Editor’s Note: The following is a review of The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church, published April 2017 by St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, Florence, Arizona. It was sent to us by Dr. Paul Ladouceur originally as four separate posts, but we have combined them here into one, since they are closely related and also since our readers are not unaccustomed to longer pieces here.
The Departure of the Soul
The Orthodox tradition contains several strands of thinking on the afterlife, based primarily on indications in Scripture, especially Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, and also on writings Fathers and other saints of the Church over the centuries. But the only church dogmas on the afterlife which have received the formal approval of the Church-in-Council or an ecumenical council, are those in the Nicene Creed: that Christ “will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead”; and “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Teachings on the afterlife beyond the Creed are those of their authors, however prestigious they may be, which have not been the subject of conciliar discernment or pronouncements of the Orthodox Church. The tradition of the Orthodox Church, like that of the Catholic Church, consistently affirms the desirability and indeed the efficacy of practices such as the commemoration of the deceased and prayers and other pious acts for the repose of their soul, without any certainty concerning the mechanism by which such pious practices operate, but in the full conviction and faith in divine goodness that these practices are beneficial for the deceased. The Orthodox ascetic tradition also retains the practice of memento mori, the memory of death, the recollection that this life comes to an end, as an aide in the spiritual life.
This is the general context in which the book The Departure of the Soul according to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church should be considered. The Departure of the Soul (TDS), published by St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Arizona, is a massive tome of some 1,111 pages. The book has been meticulously prepared and lavishly published and includes 216 pages of colour illustrations. The main thrust of the book is to convey the message that the doctrine of the “toll-houses” is indeed the undisputable Teaching of the Orthodox Church. The toll-house doctrine is an expansion of the notion of the particular judgement immediately after death, a series of trials in which newly-deceased’s good actions and bad actions are assessed.
According to the toll-house teaching, the souls of the newly-deceased rise through the air, where they must pass through a series of trials or “toll-houses,” each devoted to a particular sin, on their way to their ultimate fate. The toll-houses are overseen by demons who examine the soul in relation to the sins in question, while the guardian angel brings forth evidence of virtue and repentance, a veritable “trial” (TDS, 34), modelled on human justice systems, with Christ as the judge. The demons allow the soul to continue on its way only if the soul or the guardian angel produce evidence of good actions which outweigh the evil accomplished – this is the “toll.” According to different sources, there are may be up to 20 or even 24 toll-houses. In some accounts, failure to pass any one of the toll-houses results in the soul being hurled into hell. At the trial, the soul “receives its allotment in the afterlife according to the life which it led on earth, either in Paradise, a place of repose and joy, or in Hades, a place of torment and sorrow” (TDS, 35), awaiting the general resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ.
There are several problems with the book. The first is that it represents a reductionist view of the richness of the Orthodox tradition concerning the afterlife, since it is limited to what we can call toll-house theology. This is only one strand of Orthodox approaches on the afterlife. One recent study of thinking about death and the afterlife in the Byzantine Empire states that “the Byzantines never produced a systematic theology on the post-mortem fate of the soul. Or, rather, they did so only in the fifteenth century, under duress at the Council of Ferrara-Florence” (Vasileios Marinis, Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 2).
To support its argument that toll-house theology is the teaching of the Orthodox Church on the afterlife, the book relies almost entirely on extracts of writings by a wide range of Fathers of the Church, canonized saints, elders and other noted Orthodox authors. The list of saints “whose writings or lives refer to the trial of the soul at the hour of death” is impressive: 123, with some 178 texts (TDS, 1060-1063). For the purposes of this review, there is no reason to question the authenticity of the selected texts nor the accuracy of the translations. Undoubtedly every possible significant source which supports, directly, indirectly or only remotely the main theses of the book concerning the particular judgement and the toll-houses has been faithfully recollected here.
The book is a resurrection of a bitter polemic within the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) triggered by the publication in 1980 of Fr. Seraphim Rose’s book The Soul after Death. This book is credited with the modern revival of the toll-house teaching, even though the toll-houses are not the main focus of the book. The conflagration which followed its publication was fed mostly by the polemical writings, especially the book The Soul, the Body and Death, of the then ROCOR deacon Lazar (Lev) Puhalo (later priest and now retired OCA archbishop). In December 1980, the ROCOR Holy Synod attempted to put an end to the debate by forbidding access to ROCOR publications by both sides on the issue (TDS, 244-249).
The Departure of the Soul is not an academic study, nor a devotional publication, but rather a polemical work in support of the toll-house doctrine. Indeed, some 270 pages are devoted to critiques of Lazar Puhalo’s writings on the subject (TDS, 724-822 and 910-985), 50 pages to those of Fr. Michael Azkoul who follows Puhalo closely (TDS, 823-873), and 35 pages to other “ancillary authors” who raise doubts about toll-house theology (TDS, 874-909).
St. Mark of Ephesus and the Council of Ferrara
The book The Departure of the Soul according to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church is a reductionist view of Orthodox thinking on the afterlife because it does not even intimate the existence of other strands of thinking on the afterlife within the Orthodox tradition. Another major strand of Orthodox thinking on the afterlife reached a summit in the position of the Orthodox Church at the Council of Ferrara in 1438. This council, which brought into dialogue representatives of the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, was intended to heal the rift between Eastern and Western Christianity. One of the items on the table for discussion was their respective doctrines concerning the afterlife, especially the Western notion of purgatory. The principal Orthodox theologian and spokesman on the issue was St. Mark of Ephesus (1392-1444). St. Mark prepared three documents on the subject and co-authored a fourth. These documents express the formal Orthodox position concerning the afterlife. Prepared in the context of a council, the writings of St. Mark on the afterlife, although never formally ratified by a pan-Orthodox council, constitute the most authoritative Orthodox texts on the subject. St. Mark did not speak on his own behalf at the council, but as representative of the Orthodox Church.
In summary, the Orthodox position as expounded by St. Mark is that “the souls of people who die with unforgiven minor sins will experience spiritual sufferings in the afterlife, which, however, are not divine punishments but self-inflicted consequences of these sins” (Fr. Demetrios Bathrellos, “The Debates on Purgatory and the Forgiveness of Sins at the Council of Ferrara-Florence,” Journal of Theological Studies, NS 65, 1 (2014), 78). St. Mark and the other Orthodox at the Council of Ferrara did not elaborate on the mechanism or the geography of the sufferings or purification in the afterlife, but insist systematically on divine love and forgiveness. In the Orthodox position at Ferrara — as indeed in the Catholic position as well — the newly-deceased fall into three categories: the perfect or sinless, who receive a foretaste of heaven; those guilty of grave sins, who receive a foretaste of hell; and those in the middle (mesoi), who are guilty of minor sins and hence are in need of purification, and who can be assisted by the prayer of the Church. The Orthodox at Ferrara insisted little on a specific doctrine of a particular judgement, and in none of St. Mark’s documents is the toll-house doctrine even mentioned, and neither demons nor angels play a role. Instead, the emphasis is on the consciousness or awareness of the soul in a sort of self-assessment of its life, an internal process of the person, rather than an external process modelled on a human justice system, with an accused, prosecutors, defence attorneys and a judge, as in the toll-house narratives.
Fr. Demetrios Bathrellos characterizes the Orthodox position on the afterlife at the Ferrara Council as emphasizing “love, purification, and forgiveness,” whereas the Latin position stressed “justice, punishment, and satisfaction.” Toll-house theology, with its emphasis on the trial of the soul, demons, justice, judgement and punishment, is thus closer to the Latin position at Ferrera than to the Orthodox position, eloquently articulated by St. Mark of Ephesus. The thrust of The Departure of the Soul is a monolithic focus on the toll-house strand of the Orthodox tradition concerning the afterlife, disregarding other approaches, notably that of the Orthodox Church at Ferrara.
