Eastern Orthodoxy, Councils, & Doctrinal Development

Eastern Orthodoxy, Councils, & Doctrinal Development April 19, 2020

I’ve been told by Orthodox that it is actually possible to call an Ecumenical Council, but that there has been no “pressing need” for such a Council in 1212 years (since the last one acknowledged by Orthodoxy). But do Orthodox really think that there has been no need for an ecumenical Council since 787, whereas the early Church thought it appropriate to have seven up till that time – an average of almost one a century? I find that quite remarkable and odd.

I could swallow the Orthodox argument that there can be no Ecumenical Council without the participation of the West, yet at least one ecumenical Council (Constantinople I: 381) was held with no Western bishops whatever present; not even any papal legates. That didn’t stop Rome from acknowledging it as ecumenical. Eastern representatives agreed to reunion on two occasions (Lyon: 1274 and Florence: 1439), but anti-Latin sentiment in the Orthodox populace put an end to that worthy goal.

But in any event, who speaks for Orthodoxy? Merely regional councils cannot determine an overarching, binding orthodoxy. To this day we see mutual anathematizing, and gripes over jurisdiction, ecumenism, exclusivism, inter-communion, etc. amongst Orthodox. This is the result of no ecumenical Councils and no pope. It cannot be otherwise, and so the result resembles (to some extent) the ecclesiological chaos of Protestant sectarianism. Nothing less than oneness will conform to the early Christian and biblical ideal (see, e.g., John 17).

This argument has force against Orthodoxy just as it does against Protestantism. How could Orthodox ecclesiology not affect its course of development? Countries have different histories due to their forms of government. It is reasonable and plausible to argue that the same dynamic and causal influences apply to Church government.

With some exceptions (e.g., hesychasm), doctrinal development is still far less extensive and less positively regarded in Orthodoxy, as the lack of Ecumenical Councils might indicate. I see misunderstandings of even the basic definition and nature of (Newmanian) development all the time, from Orthodox and Protestant apologists alike.

The contra-Islamic apologetic has been proposed as an example of primarily Eastern development of doctrine, including Nestorian and Monophysite approaches to Islam. But of course Nestorianism and Monophysitism were condemned as heresies by the early universal Councils. How can heretics develop orthodox doctrine? It is one thing to oppose Islam, but I wonder, exactly what doctrines were developed by these groups, and how? What distinctives or innovations (in the right sense of the word) did they bring to the historic development of Christian dogma?

Origen was cited as an example of a heretic who helped in the development off dogma. But Origen was never self-consciously a heretic, and wasn’t going against the Church, insofar as it had ruled on the opinions of his which were later condemned. That occurred in 553, some 300 years after Origen’s death. In other words, he didn’t know any better, from the lights of Church teaching during his lifetime.

Likewise, Tertullian said good things before he went Montanist. But the Monophysites were condemned by an Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon: 451), so I don’t see how they can develop true apostolic doctrine. Nor why an Orthodox Christian today would appeal to this group, in defending Orthodox development.

Another explanation of the lack of councils in the East has been the decline of the Eastern Empire and the ascendancy of competing Western Empires (e.g. Charlemagne). So often, merely socio-political analysis is brought to bear on Church history: typical of the Orthodox approach. Does not God guide His Church, despite all, rather than the vicissitudes of cultural currents and political machinations?

Thus, indefectibility becomes a key element in my critique of Orthodoxy, particularly the anti-Catholic brand of it, since the Catholic ecclesiological argument is that the structure of the Church is divinely (not culturally) determined, and that the Church will never defect from the faith, precisely as a result of God’s guiding hand.

I was asked by an Orthodox friend to list three reasons for which an Ecumenical Council was necessary after the 8th century. I replied:

1. Filioque (given the Eastern insistence that the Catholic view is so horrible and heretical. Eucharist and purgatory would be less controversial examples of the same type.
2. Protestantism (Trent)
3. Modernism (Vatican II)

I was told that my query as to “who speaks for the Orthodox?” was as much a problem in the united early Church (up to 1054), so that it is not unique to Orthodoxy. But of course the papacy was operative in that period (it was in St. Peter himself), and the East was far more deferential to it than they would like to make out today, where all patristic statements and appeals to Roman primacy and supremacy are minimized, ignored,  dismissed, or rationalized away. It is one of the most amazing things I have observed during my 19 years of apologetics. The evidence is absolutely overwhelming. I would contend that it isn’t even arguable.

