Monday, February 14, 2011


I have been participating in a conversation with a gentleman named Derek Oullette, found in the comments thread of this blog post. Derek's background is very similar to mine, and he still remains within the ambit of Arminian Evangelicalism. This particular conversation has ended, at least there, either because of the software involved or because Derek chose to cut off further comments. Well, having my own blog and, not being afraid to use it, I will continue the conversation here, and Derek, you are of course, most welcome to resume it here as well; other readers are also invited to join in if you would like.

Also, Derek, thank you for inspiring me to write another post here.

Derek, your last statement is to quote an aphorism often attributed, as you do, to Augustine of Hippo: "“In the essentials, unity. In the nonessentials, liberty. In all things, love”

Well, we of course agree on the priority of love. One should not call onself a Christian and disagree with that. After all, "GOD IS love." However, at the same time, we are called to "speak the truth in love."

Thus, I intend to continue to speak what I understand to be the truth, justifying my reasons for holding the positions that I do, "the hope that is within me," and yes, doing so in love. "The love of Christ constrains us" and "Woe is me if I do not preach the good news." But, beyond that, this aphorism really solves nothing. In the Preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes, "One of the things Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements. When two Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long before one asks whether such-and-such a point 'really matters' and the other replies: 'Matter? Why, it's absolutely essential."

So, yes: I hold that these questions are essential, and in this I am in agreement with the four communions of Churches which can trace their ancestry directly back to the Apostles and their missions. These are: the two forms of Orthodoxy, Byzantine and Non-Chalcedonian; the Roman Catholic Church; and the Assyrian Church of the East. (Each of these also has certain off-shoots, schisms which, unlike virtually all of Protestantism, has largely preserved the faith and practice of its parent. I am a priest in an off-shoot of the non-Chalcedonian Indian Orthodox Church.) A great portion of Anglicanism would agree as well.

Of course, this begs the question: Why? WHY are these matters essential? Short answer: because God is communitarian and humanity, created in the image and likeness of God, is called to be a full and authentic community as well. Now, being a community requires that its members be SOCIAL, integrally related one to another. Thus, becoming a Christian in the full and complete sense of that word requires that one be a member of a visible, historical, social community which is, in fact, the re-creation of humanity as spiritual kindred of the "Son of Adam" (the "last Adam") and the "Second Eve." Christianity is not a "me and Jesus", a "me and God alone" religion any more than humanity is merely a collection of separate individuals. St. Paul writes that Christians "are members one of another". This is so because, first, the Divine Persons are "members one of another" and therefore, all of humanity is created for this end as well.

Again, these questions are: that of the nature and status of the Church and the status of its leadership; that of whether or not one is regenerated by the waters of baptism; that of the status of the consecrated bread and wine of the Lord's Supper; and the question of what Jesus means in John 20:21-23. We can also include here the need for a full account of what is prescribed in James 5:14-15: who are the "presbyters" mentioned here? How are they chosen? What is the criteria? Who ordains them and how? How is it that forgiveness of sins is connected with a ritual given for physical healing? On what basis can all of these questions be answered? And so on.

The original references from the New Testament, each addressing one (or more) of these questions, are as follows: Matthew 10:40; Matthew 16:18-19; Matthew 18:18; Mathew 28:18-20; Luke 10:16; John 3:5; John 6:35-58; John 13:20; John 20:22-23; Acts 2:37-38; Romans 6:1-6; I Corinthians 10:1-22 (especially I Corinthians 10:16-21); I Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 1:22-23; Ephesians 5:26; I Timothy 3:15; Titus 3:5; I Peter 3:21.

I'm kind of working backward here in dealing with Derek's last comment, but I am going to skip over the matter of "haughtiness" for a moment and take up the question of the Creeds. Derek makes what is usually considered a self-evident statement, that the Creeds (or, more precisely, THE Creed, that of Nicea-Constantinople), "have been agreed upon by ALL CHRISTENDOM, not just one wing. Those Creeds reflect the core convictions of Christianity and for that reason I take it for granted that they are in union with the Scriptures."

Okay, however: there are those who profess faith in Christ but who do not accept the Creed: Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Oneness Pentecostals. We can say, as I would tend to do, that precisely because they reject the Creed, these groups are not fully and authentically Christian. I of course leave their judgment, both as to persons and communities, to Christ. However, there is an inevitable circularity there if we are going to deny that these folks are Christian. There are others who, while (usually) being at least tacitly Trinitarian, reject the notion of creeds altogether, their slogan often being, "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent."

And, even, among all those who do accept the Creed, there are differences. The Filioque, for example, is perhaps the best known, largely dividing the Roman Catholic and Protestant West from the Orthodox and Assyrian East. However, when the two types of Orthodox, Roman Catholics, members of the Assyrian Church of the East, and many Anglicans profess a belief in "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" they all mean something quite different from what Lutherans, Calvinists, and other Protestants mean.

