The Verbal Icon of Christ

Any number of times, the late Fr. Thomas Hopko recounted how his predecessor as Professor of Dogmatics at St. Vladimir’s, Serge Verhovskoy, extracted an oath from him prior to signing off on his assuming that position. The oath was straightforward: never to present his own opinion as the dogma of the Church. If you’ve ever listened to any of Fr. Tom’s lectures (something I highly recommend), you’ll note how careful he always was to distinguish between what he himself thought and what was, in fact, the dogmatic faith of the Orthodox Church. With the former you could disagree. With the latter, we could only listen and seek to understand. His was one of the earliest voices that I attended to in my Orthodox formation. It was a healthy distinction to have drilled into my consciousness. As time goes on, and I have taken my place among Orthodox writers who publicly write and speak about the faith, it is something that stays with me. Indeed, I have often made the criterion of my work even tighter: I try to confine myself to those few things that I actually know. For it is certainly the case that dogma itself is a reality, not a mere fact. It can easily be mishandled even when it is accurately quoted. To know something requires an embodiment and a facility that requires time and patience. To teach “dogma” (which is a good word for me) requires that it form and shape our life. For dogma, according to Fr. Georges Florovsky, is a “verbal icon of Christ.” It’s little wonder that my range of topics is so limited.

Within Professor Verhovskoy’s admonition is the heart of the Orthodox mind. For one, it is a recognition that our private opinions only have relative merit. The dogma of the Church, however, is a reality to be embodied and guarded in the manner of the Church’s sacraments. Because it is a verbal icon of Christ, it is greater than we are. We do not manage it or alter it. At the same time, because it is a verbal icon of Christ, it frequently transcends our understanding. Thus, when we speak of it, there should be a reverence and wonder that signals its nature to others.

Secondly, Verhovskoy’s admonition directs our attention to ourselves in a healthy manner. What do I actually know? Of what value are my opinions? There should always be a “lightness” that surrounds our private opinions and a willingness to be self-critical. The tradition speaks of “sobriety” (nepsis) that would include such a critical approach to our private thoughts.

This second aspect of the admonition applies as well to how we handle that which is given to us (dogma). That something is true (factually) does not make it timely, or appropriate. In the Divine Liturgy, the Nicene Creed is introduced by the Deacon with these words:

Wisdom! Let us attend! Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence, and undivided!

I believe it to be the case that the Creed is not rightly confessed (or believed) except it is done with love for one another. Indeed, how can we confess the mystery of God (Who is love) if we do not have love?

We live in a so-called information society. It is a model that has grown alongside the computer revolution. The ability to access information of a very wide range within a short amount of time gives the illusion of knowledge. My children and I joke about our ability to “do anything” so long as you’ve got a Youtube video to guide you. Such information certainly augments our abilities, but it cannot teach the mastery that comes with repeated, hands-on experience. Watching someone do something and doing it yourself are two very different things. The first is mere information. The second often requires the acquisition of a kind of knowledge that transcends information.

When I have taught classes for inquirers in the Orthodox faith, I often use the image of learning to ride a bicycle. It is something that could be discussed and analyzed, even described in terms of physics. Nevertheless, to actually ride a bicycle requires getting on (and falling off) any number of times. Then, when it has been mastered, it is impossible to actually tell someone else how to do it. It is not a form of knowledge that easily translates into “information.”

I often think that the famous Orthodox answer to certain questions, “It’s a mystery,” comes from this kind of knowledge. It is not a statement that means, “I do not know,” but, rather, “I know, but there are no words for it.”

The fragmentation of Christianity over the past half-millennium has seen the migration of authority from institution (Church, priesthood) to the individual (private opinion). At the same time, human beings have experienced an inner fragmentation in which we are ourselves are often living with any number of inner contradictions. The increase in information has not resulted in greater knowledge, as such. If anything, it has largely served to clutter the inner landscape of our lives with shifting opinions, uncertainty, and the unbridled energies of the passions.

