On the Holy Fathers and Holy Tradition
Recently Public Orthodoxy published an article entitled “Fundamentalism as ‘Orthodoxism’.” The content is extremely characteristic not only of Public Orthodoxy in particular, but also of a growing trend in wider Orthodox circles, especially those of an academic character (Public Orthodoxy is published under the auspices of Fordham University, a Catholic institution). Seeing that the exemplified attitudes and beliefs are steadily gaining influence among Orthodox believers, I thought it worthwhile to examine the article closely in order to evaluate its underpinnings, its implications, and its overall truthfulness and worth.
The article begins thus:
Our long-standing captivity to a sad caricature of Orthodoxy that could be called “orthodoxism,” and whose main characteristics will be summarized in what follows, has been largely consolidated by a widespread attitude in the Church known as “the fear of theology.”
One of the first things that jumps out is the familiar — almost obligatory, it would seem — assertion that the alleged fundamentalists are principally motivated by fear (I’ve responded to similar accusations before). In point of fact I think that this assertion is almost entirely untrue (if anything, those with a fundamentalist mindset demonstrate too great a preoccupation with “theology,” rather than a fear of it). But far more important is the fact that it is actually a red herring.
Of all the insights into the modern age given to us by C.S. Lewis, one of the most penetrating was his identification of the almost universal reliance upon the logical fallacy which he named “Bulverism.” Here is his summary of the phenomenon:
The modern method is to assume without discussion that [your opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third — ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment’, E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
As we have seen, the article at hand opens with the assertion that many Orthodox have been led into a state of “captivity to a sad caricature of Orthodoxy” because they were afraid of theology. This in and of itself does not yet constitute Bulverism, because there is the possibility that the author may attempt to actually prove that such a state of captivity really exists. But please bear this phenomenon of Bulverism in mind as we continue our analysis of the article.
Let us examine more closely the particular features of this “orthodoxism.” What is it made of? It is a fundamentalist travesty of Orthodoxy that shows a heightened aversion to thought, particularly of the critical kind.
It seems that these “Orthodox fundamentalists” are not only afraid of theology, but also dislike thinking. If I were one of these Orthodox fundamentalists, I would likely by this point find myself ill-disposed to give the author a fair hearing. But as I haven’t yet heard what it actually means to be an Orthodox fundamentalist, in terms of specifiable and concrete beliefs, and as I do not detect within myself a fear of theology nor an aversion to thought, I can thankfully proceed without taking umbrage.
It has an equal aversion to the materiality and historicity of human life, and a corresponding near-exclusive emphasis on “spirituality” revolving around the salvation of one’s soul in heaven, in a way bordering Plato’s anthropology and metaphysics.
Now we find something at least marginally more concrete: “Orthodoxism” is alleged to also have some kind of an “aversion to materiality and historicity.” Unfortunately, the author fails at any point in the article to actually delineate (much less demonstrate) this accusation. In its present state, I am rather inclined to think that this charge too does not hold any water: when one thinks of fundamentalists, one usually thinks of people who place rather a large emphasis on the importance of the way we behave with our bodies in this present life (indeed, it is chiefly on account of this tendency that fundamentalists are so often disliked).
But if “materiality” and “historicity” are in fact euphemisms for “indulging the flesh” and “keeping up with the times,” and if “theology” is a euphemism for “new doctrines never previously heard of in the history of Christianity,” then the author is quite right that many Orthodox have an aversion to such things. Likewise, they are undoubtedly very much concerned with spirituality, with their salvation, and with the future life.
However, whether they are actually in point of fact wrong, or whether such tendencies are indeed indicative of fundamentalism (rather than, well, Christianity), remains totally unaddressed, not to mention unproven.
Regarding the charge of being almost exclusively concerned with our salvation in the age to come, I will note that it would seem the Twelve Apostles themselves were misguided fundamentalists under such a definition, since they (along with many other similar sayings) commanded Christians to pray during the Liturgy: “Let grace come, and let this world pass away” (c.f. the Didache).
Also, I will note that I have yet to encounter a fundamentalist Platonist.
The Holy Fathers
More substantially, we might say that Orthodoxism is structured around the following theoretical pillars:
1). The fetishization or idolization of the Church Fathers as infallible and direct purveyors of divine truths. Following centuries of near-total neglect, the Fathers eventually made a much-needed and welcome return to the foreground of Orthodox theology, as original and profound interpreters of the Gospels who pushed the faith’s frontiers forward, often to incredible lengths.
