On August 24, 2011, Robin Phillips sent five lengthy responses to my blog posting: “Response To Robin Phillips’ ‘Questions About Sola Scriptura’” (August 1, 2011). Rather than burying the dialogue between Robin and me in the comment section, I decided to use Robin’s responses as a basis for two postings.
Robin’s comments are first presented in italics. I propose to present the issues raised by Robin in the form of a question to which I will give an answer. Due to the length of the disucssion I plan to post Robin’s response in two postings: August 28 and September 1. Today’s posting is the second of the two part response.
Robin Phillips — Reply #3
Robert wrote, “Protestantism also believes in apostolicity but in a quite different manner. It believes that after the apostles died the apostolic witness continued solely in an inscripturated form and that the authority of Scripture is independent of the church. Where Orthodoxy assumes an essential continuity between the apostles and the post-apostolic church, the Protestant model interposes a series of ruptures or discontinuities. It assumes that the post-apostolic church quickly fell into heresy and apostasy, and that the Gospel was rediscovered with the Protestant Reformation.” Is that essential to Protestantism or accidental? I mean, couldn’t a Protestant just correct that aspect of Protestantism and still remain a Protestant? But doesn’t this all hinge on a bit of a false dilemma anyway? If our only options are between (A) the Orthodox view of apostolic succession, with the consequence that the church has and always has had genuine God-appointed authority, and that such authority is located in the EO church; and (B) the common Protestant view that the true church fell off the board, maybe flaming up once in a while with people like Hus or a small ‘remnant’ from time to time, but basically not existing until the reformation “rediscovered” it, then A is clearly the more Biblical, given the strong statements that the apostles themselves made about the church (“pillar and ground of the truth” etc). But isn’t there a third option, namely that the true church did exist throughout all of the Middle Ages in the institution of the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church, and that the true church still exists today in all three of the main branches of Christendom? Since the visible church, within this schema, does not imply perfection or apostolic succession, the Protestant who adopts this position can affirm both that the Western church of the Middle Ages acquired significant defects without denying that it ever stopped being the true church. So basically, the Orthodox are and have always been the true church, the Catholics have and always have been the true church, and the Protestants are and always have been the true church (excluding the Protestant sects like Mormonism, obviously). One could then say, as Philip Schaff did in The Principle of Protestantism, that the Reformation was the greatest act of the catholic church since the apostles, that Luther was simply unfolding the best of the historical church’s theology, and further sharpening it with his additional exegetical insights. The Protestant reformation was a purifying and reposition of what was already there. This position preserves the basic Protestant emphasis that the church can go wrong (even grossly so) without lapsing into option B above where the church dropped off the board to be rediscovered.
Robert Arakaki’s Response
Question #3.1 – Is it essential to Protestantism that the church fell into error and that the Reformation played a key role in the recovery Gospel? Can we not affirm that the church existed all through the Middle Ages in the Roman Catholic Church and that “the Reformation was the greatest act of the catholic church since the apostles”?
Philip Schaff’s argument that the Reformation constitutes a fruit of the Catholic Church rests upon a Hegelian approach to church history. This is a view I am very familiar with. I once identified my theology as Mercersburg Theology. However, I came to the conclusion that Schaff’s model is untenable. One is that his The Principle of Protestantism speaks to Western Christianity. He sets up his dialectics between the English Oxford Movement and the American frontier revivalism, and between the Reformation and Catholicism. Nowhere did Schaff address the split between East and West and the Filioque clause. Furthermore, Orthodoxy’s staunch rejection of innovation makes Schaff’s Hegelian methodology problematic. In addition, I would note that Schaff’s approach to church unity resulted in the Ecumenical Movement which is based upon the understanding that doctrine and worship are negotiable items. The Orthodox churches may have participated in the World Council of Churches but it has not put her dogmas or liturgies on the table so to speak. Furthermore, Schaff’s partner, John Nevin, considered historical continuity in the form of adherence to the Nicene Creed and the sacraments. Using these two criteria much of Protestantism today must be excluded on the grounds that they do not formally hold to the Nicene Creed, nor do they hold to the Reformed understanding of the real presence in the Lord’s Supper.