While there are some disagreements between the Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and the Assyrians these groups agree about the Church 95% over against the diverse opinions found within Protestantism (and the Orthodox and the Church of the East usually agree with each other over against Rome). Confession of faith in "one baptism for the remission of sins" always carries differences in meaning between those who accept the original doctrine of baptismal regeneration and those who do not.

So, it cannot really be said that all Christendom professes the Creed or that even, all who do mean exactly the same thing in doing so. And this, of course, is where the difficulties lie. You state, Derek, that the Church Fathers are of diverse opinions. I deny that the Fathers are of diverse opinions when it comes to the central questions I raise above.

That is, all of the Fathers hold that the Church is a visible historical, organization, continuous in time and space and that, however this is specified, she is infallible, meaning that if one lives within her and follows her path, one will surely be saved in all senses of that word. "Outside the Church there is no salvation." Further, the councils all presume this as well.

The same is true regarding all the other questions. On these matters, the Fathers all agree, as do the four communions mentioned above which trace their ancestry directly to the Apostles and their missionary efforts. And guess what? To a one extent or another, Protestantism, and especially, Evangelicalism, disagrees with the four iterations of the Apostolic Tradition on these matters.

Which brings us back to the beginning of Derek's last comment. I have proposed that the passages I have cited really require very little interpretation. However, I ask, if they do require interpretation, upon what basis are we to interpret them? I then suggest that authorial intent and historical context would be the proper way of understanding these passages as with any other work of literature, and this means, when dealing with the New Testament, that we have to interpret them according to the Tradition in that it is the Tradition which seals the canon of the Old Testament and which gives us both the New Testament documents and the New Testament canon itself.

Derek responds to this by, first, saying that he does not want to chuck his brain at the Church door, and with this I agree, although I would add the caveat that the first task of anyone following Christ is not primarily a task of the intellect, but of the heart and body. (See below.) He also writes, " I see Scripture (i.e. the divinely inspired Word of God or we could word it another way: The authority of God exercised through the Scriptures – which is all saying the same thing) as primary in that Tradition must always be weighted against it and if ever found wanting, must be open to correction."

Okay, but give me an example. Where do you find Tradition wanting vis-a-vis the Scriptures? I do not know of such a place. Quite the opposite. If you cannot give me an example of this being a problem, then the question is moot, is it not? Derek wants to follow the Berean method of Acts 17:11. But this must presume that Scripture speaks clearly (as evidently it does not do so completely here: what precisely are "these things" and how did the Bereans verify them from the Old Testament?); otherwise, we have two hermeneutic problems, not just one. However, if one uses the rest of the Tradition, including the Creed (the "rule", or "canon", "of faith"), the decisions of the Councils (especially Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus), the content of the historic liturgies (the "canon of prayer"), and the writings of the Fathers, to interpret the Bible, then one is going to be certain of giving the Bible its just due. The Bible is like the bricks of a building. The rest of the Tradition is the mortar. This addresses the need that we all have, as with the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8:26-40, that someone guide us as we read (vs. 30-31).

For Orthodox Christians, regardless of nationality or any other distinguishing feature, it is all about the Tradition. We define the Tradition as the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Church "leading it into all truth", and we indeed point, first, to the Bible (in its full canon, not the truncated Protestant canon) as the cornerstone and primary statement of this Tradition. However, we understand the rest of the Tradition, especially the Creed and the liturgies, to be as inspired of the Holy Spirit as the Bible itself. The fathers are secondary, yet indispensable witnesses, especially with regard to the application of the Tradition in the lives of Christians as they live it out within the Church.

So what is left to be thought about? Well, for example: "how shall we then live?" How is the good news in all its fullness to be presented in the here and now? How can the classical doctrines of the faith be restated so that their relevance is made clear to people who think in categories very different from those of the first five centuries, or even the first millenium of the Christian era? For Orthodox Christianity, doctrine is always practical. It is always related to salvation, to the communion of humans, of humanity, first, with the Triune God and then, between human persons. IOW, there is no need to reinvent the wheel of the Tradition, just as there is no need to re-write the Bible. What is necessary is putting that wheel to its highest and best use.

Then, of course, there is the question of sorting, as Vladyka Kallistos Ware puts it, "patristic wheat from patristic chaff". A closely related question has to do with distinguishing the Tradition from traditionS. The latter is complicated by the fact that traditionS, or customs, are what, in a sense, incarnate the Tradition. Thus, while one must distinguish, in theory, between the human and the Divine in Christ, one can quickly find that in so doing, the understanding of both essences is distorted.

So anyway, Derek, are you looking for some intellectual stimulation in the theological area? Got just the book for ya: It is called Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. (Unfortunately, it is apparently out of print; I found you the best price that I could.)