Furthermore, it was argued that the question of “Who speaks for Israel?” in Old Testament times is just as troublesome as the Orthodox conundrum. But ancient Israel had Patriarchs and prophets, and to a lesser extent, kings and the judges before them. Moses certainly spoke for God, and we see the “seat of Moses” referred to by Jesus: an oral tradition which was further legitimized by His reference to it. We see all kinds of authority figures in the Old Testament. So do Orthodox wish to say that Orthodoxy digresses in this respect from even an Old Testament model of doctrinal certainty and authority? That would be quite odd, too.

The analogy fails. It applies neither to the pre-Schism Church nor to the Old Testament Jews. There was no problem of authority in the early Church. Everyone knew how doctrinal controversies could be definitively resolved. Even as early as the 2nd century we observe the strong authority of Pope Victor (r. 189-98) with regard to the Quartodecimen controversy (over the dating of Easter). St. Clement of Rome exercised much authority in the late 1st century.

In the 3rd century, Pope St. Stephen reverses the decision of St. Cyprian of Carthage and a council of African bishops regarding a question of baptism. St. Cyprian had appealed both to Popes Cornelius and Stephen to resolve this issue. Shortly thereafter, many appeals were made to popes for various reasons, which would lead one to believe that the pope had some special authority: at least primacy, if not supremacy:

1. St. Athanasius (4th century) appeals to Pope Julius I, from an unjust decision rendered against him by Oriental Bishops, and the pope reverses the sentence.

2. St. Basil the Great (4th century), Archbishop of Caesarea pleads for the protection of Pope Damasus.

3. St. John Chysostom, in the early 5th century, appeals to Pope Innocent I, for a redress of grievances inflicted upon him by several Eastern Prelates, and by Empress Eudoxia of Constantinople.

4. St. Cyril (5th century) appeals to Pope Celestine against Nestorius; Nestorius also does so, but the Pope favors Cyril.

5. Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, is condemned by the Robber-Council of 449, and appealed to Pope Leo the Great, who declared the deposition invalid; Theodoret was restored to his See.

6. John, Abbot of Constantinople (6th century) appeals from the decision of the Patriarch of that city to Pope St. Gregory the Great, who reverses the sentence.

This strikes me as a great deal of “authority.” All these people were from the East — many of the most revered figures, I might add. They knew where the authority resided; they knew how to settle conflicts authoritatively in favor of orthodoxy. Do Orthodox want to say that they were all deluded in this regard? That if they had been in their shoes, they wouldn’t have known where to go for redress against injustice or persecution? They wouldn’t have known who spoke for the Universal Church; the Catholic Church; or for orthodoxy?

In critiquing Catholicism and the Ecumenical Councils it has called since 787, usually the “whipping boy” is medieval Scholasticism and its foremost proponent, St. Thomas Aquinas. For example, even Metropolitan Kallistos Ware — otherwise an eminently fair-minded and ecumenical Orthodox spokesman — wrote the following description of Scholasticism:

Latin Scholastic theology, emphasizing as it does the essence at the expense of persons, comes near to turning God into an abstract idea. He becomes a remote and impersonal being, . . . a God of the philosophers, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (The Orthodox Church, New York: Penguin Books, revision of 1980, 222)

This is a crude caricature, which projects deistic and idealistic philosophical ideas of five or more centuries later back onto Scholasticism, which never held to such monstrous notions. Such a wrongheaded portrayal of Catholic theology and spirituality is unconscionable, and betrays a gross ignorance of relevant basic distinctions. Perhaps the nominalists, who distorted Thomistic Scholasticism in the Middle Ages might rightly be accused of this, but I doubt that even they ever got anywhere near this point: the “remote” God, etc. But Ware doesn’t even make the distinction between legitimate Thomism and the deficient nominalism which led directly to Luther’s errors.

Metr. Ware’s remarks about so-called “Latin Scholastic theology” are almost a textbook description of deism, in which God creates the universe, but then withdraws from it, no longer gets involved in it, and lets the world “fend for itself,” so to speak. So the phrase “remote and impersonal” to me suggested this conception immediately (it is certainly not Aquinas’s view or that of Scholastics — let alone that of Catholicism in general). It is highly insulting to any Catholic who knows his Church’s teaching to even have to reply to such nonsense and slanderous tripe.

