By Mark Meador
When formerly Protestant converts to Orthodoxy (or Roman Catholicism) recount the theological reasons for their conversion, it is not uncommon to hear among those reasons that they were persuaded by “the authority of the Church.” Once you become convinced of the Church’s authority, the telling goes, everything else falls into place.
While this seems to be sufficient for the convert, those hearing the story are often left unsatisfied. Two objections, in particular, are raised to the convert’s reliance on the authority of the Church.
Authority and Submission
The first complaint is one of inconsistency. By submitting to the authority of the Church, the convert claims, he has abandoned Protestantism’s error of individualism. Instead of deciding for himself what is true, acting as a kind of self-pope, he has submitted to the authority of the Church. The Protestant objection is that this is all a conceit; in practice, the only difference between the Protestant and the Orthodox or Roman Catholic is to whom they choose to submit. In the end, everyone is still deciding for themselves what to believe—at least the Protestant is being honest about this choice. This is the same argument that Richard Barrett recently took up, and with which Robin Phillips engaged in his comments on the role of private judgment in conversion. While reaching different conclusions about our ability to resort to history as an answer, Barrett and Phillips both acknowledged that the complaint, at least as it’s framed, seems to hold up.
But is the convert really being inconsistent? While I’m more than sympathetic to their comments, I think Barrett and Phillips cede too much on this point (though, to be fair, Phillips’ comments were really on a parallel question). To start, we simply cannot equate choosing to submit to the authority of the Church with a sola scriptura Protestant’s choosing what doctrines to believe based on his own reading of scripture. The former is submitting to an external authority; the latter is not (it’s not the bible to which he submits, but his own interpretation of the bible). The convert cannot, after submitting to the authority of the Church, later change his views and claim consistency. The Protestant under no one’s authority but his own is free to believe as he pleases at any given moment, wavering with the wind, all the while remaining consistent in his complete submission to his authority: himself.
(On a side note: yes, I know that not all Protestants embrace pure sola scriptura, absent any tradition or external authority. But in practice, there’s really not much of a difference.)
The fact is, not all manner of choosing is the same. This should be obvious to anyone who acknowledges that different choices have different consequences. And I am baffled by the logic that says submission to an authority is essentially meaningless because it is voluntary. Unchosen submission is called slavery. Whereas the whole point of our faith revolves around free and willing submission, done out of love. Christ freely submitted to the Father, “becom[ing] obedient unto death, even the death of the cross,” and the entire Christian life is the effort to mirror this: the Church submitting to Christ; wives and husbands submitting to each other; children submitting to their parents; youth submitting to elders. “Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility.”
So let us dispense with the suggestion that submission to authority is illegitimate because it is chosen. If that’s the case, then we’ve torn down more than ecclesiastical structures; we’ve dismantled the entire Christian faith and slandered the sacrifice of the Cross.
The Appeal to Authority
The second complaint (the one Phillips’ comments seem more directed towards) is more serious: that appeals to authority are ultimately circular. That’s to say, the problem that is alleged to be solved by “the authority of the Church” is the question of how we know what the truth is. What is the Apostolic Faith? Citing the authority of the Church, the convert answers, “The Apostolic Faith is that which is taught by the One True Church.” OK, but how do we know which church is the ‘One True Church’? “Well, it’s that church that teaches the Apostolic Faith!” You see the problem.
How, in such a muddle, can we really be sure of anything? Is certainty possible? If so, how and what does it look like? Are there any answers to these questions that are not circular? How do we know what is true?
These questions and concerns, which are genuine stumbling blocks for many seeking faith, raise very important philosophical issues for Christians and merit a thorough discussion. Like all complicated questions, they require us to first define our terms. And, I think we will find, herein lies the key to finding the answers.
The first thing we need to clear up is what we mean by “know.” When we ask, how do we know what the truth is, what exactly is our goal? Epistemology is the study of how and what we can know. Various epistemological philosophies have come and gone throughout human history, but what does Christian epistemology look like?
This is an important inquiry because the questions above often rest on some unexamined premises regarding what knowledge is and what faith requires. When someone asks, how do we know what is true, they typically assume (consciously or not) both that knowledge rests in logically-testable rational data and that faith requires certainty based on such data. However, the first of these premises is true but incomplete, and the second is outright false. The question, “How do we know which church is the One True Church,” as typically posed, really belies latent empiricism and rationalism. Yet Christians are neither empiricists nor rationalists.
The fact is, knowledge does not rest only in logically-testable rational data and faith does not require such data. Rather, for Christians, all knowledge—all truth—is personal: it is of and between persons. This is because the Truth is a person: Jesus Christ. To know the truth is to know a person. Truly, all knowledge is of Christ. Even our understanding of the physical world is personal; it is knowledge of Christ, in whom “all things hold together” and “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Because the Truth is a person, knowledge of the Truth is not a set of axioms or arguments, but an ongoing personal relationship.
