I once jumped off the southernmost point in the United States into the ocean, and the only way I was able to do it was to suck up my fear, hop off the cliff, and face what may. Or, rather, back what may. Ouch.
I’ve been behind the scenes here at Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy doing very little but cheerleading for over a year now, and I figure the best thing to do is to jump off the cliff and face (or back) the sea creatures in person.
Recently we’ve had a bit of a fuss on the subject of original sin. The comments have been fascinating, though I haven’t had time to swim through them all. But one particular exchange caught my attention, when the question was raised about whether we “do theology” according to the “consensus of the Fathers,” or if it is, rather, the “consensus of the Councils” that drives the theology of the Orthodox Church.
Welp. One might as well have asked if it’s more appropriate to have barbacoa tacos or tacos al pastor on Tuesdays, never mind tacos pollos or carne asada. I’ve been nicknamed “The Taco King” by an Armenian friend, so I’m more likely to respond with, “Well, what are you having them with?” or “How will you garnish them?” rather than pick one taco or the other. Both kinds of tacos are great, and shouldn’t be seen in competition with one another—and there may be several other options to work with. Anyone who knows me knows I like tacos. (And I’ve always wanted to be the first person to introduce tacos into theological dialogue here.)
I also like the Fathers—and I like the Councils. If it weren’t for the Fathers and the Councils, I would probably never have found the path to Orthodoxy. It was not the weight of the consensus patrum (consensus of the Fathers) that won me over, nor the weight of the consensus conciliorum (consensus of the Councils). Rather, it was the weight of the consensus patrum et conciliorum (consensus of the Fathers and the Councils) that drew me to the Church, as I was increasingly convinced that there is a symphonic melody requiring both sources simultaneously.
But in the end, it’s not about what I like or prefer. It’s really about the Church, and how she “does” her theology. Also, how are we to understand the broader Tradition to which this theology is central?
What follows (and precedes) is unapologetically metaphorical. All language is metaphorical and analogical anyway, and at the risk of overdoing it, I hope to clearly articulate the sources of Orthodox theology with a few nudges in the direction of how such an Orthodox theological project should go. I make no attempt to argue against Rome’s perspective on Scripture and Tradition, nor do I engage Sola Scriptura in this post. Really, I’m just going for vanilla Orthodoxy here.
Orthodox Theology as Symphonic Orchestra
The truth is, according to the Orthodox Church, the Fathers and Councils are only two sections within a larger symphony orchestra—the Conductor, of course, being Christ—and only when we hear all the sections of the orchestra playing in proper tune and with the appropriate dynamics will we rightly appreciate the melody of faith and the harmony of hope—and therefore be able to do theology rightly.
In the epilogue to his enlightening work, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev discusses theological inquiry, and how we may sort through sources of Tradition. Particularly, he is looking back on the breadth of his own sources and arguments in that self-same book, so the reader may, in hindsight, “distinguish which parts of the examined texts belong to the general doctrine of the Orthodox Church and which parts are personal opinions.” Taking it further, he posits that we may “establish which sources should be considered more authoritative for Orthodox Christians and which are less significant.”
Using my analogy, we must understand what belongs in each section of the orchestra, and what the relative dynamics should be.
Put another way, there’s a significant difference between a violin part in pianissimo (very quiet), and a percussion part in fortissimo (very loud); and while both may be integral to the symphonic composition, getting the relative volume right affects the whole symphony.
Here is Metropolitan Hilarion’s articulation:
1. We first establish the underlying motif of the symphony, “an unconditional and undisputable authority”: the Holy Scriptures.
All Orthodox Christians accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as unified messengers of Christ and the locus of tradition. Metropolitan Hilarion says, “The New Testament is an unconditional and indisputable doctrinal authority for all Christians,” and the Old Testament is “a herald of the New Testament,” interpreted through the “prism of the New Testament.” The Scriptures are essential to the motif of Tradition.
All of this, of course, is within the broader symphony of the Tradition, including what follows for a proper understanding.
2. Another indispensible part of the orchestral motif is our mature liturgical tradition, which is an unconditional and indisputable authority of the Church.
“Liturgical texts are not simply works of eminent theologians and poets but are part of the liturgical experience of many generations of Christians.” The liturgies and prayers are the embodiment of our faith, and the mature growth of reflection and many centuries of prayer. Over time, as the Holy Spirit leads the Church, the liturgical tradition is purified, and only the best remains “in the canonical liturgical texts.” We cannot simply discern the truth through some kind of liturgical archaeological dig—time and patience are really on the side of the Tradition.