The clear subtext here is that the Fathers were not the defenders but rather the developers of the faith. I can guarantee you that every single one of them would be absolutely horrified to hear such a claim made about them. Nevertheless, this belief of the author will find fuller expression later in his article, and indeed is foundational to his argument.
Unfortunately, religious people may well live without God but never without an idol, and in this case, the patristic corpus was soon turned into one: it has long been seen, after the reinstatement of the Fathers, as a complete and terminal point for every conceivable truth concerning God, humankind, and the cosmos. According to this mentality, there can be no going further than the final full-stop in the writings of the Fathers, simply because the Fathers were all saints, and, as such, not only infallible but the sole authorities on anything at all under the sun.
Now, it is true that some people, in their piety, do indeed come close to ascribing infallibility to the saints. For example, this is why some people become very agitated to discover that Blessed Augustine has always been considered a saint by the Orthodox Church, despite his several theological errors. But the saints can sometimes be mistaken, as is readily demonstrated by the fact that, albeit in rare cases, they have occasionally disagreed with one another. What made them saints and not heretics, however, is that they always bowed to the judgement of the Church once it was given.
In our study of the Fathers, therefore, we must not simply assume that each Father was right in every single instance, but rather we must look for the catholic consensus of the Fathers of the Church as a whole. Fr. Michael Pomazansky ably sets forth this path to discerning the mind of the Church:
For guidance in questions of faith, for the correct understanding of Sacred Scripture, and in order to distinguish the authentic Tradition of the Church from false teachings, we appeal to the works of the Holy Fathers of the Church, acknowledging that the unanimous agreement of all of the Fathers and teachers of the Church in teaching of the faith is an undoubted sign of truth…. In theology, attention is also given to certain private opinions of the Holy Fathers or teachers of the Church on questions which have not been precisely defined and accepted by the whole Church. However, these opinions are not to be confused with dogmas, in the precise meaning of the word. There are some private opinions of certain Fathers and teachers which are not recognized as being in agreement with the general catholic faith of the Church, and are not accepted as a guide to faith.
However, the author of our article goes quite a bit further than merely to state that each of the Church Fathers was not individually infallible. He derides as idolatrous the opinion that they are “the sole authorities on anything at all under the sun,” which nobody at all to my knowledge has either suggested or come anywhere close to believing. However, such a straw-man argument can quite conveniently be conjured up and knocked down in order to provide a rationale for dismissing the teachings of the Fathers on any actual given subject.
The article continues:
When faced with new questions, puzzles, challenges and concerns, we are readily advised, as Orthodox Christians, to turn to the Fathers as reference-books, or better yet as “phone-books,” because as the direct mouths of God, anything that they wrote is beyond reproach. It is high time we admitted that over time, we Orthodox have produced a “patristic fundamentalism” in the image and likeness of the Protestant “scriptural” one (the so-called sola Scriptura).
The author appears to be implying that when faced with new questions and challenges, we ought not to turn primarily to the Fathers for wisdom and guidance (apparently because these things are somehow beyond their scope), and that if we do so it constitutes “patristic fundamentalism” on a par with the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura. In other words, what the author really takes issue with is not the supposed infallibility of the Fathers as individuals, but rather their authority in general with regard to contemporary subjects. That this is the substance of the issue he will shortly make plain.
However, before proceeding any further I would like to point out the extreme irony of his comparison with sola Scriptura. The mistake of the Protestants was not in their appraisal of Scripture’s absolute authority, but rather in their insistence that they themselves could reliably interpret Scripture without reference to Tradition. In other words, they refused to bow to the authority of the Fathers and instead trusted in their own opinions. Strangely, the present article insists that many Orthodox have fallen into a similar grievous error, in that they bow to the authority of the Fathers instead of trusting in their own opinions!
2). The notion of Holy Tradition in the Orthodox Church is likewise seen as a finished, complete, and therefore static body of knowledge, intended for passive consumption. There is neither room for further development in it, nor any space for the new and the unexpected that any sane society would normally acknowledge and factor in as such.
It is certainly true that many Orthodox believe that Holy Tradition is complete. Are they wrong? The article makes no attempt whatever to prove it, but merely contents itself with deriding such a belief as self-evidently insane.
But in actuality, such “Orthodoxists” are not wrong at all. For one thing, Holy Tradition itself has always born witness to its own completeness. From the very beginning, St. Paul commanded: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” And in another place: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.”
Moreover, such a belief in the completeness of Holy Tradition by no means entails that it is “intended for passive consumption.” Indeed, anyone with the slightest experience in attempting to live out Holy Tradition knows beyond any doubt that it is by no means a passive process!