In this light, the question might be better worded, Who is the Truth? Working within a Christian epistemological framework, we can see that coming to know the truth will look less like conducting an experiment in a lab or constructing a logical proof, and more like developing a relationship with another person.
That’s the reason this issue features so prominently in the debate over which church is the true church. Because the Church is the Body of Christ. The Church, or more precisely life lived within the Church, is how you get to know the person of Christ. You can’t have the head without the body. Of course, the ultimate and superlative act of this getting to know Christ is Eucharistic communion; you get to know Christ by becoming Christlike. You are what you eat and the Church becomes the Body of Christ by partaking of the Body of Christ—this is how we come to know Christ, who is Truth.
Ah! But which church? It’s all well and good that we know the truth by knowing the person of Christ, and that this is accomplished within the Church, but which one?! After all, that was the original point of this discussion. Which Church is the one that most fully allows us to know Christ? One can accept that real knowledge of the Truth can only occur through a life lived within the Church, but that hardly helps if you can’t determine where the Church is.
This brings us to another unexamined premise of our question, the nature of authority. We want to be within the Church, to live the life of faith in communion with the Body of Christ in order to develop a relationship with and come to know Christ. But how can we know where to start when various groups, with conflicting beliefs and creeds, all claim to be that Church? By what authority can we know where the Church is?
This is what people are really getting at when they ask how we know what the truth is. For the most part, inquiring Christians are fine with accepting that knowledge isn’t only rational and empirical, that it requires a personal relationship with Christ. Yes, yes, fine, fine. But who has the final say? Who will tell me how that is done? Who will tell me where the Church is? We want a final, binding, and definitive authority.
Yet, just as the earlier questions rested on a misunderstanding of Christian epistemology, so these demands reveal a misunderstanding of Christian authority. And really, it is the same misunderstanding: it seeks a human answer to a divine longing.
We want an indisputable authority, one that can settle all debate and give us full, blessed assurance of the truth. But we expect this to come about on our own human terms, in a scientific or mechanistic manner. However, human mechanisms of authority can only be based on reason or power: they rely on logical or physical force. But Christ is the true Logos, and His power “is made perfect in weakness.” It is Christ the God-man, the Truth as person, who proclaims, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” What we want is an authority based on reason and power; what we actually get is an authority based on revelation and humility.
The fact is, the appeal to authority is circular. It will never be satisfying to say that X is true because Authority Y says so. Why trust Authority Y? Because they’re the authority? All appeals to authority are circular; that’s why it is a logical fallacy. The framing of the question sets it up for failure.
By seeking authority in some mechanistic or logical guarantee of truth, we fail to attain certainty because we leave no place for the working of the Holy Spirit. The only way to disrupt the circularity of appeals to authority is to appeal to divine authority.
Faith and Certainty
It might be objected that we are trying to solve the problem of authority by simply saying, “Well God said so. The Holy Spirit has spoken.” Isn’t this just a cop-out and, in any event, entirely subjective? Cannot anyone simply claim that whatever they believe was revealed to them as true by the Holy Spirit, and is thus beyond reproach? Is this not functional fideism, as Phillips put it?
At this point, you may be feeling that we’re worse off than when we started. How can we be sure of anything? If knowledge of the truth can’t be attained through reason alone, and all appeals to authority are circular, are we not merely left with each man’s own subjective guess at what the Holy Spirit is telling him?
No! The point of the discussion up to now has been to show that questions like “how do we know what is true” and “how do we know what the true church is” are most often working off of flawed premises regarding how we know truth and the nature of authority. It is necessary to reveal these flaws so that we recognize that the failure of those questions to provide the certainty we seek is not an indictment of the ability to have any assurance at all—though, as Phillips points out, it does mean Orthodox apologists should stop relying on these claims. The inability of human reason and power structures to provide ultimate certainty says nothing of the reality of objective truth, precisely because that Truth is not wholly ascertainable by those methods. The problem is that what we’re seeking—mechanistic certainty through human reasoning—is not what God is offering: a personal relationship governed by love.
To claim, rather, that this means everything is subjective is to embrace atheism. Any non-divine answer to the question, how do we know what is true, necessarily invites the same question to be asked of that answer, ad infinitum. The final answer must be God or there is no truth at all. The latter option, of course, is exactly the conclusion of postmodernism. But because knowledge is not only rational, and because the only reliable authority is divine authority, we need not worry that reason and appeals to human authority fail to scientifically prove the Apostolic Faith or the identity of the One True Church.
