St. John, in the prologue of his gospel, says the following:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (John 1:14).
In his first Epistle he says the following:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship [koinonia: communion] with us; and our fellowship [koinonia: communion] is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).
In a very similar vein, one of the hymns for Pentecost Sunday proclaims:
We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit! We have found the true Faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.
This same hymn is sung every Sunday as part of the Divine Liturgy.
All of these share in common a similar theme – our witness of Christ is not a testimony to an idea or to a theory about an idea or story. The witness of the Church is rooted in our experiential knowledge of God. St. John does confine himself in his prologue to the mere “literal” witness of “the tomb was empty.” This, of course, is part of the witness. But the greater witness is to the communion with God found in knowing the risen Christ. “The word of life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us…” The risen Christ is known not only as the one raised from the dead, but is understood as the “word of life…the eternal life which was with the Father.”
This understanding transcends the “bare facts” of a newspaper account – indeed the witness of Scripture is that the one who was raised from the dead is none other than the Word of Life, Eternal Life with the Father. This realization is contained in the confession of faith of every Christian: “Jesus is Lord.”
All theology finds its proper root in this true knowledge of God. It should never be mere speculation based on a rational system of thought – but rather the unfolding of the mystery made known to us in the risen Christ. The hunger for this true knowledge of God is the very core of the Christian life: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
The safeguarding of saving knowledge (true participation in the life of God) is the purpose of all doctrine. Every dogmatic statement of the Church has as its sole purpose the safeguarding of true participation in the life of God. Dogma is not an argument over ideas, but a statement that guards the Apostolic witness (which is living and true).
I ran across the following story from the Desert Fathers (in the parish newsletter, The Light, of Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Wesbster, MA, edited by Fr. Luke Veronis – my thanks):
There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a young monk who asked one of the holy men of the desert why it is that so many people came out to the desert to seek God and yet most of them gave up after a short time and returned to their lives in the city.
The old monk responded:
“Last evening my dog saw a rabbit running for cover among the bushes of the desert and he began to chase the rabbit, barking loudly. Soon other dogs joined the chase, barking and running. They ran a great distance and alerted many other dogs. Soon the wilderness was echoing the sounds of their pursuit but the chase went on into the night.
After a little while, many of the dogs grew tired and dropped out. A few chased the rabbit until the night was nearly spent. By morning, only my dog continued the hunt.”
“Do you understand,” the old man siad, “what I have told you?”
“No,” replied the young monk, “please tell me, father.”
“It is simple,” said the desert father, “my dog saw the rabbit!”
Ha good story!
Alas, it is so problematic today, as every dog is seeing a rabbit. Therefore indeed the need for dogma to safeguard the Apostolic Tradition. But it is so confusiing as even among Christians we can’t agree on what is a dog or what is a rabbit. It is a sad commentary on our post quasi-Christian times. A perfect hellish brew. Perhaps things haven’t changed all that much, now that I think of it. But God remains faithful in His great mercy!
I have no disagreement with someone who says from the heart, “Jesus is Lord.” I understand that we might disagree about the Orthodox faith being the fullness of faith in Christ. Of this I am patient. It is also true that it is possible to distort one’s understanding of Christ without the fullness of truth to correct us. But to all of this – to Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike – I would say – pursue Christ with all your heart and do not quit until you have made Him your own (Philippians 3:12). It is union with Christ we should seek – indeed that is the Orthodox faith.
You can use history to see Apostolic Tradition. This Tradition is always alive and is never in need of reform. Reforming the faith does not sound like the Apostolic Tradition, but a private individual’s way of, “correcting” dogma which does not link itself to Apostolic Tradition. The story of the dog is a good one, how often we all give up closer union with God because we start to rationalize away our Way with him.
You have correctly noticed what is important, I will note, first off. I have precisely the same problems with the version of “imputed righteousness” which makes it only an event in the mind of God. It is soteriology at its worst and a complete failure in Biblical interpretation. Years ago, in my “Jesus freak” days (the early 70’s), the question we asked strangers was, “Do you know Jesus?” It is quite Scriptural and, I suppose, was preparing me for Orthodoxy. I have never taught “imputed righteousness” even when I was an Anglican. It simply made no sense to me nor did it find any echo in my heart. The first time I encountered an Orthodox account of salvation was in reading Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (which is a far more difficult read than I recommend). I was in college at the time (middle 70’s). It made me weep to realize that the hunger of my heart was actually the teaching of the Church. It took a number of years before I became Orthodox, but I think the matter was settled at that first read.
