Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ / Feast of St. Eleutherios, December 15, 2019
II Timothy 1:8-18; Luke 14:16-24
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
In the epistle reading we have today for the feast of St. Eleutherios, St. Paul tells St. Timothy:
…be not ashamed therefore of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner; but suffer hardship with afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God, Who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before the eternal ages, but has now been manifested by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, Who abolished death, illuminating life and incorruption through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the nations. For which cause I suffer also these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know the One Whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that He is able to guard that which I have committed to Him against that Day. Hold fast the pattern of sound words, which you have heard from me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit by the Holy Spirit Who dwells in us (II Tim. 1:8-14).
So given this enjoining from St. Paul to his disciple St. Timothy, I would like to speak today of some people in our time who are, I would say, not guarding the good deposit by the Holy Spirit but are instead giving away this deposit. You may have never heard of this, and if so, then good for you. But even if you have not, I hope that you will hear this criticism of a certain false teaching and take it to your own hearts.
A handful of “Orthodox” writers now say on social media and in articles that morality doesn’t qualify as dogma. I have seen both the claim that dogma and morality are separate and that dogma is non-negotiable but that morality, while not separate, is subject to ongoing revision — usually expressed with weasel words like discernment, reflection, conversation, etc. They will also often claim that stating the teachings of the Church on these things is saying that we’re “not allowed to talk” about these things.
I’m not going to name any names here, because my point is to engage the idea — actually to refute it. This claim is actually very easily refuted if one knows the Scripture, and it is almost embarrassing to have to mention that. Yet here we are.
But isn’t this a complicated question best left to experts? Isn’t the maze of Orthodox canonical tradition and commentary a labyrinth in which there are all kinds of shades of penalties for various sins, adjustments made over time to things like marriage, divorce, usury, etc.?
It may well be difficult to parse these things, but that is only if one proceeds from the present moment and tries to go backwards from here. That is not how Christians teach, believe and practice our theological way of life, however. Rather, we begin with the revelation of God in the Prophets and Apostles.
And once we remember this central principle of Orthodox life, it turns out that the word dogma was not actually invented as some obscure canonical technical term. It comes directly from the Scripture.
The original archetype of conciliar, dogmatic statements (the very origin of the word dogma), Acts 15:28-29, is an apostolic decree against idolatry and sexual immorality, two things that always go together in Scripture. Here’s that passage:
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.
The prohibition against blood and the strangling was bound up with eating meat offered to idols. This wasn’t just about where you buy your meat from but about participating in ritual eating, in communing with pagan gods. So these four dogmatic commands from the Apostles are about two things — idolatry and sexual immorality.
This very first dogmatic statement was given in the midst of the controversy over whether the way of life given by God in the Torah to Israel applied in every way to Gentiles. This cannot be understated: The original dogmatic statement was not even about what we would normally call “doctrine” today but precisely about the way of life of people in the new Christian community.
The “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” that is the language used for dogma has never been limited narrowly to definitions about the Trinity and Christ. It’s the Greek for it seemed (from the verb δοκέω) that is the origin of the English word dogma. It’s this word that gets repeated by the Ecumenical Councils when they make their dogmatic statements.
We should also note well here that these dogmatic commandments passed on by the Apostles were nothing more than a close reading of the Torah specifically as it applied to Gentiles living in the midst of the People of God. This apostolic dogma was not in any way an evolution of the revelation of God but just a restating of it as it had always applied to Gentiles in Israel (cf. Leviticus 17-26).
So from the exact beginning of dogmatic statements, dogma has included affirmations of the commandments of God and linked them closely to true worship of the one God worthy of worship. In other words, right worship absolutely requires a right way of life, and the two are so closely linked that it is unthinkable to imagine that worship and dogmas like Christology and Triadology could ever be paired with a variable morality.
It is so unthinkable that we are told many times in Scripture that we will be judged according to our works (2. Cor. 5, Matt. 25, Rev. 20 & 22, etc.). And the Old Testament is filled with numerous judgments from God because of what the People of God did.
If morality is something that can change over time such that things that in earlier times were sins are no longer sins or that things that before we permitted are now sinful, then on what basis does God presume to judge us based on what we do? If you stand in front of a judge for breaking a law that is no longer a law, on what basis are you being charged with a crime? Is God’s law really like man’s law in that it is subject to revision?
One does not get the teaching that what the Christian believes is what really matters to the exclusion of most else until one gets to the Reformation. As my friend the Biblical scholar Fr. Stephen De Young has written:
The relationship between the truth of who God is and how human persons must live in relationship to his reality is made plain in the covenantal structure of the very first portion of the scriptures, the Pentateuch or Torah. The covenants follow a pattern well known in the second millennium BC, exemplified in a number of Hittite treaties recovered in archaeological excavations. The ‘Ten Words’ or ‘Ten Commandments’ of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 exemplify this pattern. In these covenants, the issuer of the covenant, the king, identifies himself, and describes what he has done, chiefly in regard to military victories, on his vassal’s behalf. He then outlines what the vassal’s duties will be henceforth in light of who the king is and what he has done. And so, in Exodus 20, we see that God identifies himself as, “Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (v. 2). He names himself, speaks of his victory over Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt, and of the fact that he has given the Israelites their freedom. He then proceeds to give the ten words, which describe how those for whom he has done these things will live. All of the law is grounded in this way in the identity and mighty acts of God. Throughout the Holiness Code of Leviticus, we are told to ‘Be holy because I, Yahweh your God, am holy” (Lev 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7, 1 Pet 1:16). The command to love the foreigner and the stranger as the native born is grounded in the reality that Israel were slaves in Egypt, and God delivered them, and in the identity of God (Lev 19:34).
His description of the form of the covenant is critical, because it is exactly this same pattern that is used for and is now the Christian gospel. Indeed, this is what a gospel (evangelion) is — an announcement by a conquering king of his accomplishments and then what he expects of those who will be his subjects. So when Jesus gives moral commandments, they are just as non-negotiable as true belief about Who He is.
Returning back to the original apostolic dogma, we can see that it is really about two things — idolatry and sexual immorality. These two are paired together constantly in Scripture. The reason why idolatry and sexual immorality always go together is that both are ultimately about pleasing oneself. They are, in other words, the most core kind of apostasy there is — to worship one’s own desires rather than to worship the Creator.
So when you see people claiming that dogma is non-negotiable but morality can be revised, you can remind them that the original dogma was about morality and also about idolatry. And since those two things are always linked in Scripture, you can also use your discernment to figure out what they’re worshiping instead of the one true God.
And you can also now see why it is that the moral dogma that is being suggested to be revised these days is most often about sexual immorality. Why? It’s because we’re being urged to satisfy our own desires rather than to worship the one true God by not just believing the true teachings about Him but also by obeying His commandments.
And that’s how dogma works and what it is. The moral commandments of God are just as dogmatic as our teaching about the two natures of Christ and the three Persons of the Trinity.
To our Lord Jesus Christ, the Giver of the Covenant, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.