He continues: “Therefore, if we were to create a certain hierarchy of authorities, the liturgical texts would come in second place after Scripture.”
This is why, when I was a catechumen, I asked my priest questions about death and the state of the dead, and he simply directed me to the funeral service. It’s not unusual for clergy to direct the faithful to find answers in the services, as these time-tested words rightly articulate our faith. Indeed, the word orthodoxy means “right glory” or “right worship” as much as it means “right teaching.”
More recent liturgical texts, such as “akathists written in the 17th – 19th c.” and other late prayer texts do not enjoy the same “necessary, long-term ratification by the Church,” but must undergo their own vetting and purification with time. We must be patient as this process continues within the life of the Church.
3. The creeds and councils of the Church “enjoy the same authority” as the canonical liturgical texts and Scriptures.
Or at least a similar authority. The councils deal with incredibly difficult matters, both of a pastoral nature (and subsequently enshrined in the canons), as well as of a doctrinal nature, articulated in creeds and carefully worded dogmatic definitions.
Being Christians, it is not surprising that the ecumenical councils are overwhelmingly concerned with Christological matters. The dogmatic statements of the councils are paramount, and the canonical guidelines are a close second (though admittedly varied in their local applications).
Metropolitan Hilarion elaborates:
Each council responded to the challenges of its times, therefore not everything that was decided by the Councils is of equal significance for the contemporary Christian. Moreover, the Church has the authority to return to the decision of its Councils, and if necessary, modify them.
4. Doctrinal questions find further clarification in the testimony of the Fathers.
Though their “significance [comes] after Scripture, liturgy, and councils,” the writings of the Fathers are an integral part of the symphonic harmony of the Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Hilarion insists that we do the hard work of discerning between personal opinions of the Fathers, and those texts “which express general Church teaching.” He adds an interesting side-note: “If personal opinions are expressed by a Father of the Church and not condemned by a Church council, they are considered to be within the boundaries of what is allowed and possible.”
Still, such opinions may not be impressed upon the faithful of the Church as binding in any way. When I became Orthodox, I had certain interpretive hunches about Biblical prophecy (that did not contradict the Tradition of the Church), gleaned largely from the Fathers, yet was instructed not to tell others they “must” believe such things. I pretty much backed off completely. That’s a healthy measure, and may help preserve the peace of the Church.
5. Other ancient “teachers” of the Church are important, but in a qualified way.
Metropolitan Hilarion says it is important to consider the writings of other ancient teachers of the Church, but to make a distinction between these teachers and those the Church has designated as “Fathers.” “Their opinions are authoritative only inasmuch as they correspond to the teaching of the Church.” Though he doesn’t mention any names, Tertullian and Origen come to mind as highly influential teachers, despite serious theological problems with some of their work.
6. We should also consider apocryphal literature of late antiquity, or at least those pieces that have influenced the Church either “directly or indirectly.”
The last time I posted this point somewhere online, every panther in a 7000 mile radius pounced on me, thinking Metropolitan Hilarion was discounting the importance of the so-called “apocryphal” books of Scripture. Nope. Not a chance. In this case, we’re discussing what is commonly called “apocrypha” in academia—think The Protoevangelion of James or The Gospel of Thomas. But this is where Metropolitan Hilarion urges all to extreme caution. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, ought to be rejected outright, as it is not “reflected in the liturgical life or in hagiographic literature” of the Church. He goes on: “Apocrypha rejected by the Church do not have any standing for the Orthodox believer.”
7. Finally, other teachers should be considered, both ancient and modern.
Metropolitian Hilarion explains:
Although the dogmatic teaching of the Church is unchangeable for all time, it has required fresh explanations in different periods of Church history. The Orthodox Church does not limit the “Patristic age” to any particular period in Church history: this “age” continues over the entire course of history; for as long as Christ’s Church stands; and for as long as the Holy Spirit, who enlightens and inspires people to theological creativity, works within it.
This does not mean, of course, that there is a free-for-all exchange that enables us to throw out whatever we want, or play fast and loose with what we’ve described above. No, these other teachers must be tested for accuracy. And the “hierarchy” of sorts delineated above helps put the whole project into perspective.
Theology for the Orthodox Church is found in that beautiful symphony that is our Tradition, and only when all the sections play their appropriate parts at the right volume does the output sound appropriate. An over-emphasis on any one part of the symphony can only create discordant sounds, contrary to the appropriate execution of the piece by the great and holy Conductor, Jesus Christ.
Note: All quotes taken from Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood: 2009), 205-208. Slight modifications made to capitalization for stylistic consistency.