Robin Phillips — Reply #4
I appreciated Robert rooting EO in history the way he did, and this echoes what other Eastern Orthodox brothers have told me about the claims of the EO church standing or falling on history. As Robert wrote, “The advantage of Orthodoxy’s stress on historicity is that it lends itself to external verification.” However, I don’t think approach comes without any problems of its own. Apart from the point that Tim made about historical truths not being necessary truths (which I do not feel has been properly answered yet), my only question would be: how do we avoid the problem of each person being his own individual pope when interpreting history? Don’t think I am succumbing to sophistry in asking this question; it is actually quite practical because I often feel (when assessing the arguments presented by EO apologists) that one would almost have to have a PhD in history to adequately adjudicate between their claims and those of Protestant historians. I’ve given myself a headache on more than one occasion just trying to adjudicate between EO historiography and RC historiography. Therefore, it is by not means certain that the Eastern Orthodox have not replaced the problem of private interpretation of scripture with the equally difficult problem of private interpretation of history. Thus, to echo a point that Tim has already made, (and which has not yet been adequately addressed) if the individual cannot be trusted to interpret scripture for himself, how can he be trusted to interpret history for himself?
Robert Arakaki’s Response
My Response #4
My grounding of my apologetics in history is partly due to my empirical bent; but more importantly it stems from the historical reality of the Incarnation, the basis for Christian Good News. The Incarnation of the Eternal Word, that is, the entrance of the divine Logos into human history means that the life of Jesus Christ cannot be considered mere contingent historical events but charged with universal relevance. Jesus Christ is not another man, but the Second Adam. This is not a scientific finding but a faith stance of a Christian; it is foundational to being a Christian.
I would also like to note that much of the Bible’s teachings are presented in the form of historical narrative. Jesus Christ likewise appealed to the miracles he did as sufficient grounds for his messianic claims (John 10:37-38)
Question #4.1: How do I respond to Tim’s point that historical truths are not necessary truths?
I suspect that Tim here is reiterating Gotthold Lessing’s famous axiom: “Contingent truths of history can never be proof of the necessary truths of reason.” I am not a philosopher by training so I will just make a few comments and invite others who are better trained in philosophy to provide their insights. The first thing I noticed about this axiom is that it assumes that the necessary truths of reason are superior to concrete historical facts. This seems to slice reality into two disparate domains. G.W. Bromiley noted that that Lessing’s axiom is basically a denial of the Incarnation; Jesus is viewed as a man among men, and lasting value is to be found in his teachings, not in what he did or who he was. The Orthodox faith, actually the Christian religion, is grounded in the historicity of the Incarnation, Christ’s death and his third day resurrection. The Christian faith was originally cast in the form of a narrative as evidenced by the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. Protestant creeds, organized along the lines of abstract syllogistic logic reflect a novel epistemology.
A quick read of Philosophos.com’s article “Liebniz” states that for Liebniz God is pure being, the Primary Monad, and that by definition monads do not interact. If that is an accurate description of Liebniz’s metaphysics and if one can surmise that his metaphysics underly his eptistemology, then Liebniz’s philosophical system is hostile to the Christian doctrine of the Incaration.
My difficulty with the notion of “necessary truths of reason” is that it assumes the superiority of abstract concepts. This view entails a disembodied notion of truth whereas Orthodoxy is based upon the understanding of truth as real, concreted, historical, and embodied. To put it another way, the Orthodox understanding of truth is social and ecclesial. I found George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine in which he put forward the “cultural-linguistic alternative” rather helpful. To give an example of the socially constructed nature of Orthodox doctrine, honoring Mary is not just an idea but a doctrine expressed in practice whenever we sing the “Axios Estin” (It is truly right to bless you….) in every Sunday Liturgy. In Orthodoxy right doctrine is expressed in its worship. Either one consents to the teachings of the Orthodox Church or one can leave for another church; remaining in the Orthodox Church while disagreeing with its fundamental teachings is to be a hypocrite.
See G.W. Bromiley’s article “History and Truth: A Study of the Axiom of Lessing.” The Evangelical Quarterly (July 1946).
See George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age.
“Liebniz” in Philosophos.com
Question #4.2: How do we avoid the problem of each person being his own individual pope when interpreting history?
I once began an article with the statement: “Tell me the history of Christianity and I can tell you your theology.” The point I was making was that history is more than facts and chronology, history entails narrative, i.e., a unifying and organizing theme that frames the persons and events. There cannot be an impartial objective history because the narrator has to situate himself somewhere before he can tell the story. Human history is part of a social process; it is different from the chronology of events constructed by natural scientists.