Norman Geisler, an excellent Protestant apologist, comments on deism:

The deistic concept of God is built upon an invalid mechanistic model rather than on a personal model. God is not a mere Master machine-maker. (Christian Apologetics, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1976, 169)

So the “God” Metr. Ware describes, supposedly “nearly” the one of the Scholastics, and hence of a mainstream school of thought within Catholicism, is far more reminiscent of the deist god of the British skeptics and Enlightenment French philosophes than of the Catholic God: trinitarian, tri-personal, all-loving, and exercising His providence, just as in Orthodoxy.

I continue to maintain that the hostility towards Thomas Aquinas (and often, St. Augustine) and “rationalism” is uncalled-for and indicative of a serious deficiency and imbalance in the view of faith and reason, and their proper relationship. I see the negative attitude towards reason (and by extension, apologetics) all the time in my many dialogues with Orthodox. I know that is not at all compelling in any seriously damaging fashion vis-a-vis Orthodoxy as a whole, but it is still a troubling and  frequent occurrence, which must also be accounted for (it is often found in various strains of Protestantism, too).

One can readily observe this by reading the Orthodox arguments in so many of my posted dialogues with them. Furthermore, I again cite Schmemann for a representative example of this tendency amongst the Russian Orthodox (which many would claim is now the “mainstream” of Orthodoxy):

[W]e see very clearly [in the mid 16th c.] the distrust of thought and creativity. Salvation lay only in the strict preservation of antiquity; this helpless conservatism reveals all the tragedy and depth of Moscow’s break with living Orthodox culture. The road to salvation became observance of regulations and the performance of ritual. Because people did not understand it, the ritual became an end in itself, so that even obvious mistakes in the text were inviolable because hallowed by antiquity — it would be dangerous to the soul to correct them.

Finally there developed a simple fear of books and knowledge. The teachers themselves, according to Kurbsky, ‘would lure away boys who were diligent and wished to gain knowledge of the Scriptures, saying, “Do not read many books,” and would point to one who has lost his mind, saying, he wandered astray in books and fell into heresy.’ The printing press in Moscow was closed down and the first Russian printers, Ivan Federov and Peter Timofeev, were accused of heresy; then ‘because of the growing hatred of many leaders and priests and teachers,’ they left for southern Russia . . .

Russia’s national self-assertion had been roused in opposition to Byzantium, but the latter’s universal Orthodox heritage had also been rejected. (The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, Alexander Schmemann, translated by Lydia W. Kesich, Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1963, 319-320)

Here’s another example of gross caricature of the Catholic view and Scholasticism:

[In the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages], logicalness becomes the first test of truth, and the living sources of faith second. Under this influence, Western man loses a living relationship to truth. Christianity is reduced to a system, to a human level . . . It is an attempt to make by human efforts something better than    Christianity. Anselm’s proof of God’s existence is an example — he is ‘cleverer’ than the ancient Holy Fathers. (Not of this World: The Life and Teaching of Fr. Seraphim Rose, Monk Damascene Christensen, Fr. Seraphim Rose Foundation, 1993, 591)

And another, along the same lines, by an Orthodox on my discussion list:

Roman Catholics seem to be ‘stuck” on the gospel of St. Thomas Aquinas and don’t see that within the tradition of the Catholic Church under Rome and the Pope is another tradition — and that is in allowing the spirit to influence us in more than just a logical process . . .

There is or must be “something” that allows a person to experience Love and know what care means more than just using reasoning. God made us in His image and I believe He also made us one step higher — spiritual beings! . . .

Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, has focused very strongly on the logic of Aquinas and has forgotten to meld the rational with the spiritual.

The insulting nature of such comments, betraying the grossest, seemingly almost invincible ignorance of who St. Thomas Aquinas was, what he did, what he thought, how he attempted to balance reason and faith, reason and revelation (rather than dichotomize them), how he loved God, and the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Blessed Eucharist, etc. — are beyond any comment. The Bible instructs us not to answer a fool according to his folly.

There are always exceptions to the rule (St. Gregory Palamas being a very notable exception indeed), yet Orthodoxy — sadly — often reveals a somewhat imbalanced notion of the relationship of reason and revelation by its very attacks on St. Thomas Aquinas and Scholasticism, which it seems to regard as some sort of terrible, scandalous, sub-Christian thing. Do Orthodox not know, e.g., that St. Thomas was extremely devotional as well as rational: particularly devoted to our Lord in the Blessed Eucharist? He had the balance which his critics (by implication and contrast) so arrogantly claim for themselves.