Knowledge is a state of being. It is transformative. When we acquire true knowledge (not just information) it is a form of participation in that which we know. Christ said:

 “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jn. 8:32

This is not a promise that He will provide “actionable information.” Rather, as we continue in His word [keep His commandments], the truth that abides in His commandments works within us to form and shape true knowledge. That knowledge is transformative, imparting to us a divine liberty which is the very life of God.

All of this forms the content of the teaching of “dogma” (the verbal icon of Christ). It is the formation of disciples and the transformation of the heart. The “smartest” student in the class might well dominate in the acquisition of information, while failing to grasp even the simplest aspect of dogma itself. Dogma is acquired by the heart rather than reason.

Verhovskoy’s admonition to Fr. Tom was not a concern for the mere correctness of information. It was rather a question for Fr. Tom’s willingness to serve the ministry of a professor of dogmatics. That is a position that, formally, few will ever hold. It is, however, at the very heart of the teaching ministry of the priesthood itself. Christianity is not constituted by a body of information. It is constituted by our participatory communion in the life of God. Holy Dogma is a verbal icon of that life. Its truth, acquired as a way of life, will make you free.

34 comments:

  1. Thank you Fr Stephen! This essay is so calming! There are things I can know, but need not worry about explaining. To know the truth requires that I continue in Christ’s word (his commandments).
    (Fr Tom Hopko was also a formative influence in my Orthodox journey. Thank God for his life and teaching – and for yours).
    Christ is Risen!

  2. I thank God for this reminder of Fr Thomas Hopko (of blessed memory) and I remember his admonitions regarding opinion and dogma. Fr Tom holds a place in my heart, as I’m sure he does in many others’. The word ’embodiment’ in relation to knowledge, love, and dogma is appropriate.

  3. One of the things I stopped doing (or tried to stop doing) when I became Orthodox was acquiring information. Protestant-ism (and Orthodoxy, at its worst) is dependent on information because it is very much about argument. Thousands of different, schismatic groups, and even more schismatically minded individuals, will make one proficient in debate.

    I find reading the lives of the Saints very instructive because they show me how to live, including how to be guided by my heart as opposed to the conflicting reactions and information in my mind.

  4. This is beautiful Father. –helpful words and icon. Verbal icon indeed!

  5. As Byron mentions, you went to the heart of the matter of why my words fail me, when I attempt to convey the transformation into a life in Christ. — “Have put on Christ”.

  6. Byron,
    I’ll use an example for myself. The word “heart” as used in Orthodox writings, was not clear to me in terms of experience. I could say what it wasn’t, but not what it was. It seemed (and still does) essential to know the place of the heart for the life of Orthodoxy. Regardless of how many definitions and examples I read, it was still some time (measured in years) before I began to know what it was – and that continues to grow.

  7. Byron or Fr. Stephen: Which “lives of Saints” would you recommend for a new Orthodox convert?

  8. Kenneth,
    There’s varieties of things out there. On daily saints, oftentimes, a website like the OCA has a daily lives of the saints that’s simple and straightforward. There’s a number of editions, edited by various people, not sure which I would recommend. Oftentimes, I suggest that people read “a life” – like the biography of a saint. Zander’s book on St. Seraphim is very good, for example. There are any number of collections with the lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers. Any of those are great. They’re so pithy, that a few pages is more than enough for a day. Byron might have some favorites.

  9. Thanks, Father.

    What is, to my mind, wondrous about what you have written today is that it suggests that truth in the heart is an evolution. Living the Way is an evolution. What I think or believe today might be something that needs nuance, fleshing out, through my experience what what I might call “lived prayer” — that is, living a well-rounded prayerful life in which I seek insight in all ways available to me (worship, study, and the experience of working out my choices and bearing my cross with prayer). I’m at the age where I can look back and see an incredible amount of change that I recognize internally, and know and understand there is always something else around the corner. Even if I am reading the same Gospels throughout the years, there is a way that the words become more deeply traced with new meanings and experience.