I thought of an image of a faith that has been re-processed (I’ll hesitate to say “reformed”). The image was of powdered milk. Add water and it is indeed milk – but compared to actually drinking whole milk, much less fresh milk from a cow, is simply unimaginable. The reductionism that has occurred through various historical reforms has resulted, in many cases, to “powdered” Christianity. I will not deny that it is still Christianity – but not the fullness Christ intends for us. Being a member of the Orthodox faith is not a guarantee, either. We have to actually believe and practice the faith (desiring the “sincere milk of the Word” – that is Christ).
Joseph – I agree with you wholeheartedly. I merely attempt to point out how I am conflicted by the many interpretations of “what we have seen”, as in a very real sense the Apostolic Tradition is just one among the many. It is a podvig indeed.
One of your statements caught my eye. “The safe guarding of saving knowledge (true participation in the life of Christ) is the purpose of all doctrine.”
This is packed full of meaning. I never even heard of the phrase “true participation in the life of Christ” as a Protestant. There is a similar concept in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition, but not in Reformed circles where the doctrine of “Imputed Righteousness” reigns supreme. Imputed righteousness speaks only of a change in status, not being.
Evangelical Christians will make a judgment about a person by asking if they are “born again” or “saved.” They have a certain framework from which they determine such matters. Now that I am learning more of the Orthdox faith, I think the better question is, “Are they participating in the life of Christ?” If we are “in” Christ, then we partaking of His life into our very souls each and everyday. None of this imputed righteousness which divests Christ’s ability to infuse life-giving power into our very natures. None of this depraved-Adam-covered-with-dung hiding beneath Christ’s righteousness with no change wrought in the depths of the soul.
Last night my husband and I were having a discussion about Pascal’s Wager. At one point he asked, “Was Pascal born-again?” I knew what HE meant, but now that I have been introduced to Orthodoxy, how do I answer such a question? The current concept of “born-again” popular in evangelical circles did not even exist at that time. Another problem with this soteriology is that it only addresses a particular point in time. Something that happened back there. That’s no better than asking, “Is he baptized?” as if that’s all that is required of a Christian.
Oh well, just me working through these issues. I know I will be putting up with a lot of flack from my Protestant family and friends on this path toward the Orthodox faith. So be it. I’m ready. Just pray that I’m prepared for the onslaught.
Peace in Christ’s Prescious Name,
I love the dog and rabbit story…
Perhaps, my own experience in chasing the rabbit seems to be slowly teaching me that I can only meet the rabbit if I believe and have a faith that He is there. Without this faith, he remains only a concept in my mind perhaps real to someone else, but this faith seems to be the door that lets Him in to a personal encounter with Him. When I begin to believe the key to opening this door is my Faith, no longer disputing His presence, I am much closer to allowing Him to reveal Himself more fully to me. Perhaps, the rabbit is always with me and is anxious to be found if only I could in faith (in the midst of whatever circumstance) praise Him, thank Him for his presence, and in repentent prayer ask for his unconditional compassion and mercy on me a sinner who constantly distances myself from Him despite His unconditional Love for me and desire for our union. We have eyes to see when we have this Faith that believes!!!
Im sorry to get off topic but I have a question regarding confession. In protestant thought their is what you call a pillow top confession, or confession without a priest. My question is do you have to have absolution to be forgiven or are all of these people without forgiveness. I know GOD is merciful and loving so whats going on here. thanks
I’m currently @ Nashotah House seminary, and our church history prof is a former Benedictine who was planning to go Greek but ended up not. But I’ve been feeling a major pull to leave the Anglican Communion for Orthodoxy – much of it having to do with TEC and others in the AC thinking they’re going to undo historical dogma and doctrines of the church catholic. I Lossky book was one of the books that has helped me along; after I reread most of the chapters twice. HA!
I meant also to say that I’ve stumbled upon many blogs of former Anglicans moving to Orthodoxy. It’s very encouraging!
The Orthodox do not believe that only a priest can forgive sins. Indeed we believe that in confession it is God who forgives. But He hears the prayers of sinners and forgives them whether there is sacramental confession or not. The sacrament is good and important – the “medicine” of the “pillow top” confession is weak by comparison – this has mostly to do with our repentance – but God still hears and forgives.
