Thursday, July 31, 2008

My favorite eastern quote!

I like this quote because it really fits in well with my previous post which I have been accused of not reading good eastern orthodox theologians. I think we will all agree that this theologian is pretty good as an accurate representation of eastern theology, especially on the essence of God. I think this fellow and I have the same view on the eastern view of the essence of God But I do think there is one small difference....oh yeah...I reject it and he obviously holds to it because he is well...eastern..

“The super-essential nature of God is not a subject for speech or thought or even contemplation, for it is far removed from all that exists and more than unknowable . . . incomprehensible and ineffable to all for ever. There is no name whereby it can be named, neither in this age nor in the age to come, nor word found in the soul and uttered by the tongue, nor contact whether sensible or intellectual, nor yet any image which may afford any knowledge of its subject. . . None can properly name its essence or nature if he be truly seeking the truth that is above all truth.”

- St. Gregory Palamas


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Anyone know of some good books in support of the Eastern Orthodox canon? I can find ones put out by Catholics, but am having trouble locating ones specifically from the EO.

The View of The Divine Essence in Eastern Orthodoxy is Self-Referentially Incoherent

The Eastern Orthodox view of the Divine Essence is outrageously absurd. Eastern Christians hold that there are three things that God is comprised of: the Essence, the Energies, and the Hypostasis. The Essence of God is entirely unknowable in Eastern Orthodoxy. The energies are the uncreated light or actions of God. The Hypostasis is the persons who are distinct but are related to the Divine essence. Now what is the problem with this?

The problem is as obvious as 1+1=9. If we do no know anything of the Divine Essence then we know at least one thing about it: that it is unknowable. So the proposition that we do not know anything of the Divine Essence is not only false but necessarily false. Therefore, Eastern Orthodoxy is necessarily false.


A Philosophical Defense of the Dual Procession Of The Spirit

In Western strains of Christianity there is the Trinitarian doctrine of the dual procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son. Eastern Christianity rejects this notion. They happen to believe that the procession only occurs from the Father. The West rejects this. The agreement over the East and the West is that the Father begets the Son and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. The East rejects that the Spirit proceeds from the Son and the West confirms the negation of this proposition. The point of this post is to demonstrate that under certain philosophical presuppositions the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son is more reasonable than not.

The Western view is more reasonable because it has a lot more theological and philosophical explanatory scope. Since the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son is begotten by the Father how do we distinguish them? Well one might say that they have different contingent relational properties such as the Spirit is the one who sanctifies the church or the Son is the one who purchases our redemption…etc. The problem is that these relational properties are contingent and as a result they just happen to be the case but they don’t have to be the case. They don’t tell us anything essential to the Son or the Spirit they are only accidental relation properties. So for example in a possible world W* where there is no creation what do we really know about the differentiation between the persons of the Trinity, specifically the Son and the Spirit? Nothing! And that seems like a very strange and odd thing to say about the persons of the Trinity in whom we are suppose to know and have a relationship with. The East recognizes that there is a difference between procession and being begotten, but how can they explain this? They are both coming from the Father in terms their personhood is being sustained from all eternity past, so where is the difference between these persons? They could say that it is just mysterious and the causation *has* to be different but we just don’t know how to reasonably distinguish them. This view seems completely ineffable.

The West on the other hand doesn’t seem to be in hot water on this score. For we can say that the difference between being begotten and proceeded from is that being begotten from is from one necessary causal relation whereas being proceeded from is two necessary causal relations (since of course the Spirit presumably comes from the Father and the Son). So if one wants to have more explanatory scope in their Trinitarian theology and philosophy then they ought to adopt the western view of the Trinity.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Church or the Egg? (1)

So, what came first, the Church or Scripture? Often, this kind of question is leveled at the Protestant in the hope that he or she will have to grudgingly admit- “the Church.” While some might dread such an answer, they shouldn’t. There was definitely an oral tradition circulating among believers prior to the New Testament, but the question that should be asked is “does this mean that the Church is what gives something infallible authority.”

When speaking with several Orthodox friends of mine, I have noticed that the question is often posed in order to show that Christianity was able to exist prior to the compilation of the New Testament documents and so the Church community is the necessary ingredient and not Scripture. However, I have a problem with this setup. My reasons for accepting the Scripture as the only infallible guide to faith and practice lies in its source- the apostles. After all, it was to the apostles that Christ promised to guide into all truth (John 16) and send the Holy Spirit to bring back to remembrance all that He said (John 14). I don’t have a problem with the existence of a prior oral tradition before the apostles (or those closely connected to them) wrote down their teachings. My concern is in actually receiving the apostolic word. And Scripture best preserves this for our time (see “By Whose Authority” posts).