    I find that quite marvelous for some reason that this will always be in process of change through new experience

  10. I’m reading Father Arseny right now. It has taken me a bit to really begin to “see” how he lived in the camp(s) but I’m beginning to recognize more than just “his reaction” to the violence of the situation he was in. St. Silouan the Athonite by Saint Sophrony is long, but very good. A lot to absorb. I plan to begin Dimitri’s Cross by Arjakovsky-Klepinine. I’ve had this one for a long time and been wanting to read it since I bought it but have not yet done so….

  11. Father Stephen, Your bicycle illustration is vivid. Six months ago, I bought another bicycle (I sold my last bike 30 years ago) and had to learn to ride all over again. I knew what to do! Nevertheless, I had several little crashes until I “really leaned” how to ride again.

    Sometimes, I think I have similar feelings when I read another book on Orthodoxy — as if I’m riding a new bike: I understand what’s being said, but I need to “ride with this information awhile” before I’m confident that I really understand.

  12. “ The increase in information has not resulted in greater knowledge, as such. If anything, it has largely served to clutter the inner landscape of our lives with shifting opinions, uncertainty, and the unbridled energies of the passions.”

    A painful reality. Over the course of my life I’ve read countless books, attended lectures, completed Bible school with a wide range of teacher with a multitude of often divergent opinions. And that all before ever encountering Orthodoxy. Add in all the additional Orthodox books, podcasts, YouTube videos etc. and it becomes a veritable cacophony in my head when I attempt to discern the right way on a decision that needs to be made.

    I’m slowly beginning to learn that what I need more than anything is more stillness, more quiet and less stuffing of my brain (as good as some of it can be). Many miles to go before I sleep. Lord have mercy.

  13. As I have a strong Sola Scriptura background, and as my particular denomination is filled with lawyers, I find the amount of “teaching” I grew up with, and to which I am still being exposed, to be formidable. The mnemonics and memory aids required to remember certain theological points seem to go on forever –
    I think sometimes my pastor could complete a whole sermon stringing mnemonic devices and bible verses together.
    “mercy is in not giving us what we do deserve, grace is giving us what we don’t deserve”…
    “justification means that God treats me “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned”…
    The vocabulary lessons go on…

    I even heard one person say that a former lawyer, “was one of the best preachers”, she’d ever heard…

    The point is all the mnemonic devices, lectures, and treatises didn’t change me at the core (or my father for that matter). I always still felt just as lost as a kid studying for a test, and while I’d had spiritual experiences and knew there was something else, the Western Evangelical world based on legal metaphors really is rather self-absorbed and inward looking. There’s a lot of stuff that passes for “theology” that isn’t transformative or important.

    The value in discovering the world outside of Evangelical Protestantism, and in pursuing a Orthodox life, is the earthy nature of it – explainable or not – like riding that proverbial bicycle.

    BTW – Science is still stumped by how exactly bicycles balance. Google it.

    Glory to God

  14. Father, Your experience is quite similar to mine regarding the heart. Where and what the heart is seems to be an apophatic, revealed not grasped. Given as an unexpected gift at some seemingly odd times. I was received into the Church 35 years ago. Still not yet half of my earthly life. If God allows me four more years in this life, I will have been Orthodox longer than I have been non-Orthodox. Along the way I have learned two things (I knew Jesus is who the Church proclaims Him to be before being received): 1. His Resurrection is unequivocally real and all that entails, 2. His mercy unfathomably deep.

    The Cross and suffering seem to be what the gift is wrapped in and revealed through. It is a daunting task to begin unwrapping it.

    I do not know if a cataphatic definition of “The Heart” is possible but I suspect not. The gift seems crafted to fit just perfectly in each uniquely made person. Even if such were possible, it would likely not do any good.

    The four principals of unseen warfare are crucial, indeed the crux:
    1. Never rely on yourself for anything.
    2. Always have a daring trust in God alone.
    3. Strive without ceasing.
    4. Remain unceasingly at prayer.

    A fifth I might add: Give alms sacrificially without anything in it for oneself.

    At least in me, getting old, seeing people I know and love die Zand experiencing the physical and emotional pain of life in this world has given me a focus and a hope I never had before as I am forced to look into my own grave not far away. I am a bit contentious and need a “slap up against the side of my head with a tire iron” now and then to get my attention .