And as for “the new and unexpected,” might it not be possible that these new and unexpected phenomena ought to be evaluated in the light of the Tradition, rather than altering or “expanding” the Tradition to fit each new and unexpected thing which happens to come along? Again, I would very much like to see the author actually argue his point, rather than literally dismissing anyone who doesn’t agree with him as insane.
What is amazing here is the complete absence of the slightest suspicion that the Church must collectively lend a listening ear to the Holy Spirit, whose task is, among others, to refresh history and creation by producing new and sometimes even unexpected forms of grace as well as new biological and social realities, as He guides the Church toward the Eschata.
The author is quite correct in saying that “the Church must collectively lend a listening ear to the Holy Spirit,” but She must do so precisely by listening to the mouth by which the Holy Spirit has always spoken, the very Fathers of the Church who have just been summarily and groundlessly dismissed as irrelevant to the new conditions of the modern age! To whom does the Holy Spirit speak, if not to the Fathers and the saints? To anyone who happens to style themselves a theologian? Once we have “progressed” beyond the rule of faith, how are we to have any idea at all whether such theologizing truly comes from God? We will have become simply another sect of Protestants.
Moreover, I find it very startling to hear that one of the Holy Spirit’s tasks is to “refresh history and creation by producing new and sometimes even unexpected forms of grace as well as new biological and social realities.” I simply have no clue where such an idea has come from. And the notion that the Eschaton is being gradually ushered in by the Holy Spirit in this world is absolutely contrary to the clear teachings of the Scriptures and of all the Holy Fathers on the subject. Such an idea is rooted rather in the paroxysms of Whig historians and in contemporary New Age fantasies, and not in any Orthodox source whatsoever (examples such as Berdyaev not exactly qualifying as Orthodox sources).
Nevertheless, such a doctrine is absolutely vital to the worldview here being promulgated: if “the whole world lieth in wickedness” and is destined only for the righteous judgement of God at the end of all things, as the Scriptures clearly teach, then we Christians certainly should not be looking to it for moral instruction and edification. Yet such is precisely what the author recommends:
By giving up on its eschatological orientation, the Church loses her promise to be a prophetic voice on earth, and so ends up so frequently falling far behind society, as the world becomes more human, more inclusive, and more just.
Here we come at last to the heart of the matter: the Church is accused of “falling far behind society.” The question unavoidably springs to mind: according to whose criteria? The criteria of the Church, or the criteria of the world? In answering this question, we would do well to take heed to the words of St. James: “know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.”
Orthodoxy should be synonymous with continuous growth and enlargement, with a ceaseless openness in space and time. It should also be tantamount to honest self-correction where the need arises, as regards cosmology and anthropology (not Christology or Trinitarian doctrine).
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, where is any of this coming from? Where has it ever been written that Orthodoxy is “a ceaseless openness in space and time” (whatever that even means)? On what are any of these assertions being based? And do they even make any sense when taken at face value — for example, how can Christology in any way be separated from anthropology?
The simple fact is that once we have placed ourselves above the authority of the Holy Fathers and the Holy Tradition of the Church, once we have appointed ourselves as the supreme arbiters of what in the Tradition is worthwhile and what ought to be thrown away, then we are left with only two things: our own personal desires and preferences, and the opinions and attitudes of the world. Tragically, such a fate seems to have befallen the author of this article: in judging between the teachings of the Church and the self-styled wisdom of this world, he has explicitly sided with the world and condemned the Church, which he openly castigates for “so frequently falling far behind society, as the world becomes more human, more inclusive, and more just.” He continues:
For the surest mark of any healthy form of spirituality is its falsifiable character, meaning by that its willingness to admit, address and correct past mistakes stemming from ignorance and prejudice. An ossified spirituality is inherently denied the dynamism, growth, and frankness of living organisms and can only become toxic for adherents and the societies that share it, regardless of its original intentions.
To be clear, the author is point-blank asserting that Holy Tradition contains various “mistakes stemming from ignorance and prejudice.” He asserts that “any healthy form of spirituality” is precisely defined by its willingness to admit as much and to meekly alter itself to the satisfaction of the spirit of the age. He claims that to faithfully preserve the Tradition as handed down to us “can only become toxic for adherents and the societies that share it.”
Yet how starkly this stands in contrast to the words of the Apostle Jude in Holy Scripture: “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” And indeed the entirety of that epistle seems quite relevant to the current case and to the implications being made (after all, it takes little imagination to discern the meaning of “new biological and social realities” and “mistakes stemming from ignorance and prejudice”).