Sunday, October 14, 2007

To be Orthodox is to be Consistent

I had asked Francis to tell me how he knows that certain traditions are true, those traditions being the canonicity of Esther, 1 Clement and the Johannine Epistles. In response, Francis has asked me how I know if a tradition taught in Rome is true.

Rather than immediately give a serious answer, I think it would be instructive to first give a facetious answer. What if I were to respond to this question with the kind of facile answer that Francis just gave me? Here's what it would look like:

The Pope is not infallible because, (a) that teaching is not God-breathed. (b) the teaching that he is fallible IS God breathed. (c) The Holy Spirit persuades of these things. (d) Most people are convinced of these things without any historical investigation.

Of course, such an answer would be a completely question begging exercise. It would be assuming what one has been asked to prove. The answer is true enough, as far as it goes, but it adds nothing to the debate. We may as well all settle back comfortably into our own worlds, convinced in our own minds about what the Holy Spirit is saying. In fact, with the accusation of sola-ecclesia leveled at me, I would have to counter that Francis is sola-self. Francis told Francis what the scripture is and what the scripture means, so he is sola-self.

Of course, the troubling part is that since we know everyone has a different idea of what the Spirit is saying, how do we know that our opinion of what he is saying is the correct one? Francis ignored the question of how to know the non-Chalcedoneon canon wasn't the correct Spirit-inspired one. I could just as well have asked him about the Orthodox or Roman Catholic canons. In point of fact, " most people are persuaded by the Spirit of the authenticity of" the deuterocanonical books without recourse to history as well, but this seems to have escaped Francis' attention.

You see, here is the trouble. Francis has a tradition. It's called the canon of scripture. He can't substantiate his tradition over and against anybody else's corresponding tradition because he has no developed theory of tradition. And now ironically, he has asked me to substantiate my tradition against Rome's. As Christians, we can't have a defensible epistemology without a theory concerning tradition. Whether Francis likes my theory of tradition, or doesn't like it, at least I have it as a structure that supports why I believe what I believe. I don't fall back to the Mormon burning in the bosom argument, which is essentially what Francis has just presented us with.

So how do we evaluate if a tradition, in this case the infallibility of the Pope, is authentic tradition? Well, the answer was already given in what we might call the Vincentian Canon. That is, what St Vincent of Lerins testified was the universal teaching in the church in his time in the early 400s. That is, universality, antiquity, and consent. The teaching of universality clearly fails because at the time of the schism, the larger part of Christendom, being the Byzantine part, rejected even the lessor papal claims of that time. It fails antiquity because we cannot find the early church teaching it. It fails consent, because it does not gain acceptance from any majority of the ancient fathers.

In addition to which, the teaching about the infallibility of the Pope was not even made by the Church, but rather by a schismatic group which calls itself the Roman Catholic Church. How do I know they are schismatic? Because their representatives. Cardinal Humbert of Mourmoutiers and Cardinal Frederick of Lorraine (later to be made Pope Stephen IX), based their breaking of communion in 1054 on a list of complaints so absurd that no Catholic apologist would dare to defend it. As British historian Stephen Runciman described it, "Few important documents have been so full of demonstratable errors.".

In addition, in his negotiation with Constantinople in 1054, Pope Leo IX used huge quotations from the Donation of Constantine as the authority for his claims, the first time that these false documents had ever been used in a substantive way.

And as anyone who has any knowledge of history would know, Rome's confusion about these false documents spiraled out of control from this point on, Pope Adrian IV (1154-1159) bestowed Ireland on England's King Henry II, recognizing that it was his to dispose of as he saw fit, based on the Donation of Constantine. Bulgaria, Portugal and England were made Papal feifs on its authority.

Not even all the Catholic churches accept the teachings of Vatican I, since the Eastern Orthodox Churches did not participate. Even Catholic archbishops in communion with the pope deny that Vatican I was a valid ecumenical council.

I could spend time talking about the heretical popes. About the ecumenical councils that condemned popes as heretics. How the church never consulted popes before recognizing ecumenical councils, etc etc, but I think many of the readers here would already be somewhat familiar with this material.

In short, the teaching of the infallibility of the Pope isn't a catholic tradition. And given what I have just outlined as criteria, I think even protestants would recognize this.

Now despite whatever objections might be leveled at this response, the fact is that it is infinitely more substantive than the response Francis gave. I recognized the authority of tradition, I made a judgment about the historical catholic tradition, and I followed it. I didn't just say "the Holy Spirit agrees with me, ergo I win".