I suspect Robin suffered massive headaches in adjudicating between Eastern Orthodox historiography and Roman Catholic historiography largely because he was seeking some impartial middle ground. It can’t be done. It’s like a divorce where either the husband leaves the wife, or the wife leaves the husband. There are two issues by which one can assess the claims of the two parties: (1) Rome’s unilateral insertion of the Filioque clause into the Nicene Creed and (2) Rome’s claim to papal supremacy over all Christians. Using the preponderance of evidence approach one can then determine whether or not the biblical evidence, the patristic consensus and Ecumenical Councils support the claims of the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was by using this approach that I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t much evidence to support the Catholic understanding of the papacy. When I was at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, I had a meeting with a fellow student who had just converted to Catholicism. When I asked him about the biblical basis for papal supremacy he couldn’t give me a satisfactory answer. I read through several books by converts to Catholicism and was disappointed with the evidence they presented. Thus, using the preponderance of evidence approach I determined that the Roman Catholic claims fell short on one particularly important test case. I am very interested to learn from Robin what he has learned and/or concluded from his research on these two crucial make or break issues: (1) the Filioque clause and (2) papal supremacy. It is important to keep in mind that there are two ways of approaching the issue. One way is to examine the Roman Catholic arguments for the reasonableness and logic in support of the double procession theory. The other way is to follow the Orthodox approach which looks for conciliarity and patristic consensus. Where the first stresses abstract reasoning, the latter gives more weight to historical continuity and ecclesial unity.
One doesn’t have to have a Ph.D. in history to make that determination. God guides each person according to the gifts he has given them. I have a good friend who has an undergraduate degree in Architecture. He struggled through his understanding of Evangelicalism and became Orthodox before I did. Because of my extensive reading in theology and my seminary background, I needed more time to think through the issue before I was ready to become Orthodox. If anything my educational background slowed me up but because I had to think through several critical issues (not all the issues) before I was able to convert to Orthodoxy with a clear conscience. My advice to Robin and others in his situation is to thank God for the gifts and talents He has given you and use them the best you can, and always ask God for his guidance. If you have a high school education, do your reading, visit the local Orthodox, talk it over with your spouse, pray about it and follow God’s leading in your life. The same thing applies to a seminary professor or church pastor. It may be that they will have to do a lot more reading and soul searching but in matters of spiritual discernment, their advance degrees do not necessarily give them the edge over their less educated brethren. Robin and other highly educated Christians should guard against giving reason more priority than is necessary. George Lindbeck in The Nature of Doctrine notes:
In the early days of the Christian church, for example, it was the gnostics, not the catholics, who were most inclined to redescribe the faith in a new interpretive framework. Pagan converts to the catholic mainstream did not, for the most part, first understand the faith and then decide to become Christians; rather, the process was reversed: they first decided and then they understood. More precisely, they were first attracted by the Chrstian community and form of life (p. 132; emphasis added).
The reasons for attraction ranged from the noble to the ignoble and were as diverse as the individuals involved; but for whatever motives they submitted themselves to prolonged catechetical instruction in which they practiced new modes of behavior and learned the stories of Israel and their fulfillment in Christ. Only after they had acquired proficiency in the alien Christian language and form of life were they deemed able intelligently and responsibly to profess the faith, to be baptized. (p. 132; emphasis added)
I suspect that Robin’s preoccupation with an adequate intellectual grasp of Orthodoxy may reflect his modern Western cultural orientation, and possibly the influence of medieval scholastic theology.
One last point about being an “individual pope,” the term “individual pope” can only happen in Protestantism where there is no external magisterium as each individual is bound to their own conscience and the word of God. With Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy there can be no “individual pope”; this is because both traditions expect their members to submit to the authority of the church. In the case Roman Catholicism one submits to the Pope through the local bishop. In the case of Eastern Orthodoxy one submits to the local bishop the guardian and recipient of Tradition. In the case of a potential convert one has the freedom to investigate the claims of the Orthodox Church and disagree and even disregard her teachings and practices, but to be received into the Orthodox Church one relinquishes one’s autonomy and accepts the teachings and practices of the Church. To become Orthodox entails more than intellectual assent to her doctrines but also the promise to live by her spiritual disciplines and to submit to the authority of her priests (cf. Hebrews 13:17).
Robin Phillips — Reply #5
Robert wrote, “An Orthodox bishop cannot disregard the Ecumenical Councils. He cannot disregard the church calendar with its feasts and holy days. That would be like a politician dismissing the US Constitution as a piece of paper….What does one do if the bishop becomes heterodox? The first thing is to make sure one has the facts right. If one acts in haste then the peace and harmony of the church gets disrupted. Let’s say that a bishop does go off the rails, then one can raise the issue with one’s priest and with other laity. One can appeal to other bishops in America and abroad.”