Fr. Seraphim Rose was well aware of the existence of this other strand of Orthodox thinking on the afterlife, since he included English translations of one of St. Mark’s Ferrara texts and part of another as appendices to his book The Soul after Death (Rose, 207-220). But he writes little about St. Mark’s theology. He does not reconcile the divine mercy and forgiveness strand of Orthodox thinking on the afterlife articulated by St. Mark with toll-house theology beyond the statement that “St. Mark’s writings concern primarily the specific point of the state of souls after death, and barely touch on the history of events that occur to the soul immediately after death” (Rose, 206). Thus Rose’s work on St. Mark remains incomplete. He was in part handicapped because he worked from Russian translations of St. Mark rather than from the original Greek texts, with the inherent risk of inaccuracies in such secondary translations.
Over the centuries since the Council of Ferrara, there has been an evolution in Catholic thinking on the afterlife, such that modern Catholic theology now seems closer to the Orthodox position at the Council than to the original Latin position. Bathrellos writes: “Today… many Roman Catholic theologians, including Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, understand purgatory in terms often more similar to those of Mark and the Greeks than to their Latin predecessors.” And Bathrellos concludes his fine study: “The mutual, ‘Greek’ and ‘Latin,’ contemporary emphasis on the healing transformation of the souls in the middle state and on the loving forgiveness of God – rather than on his punishing justice – is a beacon of hope for a common, and better, way forward” (Bathrellos, 120-121).
St. Mark’s exposition of Orthodox teaching on the afterlife at Ferrara validates the contention that there is not one Orthodox doctrine on the afterlife, but rather several different strands which have never been consolidated into a single coherent theological framework.
Unfortunately, St. Mark’s theology of the afterlife remains a neglected field in modern scholarship. For example, there is no definitive scholarly edition of his writings; the editions that exist are not readily available (they date from the 1920s); there are no complete translations; existing English translations are from Russian translations, not the original Greek; and, with the major exception of the Bathrellos article, there few Orthodox studies of St. Mark’s theology.
St. Mark of Ephesus is not in the index of saints in The Departure of the Soul (1060-1065), but there are nonetheless two extracts from his Ferrara texts, one dealing with prayers and intercession for the deceased (TDS, 867), the other with souls being “made clear” (an uncertain translation from a citation in French; TDS, 869). These fail to convey the main thrust of St. Mark’s teachings on the afterlife. The single-minded focus on toll-house theology evident in TDS results in the minimization or suppression of any other strand of thought on the afterlife. It is thus unfortunate that the profound theology of St. Mark on the afterlife risks being eclipsed by toll-house theology.
The New Ecclesiology
In the Orthodox tradition, the expression “the teaching of the Orthodox Church,” as employed in the book The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church, does not have the same theological sense as “the teaching of the Catholic Church.” Orthodoxy has no cathedra or magisterium corresponding to those in the Catholic Church, but rather a number of different sources of the faith or teachings, with varying degrees of authority attached to them. There are several slightly different orderings of these authorities, but foremost in importance is Scripture, especially the New Testament, and within the New Testament, the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John; then the dogmatic pronouncements of the ecumenical councils; the non-dogmatic declarations and canons of ecumenical councils and of other local councils of the church; the writings of the great Fathers on church dogmas; their writings on other theological issues; writings of other saints; the liturgy and icons; and the writings of other respected elders and theologians.
Grounded in Scripture and the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church, the great universal dogmas of Orthodoxy, deemed essential for the self-understanding of Orthodoxy, and indeed for salvation, are those teachings that have been so proclaimed by the ecumenical councils: the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the title Theotokos (Birth-giver/Mother of God) attributed to the Virgin Mary at the Third Ecumenical Council; the Christological formulae of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils; and the proclamation on icons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Theologians argue that some dogmatic determinations of later councils, notably those concerning the distinction between divine essence and the divine energies of the Palamite councils between 1341 and 1351, should also be considered among the formal teachings of the Orthodox Church, even though these councils are not called ecumenical.
In addition to the formal conciliar proclamation of a teaching of the Orthodox Church, such conciliar decisions must be received by the body of the Church. This ecclesiology is supported by examples of seemingly canonical councils whose decisions were subsequently overturned by later councils or which were rejected by the body of the Church: the Second Council of Ephesus of 449, the iconoclast councils of 754 and 815, and the Council of Ferrara of 1438. The outcomes of these and other rejected councils pass into history, not the living tradition of the Church.
No ecumenical council or even local council has ever pronounced itself on the toll-house doctrine and indeed The Departure of the Soul, for all its thoroughness, does not cite a single conciliar statement on this subject. The best that the editors of the book come up with is a 1882 report of the Synodal Educational Committee of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (appointed by the czar and not composed entirely of bishops) approving a book by a Fr. Mitrophan, who refers to the toll-houses (TDS, 242-243), and the minutes of the 1980 synodal decision on the toll-house controversy by the ROCOR Holy Synod (TDS, 244-249). The decision censures Lazar Puhalo in particular for his theory of the insensibility of the soul “in some state of sleep” because of its separation from the body after death, and it refers in passing to the presence of the toll-houses in lives of the saints and liturgical texts, but it does not formally endorse the toll-house doctrine. Indeed, the decision contains a categorical statement which places the toll-house teaching in its proper dogmatic context: “Actually, no one can dogmatically establish the existence of the toll-houses precisely in accordance with the form described in the dream [of Gregory recounted in the Life] of Basil the New, insofar as no direct indication thereto is to be found in the Scriptures” (TDS, 247).
To support the contention that the toll-houses represent the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the editors of The Departure of the Soul advance a new ecclesiology. This ecclesiology is explained as follows:
Over the centuries, the Orthodox doctrine of the particular judgment of the soul was confirmed by the direct divine revelation granted by God to numerous saints in a mystery (1 Cor 2:7). Having been given the theoria, or spiritual vision, of the trial of the soul at the hour of death, the saints then described this spiritual reality with words and images. Guided also by God in their choice of words describing the holy visions – the expressions of nearly inexpressible spiritual concepts – the Fathers then proclaimed their edifying teachings in order to help the faithful attain to the Kingdom of Heaven. In this way, the saints’ experience of spiritual realities transmitted through their teachings has become the primary vehicle of testimony through which the Orthodox Church receives its doctrine. […]
Thus, the saints’ knowledge of the trial at death is empirical – a direct revelation from God. They then conveyed the revelation to the Church through their holy teachings. The transmission of this revelation has two components: one is pure revelation from God to his saint, and the other is a revelation or disclosure of the content of the experience in the form of a teaching that the saint then offers to the Church. (TDS, 35-36).
This ecclesiology is reiterated in several places in the book and is even generalized as a universal principle for the development of doctrine in the Orthodox Church:
The fundamental flaw in the ancillary authors’ writings is their exclusion of the primary body of evidence on the subject: the very record of the Orthodox saints’ personal knowledge in theoria (visions) of the trial of the soul at the hour of death. Since revelations given by God to his saints in theoria (visions) are sacred transmissions of spiritual knowledge impervious to infiltration by heretical concepts, they constitute an infallible witness to the Orthodox doctrine of the toll-houses (our emphasis) (TDS, 874).