It may be brought to the Protestant’s attention that an authoritative body was needed in order for the New Testament Scripture to be brought together. I would agree. However, it need not be agreed that the authoritative body must be infallible. Doing so would add another unnecessary step. What makes Scripture infallible? If the answer is an infallible Church, then what makes the infallible Church infallible? Whether one is Eastern Orthodox or Protestant, infallibility ultimately goes back to God through the apostles. The Protestant position simply eliminates the middle man in the infallible chain.

Hopefully, this will spark some good discussion

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Questions About Nicea: An Invitation To Dialog

According to Orthodox Christians, the Church's infallibility resides not in any single person or group, but primarily in the great ecumenical councils (of which there were seven). These councils made final and infallible decisions regarding (what would come to be) the orthodox position on the doctrines of the Incarnation, Trinity, and others.

For the purposes of this post I will assume my own ignorance. I admit that I do not fully understand the Orthodox teaching on church infallibility, and so I invite my Orthodox brothers to help me by interacting with my musings and perhaps answering my questions.

I have three primary concerns I wish to address here. (1) The manner in which the first ecumenical council (Nicea) was called and conducted, (2) the duplicity of many of the leaders who attended, and (3) the fact that only a short time after the council made its decisions, the majority of the Christian world sided with Arius.

(1) The Council of Nicea was called by the Emperor; the secular power, not the church. This seems odd to me. In fact, it seems entirely likely that had not Constantine wished to keep his Empire whole and secure, we might have seen fracturing in the church not unlike modern Protestant denominationalism today. The bishops of Christendom were quite content to argue amongst themselves, and there doesn't seem any reason to think that such a council would ever have been called had Constantine not stepped in. Moreover, Constantine made it clear that the council's decisions would be enforced, again by secular power. This also seems odd. If there was a clear understanding of church infallibility from the days of the Apostles, and indeed if the bishops at Nicea were also well aware of it, would such enforcement be necessary? I suppose it could have been merely precautionary. In any event, the fact that the whole affair was conducted, from start to finish, in such a stately, secular manner, casts some doubt on what I take to be the Orthodox understanding of the nature of church infallibility.

(2) The wording of the Nicean Creed was such that many of the bishops (perhaps more than half) were able to sign it, while still remaining fully Arian in their thinking. They affirmed the words, but not their orthodox spirit. And in a short time they were again preaching their Arianism. This leads to another important question: if the majority of the bishops at the ecumenical council didn't even truly agree with what was (later to become) the orthodox position of the church (and supposedly the council), where is infallibility located? Again, I am mostly speaking from ignorance here and I'm open to correction, but my understanding of the Orthodox position is that infallibility resides in ecumenical consensus. And yet, it seems that the true consensus of Nicea, at least at the time, favored Arianism. And it seems very strange that many of the bishops present at an ecumenical council, and responsible for its decision, would be so blatantly (and sinfully?) duplicitous in their actions. God can use sinful men, to be sure, but when it comes to the infallible descisions of the church, I assume the presumption is that He is using holy men.

(3) Many times I have heard from an Orthodox brother that such-and-such was the "majority" position of the early church (this is often used as a defense against the Augustinian doctrine of predestination, for example). But just a short time after Nicea, and especially after the death of Constantine, the vast majority of Christendom became Arian. There were times when it seemed as though Athanasius alone was the voice of orthodoxy, which is where we get the phrase "Athanasius contra mundum." It won't do to argue that the church was simply falling away from orthodoxy, for "orthodoxy" was still being established. Nicea was the first council called to deal with questions regarding Christ's deity, and in a sense, Nicea lead to an Arian church. And when Athanasius so vigorously defended Christ's full deity, he did so primarily by making arguments from Scripture, not by arguing over the meaning of the words of the Nicean creed.

Obviously none of this constitutes any sort of proof or knock-down argument against the Orthodox understanding of church infallibility. My only wish here is to offer a few observations and questions, and any response is both welcome and appreciated.

If this is your first time visiting this blog, I also invite you to read the other posts here. Some of them are very good, and they address many issues, ranging from the inclusion of the apocryphal books in Scripture to the possibility of belief in the Word of God being properly basic. Please look around and leave comments!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

By Whose Authority? (2)

Now that my view of infallible authority has been explained, there is still the matter of how God has preserved His truth throughout human history. I come to recognize this by the work of the Holy Spirit (Nate’s post on Ockham’s Razor is helpful) as well as by reason.

Written Ought to Inform Unwritten Tradition

I place infallible authority in the apostles since they were with Christ during His earthly ministry and or were specifically selected by Him after He rose from the grave (Paul). I also include into this category those who were closely connected to an apostle, most likely had apostolic approval and wrote with the intention of conveying what was necessary for faith and practice in part or in whole or bearing witness to the works of God. Some examples of such people are John Mark or Luke.