Christians need not fall into this trap because it is not scientific certainty that we seek, but faith. This, I think, is the key point that Barrett and Phillips missed the opportunity to make. Christians cannot accept terms of debate that limit us to secular epistemology and human authority. Faith, by definition, is not the same as certainty. In an important sense, empirical, tangible certainty (and certainly the quest for it) is actually destructive of faith. “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” But, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
When we demand that divine revelation conform itself to the expectations of our rational faculties, we cheapen faith and reveal an impoverished understanding of God. The Holy Spirit is not subject to a mechanistic understanding and you can’t give human explanations for divine operations. We are not seeking gold tablets inscribed with simple answers, but God enfleshed—which can only be done through faith. And really, faith is all we have, is it not? We weren’t there when Christ preached, suffered, died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. We weren’t there when He explained the scriptures to the Apostles. We weren’t even there to know who the Apostles really were. We weren’t there when they started the first churches. All that we have is the life of faith. Of course, even the disciples themselves did not properly discern Christ in the flesh (i.e., through empirical/rational knowledge), much less those who rejected him. They still had to come to know Him according to the Scriptures and faith, even though he was with them physically.
So, then, what are we to do?
The Orthodox Response to the Problem of Authority
First, let’s start with what, in the Orthodox Christian tradition, authority is. As we’ve already intimated, authority, like epistemology, is personal. All authority comes from the Father, rests in the Son, and is revealed by the Holy Spirit: all three persons of the Holy Trinity are involved in its exercise. Likewise, there is no single mechanism for the exercise of this authority, but rather it is expressed through the entire life of the Church.
In Orthodoxy we call this Holy Tradition, which properly speaking is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Just as Christian epistemology reveals that true knowledge is of a person and is found through a personal relationship, so all authority is personal and is manifested in the continuous life of the Church.
God’s authority manifests itself in many forms: in the episcopacy and Apostolic succession; in the liturgy and worship of the Church, preeminently in the Eucharist; through the Church Fathers and ecumenical councils, and in the scriptures they canonized; in the Church’s iconography and hymnody; and in the lives of the saints, past and present. The sum total of all these witnesses is a life that is lived. Indeed, for authority to be personal, it must be just that: alive.
Full knowledge of this authority and its teachings is found through sharing in that life, within the Church. It is in this shared life, this communion of persons, that we truly come to know what the Apostolic Faith is. We know Holy Tradition because it has been revealed to us in the Church through the Holy Spirit. This is the Apostolic Faith and the only path to knowledge of the mind and heart.
But! That does not mean that our reason is to be excised entirely from our faith. It may not be the sole way of knowing, but it is by no means an unimportant one. We are not fideists and, after all, reason allows us to have conversations like this one. The fullest answers to our original questions reside in the lived tradition of the Church, but for those exploring Orthodoxy from the outside there are historical and theological reasons to believe her truth claims. Authority is found in the lived tradition, but we can use our reason to confirm what does and does not conform to this tradition, and even to determine whether something is or is not part of the tradition.
How should one assess Orthodoxy’s claim that they, alone, possess the fullness of the Apostolic Faith? That is, before committing to life lived within the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church, which is the only way to fully answer that question, how can one rationally assess her claims to find at least an indication of whether they hold up? How does Orthodoxy pass the sniff test?
We start with twin premises regarding what it is we are looking for. The first is that the Apostolic Faith is unchanged. Jesus Christ is the Truth and He “is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The True Church must hold the same faith today that the Apostles preached at Pentecost. Second, the Apostolic Faith must have been continuously preserved without interruption. Christ promised the Church that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all truth” and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” God has not and will not ever abandon the Church, Christ’s own Body, and this includes not letting her fall into error. While individual Christians, whether lay or clerical, may teach heresy, the Church catholic will never espouse false doctrine.
Thus, in order to be considered to possess the Apostolic Faith, the church we are looking for must hold the same faith as the Apostles and must have continuously done so since Pentecost. This is what we mean when we talk of Apostolic Succession, which is both a physical and a doctrinal unbroken link to the Apostles, who were taught the faith by Christ Himself and guided by the Holy Spirit following His ascension.
The truth of Orthodoxy can be recognized even by those yet outside her by this Apostolicity. Orthodox bishops were all ordained by bishops, who were ordained by bishops, who were ordained by bishops, who were ordained by bishops, etc., etc., all the way back to the Apostles themselves. And, that living communion of bishops and their flocks has continuously taught and lived the exact same faith that was handed down to them by the Apostles.