The editors attach such importance to spiritual visions that they emerge as more significant than Scripture in the determination of the doctrines of the Orthodox Church, as in this statement: “The visions, or more accurately, the theorias granted by God to his saints — divine revelations of the spiritual realities beyond sense perception that are beheld with the inner eyes of the soul — are, after God himself, the very foundation of the doctrines of the Orthodox Church” (our emphasis) (TDS, 897). No mention of Scripture, the Church or councils.
And some pages later: “Spiritual realities experienced in theoria by the saints and transmitted to the Church through their teachings is the basis on which the Church forms its doctrine” (TDS, 944). Indeed, the writings describing the theoria-visions toll-houses have the same significance as Scripture itself, since their authors are “Guided also by God in their choice of words describing the holy visions” (TDS, 35).
The Departure of the Soul thus advances a new ecclesiology to buttress its contention that toll-house theology is the infallible teaching of the Orthodox Church. The thesis that Orthodox doctrines are founded on theoria-visions is not only historically inaccurate, it marks a radical departure from the ecclesiology of the Fathers of Church and the ecumenical councils. Their theology was based first and foremost on divine revelation in Scripture, expressed in councils of the Church and received by the entire Body of Christ. The new ecclesiology relegates Scripture to a decidedly marginal role and abolishes the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church.
Despite the consistent emphasis in The Departure of the Soul on the unfailing and indeed binding nature of theoria-visions as the source of church doctrine, buried deep in the book an unsigned text appears to step back from the sweeping claim of the infallible authority of theoria-visions:
Certainly, visions are not accepted as doctrine automatically. Rather, they are revealed to the faithful through Holy Scripture, Ecumenical Councils, liturgical hymnography, theological texts, hagiography, and iconography, and subsequently the theorias of the saints are confirmed and received by the consciousness of the Church as Orthodox doctrine manifesting and upholding the truth about God and spiritual realities (TDS, 899).
But this timid acknowledgement of the existence of other sources of authority in Orthodoxy is inconsistent with the main thrust of The Departure of the Soul about the infallible and imperative nature of theoria-visions on their own, as exposed especially in the Introduction (TDS, 35-36). It is as though this passage (TDS, 899) had been written by a different author, with no care taken to harmonize the theology here with the rest of the book. In the Introduction and elsewhere in the book, the new ecclesiology of the infallible and imperative authority of theoria-visions in the determination of Church doctrine is clearly and unambiguously presented, with no mention of Scripture, the hierarchy or councils. This new ecclesiology has no basis in Scripture, the ecumenical councils, the Fathers of the Church or modern Orthodox thinking on the Church. It is a false ecclesiology.
The Life of Basil the Younger
The editors of The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church have benefitted from the publication in 2014 of a scholarly edition by the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library of the tenth-century work, The Life of Saint Basil the Younger (or the New). The editors include in TDS the entire chapter in which Basil’s disciple Gregory recounts his theoria-vision of the ascent of Basil’s faithful servant Theodora through the toll-houses before reaching Basil at an emerald banquet table in Basil’s heavenly abode (TDS, 370-417). Later in the book, the editors go to great lengths to defend the authenticity of The Life of Saint Basil the Younger and to criticize Lazar Puhalo for casting doubt on its Orthodoxy (TDS, 910-980).
The editors of TDS focus exclusively on the first of two theoria-visions of Gregory, the celestial post-death journey of Theodora, omitting any mention of the much longer second vision (The Life of Saint Basil the Younger, 365-699). Gregory’s second vision is a vast portrait of the celestial Jerusalem, the preparation of the throne of God, the resurrection of the dead, the enthronement of the Lord and the Last Judgment, with the separation of the elect from the damned. Among those cast into hellfire are apostate Christians, murderers, robbers, adulterers, suicides, thieves, burglars, liars, perjurers, those prone to anger, sinful clerics and monastics, heretics, iconoclasts and the Jews. The judgment of the Jews is pronounced by God the Father who appears on the scene, vividly described in The Life of Saint Basil the Younger: “He [God the Father] passed judgment on them and commanded the fearsome angels in charge of the chastisement to lead them away to the fiery Gehenna, which they had prepared for themselves; and the angels, flying in groups like eagles, snatched them up and scattered them over the entire frightening sea of fire” (LBY, 633).
According to the new ecclesiology advanced by The Departure of the Soul, Gregory’s second vision, including the Last Judgment, should have the same credibility as his first, that of Theodora’s passage through the toll-houses, since it too is a “direct divine revelation” (TDS, 35) and hence “infallible” (TDS, 874). But this second vision contains elements far removed from the teaching of the Orthodox Church, notably Christ’s condemnation to hell of entire categories of humanity, and the Jews by God the Father. Orthodox teaching does not envisage the condemnation of categories of persons, but rather stresses divine love, mercy and forgiveness, as articulated by St. Mark of Ephesus at the Council of Ferrara in 1438, with the possible condemnation of individuals on the basis of their own lives, according to the measure of light accorded to each person individually. The dilemma of the editors is clear: if they mention approvingly Gregory’s second vision, they would endorse manifestly un-Orthodox teachings; but by rejecting the second vision, they would cast doubt on the validity of the first vision, which constitutes a cornerstone of their whole argument. They cut the Gordian knot by silence concerning the second vision.
The Life of Basil the Younger contains all the marks of an elaborate Byzantine literary construct. It combines hagiography, miracles, descriptions of imperial politics and social life in mid-tenth century Constantinople, visions of the afterlife, apocalyptic events, and anti-Semitism into a coherent narrative, likely to appeal to the literate elite of the Byzantine Empire. Indeed, there is no independent corroboration that Basil, Gregory and Theodora were real persons (LBY, 13-14).
Although Fr. Seraphim Rose presents the toll-house narrative in his book The Soul after Death (1980), this is not the main thrust of his book, which concerns rather the assessment of the then-contemporary fascination with near-death and after-death experiences in the United States. He was in fact very cautious concerning the significance of the toll-house narratives, warning in particular against a rational or literal interpretation as distinct from a metaphorical or spiritual interpretation.
At the beginning of the his discussion of the toll-houses, he writes: “The modern rationalistic over-emphasis on the ‘literal’ meaning of texts and a ‘realistic’ or this-worldly understanding of the events described in Scripture and in Lives of Saints – have tended to obscure or even blot out entirely the spiritual meanings and spiritual experiences which are often primary in Orthodox sources” (Rose, 75). He quotes approvingly from the nineteenth century textbook of dogmatic theology by Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow: “One must picture the toll-houses not in a sense that is crude and sensuous, but – as far as possible for us – in a spiritual sense.” Rose then states that both the toll-house and many near-death experiences belong to the category of “out-of-body” experiences, as distinct from “visions of the other world.” Rose rejects any crudely materialistic and literal meaning of the toll-house narratives: “Thus, of course, there are no visible ‘houses’ or ‘booths’ in the air where ‘taxes’ are collected, and where there is mention of ‘scrolls’ or writing implements whereby sins are recorded, or ‘scales’ by which virtues are weighed, or ‘gold’ by which ‘debts’ are paid – in all such cases we may properly understand these images to be figurative or interpretative devices used to express the spiritual reality which the soul faces at that time.”
Unfortunately, the editors of The Departure of the Soul have not followed Fr. Seraphim Rose’s sound advice about the interpretation toll-house narratives. Although in one place the editors of TDS refer to the theorias of the trial of the soul at toll-houses as “spiritual realities… expressed in material words and images,” and as “symbols” and “veils” (TDS, 38), the many hundreds of pages devoted to the theoria-visions and to their defence against Orthodox and non-Orthodox critics all support a literal and realistic understanding of the toll-houses, with demons and angels as prosecutors and attorneys at the successive trials of the soul.