But beyond that, harking back to the question of what has priority, the intellect or the heart, while walking the Christian path, let me, expanding upon C. S. Lewis, offer the following suggestions to all, including both Derek and myself:
  • Spend at least as much time praying as you do reading.
  • Do not neglect fasting and alms-giving. They too are integral Christian disciplines.
  • For every contemporary piece that you read, read two ancient pieces; this was Lewis' original recommendation upon which I am troping.
  • For every secular piece that you read, read two by Christian authors.
  • For every Protestant, Anglican, or Roman Catholic work that you read, read two Orthodox works.
This is applicable always, but deserves all the extra effort that one can give it during Lent.

Now, let me return to the question of "haughtiness". This is, I guess, in the eye of the beholder, and if you, Derek, feel that I am being haughty, I am sorry. That is certainly not my intention, and I do not feel that I have been writing out of such a spirit. (Albeit I have been a bit in your face if you identify yourself completely and personally with Evangelicalism. I am criticizing a theology, not any person, including you, Derek.) I have not said, nor have I thought or felt, as I myself have heard directed at me from other sources, at least in effect, "You ain't really Orthodox, so you ain't shit." Since Derek is presumably baptized and accepts the Creed, I consider him a brother in Christ. And Derek, because of this, we would indeed welcome you, invite you, URGE you even, to receive the Most Blessed Sacrament with us.

Further, I myself grew up in a spiritual millieu quite similar to his. I understand, I think, that Derek, having not yet experienced a conscious and felt need for the sacraments, has also not yet heard the call of the New Testament to live a sacramental life within a Christian community that, according to historical and Traditional standards, can call itself a ["local" or "particular"] "Church" in the full creedal and, dare I say, Biblical sense of that term.

Personally, I heard this call and experienced this need and desire at a very early age, but there were all kinds of roadblocks, existential, intellectual, and familial, which prevented me from really beginning that journey until age 19.

In any event, Derek, please know that this conversation is, for me, all about "speaking the truth in love", the truth as I have come to understand it, and as justified by, yes, the Tradition (and, in this case, that includes the experience of all who have walked this Orthodox and Catholic path before me).

I believe, I KNOW, that you, Derek, and your compatriots, are missing out on the authentic, experiential aspect of walking the Christian path in a community that is fully and authentically Church, that is called to be, and already is, an Ikon of the Most Blessed and All-Holy Trinity. If that is haughty, I am sorry. I did not create this situation. I am its beneficiary, but that through no goodness of my own. I am, with St. Paul, the "chief of sinners". "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner."


Ttony said...

Welcome back, Fr Greg.

We don't always comment, but we always read.

FrGregACCA said...

Thank you, Ttony. Your expressed support and your prayers mean a great deal to me. If I ever get across the pond (or vice-versa), I would like to meet you. God willing, I will blog more consistently through Pascha, although I cannot make any promises. ;-)

I guess I just need the right inspiration! ;-)

John Roop said...

Fr. Greg,

Grace and peace to you in our Lord Jesus Christ.

(Caveat: While I have read Derek’s posts I do not intend to address them in any direct way. Rather, my comments are directed to your post only.)

I read your post with great interest; the issues you raise are never far from my prayers and my thought: the unity and orthodoxy of the church are paramount. And while I agree with much of what you say, one nagging question keeps rising: Where do you draw the boundaries of Orthodoxy?

I need to be more specific in my question, but first I must place it in context. You know of my highest regard and my deepest love for the ACCA to which you belong and in which you exercise your priestly vocation. Nothing that I write should be taken as a criticism of that part of the body of Christ. That being said, you single out four communions whose apostolic succession qualifies them as Orthodox: “Orthodoxy, Byzantine and Non-Chalcedonian; the Roman Catholic Church; and the Assyrian Church of the East.” And you note that the ACCA is an “off-shoot” of the non-Chalcedonian church. And here is the dilemma: while you (and I) consider the ACCA Orthodox, at least two of the four – and likely all four – of the communions you mention do not. (Nor do they even consider one another Orthodox!) While the ACCA does not consider such issues as “open” communion and the ordination of women essential, these other communions do. Because you understand these – and possibly other – issues differently, you are excluded. So, you draw the boundaries of Orthodoxy with the ACCA inside; they draw the borders with the ACCA on the outside. Who is correct, and on what basis do we judge?

It is not enough to appeal to tradition in all areas except those in which you disagree; that begs the question. Does it not make some sense that the larger bodies – the branches of which the ACCA is an off-shoot – get to define tradition as those articles on which they all agree? Thus, those issues which the ACCA considers non-essential and on which it has gone its own way are precisely the ones that separate the ACCA from the larger Orthodox communions. Nor is it enough to rely on Apostolic succession; the Roman Catholic Church has that and yet the Byzantine Orthodox churches consider Rome schismatic, and vice versa, of course.