But doesn’t this assume that the majority are still trustworthy? But how do we know that? How do we know that a priest is going to stay as loyal to the Ecumenical Councils as a politician should stay loyal to the US Constitution? (I haven’t yet read Robert’s’ post about Apostolic Succession, again in response to an article of mine, so forgive me if these questions are answered there) Given that the East teaches that the entire Western church fell off the board, we surely cannot rule out a priori that the bishops cannot disregard the Ecumenical Councils. When we factor in verses like Acts 20:25, together with the fact that the bishops in the West who are (by EO standards) heterodox were also claimants of Apostolic Succession, it seems problematic to maintain a priori that the true church cannot error institutionally.
Robert cited II Timothy 2:2 as a proof text for Apostolic Succession, but according to my own private interpretation of the passage, the blessed brother Paul is issuing a command rather than a promise. We could say that because Apostolic Succession is true it follows that my private interpretation is flawed by virtue of being my private interpretation, but then wouldn’t that be begging the question?
Robert Arakaki’s Response
Question #5.1: Given that the “entire Western church fell off the board” does that mean we cannot rule out bishops disregarding the Ecumenical Councils?
From an Orthodox standpoint Robin’s question here is a non sequitur. For all its criticism of the Church of Rome, the Orthodox Church never claimed that Rome disregarded the Ecumenical Councils. If I am wrong here, please show me the evidence. The Orthodox Church did in fact accuse the Church of Rome of breaking from Tradition through innovative teachings like the Filioque clause, papal supremacy, papal infallibility, etc. Officially speaking, the Church of Rome has not disregarded the Ecumenical Councils; if anything the same cannot be said of Protestantism, especially the mainline Protestant denominations including the Anglican tradition.
Question #5.2: Are the majority of today’s Orthodox bishops still trustworthy? And how do we know a priest is going to stay loyal to the Ecumenical Councils?
My response is: What grounds do you have for being suspicious of the Orthodox bishops? Are there any reasonable grounds or is this just blind prejudice? If there are reasonable grounds for suspicion, please show us the evidence.
My apologia here is based upon the concept of catholicity as taught by Irenaeus of Lyons, not majority rule as understood in modern democratic theory. Evidence for orthodoxy corroborated by catholicity was cited by Irenaeus as proof of the veracity of the early orthodox Christians. A comparison of today’s Orthodox bishops with the teachings of the early bishops and the Ecumenical Councils shows remarkable congruence. I recommend Robin read up on the church fathers and meet with an Orthodox priest for a one-on-one conversation.
Ironically, the catholicity of the Orthodox faith can be seen in the multiple Orthodox jurisdictions here in America. One can visit a Greek Orthodox parish, an OCA parish, an Antiochian Orthodox parish, a Serbian Orthodox parish, a Russian Orthodox Church Outisde of Russia parish, an Ukranian Orthodox parish, or a Bulgarian Orthodox parish and come away with knowing that they share in the same faith. If a particular bishop or country had gone their own way and develope their own theology it would soon become evident in this multiple jurisdictional situation. My initial encounters with Eastern Orthodoxy were with the Greek Orthodox parishes, then with former Evangelical converts in the Antiochian Orthodox Church. My first in depth encounter with Orthodoxy was at a Bulgarian Orthodox parish in Berkeley. More recently in Hawaii, I find myself in frequent contact with priests from the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and the Orthodox Church in America. I can bear witness that all these priests share the same faith and Liturgy, this despite their different jurisdictional backgrounds.
If one wants to create a scenario in which bishops abandoned Tradition, I would refer them to William Ledwich’s The Durham Affair which describes the installation of David Jenkins, who denied the bodily resurrection of Christ, as Bishop of Durham. In addition, there is John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, who wrote the controversial Honest to God, and John Shelby Spong, bishop of Newark, who questioned many of the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. I would note that there is nothing remotely like that happening in the Eastern Orthodox Church today. If there is, I would appreciate Robin bringing it to my attention.