Fr. Michael Pomazansky, in an essay on the toll-houses (reprinted in later editions of his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology), writes: “The subject of the toll-houses is not specifically a topic of Orthodox Christian theology: it is not a dogma of the Church in the precise sense, but comprises material of a moral and edifying character, one might say pedagogical.” This key sentence is omitted from the selections of Pomazansky’s essay in The Departure of the Soul (283-285) – the sentence comes immediately after the words “It is our duty to respond” and is signified by the ellipses (…) (TDS, 283).
One of the academic endorsements tucked away at the back of the book is a very direct and unambiguous statement by Fr. Vasile Raduca, Dean Emeritus of the Faculty of Orthodox Theology at the University of Bucharest, who correctly expresses the status of Orthodox teaching on the afterlife: “The Church has not formulated any dogmas regarding the soul’s departure for the afterlife, and what follows afterwards” (TDS, 1101). The editors of The Departure of the Soul implicitly reject this assessment but instead go to great lengths to advance a new ecclesiology whereby Orthodox doctrines repose on theoria-visions without the need for conciliar discernment and reception by the body of the Church.
The editors of The Departure of the Soul fail to distinguish between canonically-expressed and duly-received dogmas of the Orthodox Church and the content of the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox tradition is much broader than proclaimed dogmas, but does not have the same authority. Toll-house imagery and symbolism is certainly within the Orthodox tradition — The Departure of the Soul eloquently demonstrates this — but it is not the sole strand of thinking on the afterlife within the Orthodox tradition. It is not unusual in Orthodoxy to have different and even apparently overlapping elements within the overall tradition, on matters on which there exist no formal church dogmas. It is thus misleading and erroneous to present toll-house theology as “the teaching of the Orthodox Church” when in reality it is only part of Orthodox tradition concerning the afterlife. As we mentioned earlier, the only portions of the Orthodox tradition which have canonical status are contained in the Nicene Creed: that Christ “will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead”; and “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Anything beyond this falls into the category of theologumena, the private teachings of those who espouse them.
In conclusion, an anthology of patristic and other writings, however numerous, attesting to the toll-house doctrine does not establish a teaching of the Orthodox Church, nor can such an anthology become a substitute for the proclamation of doctrine or teaching by a duly-constituted conciliar authority received by the body of the Church. The new ecclesiology of The Departure of the Soul would abolish the primacy of Scripture and the conciliarity of the Orthodox Church and replace them with the theoria-visions of saints and elders. This ecclesiology is unsustainable in the Orthodox tradition. The doctrine of the toll-houses is not the teaching of the Orthodox Church; it is the personal theological opinion (theologumenon) of, yes, a large number of Fathers and elders of the Church, but it has never been proclaimed and received as a doctrine or teaching of the Orthodox Church.
Thank you very much for this review. Very helpful.
Thank you for writing this full detailed review of The Departure of the Soul, Dr. Paul Ladouceur. I haven’t seen many yet, so this is a welcome development.
Your review makes sense to me – you were consistent and presented a convincing case against the ecclesiology advocated in this book. I am hesitant to say that I completely agree with you though, considering The Departure of the Soul’s many endorsements. Numerous respected priests and bishops have endorsed it, including Metropolitan Hilarion and Metropolitan Joseph. Clearly I am just going to have to read it myself at some point, if I ever manage to have the time.
Thank you for this assessment, Dr. Ladouceur.
Much appreciated. As I read the book, I wondered (knowingly) how Gregory’s ‘On the Soul and the Resurrection’ could be so relativized/marginalized by the toll-house obsession… and if the chapters against Lazar and Azkoul represent a green light for public attacks on hierarchs. More importantly, recall that the roots of tge debate were pastoral.
“But this timid acknowledgement of the existence of other sources of authority in Orthodoxy is inconsistent with the main thrust of The Departure of the Soul about the infallible and imperative nature of theoria-visions on their own, as exposed especially in the Introduction (TDS, 35-36). It is as though this passage (TDS, 899) had been written by a different author, with no care taken to harmonize the theology here with the rest of the book.”
I’m not sure I agree. TDS seems to be saying the same thing that Fr. John Romanides says in Patristic Theology. According to him, “theosis”/vision of God is the source of the Scriptures and the proof of it’s Truth: Moses saw God before he wrote anything down for us, as did the Apostles; and the way the Fathers of the Councils argued was through Scripture, reason, and experience. Saint Gregory Palamas comes to mind, particularly. Also, the Church taught her doctrines before the Councils, which simply affirmed the truth. That was what made them Ecumenical and binding; the absence of true doctrine was what made the Robber Councils robber councils. So it doesn’t seem theologically inconsistent to me to affirm the infallibility of true encounters with God (vision/theosis/theoria), and the authority of the Scriptures, Councils, and writings of the saints since they are not opposed to one another but naturally follow each other cyclically. I think calling this a “new ecclesiology” is perhaps a tad too strong.
If I’m wrong, please correct me. And remember me in your prayers.
Fr. Romanides is a very controversial figure, theologically speaking, and he has been critiqued on the grounds that he proposes a fundamentally novel understanding of the way in which the Church speaks. As I have read the great Orthodox theologians of the 20th century generally regarded as faithful to the Orthodox tradition- Staniloae, Florovsky, Lossky- and as I have read the Fathers of the Church themselves, I have concluded that his critics are substantially correct. Fr. Romanides turns authority in the Church purely into a magisterium of charismatic elders, and he downplays the role that reason and academic learning play in the construction of Christian theology. Moreover, it is my belief that he fundamentally misconstrues the doctrine of the divine energies as the ground for a purely apophatic theology, whereas traditionally, the divine energies are the logoi themselves, which are summed up in the Son through whom the Father always energizes- who is therefore called the Divine Logos. Because of that, language is not an accidental medium of communication which is necessarily flawed, but a divine aspect of the Image of God which, in its very nature, properly symbolizes the Logos and enables us to make intelligible the interrelations in the creation and Christian theology. Fr. Romanides’ view implies that both Scripture and Tradition play second fiddle to a living elder, as long as this Elder is blessed with gifts of the Holy Spirit. For example, his statement that Scripture is only a witness to revelation rather than revelation itself, and that it is only inspired in relation to charismatic saints is in stark contrast to what St. Ephraim the Syrian and St. Maximus the Confessor professed about Scripture: “He hath clothed Himself in our language.” For a fairly good critique, see here:
Thank you. I will read this.
I would highly recommend Lossky’s “Mystical Theology” to start, and then, if you’re ready, Fr. Staniloae’s amazing “Orthodox Dogmatic Theology” (the six volume “Experience of God” in English translation.) I was initially very pro-Romanides, but over time I drifted away from his views. I know some people think Lossky was too narrow, but even though there were some flaws of emphasis, the work as a whole is beautiful and contains the most precise and clear exposition of the Logos doctrine in the Orthodox Church that I have ever read- his exposition of that teaching transformed the way I think about everything.
Thanks Serro. I have them on my shelf, though I’ve never made time for them. I’ll get to them next now.