I just find the whole mindset (the anti-Thomas crusade) silly; grasping at straws. I still say that Catholicism maintains the proper balance between reason and faith, and that Orthodoxy too often minimizes or even dismisses good old-fashioned reason, thinking that Catholic reason is somehow equivalent to Enlightenment, secularized, anti-Christian, atheistic “rationalism.” We see this hostility all the time, and in my opinion it tells us much more about Orthodoxy than about Catholicism.

Method is one thing; one can wrangle over that. But to slander St. Thomas and virtually all Catholics by equating our God with the truncated, blasphemous deist conception of “god” is outrageous. Maybe that doesn’t show a lack of respect for reason as much as it does a disdain or disregard for simple honesty and charity towards one’s brothers in Christ.

But it is the whole mindset of thinking that the tasks of merely applying reason to Christian faith, or engaging in apologetics, or producing theistic arguments for God’s existence, are somehow intrinsically contrary to Christianity or piety or spirituality or holiness, which frosts me, as it is so unbiblical and contrary to the Fathers and all the greatest minds in the history of the Church.

If one can’t even see that reason cannot be discarded from Christianity without serious consequence, isn’t it reasonable to conclude that they have a warped view of reason, or that they underappreciate it, at the very least? Simply put, it is a false, unnecessary dichotomy. And again, if Orthodoxy doesn’t officially sanction such an outlook, why is it so common amongst Orthodox?

Even the apologists I have met who do utilize reason, do so almost with palpable guilt, as if it is a sort of “dirty work” that someone has to do, to fight the Catholics, but which is an unsavoury activity. For myself, on the other hand, I have the utmost confidence that apologetics is a good and needed thing — quite biblical, and fully in accord with our Lord Jesus and St. Paul’s teaching — not at all something to be ashamed of.

Advancement in the use of reason and philosophy in defense of the true faith is part and parcel of development of dogma. The Church, like a person (hopefully), becomes wiser and more “intelligent” as it grows older. The mind of the Church develops. The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. This involves reason. We understand doctrines more today than we did in 787, even though the apostolic deposit has not fundamentally changed. All Aquinas was doing was making a synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology.

That is a long, honorable tradition in Christianity: making philosophy the handmaiden of faith. St. Paul, for example, cited non-Christian philosophers in his sermon on Mars Hill. St. Augustine (another Orthodox whipping-boy) incorporated elements of Platonic philosophy. Many Orthodox say that St. Thomas Aquinas took reason too far; we say you don’t utilize reason enough, and that you too-often denigrate it, as if it were improper. But Jesus said to love Him with all our “heart, mind, soul, and strength.”

I haven’t ever denied that there were individual great thinkers in the East (e.g., St. Athanasius). That is not my point, which is that Orthodoxy places reason lower in the scheme of things than it should be (to what degree would be another involved discussion). That’s far less of a severe criticism than what we get from our Orthodox brethren! We have mysticism and devotion just as they do, but we don’t pit them against reason, as so many Orthodox do.

St. Francis of Assisi, for example — perhaps the most beloved of all Catholic saints –, was not an intellectual giant, yet he didn’t feel the need to denigrate reason, just because it was not his forte. Likewise with St. Therese of Lisieux, who was just proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. So much for the stereotypes about Catholicism and “rationalism” . . .

It is the all-pervasiveness of such arguments by Orthodox polemicists, and the consistent misunderstanding and outright slander of St. Thomas which is so alarming. If one doesn’t like reason as applied to Christian faith, or if one despises theistic arguments, then who does he attack? Aquinas! — perhaps the foremost exponent of both within the Catholic Tradition. But Catholics don’t have a problem with diverse functions and roles within the Church. We don’t feel this need to despise mysticism or monasticism or asceticism or philosophy or apologetics: all are valuable; all are appointed by God for their own purposes.

The Body of Christ has different parts, and they don’t war against each other. There simply is no conflict. So Orthodox feel compelled to run down some of our greatest minds, under the ludicrous assumption that thought and reason are somehow inexorably against piety and faith and love of God; whereas we feel no compulsion whatever to run down their mystics and monks. We honor and cherish all these vocations.


(originally posted in 2000)

Photo credit: Dmitry Boyarin (5-4-13): Russian Orthodox church at Easter 2013 [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license]


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