Both those of Eastern Orthodox and Protestant persuasion trace authority back to the apostles after Jesus Christ. I am committed to the idea that the closer one is to the source, the better. In the case of the writings of the apostles and ones closely connected to them, that is as close to the source as we can get. Since we no longer have the apostles here with us, it seems sensible to look towards their writings to know what God requires of us.

Written tradition leaves much less room for error than Unwritten tradition. In the very beginning, oral tradition was extremely beneficial and acceptable for an oral culture because 1) There was a smaller group and the information did not circulate to nearly as many churches as it did later. 2) The apostles were still alive to correct misconceptions- and they did. 3) The information was fairly fresh since it was closer to the event.

After some of the apostles died and information spread, it was necessary to write the accounts down and preserve key letters. Before, misconceptions and false messages could be corrected. Once the apostles were gone or spread more sparsely, this became more difficult. Misunderstandings and false beliefs are evident throughout the New testament (specifically Ephesians, 1 Corinthians and Romans) and can even be seen when the writings themselves are traced through the manuscript tradition. Although, the mistakes in the manuscript tradition are more minor in my opinion. Little mistakes can be seen down the line. These mistakes came about even in the possession of the church.

With writings however, we have the apostolic word itself preserved more or less as it was written and are able to look back down the line of manuscripts and isolate where the mistakes arose and make the necessary corrections. We have a document that is around 99% reliable. The same can not be said for the EO's use of oral tradition.

Still, pointing out that one system might better preserve God’s truth misses something. A reliable document does not and can not convey infallible authority. This is where active involvement of the Holy Spirit comes in. It is the Holy Spirit that gives authority to the words of the apostles. It is the Holy Spirit who tells us that what we are reading is God’s word, who fills us with Himself and conforms us to the image of God.

I hold the apostolic word to be authoritative. There is reason to think the apostolic word is authoritative because the Holy Spirit convicts me of such and without probable reason to doubt this is actually the case, I am justified in believing it. The writings of the apostles and those directly connected (even speaking on their behalf at times) are a given when it comes to authority. It is up to the Eastern Orthodox to make a case as to why the Church should also be seen in this light or why an infallible Church is needed to interpret infallible documents.


The Eastern Orthodox church’s idea of Tradition consists of the Seven Councils, the Creed, the Liturgy, prayers, calendar, icons, and even the lives of the Saints. So, what do I mean by “oral or unwritten tradition”? I mean that element used in these forms of tradition that was passed down by means other than Scripture, but are supposed to be traced back to the apostles. This includes what was passed down later by word of mouth or gathered later (apart from the criteria already mentioned) by word of mouth and put into writing. I believe these parts of tradition to be authoritative as normative and binding only so far as they line up with what Scripture makes out to be normative and binding either explicitly or what can be gained through a set principle within.

Personally, I view some of the parts of tradition mentioned as highly valuable for faith and practice. I am however opposed to the idea that they are normative or binding in their use for all people at all times if they are not something that Scripture points as necessary. If however, the Eastern Orthodox Church can be shown to be infallible, then I will have to adjust my view of what God requires of His people.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

By Whose Authority?

Some time ago, I was having a discussion with an Eastern Orthodox friend of mine concerning the canon. The discussion was enjoyable and hopefully beneficial for both of us. I benefited immensely by being pushed to question some of my basic beliefs about where I was drawing authority from. The following in particular caught my attention:

“Apostolic authority is a good criteria. I agree that its right, in fact its one of the influences that the church had upon its decision to recognize the canon. But first of all, why is it a correct criteria? Is this something you deduced solely by logical means, or is it something you take on authority? If so, whose authority?” [emphasis mine]

By Whose Authority?

These are some great questions. Is our faith a product of logical deduction or are we taking it on authority? If by authority, then by whose? While I hold that God has given us a sense of reason and wants us to use it, reason alone does not make something authoritative in an infallible sense. Infallible authority must come from a source beyond what seems reasonable to fallible human beings and beyond the change of time, customs and ideas.

It is the Holy Spirit who gives something authority. It is also the Holy Spirit who used the apostles (apostolicity) to bring about His message and continues to work in believers to attest to the truth of these writings. Without strong reason to doubt the work of the Holy Spirit, one is justified in believing that the words found in Scripture are from God. In other words, it is the Holy Spirit who makes something authoritative (infallibly), who used the apostles to convey the message of salvation (and/or process of being filled with the Spirit) and who continues to work in believers attesting to the truth of what He uniquely used the apostles to reveal.


True Christian teaching is un-revisable. By true Christian teaching I mean what is actually the case- what God has done in human history, what He has communicated and what He requires for faith and practice. While interpretations can be incorrect and in error, true Christian teaching is not. People make mistakes all the time whether in groups or individually (I may read the Scriptures and make a mistake in interpreting it just as one who is Eastern Orthodox can make a mistake as to the Church’s meaning or even whether he or she should even view the Church as infallible). The chance for error is present for both of our interpretations of what authority is or the authoritative interpretation itself.