Apart from the fuller knowledge that comes with a life lived within the Church, the comparison of various claimants to the Apostolic Faith largely becomes (as Phillips rightly concluded) a historical question. Orthodoxy, alone, survives that scrutiny. Let’s (briefly) compare her to the other options:
Versus Protestantism: It is difficult to speak broadly of Protestantism, given the great diversity of beliefs that fall under its umbrella, but they all have at least one thing in common: none can be traced back to before the 16th century. In addition, the problem of sola scriptura, in any of its multitudinous variations, was already hinted at above. It makes each man his own pope and provides no consistent and workable framework for discerning the boundaries of the faith. The result has been scores of novel doctrines unknown to the Apostles.
Versus Anglicanism: I don’t consider Anglicans to be Protestants, properly speaking. They have a plausible claim to tactile Apostolic Succession, being able to trace their ordinations back to the early church through the Roman Catholic Church. However, since the Reformation any claims to Apostolicity on their part have been undercut by a doctrinal and liturgical diversity that was unknown to the Apostles, the Church Fathers, and the early church. Even for those remnants of Anglicanism that hold to a faith closely resembling that of the early church, they still part ways when it comes to ecclesiology. They embrace an “invisible church” theology that was unthinkable to the Apostles and the early church.
Versus Roman Catholicism: The Roman Catholic Church is the privileged beneficiary of deep apostolic roots and a rich liturgical, theological, and hagiographic heritage. Unfortunately, whereas Protestants and Anglicans erred by discarding parts of the Apostolic Faith, the Roman church erred by making additions to it, first and foremost: the filioque, the papal doctrines, and purgatory and indulgences. The doctrines of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction, in particular, were simply unknown to the life and faith of the early church. Ironically, the belief that the Bishop of Rome held universal jurisdiction and infallibility in matters of doctrine and dogma grew out of the same desire for mechanistic certainty and tangible authority we discussed above. (In fact, for Roman Catholics, the Pope is often given as the answer to the circularity of authority. Yet even this fails, since one has to ask how we know the Pope really has that authority. Scripture? But whose interpretation? The Church’s? But which Church? Why the Roman one? Because they have the Pope?) At the end of the day, papism merely trades the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the office of a man. Or, if you argue that the Pope himself is guided by the Holy Spirit, it is the ultimate act of clericalism, collapsing the promises made to Christ’s whole body into the office of a single bishop. But again, the most important point—and one, admittedly, that can only be asserted rather than fully defended in the space we have here—is that the papal claims simply cannot withstand historical scrutiny.
In the face of the historical record, the Orthodox Church alone can support its claim to hold the Apostolic Faith, unchanged and without interruption. If you are looking for that deeper knowledge of Christ “which surpasses all understanding,” Orthodoxy is where to find it.
The True Knowledge to Come
And so, we are not without any means to finding confirmation of the Church’s claims. History and theology serve as able guides in this endeavor. Like the hard sciences, they can be misused, inconclusive, or ignored; but that doesn’t negate their basic value. The physical succession of the apostles is a genuine matter of historical record, as is the theological continuity of the faith. These can both be given different interpretations, or even twisted beyond recognition, but this is not something to which even science is immune.
So, yes, each believer has to assess the rival claims of different claimants to the title of the True Church; as Phillips says, we do need to make a private judgment. This may not be how it was meant to be, but it is the world we have made for ourselves through sin. And yet, despite this, the fundamental principles have not changed. For even were there only one Christian Church, every adherent would still have to decide for himself that its claims are true. At the end of the day, answering these questions is also a matter of faith.
For Phillips is right in one sense; converts do make a choice, the same choice any convert to Christianity makes: that this is true and the other options are not. And yet, in a more important sense, this is not at all what is happening. Conversion is an act of faith and faith is more than making an informed intellectual decision. Children, after all, are equally (if not more) capable of faith. Faith is not setting before yourself an array of religious choices and picking out your favorite. Faith, rather, is dying.
Responding to Christ in the Gospel—and no less in His Church—is the death of self will. It is freedom from all choice; it is submission to Jesus Christ who is the Truth. It is not, ultimately, an assessment of a set of doctrines but submission to a person. In this way, conversion to Orthodoxy is the exact same act as conversion to Christianity itself. Our own intellectual insecurities only arise when we confuse ourselves about the nature of that conversion, usually as a result of the philosophical and theological baggage we bring with us. We act as if we need faith to choose Christ, but not to discern his Body.
Exposing this shows that the circularity of appeals to authority is not an indictment of the basis for converting to Orthodoxy, it is an indictment of the mindset we brought with us, one that pays only lip service to the Holy Spirit and treats faith as an intellectual, rather than personal, exercise. Yet neither rationalism nor fideism, but a full and embodied (i.e., personal) epistemology, is the mark the Christian mind. The difficulty in making this statement of faith has changed, perhaps, but the essential act of faith has not. Being made in the image of God, our own personhood is the key to full knowledge of the Truth. We can confirm it with our reason, but it will always be a pale imitation of the deeper knowledge. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”