christians, before the printing press was invented? Also, isn't sola scriptura somewhat self-contradictory since that principle isn't itself found in scripture?
Of course, defenders of sola scriptura have thought about these issues and can offer their defenses, but in my case the way Orthodox ecclesiology addresses these issues, and the way it feeds into so many others, made it a very attractive solution. And a Biblical one! In 1st Timothy 3:15 St. Paul writes that "the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth." While this mostly does away with sola scriptura, it resolves so many other issues, and is such an elegant solution that does justice to the majestic claims of the New Testament that the Church is Christ's beautiful bride; that she is Christ's body. If the Church is such a highly exalted reality, then why should not the life of the church -- her oral and written traditions, liturgical life -- be authoritative? And was this not the understanding of the nature of the Church as professed by the Fathers, who were directly taught by the Apostles? In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul writes to "stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle." Paul doesn't say to hold fast only to that which is written down, excluding the oral tradition of the Faith of the Apostles.
This understanding of the Church addresses many problems, such as the one that was raised in part 2 of this series of blogs regarding unity. It doesn't resolve that problem entirely without remainder, but it does significantly narrow the scope of the problem. The Orthodox Church conceives of itself as uniquely the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The primary question therefore becomes how to maintain the unity of the Orthodox church, rather than ecumenical efforts with heretical and schismatic sects, which aren't the Church divided as much as simply not-the-Church (or, at least, are not in the fullness of the Orthodox faith). This is a much more realistically manageable goal, while the ever proliferating division of the Protestant church offers little hope on this count. Of course, the non-denominational tradition offers an alternative solution to unity, but one that requires theological imprecision and a lowest-common-denominator approach to unity, which is extremely unsatisfying by my lights.
Another question that arises is, if Christians recognize the Christology and Trinitarianism of Nicaea as authoritative, and properly see Arianism as heretical, why do Protestants only acknowledge the authority of the first two Ecumenical Councils and their production of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, and the canonization of Scripture established by the synod of Carthage in 397 (in concert with the mind of the Church on the matter), but disregard the Ecumenical Councils on many other matters? The Apostles established the normative practice of calling councils to settle disputes within the church in Acts 15, so why pick and choose in this way? Well, the Orthodox don't.
When approaching Orthodoxy I was aware that the Orthodox had a high sacramentology, which in my readings I had found to be consonant with venerable, historical Christianity. However, while what I thought was absent was a proper recognition of the centrality of the Eucharist to the worship of the church, as well as a full comprehension of the Eucharist itself, I was not aware just how integral it is not only to Orthodox worship, but to the entire life of the Church. For the Orthodox, it isn't simply a matter of celebrating the Eucharist rightly, but of developing a sacramental worldview, which is intimately tied with the Church's view of creation and the human being and how they relate to God. Some of which I dimly intimated before becoming acquainted with Orthodoxy, and which I began to gain a more robust understanding of by listening to some Ancient Faith programs, but which I really grasped (to the extent the Holy mysteries can be grasped) when I read Fr. Alexander Schmemmann's book For the Life of the World, on the Orthodox view of the sacraments.
Yet another fundamental difference that I recognized in Orthodoxy, and which I truly began to see when I started attending an Orthodox parish and observing the liturgy (which I will describe more of anon), is the manner in which the core Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity intimately shape the form of Orthodox worship and piety. Which is a large change from the tradition I was raised in where, for example, the Trinity is rarely even invoked (though it is affirmed). Along with this, and along with my greater appreciation of the nature of the sacraments, I began to understand 'worship' itself anew. Of course, scripture speaks of offering your body as a sacrifice of worship in Romans 12:1, and gives a picture of what true worship is, and teaches that we are creatures who were made for worship. This was head knowledge I've always had, but the Orthodox Church presented this as a living reality in a way I had never experienced. It's frankly something that is difficult to really put into words, and certainly impossible to encompass in a series of blog posts, so for now I will leave it at that.
These are just some of the real fundamental shifts in comprehension that started to reform my understanding of everything else. In the next post we will look at some more specific implications of these convictions, and touch upon my experience of going from a church of no formal liturgical tradition, to experiencing the highly liturgical Orthodox tradition. And perhaps briefly look at early medieval Church history and why I never gave Catholicism much consideration (partly unfairly). Ultimately this series will bring us up to the present, where I'm currently worshiping, studying, desiring to enter the catechumenate, and seeking the spiritual guidance of Fr. Josiah at St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside.
P.S. I hasten to add as a disclaimer that I haven't even officially begun my catechesis yet, and so I may be mistaken or imprecise about many of these points and my understanding of them. Indeed, Orthodoxy teaches that true understanding doesn't even really begin until one is participating in the life of the church fully, which I'm not. Lord have mercy.