Forgiveness, however, is not a legal issue. The forensic metaphor is quite misleading. Confession and forgiveness are about healing the sickness of the soul, which is “sin.” To carry on with the metaphor – there are many ailments that are fine when “self-treated.” But there are others that require a physician. I would suggest, for instance, that using the pillow top to cure the sin of adultery is simple foolishness and pride, not repentance. Some things simply must be brought into the light and out of the darkness of our private hell in order to be healed properly. Other things require guidance as well, etc. None of us would think themselves competent to remove our own spleen. A physician is normative. Orthodoxy says that at least once a year we should have sacramental confession, and far more often if we are receiving communion regularly.
May God bless your journey.
Ouch, my aching head! I LOVE this blog, it makes me think so hard smoke comes out of my ears. I literally have to pull up an online dictionary just to follow along (and that’s with a summa Bachelor’s of Science, so that doesn’t happen often!). The dog and rabbit story is so choice, but if it is to parallel my faith, I would say that even SEEING the rabbit is shamefully often not enough-like the masses around Jesus’ miracles, I can all too easily convince myself (or at least try) that the rabbit is merely a shadow or a leaf or my imagination. My, how I detest comparing our Lord to a rabbit, but I hope you get my point that we can’t allow ourselves to be detered from what we KNOW to be true and right; it is all too easy to let it happen. PS-Congrats, Father on your well deserved awards!
I couldn’t agree more with your comment that “[r]eforming the faith does not sound like the Apostolic Tradition, but a private individual’s way of, “correcting” dogma which does not link itself to Apostolic Tradition.”
This is the exact thought I came to last night as I read about Martin Luther’s struggle to understand “justification” and reconcile his feelings about it. It seems he decided arbitrarily what that meant for himself, rather than looking to the Church Fathers. Once again I was struck by the idea that one man, and those who subsequently latch on to his way of thinking, could redefine one element of the Faith and consequently the entirety of the Faith, which doesn’t seem to follow a “sola scriptura” reading of Jude 1:3.
It is, on the other hand, the pattern followed in the generation of the classical heresies. As C.S. Lewis is credited with saying: “In theology, novelty is not a virtue.”
To be or not to be,
Sorry for vocabulary issues – I try to avoid too much technical vocabulary, though sometimes it’s just necessary. But just listening to the texts of an Orthodox service is a vocabulary stretch. “Noetic” is a favorite word. Thanks for the kind words.
The Orthodox understanding of confession is quite different. There simply is no sense of a sin carrying legal penalty, etc. It is seen as medicine of the soul – an act of healing. There’s not really a distinction to be made between mortal and venial, nor is their “punishment” for sin, at least as understood as retribution. People should take care for the state of their souls. Confession is a means of repentance in which God “creates in us a clean heart” or at least begins and continues that work. There certainly is grace given in the sacrament that aids and helps complete our repentance. But there is nothing mechanical or “do this and get that” or “don’t do this and don’t get that” about the Orthodox understanding.
But the key is to come to God with a broken and contrite heart, or asking for a broken and contrite heart. The prayers and act of confession and the grace given help to make this a reality in our lives. And a broken and contrite heart God will not despise.
And grace is not some impersonal force, but it is God Himself.
This is deeply important. The importation of “impersonal forces” and the like through misdefinitions of grace is a source of frequent misunderstanding. Christianity is properly supremely personal. Grace is indeed God Himself. If you go back and read your New Testament with that simple fact borne in mind, it will read like a new book, and perhaps make sense for the first time.
But did not Christ give the apostles the power to forgive or retain sins? The forgiveness itself comes from God, but the priest is his intermediary – is it not so? I think that in the Catholic understanding, the absolution must be to give peace of mind to the sinner, to help him repent and yet not to dwell on his sin. Is there no distinction at all in Orthodoxy, then, between different sins? I find that hard to understand, although I can glimpse a kind of truth and beauty in it.
Is Orthodox confession similar to confession in the Roman Catholic Church? They use confession primarily for mortal sins, and consider venial sins to be forgiven when one personally confesses them to Christ without a priest present. They also have public confession at each mass prior to taking Communion. However, my understanding is that if they have committed any mortal sins and do not confess these prior to death, they will not see the beatific vision. Unless of course they intended to go to confession and did not have the opportunity.