A little reminder from St John Chrysostom : ”We really shouldn’t need the help of the written texts; we should be able to display such a clean lifestyle, that the grace of the Holy Spirit would act directly onto our hearts. Just as books are inscribed by ink, that is how our hearts should be inscribed by the Spirit. But, since we have distanced ourselves from this grace, let us accept this second alternative with appreciation.That the previous conditions were much better, is evident in both the Old as well as the New Testaments. In the Old Testament, God didn’t address the patriarchs and the prophets with written texts, but spoke to them directly, because He found their hearts to be pure. But, because the Hebrews sunk into depths of malice, written texts and stone tablets became necessary.The same applied in the age of the New Testament. The Lord gave the Apostles nothing in writing, but He promised to give them -in place of a text- the grace of the Holy Spirit: “He (the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete) will teach you everything and will remind you of everything that I told you” (John 14:26). St Paul had also said that he had received the law, ”not on stone tablets,but on the tablets of your fleshyhearts”(IICor.3:3). But because people were again drawn towards evil, it was necessary to provide reminders in written form. You must therefore perceive how great an evil it is-even now- that this second medication is not being utilized: by whom? By us who are supposed to live such pure lives, that we shouldn’t need any written texts.”
(P.G. 57, 13-15)
Father Thomas Hopko on this topic…
What Fr Thomas Hopko is talking about bears little resemblance to what modern tollers present and not what Fr Seraphim presents.
Concerning the teaching of the Holy Fathers he says that they teach that after death we all are purified from the passions which have attracted us in life. It is a purification. It is a purging. This is NOT the tollhouse teaching which has nothing to do with purification but with judgement. The very last thing the toll house demon-judges want is our purification. Such a process does not interest them. They are seeking our judgement to damnation.
He also says that after death we encounter Christ -again this is something never spoken of in the toll house belief.
He also says that the purification of the passions (which he equates with the toll houses) takes place while we are dying, not in the days following.
So, then what book would you recommend on this subject ?
Dr. Ladouceur, thank you very much for this important and necessary article.
Thank you for posting this article and please forgive me my long reply. The more I read about the topic, the more I realize there is to know. I agree that all of the teachings on this topic “have never been consolidated into a single coherent theological framework” and therefore we must approach it quite carefully. I would add that we must not dismiss any of the writings of the fathers on this topic, even if we find them hard to harmonize with the narrative we’re attempting to create in our heads (which I think we all subconsciously do).
The toll houses are deeply metaphorical, even “mythological” in the proper sense of that word, but not therefore untrue.
One of the greatest misfortunes is that St. Mark of Ephesus’ material is largely not available in English. I hope that will someday soon be remedied. As of now, we only have reflections on it, such as the one cited here and the one by Met. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, and commentaries on reflections of the text (such as what Dr. Ladouceur provides here).
Dr. Ladouceur while making many good points, also makes some assumptions in his review that I don’t find particularly convincing, or I would need more evidence to accept. I would like to provide some points of critique:
-First, I have an issue regarding authority. Dr. Ladouceur seems to me to be making a subtle dismissal of all of the writings of the church fathers on the toll houses with “Teachings on the afterlife beyond the Creed are those of their authors, however prestigious they may be.” By what authority does he dismiss some of the greatest fathers of our church?
Additionally, he states that the writings of St. Mark (that few of us can read and I think Dr. Ladouceur himself has not read) “constitute the most authoritative Orthodox texts on the subject.” By what authority does he make this conclusion? Consequently, he implies that anything omitted by St. Mark becomes mere, perhaps incorrect, opinion.
The purpose of the Council of Ferrara was church unity. I think we should not make too many assumptions regarding things passed over in silence.
However, I would very much like to read St. Mark’s documents and I would agree that they rank *among* “the most authoritative texts on the subject.” And I agree that it is woeful these texts were not addressed in The Departure of the Soul.
-Second, Dr. Ladouceur states, “No ecumenical council or even local council has ever pronounced itself on the toll-house doctrine.” This obvious observation does not move the argument in one way or another. The ECs addressed controversies of their times, not ones that would crop up 1,000-1,600 years later. The councils, as a whole, dealt with Christological issues, and their conclusions were based on scripture, tradition, and the writings of the fathers.
I think the second half of the statement by the 1980 ROCOR Holy Synod is important and it was omitted by Dr. Ladouceur. It states:
“However, this tradition [of the toll houses] has been preserved, with varying details, from profound antiquity and contains nothing that is contrary to piety. It is cited in all texts of dogmatic theology.”
-Third, I agree that there ecclesiological issues in the extreme statements in The Departure of the Soul. Dr. Ladouceur states, “[The theology of the Fathers of Church] was based first and foremost on divine revelation in Scripture, expressed in councils of the Church and received by the entire Body of Christ.”
My studies of the writings of the councils, St. John of Damascus, and St. Basil the Great reveal a different emphasis. I would say they equally emphasized the scriptures AND tradition. It was solely the scriptures from which the heretics argued; the church fathers had to rely on tradition: “This is the way we’ve always done it, or the way we’ve always believed, because this is what has been passed down to us.”
It was tradition that ultimately determined the truth and assisted in proper understanding of the scriptures.
-Fourth, I think Dr. Ladouceur may have missed the point of the condemnations in the second vision of Gregory. While I have not read that vision, I would venture to guess he used “Jews” in the same way as St. John in his Gospel: to mean those who did not believe in Christ. Nearly everyone in the Gospel of St. John is a Jew since it takes place in Judea, but only those who oppose Christ are called “the Jews” even though the disciples and all of those who were faithful were also Jews. I would say that it is possible that Gregory was utilizing this use of the word “Jew.”
By Dr. Ladouceur definition, St. Paul too condemned “to hell entire categories of humanity” when he wrote “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor 6:9-10)
I think we must remember that the fathers, and most likely Gregory, were addressing non-repentant people within those categories.
Conclusion: Dr. Ladouceur’s provides some useful critiques, but I feel he swings too far in the opposite direction at times.
I’m not Dr. Ladouceur, but I fear you have made the error in interpreting his article to “dismiss” the toll-houses as completely false rather than what he says, namely, that they are within the tradition. He is rejecting the idea that they are the Orthodox teaching on the departure of the soul, i.e., that this is dogma.
Also, I think that making a bifurcation between Scripture and tradition is a problem. They are not two separate sources of authoritative teaching but in a sense a single one with the Scriptures at the center.
Thank you, Fr. Andrew for your reply. It still seems to me that Dr. Ladouceur is swinging a bit too far in the opposite direction, and while he does not come right out and say that the toll houses have no part in our tradition, it seems he is doing all he can to emphasize that they are nothing more than mere opinion since they were not addressed by St. Mark or an Ecumenical Council. But maybe I am misreading him.
I agree that scripture is certainly part of our tradition, and the center of it. But I did not see such a sentiment expressed in the original article. I have not read anything else by Dr. Ladouceur, but it seems he was stating the scriptures by themselves are the highest authority, which is why I mentioned that the heretics used scripture as well and it was the traditional interpretation of them that was relied upon by the fathers.
He may not be dismissing them completely but throughout the article there is a tendency to view one part of Tradition as trumping another and there is no attempt to harmonize things only to criticize and tear apart. There is a definitive lack of sympathy for and respect for theoria and the ascetical/mystical witness of the Church in this article.
Jeremiah, thanks I was going to make my own comments to that effect, but you already covered it.
Just an additional consideration.