As far as an Orthodox priest remaining loyal to the Ecumenical Councils, I would note that the local priest does not have the wherewithal to innovate with the Divine Liturgy. I have seen Roman Catholic priests omit the Nicene Creed and other components from the Mass; I have never seen anything like this in Orthodoxy. Furthermore, the teachings of all seven Ecumenical Councils are integrated into the Sunday Liturgy. The teachings of Orthodox Church are also remembered and celebrated in the feast days in the church calendar. Priests are expected to celebrate the Liturgy on these days and say the appointed prayers and hymns for the day, and laity are expected to be present at the major feast days. Soon after I became Orthodox I discovered that even if I didn’t do any further readings I would learn a lot of the teachings of the Orthodox Church just by listening to the feast day services. In light of this there is no room for an Orthodox priest to introduce innovations into the Liturgy. If he tried both the cradle Orthodox and the converts would question him about it. If he persists then the bishop will hear from the laity. To answer Robin’s question, there are enough safeguards to ensure that the priest will adhere to the teachings of the Church.
Question #5.3: Given Acts 20:25 (actually verse 28) and the fact that the heterodox Catholics in the West can claim apostolic succession can we maintain that the true church cannot err institutionally?
Irenaeus of Lyons taught that it is not enough to claim apostolic succession; the bishop must also have safeguarded the apostolic faith. This is one major test of doctrinal orthodoxy in the early church. By the fourth century there emerged another test of doctrinal orthodoxy, adherence to the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. The five ancient patriarchates – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – all accepted the findings of the Councils. When the Pope unilaterally inserted the Filioque clause into the Nicene Creed he was acting contrary to the conciliar principle underlying the Ecumenical Councils and independently of the other patriarchates. Eventually, Eucharistic unity between Rome and the other patriarchates was broken. For the Orthodox to be denied the Eucharist is to be outside the true Church; this is because the Church is a Eucharistic community.
How does one understand the break between Rome and the other ancient patriarchates? In light of the fact that Orthodoxy rejects the branch theory of the church, it means that the Church of Rome, even with its venerable history, is now outside the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
For the Orthodox there can only be one Church, not two. Similarly, there is only one Bride of Christ, not two. Nor can the Orthodox affirm that the one Church, the body of Christ, is now torn into two halves. If we granted that with respect to the Church of Rome, what will we have to say about Protestantism with its plethora of denominations? If we did want to include Protestantism in the “one Church” we will need to abandon the notion of a visible Church and the Eucharist as the unifying center for some vague intangible invisible church.
Question #5.4: Is Robin’s interpretation of II Timothy 2:2 necessarily wrong because it is his private interpretation?
I would say that a private interpretation is not necssarily wrong. I view private reading of Scripture as but a first step in the broader hermeneutical process. The next step is to consider the weight of evidence. What is the preponderant understanding of the meaning of the passage? If the preponderance of the evidence is against you, then one needs to consider revising one’s opinion. If the preponderance of the evidence supports your opinion then your private interpretation is no longer strictly private but in harmony with a broader hermeneutical community. Even then, one’s reading of Scripture may be in agreement with the local church one attends or one’s denomination, but are they in agreement with the church of the Ecumenical Councils?
Robin and others may view the notion of “Seven Ecumenical Councils” with skepticism in light of the fact that there were numerous councils in the early church. If one took the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers’ volume on the Ecumenical Councils and seek to determine which councils deserve to be honored as “Ecumenical” using rational, objective criteria one will end up in frustration. That there are Seven Ecumenical Councils reflects the settled consensus of the Orthodox Church. This Church recognizes these Seven as Ecumenical and binding. There was a time when certain councils were questioned but in time the entire church, clergy and laity, recognized them as ecumenical. This settled consensus cannot be revisited today. It is now part of the social reality of the Orthodox Church. This is binding on all Orthodox Christians, clergy and laity. If one is not a member of the Orthodox Church, i.e., outside the Orthodox communion, the number of councils is a matter of one’s own choosing, but they can serve as useful resources. Truth for Orthodoxy is embodied truth; it is ecclesial and liturgical; it is not abstract and scholastic.
I try to understand a biblical passage in light of modern biblical scholarship but also in light of the early church fathers. Thus, my approach to the reading of the Scripture is both individual and ecclesial. Since I’ve become Orthodox my reading of Scripture has been further influenced by the Liturgy and church hymns. Private interpretation is flawed only if one resists listening to the broader community out there. I don’t think Robin intends that his reading is strictly private, autonomous, and isolationist; I believe that he has much broader and ecclesial approach to the reading of Scripture. If that is the case, I would like him to identify the hermeneutical community that he belongs to and why he prefers membership in that community.