Father, bless. Thank you for stating so succinctly what drew me to Orthodoxy after an early Protestant background, followed by 25 years of wandering Eastward along non-Christian paths. What a joy it was (and is) to discover that “the hunger of my heart was actually the teaching of the Church”. After nearly three years since my Chrismation, the fullness and richness of Orthodoxy just continues to get fuller and richer, with no end. Glory be to God! Please pray for me a sinner.
Of course one sins differs from another – but “sins” in Orthodox understanding are not discreet legal actions, but the manifestations of the underlying disease and corruption of death that are at work in us. Sin is death. It’s not a legal problem, but an existential/ontological one, for lack of a better term. It’s why I say Jesus did not come to make bad men good but to make dead men live. There is a power in the priesthood, and Christ did give his disciples authority to forgive sins. But what is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven?” or “Rise take up your bed and walk”? It’s an authority, a power to work in His name for the healing/salvation of souls.
Confession is real and something indeed happens. It’s a small dose of the resurrection, if you will.
If you think you have a legal problem, I’m sure telling you that the legal problem is all cleared up would make you have peace of mind – but God is not such a God that we should fear retribution. The disease within our soul that eats at us does not cause God to be any different towards us than He always has been and is. He loves us and is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. The disease at work in our souls makes us hate God and not wish to come into the Light. This is what makes us die. We need to live in communion with God, and we prefer not to (in our sin). Repentance and confession and the forgiveness of sin restore our communion with God – and with great power. I hope that is of some help.
Enormous help, Father, thank you. I had some more questions, but you have answered those too. I don’t know why, but I’m reminded of reading Dostoevky’s “House of the Dead’ years ago and being struck by the great generosity of ordinary Russians towards prisoners being led to Siberia, regardless of their crimes. Apparently, Dostoevsky was shocked, when he was in England, by the indifference towards prisoners.
Thank you, Father, your blog helps me tremendously at a time when my faith is weak and my heart is silent.
May God give you strength. May your heart offer praise.
In the interest of ecumenical dialogue, I think the Catholic understanding of confession is similar, though largely misunderstood. St. Thomas Aquinas said that confession is not necessary, but “fitting.” What does that mean? His understanding is that God forgives sins. But if you are personally experiencing that forgiveness, you will, of course, seek reconciliation with the community of the Church. If we know God’s forgiveness, we should be eager to declare our weakness before Christ, and therefore before the communion of his body (the Church). In the early days, that was done publicly. But later practice (starting in Ireland) allowed the priest to serve as a representative for the community of the Church. The language of mortal and venial sin seems an initial, but cursory understanding of confession. Mother Theresa and John Paul II went to confession often, if not every day. Not because they were sinning mortally, but because they understood first of all the reality of their sin in a much more profound way, and secondly received the grace and strength of the deep honesty of self knowledge resulting in communion with the Church through confession.
How then, did the Catholic consciousness miss the deeper reality that the tradition has tried to convey? It has to do with the period of the moral manuals–what is known as voluntarism–in which the understanding of St. Thomas, based on the integration of sin and grace empowering virtue toward beatitude, was gradually replaced by an understanding of sin which was merely obligation and law. This originated from a heresy, known as nominalism, from Ockham in the middle ages. Although rejected by the Church, it seemed to sneak in the back door as the language of virtue and beatitude was gradually lost in these moral manuals.
Punishment too, was understood ontologically. According to the logic of creation: good enables more good; evil results in more evil. Punishment is the result of this ontology of creation. It’s like when David sins with Bathsheba, then kills Uriah. And on top of it all, he wants to get away with it. That is how distorted our moral compass is. But the cycle of sin and violence never seems to end with David. That is the notion of punishment–inherent in the fabric of the moral world. The punishment is not additional, it’s simply the ontological result of the act. Thus, the act of contrition: “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for all my sins, because of they just punishment (that is, the fact that my sins cause my own disintegration as a human person), but most of all Lord, for having offended thee who is all good and deserving of my love” (but really, to distance myself from you when I know how good and loving you are, that is deeper sorrow).
Still, the language of punishment may not be psychologically very helptful as we easily misunderstand it when we are young, and the time period when this was more cultural (feudalism) is long since passed. Thus, directly ontological language, which contemporary Catholic theologians support, seems much more appropriate.
May God bless you in the healing ministry of confession!