What Dr. Paul Ladouceur is missing is that the story of the Toll Houses is not merely a single story but this experience is deeply embedded in the ascetic battle with the demons in the thoughts that the ascetics go through as part and parcel of the whole purification process. This purification process is both purification and judgement, it is not forgiveness in the sense of a free granting of pardon, but is a process of teaching the soul discernment and vigilance so that it no longer falls into sin. Part of this process of learning is by experience – ie the soul experiences the consequences of its sins and thus learns to value what it has received in terms of forgiveness. When one gives a child something for free he is likely to neglect or ruin it. Rather a good parent makes the child work for something in the process teaching them the responsibility on how to properly watch over and take care of what they have received.
The professor in this review ends up contrasting the judgement taught in the toll houses with forgiveness in St Mark and really does nothing toward seeking the harmony of Tradition’s testimony.
You can always tell a Toll Houser but you can’t tell him much. That’s the way the Toll House cookie crumbles.
My concern with the above is that people might take the remark on authority concerning “especially the Gospel of John” to be taken as we set the so-called Apostles Creed aside in view of the fuller expression of the Church we have in the Nicene-Constanopolitan Creed. Yes, it is a more developed theology in the Gospel of John but methodologically we should not therefore make the move of setting Scripture against itself. We can never just leave off Matthew, Mark and Luke. Of course, Dr. Ladouceur does not do this. A more developed theology does not necessarily make for a fuller statement . The fuller statement includes all of Holy Scripture even if some is given precedence.
The conciliar nature of the episcopacy, for example, cannot be made to contradict the Canon of Holy Scripture. Orthodoxy gives precedence to the Canon of Holy Scripture . It does not give it to novel fantasies of charismatic elders. Orthodoxy does not canonize the teachings of individual Fathers much less declare them infallible … or capable of determining dogma on their own simply because they came later or because there were some magical number of them.
For my part, I consider the Toll House thread of Orthodoxy to be produced by both Prelest and indulgence in the Occult. Qua Church, we ought to bear witness to God’s works … not the works of devils … regardless of whether we may decide that it is *useful* to preach fear. What I discover from that is that it is possible for an Orthodox saint whose life bears witness to the work of the Holy Spirit to also be a sinner capable of delusion and of teaching delusion. Indeed, it is to be expected since no man is without sin excepting our Lord. It reminds me of Jesus’ admonition: “Call no man good”.
> For my part, I consider the Toll House thread of Orthodoxy to be produced by both Prelest and indulgence in the Occult.
While it may be appropriate to criticize a version or an interpretation of the Toll Houses, it is not – as far as I am aware that is – appropriate to label the Toll House teaching *in general* “occult”. To do so would be labelling a tremendous number of saints as un-Christian.
> What I discover from that is that it is possible for an Orthodox saint whose life bears witness to the work of the Holy Spirit to also be a sinner capable of delusion and of teaching delusion.
If that’s the case, then they aren’t saints. Saints are sinners who know it, but not heretics. It is apparent when reading the lives of Christian saints, such as the monks of the desert, that we are to confess fault when accused of sin – with the notable exception of heresy.
Well, its good to know then that since saints cannot confess heresy, Gregory of Nyssa’s universalism cannot be condemned – that should be helpful to shut down a bunch of Orthodox internet theologians.
“The purpose of the Council of Ferrara was church unity. I think we should not make too many assumptions regarding things passed over in silence.”
This is very true, but here is an interesting remark on this topic from a paper by Nicholas (now Fr. Maximos) Constas (pp. 108-109):
“It is worthy of note that Mark Eugenikos (d. 1445), who was undoubtedly familiar with the tradition of the demonic tollgates, failed to mention it in his polemics against purgatory at the Council of Florence (1438–39). The attempted cover-up was soon exposed, however, by Eugenikos’ disciple, Gennadios Scholarios (ca. 1400–1472) who, in one of his grand gestures toward the West, stated that the trial of the “tollgates” was, in fact, the Byzantine equivalent of purgatory, minus the fireworks. Indeed, the soul of Theodora was, in the end, spared the ordeal of the tollgates after her spiritual director, St. Basil the Younger, indulged her with a gold coin taken from the coffers of his own merits (§18.8).”
As it stands, it seems like St. Mark’s omission was perhaps more than accidental. A deeper study of the the primary sources is necessary (in the footnote to above passage, Constas cites Scholarios’s ‘On Purgatory,’ 2, and ‘On the Fate of the Soul after Death,’ 7).
In other words what the book is defending is a way of life and an experience that is central to the Church. If there is something lacking it may be in a lack of sensitivity in how to contextualize and present this to a modern Orthodox audience which has no familiarity or experience with this battle for purification. The main premise behind the Toll House doctrine as far as I understand it is that this battle, if not finished before death somehow continues during the process of dying and beyond as the soul continues its ascent toward heaven. When we pray for the dead are we not praying for their successful ascent? An interesting point in the story of the Toll houses is how Theodora several of these houses are successfully passed not through any struggle of her own but through the prayers of Saint Basil as her spiritual father, thus we see in the story both the soul’s own struggle as well as the benefit of prayers for the soul after death.
Anyway the point is that the professor makes no attempt to contextualize the book or the story of the Toll Houses, only criticize them. This is destructive of the faith of the faithful.
Thank for posting this article, it’s an important one as I think the toll house theologies can be a snare that can keep seeking people, particularly from the Protestant world, out of the Orthodox Church . I think St. Paul summarizes it best when he wrote “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” The whole schema of personal revelation hits too close to the personal revelation driving theology of Pentecostalism, and the whole progression through the toll houses sounds eerily similar to Gnosticism to me.
two comments. first, thank you for the information that outside this story there is no independent confirmation of the existence of Basil the Younger, Gregory or Theodora.
secondly, the truth often lies between extremes. the detailed toll house vision and its contents go beyond the hymnography and prayers and so forth that I have seen, which granted is few and I haven’t read the book. My own theory, is that “toll houses” and “purgatory” are differing views of what I call the escapability of hell. that of course you could be liable for punishment for sins either not repented of or secretly clung to with pleasure in rememberance, and buried in the text of some prayers is prayer even for unbelieving and St. Perpetua’s prayer for her unbelieving dead younger brother she believed to be in hell is instructive in that she obviously had no teaching against this.
the prayers and so forth include concern that one might be grabbed by “the dark ones” when or after dying. nothing much more than this, i.e., no details of toll houses and demons as prosecutors though it is likely that if a demon grabbed you and an angel or Jesus came to rescue you, the demon would complain that your sins gave it a right, but that is not the same thing as depicted.
the toll taker concept seemed originally to be a COMPARISON, that is, not that the demons were appointed as God’s authorized officers, but that they RESEMBLED toll and tax takers in that they lurked and pounced. it was similarity not identity that was emphasized. similar behavior. a robber would do the same without legal right as a tax collector who had legal right/
I think it is a mistake for Ancient Faith to carry this book. They have done an excellent job of carrying books to introduce the Faith to beginners and novices. Whatever merits the “toll house theory” may carry, one of them is certainly not to attract new believers towards Christ. When I first read about the toll houses my faith was set back about five years.
It was only through the works of Puhalo and others that I found my footing again. It is at the very minimum a very off setting and potentially faith destroying theory much better left for monks in ivory towers to ponder than for neophyte. I would urge Ancient Faith to remove this potentially faith destroying book. I would never recommend this highly speculative work to anyone. Why St. Anthony’s Monastery found this important to propagate is a mystery to me although I have my guesses.
It certainly does not leave one with a greater love for Christ and his utter defeat of death– in my opinion. Reading “Truly Human” or Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” are far better choices.
I wanted to be in contact with you Stephen, as we have almost the same experience, with toll-houses and Lazar Puhalo. I was scandalized by the implications of T-H and Puhalo saved the interest in Orthodoxy. But I don’t know how, since there was no connection link here at this page.