Also, I recognized that the church continues to exist on earth in a capacity that can answer these questions. Therefore I am not drawn into speculation about a dozen points of view on this issue and a dozen on the next issue. I've got two choices only, Rome is the true church or Orthodoxy is. So I believe that someone, somewhere can answer these questions. Contrast to Francis who cannot say that anybody anywhere has such an authority. He didn't even bother to point to the icon-venerating saint-praying Athanasius as the first witness to the complete NT canon. All he could say was some Christians someplace agreed with him, as if that proves anything in his world view.

I think Francis has already shown that he has nothing in the way of facts or a theology that can tell him the canon. But what he will want to do is cast doubt on Eastern Orthodox traditions, to try and show that they are as lacking in substance as Rome's are. He can't actually argue with the universality canon, because clearly the Church did universally accept the doctrines that Francis would complain about, such as concerning icons. But he will try and argue against the antiquity part.

Firstly, you can't use the Vincentian canon against itself. The Vincentian canon assumes that there is a catholic church. To argue from antiquity that the catholic church ceased to exist in the form that the Vincentian canon assumes is nonsense.

Secondly, what we know of the most ancient times is limited. Vincent commented in the early 400s that by his time, nobody could be deceived about what was universally taught. But peering back into 1st century is not so easy. Our view is limited. But let's attempt it. Is it reasonable to expect that the Church could have held the traditions over this early three centuries, popping out in the 5th century still holding to them? We can't know everything the early church was doing, but we can look at what evidence has made its way to the present day. It seems reasonable to start with the oldest known non-scriptural document: the "Didache", or "Teachings". This document was lost for centuries and only recently came to light again. Most scholars date it to the 1st century.

Ch 7, Didache: "And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before."

This is exactly the way the Orthodox Church does it. It does it by immersion three times in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. It often prefers to do so in a river for adults, although in the case of infants this has somewhat fallen by the wayside. The catechumen is required to fast prior to the baptism. Occasionally, albeit rarely, a baptism will be authorised by pouring three times if there is a compelling reason. In 2000 years of tradition, that's pretty close.

Ch 8, Didache: "But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day (Wednesday) and the Preparation (Friday)."

The Orthodox Church has always had a practice of what we call fasting, which is in fact abstinence from meat. Our aim is to practice this fast on Wednesday and Friday and is an everyday part of being Orthodox. As we can see, it is a practice that dates from apostolic times.

Ch 9, Didache: "But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs."

Sounds straightforward enough, but how many protestant churches now let unbaptised children to partake of the communion bread? It's quite common to see protestant churches who have no particular teachings on this matter.

Ch 14, Didache But every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.

Orthodoxy draws a fairly close link between having first confessed before one partakes of the Eucharist, especially given the strong warning of 1Cor. 11:27.

In short, the teachings of this 1st century document contain a number of extra-scriptural practices which are quite familiar to the modern day Eastern Orthodox Christian.

What about other practices like Orthodox chrismation, whereby a newly baptised convert is annointed with oil for the receipt of the Holy Spirit?

Tertullian writing around 205AD says "After having come out of the laver, we are anointed thoroughly with a blessed unction according to the ancient rule . . . The unction runs bodily over us, but profits spiritually . . . . Next to this, the hand is laid upon us through the blessing, calling upon and inviting the Holy Spirit".

This is exactly what the Orthodox do today. Special blessed unction is annointed to the new Christian, and Tertuallian in 205AD called this practice an "ancient rule".

Cyril of Jerusalem writes that the oil is "symbolically applied to thy forehead, and thy other organs of sense" and that the "ears, nostrils, and breast were each to be anointed." Again, this is exactly what is still done today.

Three things ought to be obvious from the above. Firstly, that the ancient church was not sola scriptura, but in fact followed practices, "ancient rules" that they understood to be apostolic yet extra-scriptural. The "Big Cutover" to sola scriptura never happened because it was never taught. And when they date from the 1st century, who is to say they aren't apostolic practices?

Secondly, that there is an enormous amount of the Orthodox Church's practice that was familiar to the Church of the 1st and 2nd centuries, but which the modern protestant is completely ignorant of.

Thirdly, that it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the Church can maintain extra-scriptural apostolic traditions for 2000 years. It's been clearly demonstrated that the Church can pass on faithfully unwritten traditions.

The only remaining question is what we do when the historical record is somewhat silent on a particular issue in the very earliest period with its limited testiimony. Do we take the way of doubt? Leaving us with no bible, no canon, no scriptures, and merely and endless set of questions about what scripture is and what scripture means, and whose canon is the true one anyway? Or do we take the way of faith that assumes the true church with the true teachings has not vanished from the earth, and that by identifying this church we can find firm answers to the questions that continually plague the various sects of protestantism, and provide an epistemology more substantive than Francis' facile answers?

To be Orthodox is to be consistent. To be Orthodox is to be in the Church of the Fathers, never deviating from what was once delivered to the saints and passed on by the saints.

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