    It all begins with repentance which is a bit like peeling a stinky onion, at least for me. Yet in the midst of the tears, God’s mercy IS.

  15. It is telling that in our society, “dogma” is used mostly as a pejorative, signifying unthinking and aggressive authoritarianism, reinforcing “the migration of authority from institution…to the individual”.

  16. Matthew,
    I think one of the advantages of Orthodoxy is the example of the saints. With Sola Scriptura settings, there’s only the Bible, or Christ, to point to as examples, neither of which suggest the movement or growth (in that both are perfect). Saints’ lives are extremely varied. Many are wonder-workers who are completely unlettered. If the saints were only examples of perfection, I think we would all despair. As it is, they point towards possibilities in the midst of our imperfection, the proof of God’s mercy, and a constant rebuke to our false assumptions.

    Orthodoxy is extremely experience-oriented, and, yet, has clear dogma.

    I’m often reminded of certain aspects of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the “Big Book” (which is their essential text), the 3rd chapter is entitled, “How it works.” How delightfully practical!

  17. Michael,
    Next year I will have as many years as Orthodox as I had as an evangelical…27. At 75 in 4 days, I too look at my dying as growing much closer.
    Creaking bones and bodily aches are constant reminders. But these are grace gifts to me. They spur me on to pray more, to do more acts of mercy, while it is yet day. As we age, certain things simply slough off as non important. I’m thinking of status, material goods, the “news,” popular culture with its constantly changing fashions, trends and downright stupidity.
    At this stage in my life I do not need more information, as you note Father. I need the transformative knowledge of the heart…acquired through quietness, faithfulness to Christ’s words, the spiritual bathing I experience in each liturgy, in acts of mercy, giving of my goods, forgiving everyone, giving thanks for all, etc. So yes, the stripping that age brings can be seen as a very real blessing and not a curse….
    May I add this last bit. When you reach my age you will see more and more sick and dying relatives and friends. These all present opportunities for love and mercy. This Friday I will visit a friend, who at 64 just retired. He found out a few weeks ago that he has esophageal cancer. Next week begins chemo and radiation, then surgery. But I know that God brings such folks and situations into our lives as opportunities for standing with them in their trials and needs.
    And you know what? If I simply think about these people and situations, I am prone to despair. But as I am present with them I am fortified in their presence. As the Theotokos bows down to our lowliness and strengthens us, the humbling of ourselves in others’ weakness fortifies and encourages us also. Oh the dew of God’s mercy!

  18. Father, Orthodoxy is definitely experience oriented but the clear dogma allows the freedom to enter into true experience and not be as easily misled by pseudo-experience. Plus our Bishops and Priests are there to guide and rebuke us if necessary.

  19. “Orthodoxy is extremely experience-oriented, and, yet, has clear dogma. ”
    Indeed, dogma provides the boundaries by which the experience (the “spirits”) can be “tested.” But when the dogma is, ironically, dogmatically written off as “the traditions of men,” experience–or more likely “feeling,” can lead to some strange places, like having “communion” (with bread and water) by yourself as part of your personal prayer life, because the Bible says it is right (“Whenever you do this…” plus “when you pray, go into your closet..”). The Evangelical would say that one “tests the spirits” by Scripture, but without the dogma, that can turn into individual interpretation. Thus heresies are born. However does one respond to that other than to pray for them and love them?

  20. Marjorie,
    We do not appreciate the importance of limits and boundaries. Dogma, rightly taught and liturgized, reveals boundaries and even provides us with the grammar of holy living. In learning theory, it is noted that listening to a lecture is the single worst mode of learning. I would add reading to that. True learning really is closer to learning to ride a bicycle.

    In my parish, some years ago, I built a small (short) icon stand for the Narthex – short enough that toddler and kiss the icon. It has an icon of Christ the Good Shepherd on it. Watching children come in and reverence the icon (sometimes just hugging it!) does my heart good. There is as much theology in that simple interaction than can be preached. I’ve sometimes thought that if I enter the Kingdom of God, it might be for making that icon stand.