This is an honest question, not meant to spark a fight, but to learn. For instance, perhaps I misunderstood parts of the article.
Dr. Ladouceur’s article relates the TDS claim that these writings by holy men are authoritative because they reflect “direct divine revelation from God.” My question is this: Wasn’t revelation closed with Christ? Certainly God speaks to many, in many ways, and certainly the New Testament writings were done after Christ’s Ascension, but my understanding is that with these qualifications, revelation in the sense claimed by TDS ended with Christ, and hence TDS is claiming new revelation or continuing revelation or some similar thing, and that such a claim is not in line with basic Orthodox teachings.
I invite others to inform my ignorance and correct my misunderstanding.
Although the reposed may encounter demons upon their entry into the Spiritual Creation, how this may contribute to their particular judgment remains a mystery. This over speculative “toll house opinion,” constitutes harmful baggage that inhibits the Church’s capacity to share the Gospel. Thank you for posting this illuminating essay regarding this harmful baggage.
I am not sure that Dr. Ladouceur is not missing the whole point of the book. It clearly was never intended to present the entire “richness of the Orthodox tradition concerning the afterlife”, but simply to refute the heretical views of Puhalo and his disciples. Thus it is not “reductionist”, but focussed upon one particular topic. Comparing the book’s content to the teaching of St. Mark of Ephesus at Ferrara is like comparing apples to oranges, since St. Mark’s main concern was the abiding state of the soul in the afterlife—i.e. a refutation of the western views of Purgatory—not what happens to the soul immediately after death. I agree with Dr. Ladouceur that elevating visions of some saints into a source of dogma is problematic, but he seems to give insufficient weight to the views of the many Fathers cited in the book. It is reductionist to say that only the views which “have received the formal approval of the Church-in-Council or an ecumenical council” have authority. The entire ascetical tradition of Orthodoxy has not received such formal conciliar approval, but it nonetheless remains an integral part of our Tradition. The consensus of the Fathers, found both in their writings and in the Church’s iconography, cannot be so easily minimized simply because they “have not been the subject of conciliar discernment”. The Councils dealt with matters which were controversial; if the immediate fate of the soul after death was not controversial (as the citations from so many Fathers suggest), of course the Councils never needed to deal with it.
More and more toll house adherents are proclaiming it no longer as private theological opinion but as dogmatic teaching.
If that is the case the counter claim is also allowable- that something falsely claimed as dogma is heresy.
By upgrading it from theologoumenon to dogma it will soon become imperative for the bishops to advise the faithful as to the status of the teaching and whether or not it is mandatory belief for the faithful.
> By upgrading it from theologoumenon to dogma it will soon become imperative for the bishops to advise the faithful as to the status of the teaching and whether or not it is mandatory belief for the faithful.
How likely do you think this is? Because if that happens, schisms will probably take place, yes?
Gee, I didn’t know that the views of “Puhalo and his followers” were ever proven false. But the monks at St. Anthony’s must know best and how important it is to keep believers in fear that they are going to face demons upon their death. St. Anthony’s is known for overzealous confessors giving draconian penances and medaling in the sex lives of married couples. Many have left this controlling environment so this comes as no surprise that they are the ones pushing the toll house mythology– even more so than Seraphim Rose that admits this is a metaphor. This teaching couldn’t be more against the spirit of the Gospel that “Christ has trampled down death by death” and satan has become his footstool — not his agent of torturing sinners. Since when was the devil given power over anyone.
And by the way, is there one person writing on these responses who doesn’t struggle with some passion? I’m sure the thief on the cross was reeling with passions and merely said, “remember me in your kingdom”. Was he tortured. NO! Toll houses are a metaphor at best and at worst a heresy perpetuated by overzealous monks and modern Orthodox taking chunks of early writings either completely out of context or reading them with a wooden literalism. It scares converts and is contrary to the spirit of Christ. Any Christian who struggles mightily with sin is likely to completely give up hope in the battle when he hears that the demons await: the very ones that Christ stripped of power at the Cross. I truly doubt the Christian charity of those who perpetuate this belief. As an Orthodox this embarrasses me that it is even a conversation. I hope the rest of the christian world isn’t listening or they’ll really think we’re strange– and they would be right.
Fr. Stephen Damick, thank you for having the courage to reprint this article on your blog.
Dr. Ladouceur contends that a doctrinal teaching falls into the category of theologoumenon if it has not been proclaimed as dogma by a conciliar authority however one will not find this view expressed by the Holy Fathers. Instead we see the saints holding the teachings of the Fathers that came before them in far greater esteem.
In summarizing the preceding patristic tradition, St. John of Damascus for example, famously begins the classic dogmatic text of the Church, ‘An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith’, in the following way:
“We will not remove the age-old boundaries which our fathers have set, but we keep the tradition that we have received.”
St. John reveres the entire tradition handed down by his fathers, ie. the patristic tradition, not just the doctrines of the Ecumenical Councils because councils simply do not serve as a form of codification of the totality of doctrine. The Ecumenical councils were called to settle doctrinal disputes and address heresies which threatened fundamental teachings concerning our salvation. Thus St. Cyril of Alexandria wrote to Nestorius:
“But it would not be sufficient for your reverence to confess with us only the symbol of the faith set out some time ago by the Holy Spirit at the great and holy synod convened in Nicea for you have not held and interpreted it rightly, but rather perversely; even though you confess with your voice the form of words. But in addition, in writing and by oath, you must confess that you also anathematize those polluted and unholy dogmas of yours, and that you will hold and teach that which we all, bishops, teachers, and leaders of the people both East and West, hold.”
In doing so Nestorius would be:
“following in all points the confessions of the Holy Fathers which they made through the Holy Spirit speaking in them”
Saint Cyril wrote to the heretic Nestorius that the Holy Spirit spoke through the Holy Fathers when they articulated teachings concerning salvation that had not yet received conciliar definition. So it would be a mistake to exploit the reticence of the Church to systematically or extensively define the mystery of God’s revelation in order to reject patristic teachings that pose difficulty to us.
While describing our sources of doctrine, Dr. Ladouceur omits the lives of the saints and the holy services (except for the divine liturgy). If the Synaxaria are not sources of instruction then one has to wonder why they are intended to be read during our services. In the Synaxarion for St. Anthony the Great, which is based on ‘The Life of Saint Anthony’ written by none other than the pillar of Orthodoxy and Father of the First Ecumenical Council, St. Athanasius the Great we are taught that:
“…this Great Father even while wearing his corruptible body, would be taken out of his body, and would see the ascension of souls, when they came out of the bodies of men. And he would see the souls of some of these men ascend higher than the demons, who sought to capture them, while others would be captured, alas! and were brought down into a deep abyss.”
Equally, the holy services are a wealth of instruction and they do not neglect to also prepare us for the moment of death. From the Compline service a prayer attributed to St. John of Damascus reads:
“O Virgin, in the hour of death rescue me from the hands of the demons, and the judgment, and the accusations, and the frightful testing, and the bitter tollhouses and the fierce prince, and the eternal condemnation, O Theotokos.”
What does Dr. Ladouceur do at that point; stop praying or pray hypocritically? I don’t know but I don’t envy anybody in the position of having to rationalize either option. The Church employs a variety of ways to instruct the faithful and corporate worship is one of the most powerful. The faithful have prayed this way for centuries which confirms that the teaching has been received by the Body of the Church. It’s not a coincidence that holy shepherds such as say St. Nektarios of Pentapolis or St. John of Kronstadt (or anybody with the word ‘Saint” in front of their name for that matter) never found toll-house teachings in our holy services to be problematic.