Now, let me make this more personal still. I understand the creed in an Orthodox fashion. (And, even here there is a problem with saying this, since all Orthodox do not understand the Creed in exactly the same fashion, e.g. viz the Chalcedonian definition, which I accept and you, guardedly, do not.) I understand baptism and the Eucharist in an Orthodox fashion. I understand salvation essentially in an Orthodox fashion, though I believe there are aspects of redemption that are under-emphasized in Orthodox thought. I strive for theosis in an Orthodox fashion. And yet, because I am not visibly joined to one of the four communions you mention, you would likely place me outside the boundaries of Orthodoxy. And you see the irony with that, don’t you? By placing me outside the boundaries of Orthodox you place me right beside you and Mar Michael and Fr. Zakkai and all the ACCA in the view of the other Orthodox communions you name! Welcome, to heterodoxy my brother!

Drawing boundaries – while sometimes necessary – is always messy and fraught with danger; the wheat and tares parable tells us this. And so we pray for those within Orthodoxy, those outside Orthodoxy, and those whose Orthodoxy is known only to God.

All this is said in love and in full awareness of my ignorance and sinfulness. I have no answers to the questions and issues I raise, just deep grief over the separation of Christians who are in reality, and should be visibly, in communion with one another. Pray for me, the sinner.

Peace of Christ,

John Roop

FrGregACCA said...

John, thank you for raising this issue. Please be assured of my prayers and that of those who worship with me on a regular basis here in South Carolina as well as those of the entire ACCA. Please continue to keep me and us in your prayers as well.

From what you say and from what I know of your ministry and of the community that you serve, the primary, and perhaps only, question I have for you has to do with the status of your Holy Orders. You seem to be in the same situation as what remains of the Evangelical Orthodox Church:

And I have the same question concerning them as well. If you wish to discuss this with me privately, please feel free to E-mail me (Yahoo address).

Now, actually, the only folks that are really likely to outright deny the ACCA's status as "Church" in the full sense of that word are the Byzantines, but, as you know, the more liberal among them quote Khomiakov: "we know where the Church is; however, we do not know where the Church is not".

My problem, one that is not necessarily shared by my clerical colleagues in the ACCA, is that I find Byzantine ecclesiology to be incoherent: we draw the line HERE, except, as with the "schismatic" Old Calendarists, when we don't, and so on. This lack of coherency is also reflected in differing attitudes and practices toward Rome and the Roman clergy that convert (should I say "revert"?) to Byzantine Orthodoxy. Some jurisdictions receive these priests by "vesting". Others, by chrismation and (re)ordination. The same thing happens with regard to the baptism of converts coming from other Christian bodies, including Rome: (re)baptized and chrismated here, only chrismated there: in some places, former RC's are received by profession of faith without any sacramental gesture whatsoever.

To the extent that Rome acknowledges the validity of our Holy Orders (such acknowledgment obviously would not extend to our women clergy: in more general terms, if there were ever a need to do so, this would be more a matter of documentation than any a priori issue that they could raise in this regard), Rome would see us as a true "particular Church" along with the dioceses or eparchies of the mainstream communions of which I speak. See Paragraphs 830-838 of the most recent RC catechism, found at the link below:

While we occasionally get some static from (largely unofficial) Oriental Orthodox sources, for the most part they are cordial, and, in general, their ecclesiology, while not as explicit as that of Rome, is closer to Rome's than to that of the Byzantines.

I can say very little about the Assyrian Church of the East, but it is my understanding that what I have just said regarding the Oriental Orthodox is also true for the Church of the East in this area as well.

I understand what you are saying. To me, the fact that we can, as David Hunter puts it, draw our circles ever larger in the face of those who wish to do the opposite, is a sign of our authenticity. At the same time, there are limits to that, as illustrated by my conversation with Derek and countless similar conversations I've had in the past with others like him. He and his compatriots, as baptized Trinitarians, are certainly Christians and because of that, we welcome them at our altars. However, there is a lacking of fullness, there is something missing. I find this lack also in the works of such a great Saints as A.W. Tozer. There are indeed some wonderful insights present; however, in the end, his writings fall so tragically short.

But again, in your case, I really can only see one issue that would preclude me, and, I think, the ACCA as a whole, from seeing you and your community as fully Orthodox; and this, of course, could be quite easily rectified.

(Your question, "Who is correct, and on what basis do we judge?" will require a separate post. ;-)


Abbas +Clement said...

Beloved Father ...

You never cease to amaze me!


maria moon said...

For every Protestant, Anglican, or Roman Catholic work that you read, read two Orthodox works.

Thats hard to make but best to do!