  21. Dean,
    As awful as it is, our aging generation has begun to outlive what technology can prevent – the inevitability of our mortality greets us each morning (just as it goes to bed with us each night). What we experience is, to a large extent, is a move towards “normalcy” where the weight of our existence becomes undeniable. Old age can do for you what monasticism does. It isolates you, makes you very aware of your body, keeps death before your eyes, etc. You become an “elder” whether you meant to or not.

  22. I believe I may be becoming a “cranky, old elder” as I age…. I undoubtedly have work to do! 😉

  23. Father, initially my aging created shame in me because there were so many things I could not do any more. I wanted to “rage against my age”. As I have been with it longer I find it largely a blessing in a certain ways. Even the pain because that leads to prayer and spiritual blessing.

  24. Old age can do for you what monasticism does. It isolates you, makes you very aware of your body, keeps death before your eyes, etc. You become an “elder” whether you meant to or not.
    Wow!

  25. In a conversation a few years ago I had admitted that I had yet to read the entire Bible. The other person said that they had read the entire Bible and indicated that it meant to them that they ‘know’ the Bible. I said nothing after that. I didn’t think to ask them whether they had read how to ride a bicycle. If I had asked them if they lived the Bible, the question probably would have meant to them a question about whether they ‘know’ the Ten Commandments.

    This culture is extremely deft to redefine what a living ‘way’ is. YouTube and other media sources of this kind are the canon and knowledge vault of this culture. We watch and we think we know. All it takes is just 5 minutes of your time.

  26. I guess my point is that watching a video of someone riding a bicycle isn’t riding a bicycle and the life experience of doing it on a daily basis. About one third of my adult life I didn’t own a car and had to ride a bicycle. I rode it daily to go to school about 45 minutes each way. One day I decided to jump over a curb and then I landed in some bushes. Now there’s experience! And at the time I told myself I should have known better. Even life experience isn’t a substitute for honest reflection. But it helps. Especially with skinned knees and a bunch of leaves in the mouth.

  27. Reading the comments about learning and the relationship to experience reminds me of my job. I work in IT, and whenever we bring in someone new, we always pair them with someone else (I’ve had to help train my fair share of newcomers). We have documentation, but that serves as reference guides – it’s not primarily how our new engineers and technicians learn. They learn by experience and by hands-on guidance with others.

    It’s not too uncommon for an enterprising younger person (myself included, several years ago) to come in and try to do everything “on their own” by plowing through the documentation, reading as much as they can, and then mistakenly thinking this makes them just as capable as everybody around them. I constantly have to remind them: reading is nothing more than trying to learn from somebody else’s lived experience. But it’s not *your* lived experience, and until it is, you haven’t really “learned” what you think you’ve learned.

    I think perhaps one of the greatest values to reading or listening to others is found in them helping guide us through our experiences. But it’s never a substitute.

  28. Anthanasios, IT is a craft and crafts can only be learned through some form of apprenticeship, I think.

  29. Dee,
    Your mouth full of leaves, especially as a 30 some year old college professor, made me smile! Oh the tales each life could tell!🙂

  30. Thank you father & all for this insightful message & comments. It reminded me of the verse below.

    🌻1 Corinthians 8:2
    “But if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he doesn’t yet know as he ought to know.”

  31. Father,

    Thank-You for your response.

    The Saints are important to be sure. Fr. Sisois comes to mind as an immediately memorable one. After I saw his unique icon, I had to learn more. That took me to an online copy of the desert fathers. That, in and of itself, opened up whole new vistas.

    I’m thinking that confession, as practiced within Orthodox Christianity, helps also.

    But the thing I find most helpful though, even as someone living in and among Protestants, is the liturgical year – the seasons of faith. I live in and among Protestants to the point that I don’t even bother to try to practice many of the rhythms of the faith (specifically fasting) – but I’m aware of them and their very presence comforts me. I remember – many years ago now – attending every Lenten service my local English speaking Antiochian Orthodox Church provided. The Akethyst, or portions thereof, every Friday night was an especially anticipated high point – more because I found the music beautiful, but also, reading along, I was able to make connections liturgically that would never be covered in a book.

    Christ is Risen.

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