It is obvious that the heading The New Ecclesiology is a euphemism for heretical ecclesiology since the faith was delivered once unto the saints. Dr. Ladouceur claims that the book:
“thus advances a new ecclesiology to buttress its contention that toll-house theology is the infallible teaching of the Orthodox Church. The thesis that Orthodox doctrines are founded on theoria-visions is not only historically inaccurate, it marks a radical departure from the ecclesiology of the Fathers of Church and the ecumenical councils. Their theology was based first and foremost on divine revelation in Scripture, expressed in councils of the Church and received by the entire Body of Christ. The new ecclesiology relegates Scripture to a decidedly marginal role and abolishes the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church.”
This ecclesiology (and we are dealing with an epistemology just as much so as an ecclesiology) is neither new nor a departure from the patristic tradition. St. John Chrysostom, ‘the lips of Paul’ and the Church’s main interpreter of Holy Scripture gives profound expression to the supposed new ecclesiology in the fourth century:
“It were indeed fitting for us not at all to require the aid of the scriptures, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course.
For that the former was better, God has made manifest, both by His words, and by His doings. Since unto Noah, and unto Abraham, and unto his offspring, and unto Job, and unto Moses too, He discoursed not by writings, but Himself by Himself, finding their mind pure. But after the whole people of the Hebrews had fallen into the very pit of wickedness, then and thereafter was a written word, and tablets, and the admonition which is given by these.”
St. John and other Holy Fathers teach that Grace is a fitting teacher. The Holy Fathers were not theologians in the modern sense and in fact, the concept of the lay theologian is a modern invention. The Fathers led pure lives and through their fasts, vigils, prayers, tears, obedience, etc were made worthy to be freed from the passions, to gather virtues and to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. Their teaching in its consensus is not a man made teaching but a divinely inspired teaching.
The saints who by the grace of God experienced visions of spiritual realities went on to share these experiences with their disciples who in turn did the same and so we have the lives of the saints. The generations of saints and faithful who were nourished by the Synaxaria bear witness to the esteemed place that they occupy as sources of instruction to the faithful.
Contrary to the claim made in the essay, none of the Holy Fathers have ever articulated the ecclesiology found in the last two sentences of the second last paragraph. The dogmatic minimalism there is so extreme that eschatological heresies which have already been condemned by the Church such as the false doctrine of Apokatastisis would now be considered theologoumena. In vain then did this blog condemn that heresy last year.
One reason that we can arrive today at views so diametrically opposed to the teachings of the Holy Fathers is that the piety of the Fathers is absent. Whereas they greatly revered the preceding Fathers, our conscience does not even convict us when we throw the teaching, holy witness and prayers of a multitude of God-bearing saints into the trash. It is telling that nowhere in the essay were the Fathers called “holy”.
I don’t see the teaching of the Orthodox Church in this essay but rather modern unbelief masked as theology. I would encourage interested readers to read the book The Departure of the Soul for themselves in conjunction with the excellent ‘The Future Life According to Orthodox Teaching’ by the eminent scholar Constantine Cavarnos.
Thank you for your post! It’s clear that many on here have not actually read the book. You may disagree with the final analysis, but one cannot disagree with the fact that it is part of our Theological, Ascetical, iconographical and Liturgical life. The book does a great job establishing that. The real scandal lies in other books that reject this as a teaching of the churches tradition. No one really knows exactly what will happen, but this book does offer some clues, and what really matters is our repentance now. This shouldn’t cause fear or despair but instead the hope that comes from Christ when we live a life of repentance. I Read this book from cover to cover and then see how much our tradition has of this within it.
Met. Hilarion of Volokolamsk
According to the patristic view widespread in the East, the soul of the righteous encounters angels after its departure from the body (this opinion is partly based on Luke 16:22), but demons torture the soul of a sinner… It is said in both Macarius and Diadochus that demons meet the souls of sinners, while the souls of the righteous fall into the arms of angels. There exists, however, another idea, according to which the soul of every person, including the righteous, endures trials after death. Basil the Great, speaking on the “steadfast divine ascetics, who have sufficiently grappled with invisible enemies all their life,” claims that when they find themselves at the end of life, “the prince of this age comes to know of it, in order to keep them for himself if there can be found any wounds on them received during the battle, or any kind of stain or imprint of sin.”
…The testimony of another type of patristic literature is the fundamental teaching on the “tribulations” — trials in the afterlife that the soul of each persons endures. This teaching found reflection in various memorials of Byzantine ascetic and hagiographic literature… To a modern person, such descriptions can seem to be the stuff of fantasy or some kind of unhealthy “eschatological sadism,” although the experience of people who have survived clinical death, researched by doctors, psychologists, and theologians, in some cases support the testimony in these ordeals. (Orthodox Christianity, Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church Vol. II pp. 499-501)
I always was told that teachings about the toll houses lie among “theologoumena”, leaving the pious Orthodox Christian free to believe, or to disbelieve, because there is no explicit synodal directive. I have the book discussed here, and was relieved to find in it a corrective to the obsession of a referenced clergyman. I always was disturbed to read what came across as the relentless rantings of someone who disliked Fr. Seraphim Rose. There is a balance to be sought, and this book provides documented balance to the issue.
The most significant flaw in the book is that it fails to answer two most basic questions:
What are the toll houses?
What is the purpose of toll houses?
I am not a believer in toll houses and I was hoping that this major work would clarify just what it is toll house adherents are asking us to believe.
Overall, this review is very informative. Unfortunately, however, I think it would find a broader audience if it had not made comments like this: “Indeed, there is no independent corroboration that Basil, Gregory and Theodora were real persons.” I do not accept the idea that we need “independent confirmation” (independent of what, exactly?) in order to venerate a Saint. That the Church traditionally venerates a saint is enough for me to believe that we aren’t venerating a phantasm. As to the details of the life of the saint, we can use historical tools to examine them, but we must remember to do history in fidelity to the Faith first and foremost.
I don’t mean to say that to detract from all the excellent material in this review. But we must remember that while the charge of “modernism” is thrown around in vain much of the time, sometimes it is a real danger for an Orthodox scholar writing in the modern world.
I greatly appreciated this article (and have been quite late in reading it). The point concerning theoria as a dogmatic foundation is quite helpful. I have encountered such an assertion many times – almost always in support of a troublesome or “odd” point. Elders do not trump bishops. There is a work that creates a charismatic characteristic to the Church’s teaching that is outside the normative sacramental authority. On a daily basis, this seems to yield a disregard for the authority of the Church. It seems to me that this is the true crux of the matter – and why the toll-houses seem important to some. It’s not about the after-life – it’s about where authority resides. It is, perhaps, a critical, even a dangerous moment in the life of the Church. Thank you so much for the article.
I think the reason(s) for shrinking back from Orthodoxy are few and natural. And this probably extends, in these days of Nones, to Christianity as a whole.
I approach Orthodoxy and encounter a passageway that is dark. I don’t recognize Christ so I shrink back. Then I’m bidden by instinct or Grace to not judge harshly so I begin again. Then another passageway darkens and again I shrink back; theologoumenon being no able defense.
So I remember that God dressed Adam and Eve before exile and I’m comforted that while my own Church has its problems, I’ll take St. Anthony’s advice on this anyway: don not leave a place too quickly.
The Toll Houses make of God, the Cross of Christ and the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit, Darkness at Noon:
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